Friday Slide: Macworld 2009 Not A Gamers’ Paradise

I’ve been to a lot of trade shows in the last five years, for video games, mobile phones, consumer electronics, and every possible combination of the three. I usually knew more or less what I was in for, too. For journalists, E3 was like the Normandy Invasion… four days of feverish work on no sleep, endless looping screams from the nearby booths, appointments piled up like bodies on the beach. The twice-yearly CTIA is a telecom nerd extravaganza, where the guy with the biggest star power is usually the Chairman of the FCC. CES forces you to walk all over Las Vegas; BREW is highlighted by washed-up rock acts from the 80s (Huey Lewis still has it!); at Casual Connect, men with thick accents explain how to pick daisies using the DS stylus while standing uncomfortably close.

I had no idea what to expect out of Macworld 2009, though. That’s one show I’d never been to. Before the advent of the iPhone, I had no real business reason to go, and I wouldn’t have attended of my own volition. Sure, I’ve been a Mac guy since I was old enough to pick up a mouse, but I’m not a true Macolyte; I can fake my way through the first five minutes of conversation with the Chosen, but that’s about it. There’s a certain fervor there that scares the hell out of laypeople like me. I had an inkling that Macworld would be a bit like a millenial revival, complete with true believers seizing in the aisles and possibly even mass marriages. Maybe Steve Jobs would miraculously appear in a vision and declare the iPhone Nano a real product.

Wrong on all counts. The sad fact is that Macworld 2009 was a letdown. We paid for a three-ring circus, and ended up at a dog and pony show… (metaphorically, as we had free Media Passes.) Phil Schiller might have ten percent of Steve’s charisma on a good day; he announced a bunch of stuff that nobody gives a damn about, reinforcing the fact that the conference doesn’t matter to Apple anymore. And how about the iPhone–yknow, that product line that the future of the company depends on? The device that’s precipitating next quantum leap in the Information Revolution? The white-hot new games platform that’s supposedly got Nintendo and Sony shaking their boots? You can use it as a remote control for your Keynote presentation.

None of this was terribly surprising. Here’s what Jer Wood, fellow STP Editor and certified Macolyte, had to say when I asked him what to expect from Apple at the conference: “F***-all.” And the show was actually a smashing success for us: we met a lot of really cool people, scored some great interviews and previews, handed out a lot of flyers, gave away some gift certificates, and generally let out a barbaric yawp for iPhone gaming. We barnstormed the Moscone Center, and you’ll get to see the fruits of our labors in our Macworld Special podcast early next week.

And yet… I’d be lying if I said that Macworld 2009 didn’t leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. If the iDevices are indeed the next big thing in gaming, as Apple itself has claimed, you never would have realized it at this show. What the hell kind of games platform musters only a single major developer showing off new games (Freeverse) on the show floor? Ordinarily, developers and publishers will race each other to schedule appointments with the press before a big gathering like this one, but we got the opposite this time around.

After hearing crickets chirp for several weeks, I emailed all of my contacts at the other big players, but they had nothing much to tell me. And when I did finally track down some developers at the show, they were extremely reluctant to speak about their new games. One developer told me that he couldn’t disclose anything about his latest project because others would immediately rip off his ideas. Another ongoing subtext focuses on Apple’s draconian culture of secrecy; I have been told many times by various publishers that releasing information early could jeopardize their relationship with Apple. Okay, but what about your relationship with your potential customers? A final troubling puzzle piece was the lack of non-iDevice Mac games at the show. Jer was the first to notice this conspicuous absence as we were walking around looking for things of interest.

Yes, Macworld is a dying show, and yes, the economy is in horrible shape. On the other hand, we’ve seen the kind of excitement iPhone gaming can generate firsthand, and the energy level at this show was not even close to commensurate. It didn’t square up. I’m starting to think that if iPhone gaming is to outlive the hype and grow into a sustainable success, it may be in spite of Apple’s efforts, rather than because of them.