Aspyr-Borderlands2-Interview

The introduction of the Mac App Store, at least for the Mac’s biggest game publisher Aspyr Media, hasn’t been entirely smooth. Aspyr recently outlined some issues with bringing multiplayer to Mac games due to Game Center and sandboxing restrictions of the Mac App Store, and developing separate versions of games for Steam and the Mac App Store continues to be a hurdle. An example is Borderlands 2. It took Aspyr just two months to ship the Mac version, but the Game Center multiplayer won’t arrive until sometime early this year. However, executives at the company promise Apple’s enthusiasm toward gaming on Mac is stronger than ever thanks to the Mac App Store. Aspyr also said it has much planned for 2013 in Apple’s store and remains platform agnostic, despite running its own competitive GameAgent store.

9to5Mac recently had the chance to speak with Aspyr Vice President of Publishing Elizabeth Howard, with input from CEO Michael Rogers and other execs, about the process of porting games to the Mac App Store, the company’s relationship with Apple and publishers, and the possibility of bringing iOS titles to OS X.

In case you’re unfamiliar, Aspyr is one of the biggest Mac game publishers bringing PC and console titles to OS X. It regularly leads many of the top paid and grossing charts on the Mac App Store thanks to high-profile releases such as Borderlands 2, RAGE, Call of Duty: Black Ops, and much more. Go below for the full interview and a chance to win Borderlands 2 for Mac.

Many of the major titles on Mac are released months after initial releases on PC, Xbox, etc. But many do not know what it takes for a publisher like Aspyr to bring these games to Mac. Can you briefly describe the steps you have to take to bring a game to Mac?

I guess first I’d like to point out that we’ve actually been shipping things much more quickly than in previous years. Civilization V was within 2 months, Borderlands 2 was within 2 months, Duke Nukem Forever was within weeks, Rage within 2 months, and we released the Civilization V: Gods and Kings expansion day-and-date worldwide on both Steam and the Mac App Store. I’m proud of how we’ve been able to respond with timely Mac versions despite growing difficulties technically. If it’s a common goal of the developer, license holder and Aspyr, then shipping simultaneously is an option.
But, to answer your question….

           Step 1: Get all parties to agree that a Mac version is a good idea. This includes us convincing partners, new and old, that we’re the best solution in bringing content to the Mac. We sort of never stop Step 1. We are always talking to our partners on what’s next and what that could look like on the Mac from a business and product perspective.
           Step 2: Everyone agrees this is a good idea, so then we get source code. Aspyr natively ports games to the Mac, meaning we rely on source code and not emulation. Depending on the project, this step alone can take some time. Also depending on the project, the code is either at a good place to start or changing so rapidly there is less progress to be made. This is often a good time to learn more about the nuances of the product, middleware, and understand what the dev effort might be.
           Step 3: Active development begins, which includes developing and testing the game on the Mac (which in turn often means creating two “versions” – one for the Mac App Store and one for Steam/rest of digital). We now are seeing DirectX 11-only titles come through that offer new challenges and will invariably add some time to our ship windows.
           Step 4: Approvals. Approvals can include Aspyr approval (we think it’s done), partner approval (our licensing and studio partners agree that it’s done; sometimes this is two groups) and then platform approval (Apple in the case of the Mac App Store). At best this is a 4–week period, so you can understand why this is difficult to manage and simultaneously launch with a PC counterpart. It means at some point we have to call code “Final,” even if the PC version is still in active development in order to accommodate approvals.
           Step 5: Release! We coordinate the launch with distribution partners and do everything we can to bring attention to the fact that the Mac version is available! We do this through featuring on relevant stores in addition to engaging press and community.

Can you share some info on Aspyr’s Dev team. How many programmers/employees usually work on bringing a game to Mac? Does the team use Macs in the development process?

Aspyr is a company of around 40 people, with a large chunk in QA, about 10 engineers, and the rest in Sales, Marketing, Finance and IT; and everyone uses Macs! A typical game requires some or all of our engineering staff, and it’s infrequent that we have two titles in development at the same time and at the same point in their development cycle. Getting a game to “First Playable” is reliant on Engineering only. After that point it’s a series of builds and testing to identify and fix bugs. The rest of the company takes on the support of those games with QA staffing potentially ramping up in response to more products.

Borderlands2-MacAppStore-9to5MacHow does Aspyr select a title to bring to Mac? Do you approach developers/publishers?

Almost always we reach out to engage licensors regarding new content. This is either managing an existing relationship or making new ones. The relationship is a very important part of the equation since we’re so closely tied to our partners throughout the process, and their support is integral in a product’s success. We typically look for PC content the industry would call the “Best”, based on community, metacritic and sales data, and lots of time these are proven games, i.e. sequels.

What are some of the common roadblocks the dev team runs into when porting games to Mac?

