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Mac Game Companies Talk Universal Binaries, Move to Intel-Only [UPDATED]

TMO Reports - Mac Game Companies Talk Universal Binaries, Move to Intel-Only [UPDATED]

by , 4:35 PM EST, January 25th, 2006

While many of the applications used by most owners of Intel Macs -- Microsoft Office, the iLife suite, Safari and so forth -- either now ship as Universal Binaries or run acceptably with Rosetta, games have proven to be a sticky situation. Casual games and older titles for the most part run well in Rosetta, but newer, hardware-intensive releases will need Universal Binary updates to achieve acceptable performance.

Of course, "acceptable performance" is a subjective term, as most gamers know. One Mac Observer reader and owner of a new Intel iMac reported last week that such titles as Halo and Medal of Honor "ran perfectly. A game with high resolution graphics looked great and the performance was fast," he said.

Glenda Adams, Director of Development at Aspyr Media, backed up that assertion when contacted by The Mac Observer. "Any of the games that shipped more than a year ago, like Medal of Honor, seem to run at decent frame rates and look good," she said. However, "a few of the more recent games, like The Sims 2 and Doom 3, don't run as well," she noted, "although it is pretty amazing to see them run under emulation mode with a bit of a sluggish frame rate."

She added that Doom 3 and The Sims 2 will both receive Universal Binary patches, which will be free. "We're in the process of going through our back catalog of games and testing them on the new iMacs," she explained. "The games that have performance or stability issues will be the most likely to be updated to Universal Binaries."

Other publishers of more hardware-intensive games reported similar performance. Henry Price, MacPlay's Director of Sales and Marketing, said that such titles as Aliens vs. Predator 2 and TRON 2.0 run in Rosetta. "We have not made a determination on Universal Binary patches," he added.

In contrast, Al Schilling, MacSoft's Director of Marketing, said that he has seen a 25% performance decrease on the Intel iMac, compared to the 1.8GHz iMac G5, when running such games as Halo and Unreal Tournament 2004 in Rosetta. "The guy who claims to be running Halo 'acceptably' on the new iMac may be right," he added, "depending on what he feels is acceptable and what features he's willing to turn off in order to get an adequate frame rate."

However, the company's strategy titles, such as Rise of Nations and Tropico 2: Pirate Cove, "are performing quite well on the new iMac [in] cursory testing," Mr. Schilling said. "As would be expected, games like Scrabble are smooth and glitch-free."

MacSoft president Peter Tamte added that the company's plans for Universal Binary patches will be announced "in the coming weeks," along with upgrade policies. Epic Games' Ryan Gordon, who has a lot of experience porting games to the Mac, said that a Universal Binary of Unreal Tournament 2004 could be out "in a few days." He noted that the Intel Mac version has existed since last June's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), where Apple CEO Steve Jobs first revealed the switch to Intel, "but there was no way I'd ship this without trying it on real production hardware."

Mr. Gordon expressed surprise that others have seen poor performance from Unreal Tournament 2004 through Rosetta, since he recalled it running well on the developer systems Apple had available during the last WWDC. However, "there are a lot of factors [involved]," he acknowledged. "I might try to figure out what happened there, but mostly this solves itself with a Universal Binary."

He added: "Previously I had seen games that were very CPU-intensive that performed well [in Rosetta] and I have no doubt that as time goes on and real benchmarks are posted, Apple can either pressure companies to port to x86 or at least tune Rosetta for specific 'problem' apps that have no plans to move to the new platform."

Dual-Booting Possibilities

Mr. Gordon was among those warning last year of potential problems in the Mac games marketplace if the owners of Intel Macs could install Windows on their machines. The hypothesis was that the ability to run Windows would kill Mac gaming because consumers would simply play the Windows versions, rather than wait for the Mac versions to be ported. While time will tell if that happens, a recent Ars Technica review of the new iMac revealed that the computer refused to install Windows, nor would it boot off a Windows XP or Windows Vista Beta disc.

"I'd bet money that it'll be less than a month before Linux is running on the iMac," Mr. Gordon said, "and maybe another month at most from there for Windows. Once you can execute code at boot-up, you can basically do anything. The Linux crowd is going to get past [the iMac's inability to boot on a Windows install disc] any moment now, and once they've documented how to do it, someone will get a boot loader to boot Windows."

