Control freaks — Mac gaming

Alex Kidman
2 April, 2008
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Kermit The Frog is, without a doubt, one of the wisest creatures ever to walk the face of the Earth. OK, I know, I know — he’s just a green sock with a man’s arm up it, albeit a green sock that’s capable of singing, dancing, riding bicycles and having a semi-serious relationship with a pig. In any case, an astonishing thirty-eight years ago, Kermit sang the following famous line: “It’s not easy being green”.

At the time, he was singing about individuality, and accepting who you are, and educating the wee kiddies of the era — most of whom are by now company CEOs or garbage men, depending on how obsessed they were with The Count or Oscar The Grouch, respectively. And I know even Apple’s not unaware of the brilliance of The Frog, having briefly used — then pulled — a Sage iMac commercial with his voiceover some time back.

Still, that wise amphibian could have equally as well been singing about other things that it’s not easy being. Like, for example, a Mac owner who’s into gaming.

Now, I’ve blogged about the Mac games scene previously, at the Macworld Expo, and those who’ve read that piece will be aware that I’m not new to gaming, but I am in the process of re-immersing myself in the Mac games world specifically.

I’ve been playing games for a while. Far too long, some people would say, but the fact remains that I’m in the older category of gamer; I can remember when the height of gaming technology involved strips of coloured cellophane used to make the invaders change colour as they marched down the screen. It feels strange to be “starting again” as a gamer, but that’s exactly what I’ve got to do in order to cover the Mac games market. Everything old is new again, and all that Jazz.

But it’s not easy. Not so much because of the relative dearth of titles; as I’ve said before, in some ways that’s a good thing, and in many ways it’s just a reflection of the market — Apple doesn’t particularly sell the Mac brand as a gaming platform per se. No, where I’m finding it difficult to be a Mac gamer is in a much more fundamental area: controls.

Mac games can only ever be as good as the controls that developers can reasonably expect the player base to have, and in the case of Macs, the picture is … well … it’s not very good, really.

First off, there’s the classic keyboard and mouse combination. Beloved of both the first-person shooter fan and the RTS obsessive, a good mouse and keyboard can be the difference between successfully leading a raid on the evil Horde and coming away with the glory, or being slaughtered in the first five seconds because you can’t, for example, press both mouse buttons simultaneously.

Because most Macs come with a keyboard and mouse, I wouldn’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that most Mac users are, in fact, using them. That’s fine for most basic keyboard and mouse work — but not for gaming. The basic Mac keyboard, as it exists today, is a passable piece of work for gaming tasks, but arguably something with more comfortable travel will give you a better gaming experience. I put this to the test with a few key games and a couple of keyboards, and while I could get used to the Mac keyboard, even a Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard (with the “you’ll either love it or hate it” split wing design) worked better than the basic Mac keyboard.

Then there’s the mouse. Apple might call it “Mighty”, and it’s certainly mighty pretty; aesthetically it scores highly. Precision rapid double button clicking, however? Not so good. Almost any mouse but the Mighty Mouse would be better — but again, most users stick with what’s bundled and, as such, developers either have to work around it or presume that users will go out and get something better.

Sometimes, though, the something better plain doesn’t work. Some time back, I had a very nifty Logitech mouse in for review — the G9 Laser Mouse. It’s a serious bit of gaming kit, with optional weights that you can add or remove from the mouse to fit the way you slide it across the table while blasting away at the bad guys. It’s not cheap, but it’s really, really nice from a gamer’s perspective.

As long as you’re not a Mac gamer.

I plugged it into my Mac, experimentally, to see what would happen. For reasons that still elude me, it was detected as a keyboard, and OS X wanted me to hit the left shift key. I searched for ages on the G9 for any kind of shift key, and while there were numerous buttons that would in theory enable me to frag, blast, throw and taunt, the shift key remained stoutly elusive.

Of course, Mac gaming isn’t all about mice and keyboards; there’s a steady stream of games that rely on gamepads instead.

Here I had what amounted to a very nice surprise. Blithely plugging a gamepad into my Mac, I expected little. Perhaps OS X would tell me it was a webcam, or somesuch. Perhaps my Mac would explode with fury and errors, as seems to be the fashion with Leopard nowadays. Instead, nothing happened. I waited. Then it happened again. I waited a little longer, and the nothing came back for an encore performance.

Thinking it had failed, and in need of a break, I launched into a game of Lego Star Wars, and … it “just worked”. As if to prove my “Apple’s not interested in the gaming market” theory, there’s no preference pane in OS X per se, but even that’s only a minor problem — applications such as GamePad Companion will add it for you at a nominal cost. Even without GamePad Companion, I quite literally couldn’t find a USB gamepad I owned that OS X couldn’t at least recognise. Even digging to the bottom of the pile and grabbing out an aging Playstation 2 controller connected to a rather dodgy USB converter worked, which was great news for me — I’m a big fan of the DualShock, although predictably the actual rumble feature wasn’t present.Ultimately, I guess, I’ve got to accept that being a Mac gamer has its bad points (such as the controls) and its good points (the pick of the litter when it comes to quality games, and some big studios, such as iD and EA pushing for more and better games for the platform) and, as that wise green marionette sang, realise that “it’s beautiful. And I think it’s what I want to be.”

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