This varies widely from game to game. As I mentioned above, DirectX 11 will be a new challenge because it’s new technology. Other challenges are often the existence of middleware and if there is a version existing on the Mac. Frame rate and performance is something that can take a lot of time depending on the game, and in general games where we’ve seen the base engine before are going to be easier than a brand-new game engine.

How would you describe the current state of Mac gaming? Was business good in 2012?

Mac gaming is definitely healthy and growing. Business has been good and growing over the last few years with the help of increased distribution channels and less reliance on boxes in retail stores. That being said, it’s also become a more complex platform with the introduction of Steam and Apple’s Mac App Store. I recently talked in-depth about this in a special post on our GameAgent Blog.

Having a franchise/title like Call of Duty/Black Ops is a pretty big deal for Mac gamers. Can you describe Aspyr’s relationship with Activision (or Treyarch)? Why aren’t more big publishers/developers pushing for a Mac release?

Activision and Treyarch are great people who are a pleasure to work with. They are communicative and supportive of what we’re doing on the Mac, and we hope to continue working with them and the Call of Duty brand for years to come.
As for why more big developers/publishers aren’t pushing for a Mac release, I’ll interpret that to mean why don’t they do it themselves, and I can only offer speculation. As I’ve mentioned supporting the Mac means essentially creating two Mac versions in most cases, one for the Mac App Store and one for Steam/retail/other digital. This is not a small effort, but it’s essential to support the whole audience to see a positive ROI in bringing content to market. The effort in supporting the Mac and what it ultimately means in real revenues is likely too big a hurdle for a major publisher who is used to selling millions of copies of a single game on the PC, and many millions on console. We’re still talking about maybe 12-14% of the total “PC” market – doing triple the work to support an install base the size of Dell as a single vendor. Aspyr is a company that ships 20-40 releases a year including the original releases, patches and updates, and DLC. We’re 40 people who work all-day, every day, and have a great catalog of content that we’ve amassed over years which represents many of the very best games ever made. But we’re still very small in comparison to the volumes and revenues of major game publishers.
Now more than ever I believe we’re the best solution for supporting the Mac market. We are passionate about it, we are experienced at it, and we always are trying to be better.

As to why more publishers perhaps don’t come to us, I’d say that most do! We work with most of the major gaming publishers and brands in the industry. And for publishers who we may not be actively publishing with, we’re likely still in talks and discussions about potential future collaborations. We’re always trying :D

MacAppStore-TopGrossing-AspyrApple officially opened up the Mac App Store almost two years ago in January 2011 with 1000 apps. Since Apple has added a lot of apps, but the store doesn’t appear to have exploded like on iOS. Is the Mac App Store a big focus for Aspyr going forward? Does it pose any issues?

Certainly the Mac App Store has been an incredible addition to the Mac ecosystem, and we love being a part of the Apple movement. The store has been a meaningful addition to how we expose our games to Mac customers, and we will continue to do everything we can to support the store with Aspyr content.

I believe the lack of “explosion” is due to a few things. For one, Mac customers have been able to consume Mac products for years via other channels and even digitally prior to the launch of the Mac App Store, whereas on the iOS customers only have the one channel for acquiring content, and it’s always been the only channel. Existing Mac users have to essentially be re-trained to go to the Mac App Store and engage with it frequently.

The explosion is also relative to the install base. iOS has 400 Million users vs. 20-40 Million on Mac OS. Additionally, the nature of Apple’s Mac App Store guidelines means there are product disparities for many products and many developers. This may mean that more seasoned Mac consumers are continuing to purchase their content directly from developers or through alternate channels since those channels have fewer barriers.

We’re learning more and more about the customers of the Mac App Store and other stores, and it’s very interesting to see how the digital landscape is changing.

Some might argue that gaming isn’t as much of a focus for Apple as it maybe should be… How is Aspyr’s relationship with Apple these days?

Our relationship with Apple is at an all-time high. The emergence of the Mac App Store has given us the opportunity to engage more deeply regarding our roadmap, ideas, successes and hurdles. I’d argue that the relevance of gaming on the Mac specifically is that users have expectations of how they can engage with their computers. I think that having meaningful content available on a device and meeting a customer’s expectation of what that device will offer is intrinsic to the device’s success, and on the Mac that means something different than it means on the iOS. I don’t imagine that Mac gamers will be satisfied if all they can consume on their MacBook Pros are iOS ports. They expect to play Call of Duty, Borderlands 2 and Civilization V, and so far they are saying that with their pocketbooks on the Mac App Store with Aspyr games leading on Paid and Grossing charts. Therefore gaming should be important – the audience wants to do it, we feel our success in providing that type of content illustrates the audience demand for it, and we help service Apple’s customer’s expectation and satisfaction with their device.

Has Apple’s attitude towards Mac gaming changed since the introduction of the Mac App Store and success of gaming on iOS? what about developers/publishers?