He acknowledged, however, that "the trick after that is getting drivers for all the hardware in the thing. Some of it is standard Intel components, and I'm sure some of it is not. When you need some vendor to do an Intel Mac version of their Windows driver, even if it's a trivial change, you are at their mercy."

Mr. Gordon added: "This is also true with game middleware. The bits I already have source code for, like the Karma physics library, I ported to the Intel Mac in about the time it would take to write the e-mail asking a vendor if they could do the port for me."

The Casual Market Breathes a Sigh of Relief

Companies that publish casual games all reported acceptable performance for titles with less-steep system requirements. For example, MacPlay, which recently moved away from pursuing AAA titles and started focusing on the casual market, reported "great performance" of those releases, which include Lemonade Tycoon and Super Collapse! II. However, Mark Stultz, who handles Mac porting for the company, said that Universal Binaries of those games will still be released soon.

At Freeverse, which made such games its bread-and-butter before moving into the hardcore space with the upcoming Heroes of Might and Magic V, co-founder Colin Lynch Smith said that Universal Binary versions "of our more popular titles (like Burning Monkey Solitaire) will be created this year as they become due for a rev on our normal roadmap."

He added that, compared side-by-side, gamers won't be able to tell the difference between PowerPC and Rosetta when it comes to the company's older titles. "Apple did such a great job with Rosetta," Mr. Lynch Smith noted. "This has been a much easier transition for use than the OS 9 to OS X migration."

Over at Feral Interactive, where the company publishes a mix of hardcore and casual games, a representative said that initial testing shows "that performance on most of the games will be acceptable under Rosetta, but we have not had enough time to evaluate them fully." He saw the publisher issuing Universal Binary patches "if necessary, but we are hoping that most will not need patches, as this means we can spend more of our time and effort on bringing new games to the Mac."

Brian Greenstone, founder of Pangea Software, has jumped ahead of the pack by releasing Universal Binary updates for Nanosaur 2 and Bugdom 2, with an Otto Matic update "sitting here ready to go," he said. The company's upcoming Enigmo 2 will be a Universal Binary when it ships, after which time he expects to start working on updates for Enigmo and Cro-Mag Rally.

Mr. Greenstone reported that while Cro-Mag Rally "runs perfectly, and at very high frame rates," in Rosetta, Enigmo is "kinda borderline ... Still, it's quite playable." Unfortunately, such older OS 9 releases as Bugdom, Nanosaur, Firefall and others "are toast. They're just too old to fix," he said.

With Classic support unavailable in the new Intel Macs, gamers may want to keep a PowerPC G4 Mac hanging around for those times when they want to play older titles that will likely never see updates.

Intel-Only on the Horizon, Or Maybe Not

Publishers had a variety of feedback when asked when they expect to move away from Universal Binaries to Intel-only. While all the games slated for release this year will be Universal Binaries, the need to develop for and support two different processor families adds extra time to schedules that many Mac gamers already find frustrating. An Intel-only Mac gaming universe will hopefully enable release dates that are closer to titles' PC and console counterparts.

Ms. Adams reported that Aspyr will likely make the move to Intel-only in "late 2006 at the earliest, and maybe not until 2007." Mr. Tamte pushed MacSoft's timeframe out further, at least with regard to the company's original development, saying that he expects the shift to happen in late 2007. Over at Feral, the company's representative quoted an 18-to-24-month schedule "for the high requirement games, but lower spec'd games might have Universal Binaries for longer, depending on demand."

However, Mr. Greenstone didn't expect to go Intel-only for three years, which he said "seems to be the usual time range for killing off old machines." MacPlay's Mr. Stultz responded that he doesn't see Intel-only happening "anytime soon," while Mr. Lynch Smith thought it will take "a couple years" for Freeverse to make the move. "Macs just last too long!" he said.

Everyone contacted for this article, however, agreed that the new Intel-based Macs are a move into a gaming future bright with promise. With hardware parity achieved, game performance in the Mac and Windows worlds will be very similar. "I think users are going to be very happy with how the games run on their Intel Macs, compared to both older Macs and PCs running the same games," said Ms. Adams.

"All indications are that we're going to see much better performance for Mac games on this new hardware," added Mr. Schilling. Noted Mr. Tamte: "Games that take advantage of multi-core processors, and combine this with awesome graphics hardware like the ATI X1600, are going to generate some truly amazing game performance on both iMacs and MacBooks."

6:11 PM, EST: Added quotes from Epic Games' Ryan Gordon.

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