MAC-LOVING CODERS COMPUTER REMAINS THE APPLE OF THEIR EYES.
The geeks have heard it all before.
So much so that the programmers at MacPlay - a division of Irvine software company Interplay that develops Apple Computer games - could write this story themselves.
"The angle? Apple's going down in flames - will we survive?!" cries Macintosh High Priest (his actual title) Bill "Weez" Dugan.
"I want a new job!" Diversion Director Tim Hume chimes in. Then he starts wandering the room, muttering, "Get me a Windows book. I need to learn a new language."
They fall in a wallow of laughter.
Perhaps the ear-pierced wireheads haven't ventured out of their dark, windowless (and Windows-less) offices recently. Don't they know that Apple just announced a loss of $69 million for the past quarter and will lose an additional $125 million with a restructuring that includes 1,300 layoffs?
Has news of Windows 95 not hit Orange County yet?
Dugan, Hume and Chris De Salvo - the third "Mac geek," as they call themselves - stare blankly, as most people would greet a longhaired prophet with sandwich boards and bells declaring the end of the world.
"No company with $11 billion in sales is going to die," says De Salvo, rolling his eyes and turning his attention back to his PowerMac.
Hume - who sees "troubled" as an adjective for Apple Computer so often that he considers it part of the company name - just shrugs. That's what "they" said in 1984. And 1988. And 1993, the year MacPlay was founded.
But in early 1996, coming out of a year when MacPlay had an estimated $10.4 million in sales, the geeks are "bullish on the Macintosh," Dugan says. The earthquakes at Apple's Cupertino headquarters haven't brought any tremors this way. And analyst house PC Data's recent announcement that MacPlay is the largest Macintosh game developer (with 13.2 percent of the market) has brought the coders renewed vigor.
"We're Mac zealots . . . and we're out to take over the world," Dugan says.
So let's dash the geeks' writing aspirations. Nowhere will we use the terms "brave face," "hopeful in the face of hopelessness" or, um, "mad." Nowhere will we call them the Kings of Atlantis. They're confident. They're proud. They see MacPlay as a successful, viable little giant far into the future.
Without sounding unduly pessimistic, however, here's what they're up against:
Macintosh market share hovers around 10 percent - mainly because Apple Computer has heretofore not allowed "clones" of its machines to be produced by other companies. Though clones will appear soon, it's unlikely that Macintosh computers can catch up to the PC-based systems supported mainly by Intel chips and the Windows operating system.
That 10 percent centers mainly on publishers and schools, which some analysts say could become Apple's niche market. Good for software companies Adobe and Quark, which make artist software; bad for game makers such as MacPlay.
A typical Macintosh-to-PC software ratio in any store is one shelf vs. four rows. This can be two-edged: MacPlay has three full-time programmers compared with Interplay's 35. Yet because the Macintosh realm is smaller, MacPlay is the No. 1 producer of Mac games; Interplay is the No. 4 producer of PC games. It's the whole big-fish, small-pond scenario.
In Dataquest analyst Scott Miller's words, "It's a vicious cycle." Fewer software titles equals fewer computer sales equals fewer software titles. Interplay is very happy with MacPlay's performance, but Dugan admits that every once in a while, the CFO wanders in to inquire, "When are we going to stop developing for this tiny little platform?"
Not soon, if you ask the Mac geeks. On their side, they've got:
A loyal Macintosh following.
Strong software sales considering the low Apple market share.
For the first three quarters of 1995, according to the Software Publishers Association, Windows entertainment software amounted to $178 million in sales. But Macintosh entertainment revenue was $59 million, 25 percent of the total sales, belying the platform's hardware sales penetration.
And while Apple has lost money, Macintosh software sales are up 48 percent from last year; and they were up 83 percent from 1993 to 1994, according to the association.
And, of course, chutzpah.
Take Dugan, who oversees Macintosh development. A towering 6-foot-6 in black hightops and '70s shoulder-length hair, Dugan drinks an average of four 1-liter cups of Diet Coke and Dr Pepper to fuel each day of coding, gaming, coding, producing, coding, promoting and coding.
The geeks may froth at the mouth when their beloved Mac is disparaged, but they never lose their sense of humor. When Tim Cain, a project leader from Interplay's PC side, rips into the Mac mouse - "When I program, I'm not going to ignore this button," he says, referring to the second Windows' mouse button - Dugan says in an aside, "He's pushing MY buttons right now."
Clumped at the ages of 25 to 29, the MacPlay trio make no distinction between worldly passions and work; they share a love of Dungeons and Dragons, Diet Coke, Pink Floyd and the Macintosh operating system, evidence of which adorns their offices.
Dugan has worked on and off for Interplay since 1986 and was part of the internal revolution that created MacPlay. Through the late 1980s, Interplay - like many software companies - hired a few Macintosh programmers to "port," or translate, existing PC games to the Apple platform.
These ports were "generally of poor quality," Dugan says, adding that they were eight months to a year behind the PC games in hitting the market. Dugan used to get chewed out for neglecting his DOS and Windows projects while he was helping the Macintosh hackers.
Now that Dugan has his own playground, he's helping to undo the porting prejudice. More and more titles are being "core coded," or simultaneously developed for both PC and Macs. "Descent II," a follow-up to the popular 3-D killer robot flying game, should premiere on both platforms in March.
LucasArts, one of the few other software developers that has shown a commitment to the Macintosh (though it does not have a separate division) is doing similarly. There was only a three-week lapse between the two versions of "Rebel Assault II" over the Christmas holiday.
"We realize that people who own Macs want good, high-quality games," says Mary Bihr, director of sales and marketing for LucasArts. "You can't just toss something off."
Still, rarely is anything developed for the Macintosh and translated to PC. Most independent programmers, the ones who pitch their game ideas to the big companies for development, want to work with the platform that has the largest user base.
Photo (Color) Chris De Salvo of MacPlay works on the upcoming Starfleet Academy game. Knight-Ridder Tribune Photo Service