The people we work with at Apple have enthusiasm and support for what we do, and our success helps bring more awareness of Mac gaming within Apple.

Aspyr has released a lot of big titles for Mac this year (Borderlands 2, Black Ops, Rage, etc), can you share any stats on the best selling game? or sales by platform (Mac App Store vs GameAgent)?

I can’t share many specifics, but I can say that we’ve seen growth across all channels, with Steam and other distributors growing at the fastest rate.
Our goal now with GameAgent.com is to help people discover Mac gaming and make better game purchase decisions. We’ve become agnostic on where that purchase happens. We want people to come to GameAgent.com to find out about games, make sure you’ve got a Aspyr-2012-Mac-Lineupcomputer capable of playing them, then purchase that game from the place you feel most comfortable.
Some surprises for us have been the ongoing success of catalog content like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and Rollercoaster Tycoon 3: Platinum. People continue to purchase and enjoy these experiences, and we think there is likely a repurchase phenomenon much like getting the digital version of the Beatles that you already owned on CD. Having a big and diverse catalog is a big part to our continued success.

Apple TV- There have been a ton of rumors surrounding Apple’s` next move in the TV space…ranging from an updated set-top box of sorts, to a full-blown HDTV set. The possibility of Apple bringing its app/gaming distribution ecosystem to the living room has to be something that’s on Aspyr’s radar as one of the biggest game publishers on the Mac App Store…

Gaming in the living room isn’t going away, and many Mac experiences can be great in that environment. Steam is doing some really interesting and cool stuff with Big Picture mode and Steam boxes to enable PC/Mac gaming from your couch, and we, as game developers, will need to take into more consideration things like improved controller support to accommodate that capability.
We’ve played with AirPlay gaming via Apple TV, and right now that experience is acceptable for a slower paced game but isn’t something you’d want to do for full multiplayer shooters like Call of Duty. I’m not sure we have a lot of speculation on what set-top gaming or Smart TV gaming really could mean. So far it feels like consumers aren’t saying, “I want to do everything everywhere,” but are instead saying, “Each thing I interact with has unique features, and I want unique content for those devices.” We’ll have to be creative and flexible to see how that applies to core gaming experiences.

Does Aspyr have any interest in iOS going forward? Bringing games to iPhone/iPad or maybe popular iOS titles to Mac?

Great question! Our core business is extending brands to unexplored platforms, which historically has been bringing PC -> Mac. We are certainly exploring alternatives to that model with both iOS -> Mac opportunities, and Mac -> iOS opportunities, with the continued focus on great brands and experiences. We hope to be able to talk about this more very soon.

We have also published a few original Aspyr created games on the iOS, Sushi Mushi and Poker Pals, as a way to learn more about the platform, community, engagement and business model.

We have yet to see a new, original title become a hit as a Mac App Store exclusive. Aside from Aspyr, most of the Mac App Store games were previously available Mac and iOS titles. Is developing new IPs and original content for Mac something that Aspyr will consider?

A way we see this could work would be something very unique on the Mac App Store, that maybe talks to an iOS version via GameCenter and has specific capabilities and features on each device. That is certainly interesting and something we’re exploring, but I don’t know that it would be an entirely new IP.

Does Aspyr have anything big planned for 2013? New releases in the first half of the year?

The question we hate to not answer! I can say 2012 was one of our strongest years yet. We continued to support Civilization V with new content in the Gods and Kings launch; we launched Borderlands 2 on Steam within weeks of the PC, and we love working with Gearbox and 2K; we brought the Call of Duty: Black Ops experience to the Mac which was the first Call of Duty release on the Mac in many years and reinvigorated our relationship with Activision and the Call of Duty brand; we were able to work on the Company of Heroes brand allowing us to touch one of the most critically acclaimed strategy games of all time and get to know the talented people at Relic; we got to work with id again in bringing RAGE and some of our great Aspyr/id catalog titles out digitally; we supported more of our Star Wars catalog digitally with Mac App and Steam releases; and we finally (folks begged us on this one for years) got Rollercoaster Tycoon 3 out digitally. I can say I believe that 2013 is going to be even better, and we’ll continue to touch these, and other, fantastic brands while exploring new ways to work with Apple on both Mac and iOS.

Thanks for taking time to speak with us!

Aspyr and 9to5Mac will be giving away Borderlands 2 for Mac to lucky 9to5Mac readers at the end of the week. Comment below to enter for a chance to win! 

Update, Jan. 19: @9to5Forums members Flenville, ikir, henrycc265, Torchwood, & jerryponmac win Borderlands 2 + all DLC thanks to @AspyrMedia and @9to5mac. We’ll be contacting you guys via 9to5Forums with codes. We also have 5 more copies of Borderlands 2 and all the DLC to give away. Winners will be announced here next week. Comment below to enter.