Mac Game Makers Weigh in on the Move to Intel Macs

When Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced the companyis move to Intel processors, no segment of the Mac publishing industry gritted its teeth harder than Mac games publishers. While the move to the new architecture will bring about better compatibility with the Windows side -- since ever-increasing requirements on the Windows side mean that many current titles require relatively new Macs -- it also raises the issue of getting games to run in Rosetta, the emulator that will enable older Mac software to work on the new machines.

It also presents the specter of booting an Intel-based Mac into Windows, which some worry could kill Mac gaming as consumers turn to that OS rather than wait six months or more for a new Windows game to be ported to the Mac. In addition, WINE (WINE Is Not an Emulator), open source software that allows Linux users to run Windows software without having to reboot their computers, could appear for OS X, which means Mac users could conceivably run Windows games on their Intel Macs without rebooting. In fact, CodeWeavers has already announced that its CrossOver technology, which is based on WINE, will run without a hitch on the Intel Macs once they start shipping in a year.

"I think the dual boot/WINE side of things may take 10-20% of the hardcore Mac gaming market out of the picture," Glenda Adams, Aspyr Mediais Director of Mac and PC Development, acknowledged in an e-mail interview with The Mac Observer. "But I also think the switch to Intel will allow us to release OS X Intel native games much more quickly, so the lead time between a PC release and an OS X release will be shorter."

Ms. Adams added, however, that "the existing WINE and dual boot solutions for Linux donit seem nearly as clean and wonderful as some people portray it. A lot of people talk about running games okay in WINE, but only after tweaking a lot of drivers, downloading updates, etc. Itis definitely not the easy drop-in experience that 90% of end users want. I think most people just want to buy a box at the Apple store, take it home, install it and play. They donit want to restart their Macs, subscribe to a monthly fee for an emulator or have to keep track of emulator updates.

"So there will continue to be a market for OS X native games," she continued. "It just may skew more towards casual gamers and not such much to hardcore gamers who might put up with extra work to get a Windows game running."

The Casual Gaming Factor

In fact, casual gamers will likely have the easiest time making the transition to the new Macs. Ian Lynch Smith, president of Freeverse Software, told The Mac Observer that "Rosetta seems to do a fantastic job, especially for the more casual games we focus on. No one will be dual-booting to play Burning Monkey Solitaire, so thatis not a concern for the casual gamer. We expect all of our games to run acceptably in a 2006 Intel-powered Mac OS X machine, but itis too early for absolute guarantees."

Aaron Fothergill of Strange Flavour, developer of the Freeverse-published titles Airburst Extreme and ToySight, echoed that assessment, noting that "even if the new Macs outsell the current ones 2:1, weill still have a mostly PowerPC customer base for a couple of years, as our games still work on a 500MHz G3 and weire targeting around the 1GHz mark for future titles.

"We might start doing some extras for the new Macs, though," Mr. Fothergill added. "Weive done that with G5-specific extra features in ToySight Gold; itis nice to be able to add in some features just for the new toys."

First Look at Intel-Based Development Hardware

While Mr. Fothergill and Mr. Smith both agreed with Ms. Adams that dual-booting into Windows could hurt the sale of high-end titles to hardcore gamers, Destineer president Peter Tamte told The Mac Observer that such a possibility "will be a great thing for Mac users. Weive been building Destineer to create original content, and we plan to release our best games simultaneously on the Mac, like we did with First to Fight.

"Anything that grows the Mac market is great for Destineer," he added. "Anything that lets Mac users run more games is great for Mac users." Destineer publishes Mac games through its MacSoft imprint, which Mr. Tamte founded over a decade ago and purchased from Infogrames in January 2003.

Regarding Rosetta, Mr. Tamte said: "I havenit seen any emulator ever run a performance-intensive game well. However, keep in mind that a game released a couple years earlier will target hardware that was available then, which sometimes leaves users with the overhead for the emulation. But donit expect to run a just-released game well through an emulator."

Because the companies both concentrate heavily on high-end games, MacSoft and Aspyr Media already have Intel-based hardware in their offices. (Freeverse and Strange Flavour have put off the acquisition for now, since their titles donit push the hardware as hard.) Mr. Tamte said that "a number of our development groups have already started making their PowerPC apps work on Appleis Intel systems. Itis been surprisingly painless so far."

However, he did ding Apple for its inclusion of Intelis integrated graphics chipset in the machines, saying that theyire "such garbage the whole industry is surprised Intel even puts their name on it. In fact, virtually no modern 3D game even works on it. Apple has almost always offered innovative graphics chips in their hardware for the past five years, with the exception of the FX5200, of course. Hopefully, theyill continue this tradition with the new Intel-based Macs."

Ms. Adams added: "Iim very impressed with how much of the OS runs seamlessly on an Intel CPU already. To the end user, I donit think the Intel switch is going to appear like much has changed. The OS X interface and underlying technology will continue to just work, and the Mac look and feel will still be there."

As for Aspyris games, she said that "the older a game is, the harder it is to bring up to XCode and recompile on the latest OS. Right now, we believe most games that came out before 2004 will run acceptably on Rosetta. The difficult position will be for some of the less popular games that required a G4 -- we may not be able to spare resources to port those to Intel since we will need to concentrate first on the big games like The Sims 2 and Doom 3.

"Weive run a few older titles under Rosetta," she continued, "and have had some success even with the early version of the emulator. A game like Space Colony, which doesnit require a G4 or any heavy 3D graphics, runs great and very fast."

The Road Ahead

Many prognosticators have predicted a short-term dip in Mac sales, which will hurt developers of all stripes over the next year to year-and-a-half. Mr. Smith agreed with that assessment, adding, however: "Given how functional the Intel Macs were at WWDC, and how relatively smooth the porting process seems to be, I wouldnit be surprised if Appleis published timeline wasnit a bit modest. If anything, the wait for Intel chips might be the reason for the timeline."

If software sales drop, he expects Freeverse to "innovate our way through any downturn. Weire coming out with some great stuff this year -- weill be fine." And if Apple can gain even just a point or two of market share in the long run, he said, "thatis a huge increase in our potential customers, and thatis exciting."

Mr. Fothergill, however, thinks the "Mac games market is pretty much a goner" if Windows turns out to be easy to install and run on the new Macs, but "itill take a while for the Intelitoshes to gain a sizeable chunk of the Mac gaming market anyway, so whatever happens, weive probably got a couple years to adjust." One thing he hopes the new hardware brings with it, though, is "actual hardware DRM [digital rights management] that lets us protect our games and apps against casual theft."

While Ms. Adams said she was "on a roller coaster that varied from excitement to despair" after Mr. Jobs made the big announcement almost a month ago, she now says sheis "cautiously optimistic this will be a long-term positive for Mac games. If they can succeed in the transition and grow their market share to 10% or 20%, the market for Mac OS X native games will easily be two or three times the size it is now.

"I still think there are some pitfalls Apple and OS X developers are going to have to avoid in this transition," she cautioned. "Itis going to be very important for Apple to brand OS X native software and evangelize users on why itis better than running a Windows application or game under a virtual Windows machine on an OS X Intel box."