It wasn’t always this easy to be a Mac gamer.
Sure, things may look relatively peachy now. Macs are everywhere these days. They practically breed in coffee shops across the country, and the switch to Intel processors, supported with software like Apple’s Boot Camp, allows the would-be Mac gamer access to a tremendous library of games, all for the price of an iMac. Maybe it’s a little more expensive to put together a decent Mac gaming rig than a budget PC, but there’s a premium on sexy these days, and computers are no exception.
What recent initiates to the world of Apple may not know is that there was a time when Macs cost even more, didn’t look as delicious, and – gasp! – barely had any games available. Yes, “gaming” and “Macintosh” were popularly seen as antonyms for the longest time, perhaps one step above the Commodore 64 zealots in terms of popular recognition. The Mac was too obscure, developers said, too difficult to learn how to develop for, too underpowered, too expensive, and only by the efforts of a few overworked and underpaid software porting houses did even the biggest AAA games make their way to the Mac, though sometimes years after their initial PC release. But the Mac had a reputation for attracting “creative types” even then, and some of them did what creative types do best: create.
There have been a few success stories from the people who made it out of the Mac ghetto: Bungie Studios broke into the rest of the gaming industry with Halo for the Xbox, but their roots were in the Mac-centered Marathon series of yore. But there are also a handful of people who chose to stay and keep doing the work they’ve been doing, and out of all of the independent developers who made their living on the Mac, none is quite so legendary as Ambrosia Software.
The creation myth of Ambrosia Software starts in the early ’90s with a hobbyist programmer named Andrew Welch, a budding photojournalism major at the Rochester Institute of Technology, who decided to tinker with the formula for the classic arcade game Asteroids and make it something special. The fruits of his labor would be later known as Maelstrom, which took the core rock-blasting gameplay of Asteroids and added snazzy sprites, upgradeable weapons, score multipliers, a variety of new baddies to deal with and – perhaps most importantly – a quirky personality that said, “This is a Mac game.” Lo and behold, Ambrosia Software was born and our protagonist took up the title of El Presidente.
The method behind Maelstrom would propel Ambrosia in a promising direction for the first few years. Games like Apeiron, Swoop, Barrack and Chiral would take inspiration from classic arcade games like Centipede, Galaga and Gals Panic and revamp them with plenty of gameplay twists, keeping Mac gamers perpetually chasing each other for the all-time high scores. Besides changing the gameplay itself, however, they would also build in a uniquely Ambrosia feel. They took the essence of the low-res characters people fell in love with in the arcades of the ’80s and created new characters with their own personalities, with expressive visual design punctuated by wacky sound bites. What’s more, they built their business model around the shareware model, preferring to rely on mail order, the internet and magazine CD inserts for distribution instead of fighting for expensive store displays at a time when Mac-specific shelf space was virtually unheard of. Word of mouth became music to Ambrosia’s ears.
One (perhaps unexpected) perk of the shareware distribution model was Ambrosia’s games quickly became a communal experience. Friends who shared Ambrosia games often competed with each other over their high scores; Ambrosia would run high-score contests to put people in competition with each other all over the world. People would talk about the awesome games they had; Ambrosia created forums for each of their games so players could come together and shoot the stuff. “Ambrosia’s jovial nature and distinctive character really permeated all aspects of its boards, its products and everything that the Mac community saw,” says John Champlin, official “SchmoozeHound” of Ambrosia Software. “There would be random weird tales of travel, or odd stories being posted on Ambrosia boards by not only its members but from Andrew himself. We have over 20,000 members … and the numbers grow daily.”
The community became more critical to Ambrosia’s success, as the games they released became deeper. Games like Cythera, Avara and the infamous Escape Velocity brought people together to swap tips, blow each other up online and, in the case of Escape Velocity, modify the ever-loving heck out of the game. EV was fairly open-ended, both in terms of game design (it plays something like Grand Theft Auto: In Space!) and in terms of development architecture. All the game’s data files were readily editable by basic Mac tools, and the editing only got easier with Ambrosia’s own EV Bible, which allowed members of the community to step up and create their own tools and tell their own stories.
Some people created small story arcs or designed the spaceships they always wanted; others decided to change every single facet of the game and left nothing intact. Escape Velocity, as well as its later incarnations, EV: Override and EV: Nova, became whatever the players wanted it to be. In one case, it became a sci-fi convention in Huntsville, Alabama, called “NovaCon USA.” “We encouraged them by allowing everyone to be themselves and to not hinder the creative juices flowing from those that really enjoyed our games,” Champlin says. “There is nothing worse than to have someone enjoy a product so much that they go to the trouble to create plug-ins, or add-ons and to have a company shoot them down, as it doesn’t gel with what they think the game should be like. Each person has a different view of whatever they are playing or enjoying. Ambrosia does it’s best to stay out of the way and help where we can by offering a place for people to share their hard work and their love of our games.”
But what happens, I wonder, when the community changes? The Apple Computer of the bad old days, of too-expensive hardware and inadequate software, is now sleek and sexy Apple Inc., by way of gorgeous computers, delicious design, and, of course, the iPod. Ambrosia’s potential clientele are no longer the few and the proud, they’re the young and the hip, and they’ve got options that Mac users didn’t have before. Not only are a handful of big development studios, like Blizzard Entertainment, committed to simultaneous releases of Mac and PC products, but Apple’s switch to Intel processors opened up avenues to the best that PC gaming has to offer by way of Boot Camp, Apple’s dual-booting Windows solution. With Mac gaming, the playing field just got a whole lot bigger, and so did the audience. What could Ambrosia do to adapt?
They got bigger. At 13 employees, Ambrosia is larger than ever, having almost tripled size in the last 10 years. It goes without saying that 13 employees is practically unheard of for a comparatively smalltime game studio, especially when the efforts are primarily focused on Mac users, but it’s not big enough to work on a big-budget game like Halo or Unreal Tournament, either. Instead, Ambrosia has found a niche as an independent publisher/developer in the Mac world, selling the young and hip what the young and hip lust after most: indie. “Sexy is not a stigma that we should be worried about. It actually seemed like a natural progression as to what Apple was truly meant to be,” Chamblin says. “And where Apple is, Ambrosia is usually right there along with them. Andrew [Welch] has a very keen eye to what looks good and what the current zeitgeist is for the world around.”
So in reality, making games is only half of the job for the folks at Ambrosia Software. They sell games, too – games that would fly too low under the radar to attract the attention of a big-time publisher, but still would be popular enough to turn a profit. Ambrosia isn’t just a game company, it’s a label of cool, like an endorsement from a trusted friend who keeps you up on the latest and greatest. And for Ambrosia, it’s the only way to do business.
Pat Miller has been doing this for way too long. Stop by his blog, Token Minorities, for more on race and videogames.