A brave new world for Mac games

30th Jun 2010 | 12:00

A brave new world for Mac games

Games are about to get exciting on the Mac again

A brave new world for Mac games

Back in 2007, games developer Valve's Gabe Newell said:

"We'd love it if (Apple) would get serious about (games). But they never have…It seems bizarre because it's like one of the biggest things holding them back in the consumer space. If you look at a Macintosh right now, it does a lot of things really well compared to a Vista PC, but there are no games." He was right, it was bizarre.

And it continued to be bizarre until the March of this year, when Valve announced it would be releasing its Steam digital download service for games on the Mac – which accounts for 70% of online games sales – as well as releasing all its past and upcoming Source-engine games.

Why the change? John Cook of Valve: "The Mac is a very attractive platform for entertainment as a service." But it's been around since 1984. Why wasn't it attractive before?

For years gaming on the Mac was possible, but undesirable; the user base relative to the PC was low, almost no-one had a graphics card that was designed for gaming, and because of compatibility issues games had to be made from scratch rather than ported.

Moreover, where Linux always shared the same IBM architecture and had a devoted network of hardcore volunteer programmers, the Mac had too many obstacles to overcome at once, and not enough people willing to meet the challenge.

The advantages it did have were standardisation and an untapped, relatively wealthy market, enough to tempt only a few intrepid developers. However, with the shift from the PowerPC architecture in 2006 to Intel architecture, every Apple's innards suddenly became functionally equivalent to those of a typical Windows PC.

Gavriel State, CTO of game-porting experts Transgaming, explains: "The biggest (remaining) hardware difference is on the desktop side, where most PCs use add-in cards for graphics, while only Mac Pros have upgradable graphics cards on the Mac side." So developing on the Mac was easy but apparently not desirable for Apple.

Newell again, pre-2010: "I just don't think they've ever taken gaming seriously. And none of the things developers ask them to do are done. And as a result, there's no gaming market there to speak of. We'd love it if they would get serious about it. But they never have, and can't even follow through on any of their commitments for game developers."

Apple was interested, but gaming was never a focus. Perhaps wisely, its longer-term plan was more concerned with securing its current market – whether that was music or mobile phone – rather than pushing the Mac into a direct competition with the next generation of consoles as they launched.

Four years on, those 'new consoles' are starting to look weary in comparison to what a specced-up Mac or PC can handle, and suddenly the Mac looks attractive.

Instead of £40 games that require systems worth hundreds of pounds, now you can get quality games for pennies. Indeed, you can get exactly the same version of Football Manager on your iPhone for £7 that costs £25 on the PSP – and that's regarded as overpriced!

Indie developer James Brown, of Ancient Workshop, makes the key point, though: "The real change that's happened here is not so much the hardware as the general resurgence in Apple's fortunes. It's no longer a niche; it's something you develop for as a matter of course."

The glorious success of the iPhone is really bleeding over onto Apple's main systems, at exactly the time its putative rivals have stumbled.

Developing games for the Mac

Whatever the reasons, Mac gaming has started to boom. Despite the advent of this new age, it's still hard to find publishers who are willing to talk about it – expertise seems thin on the ground and nearly all developers, even longterm Apple aficionados, have developed almost exclusively for PCs, and Windows PCs at that.

Many still employ porting-houses to transfer games across, or use Transgaming's Cider tools – EA has used this to port all of their recent triple-A games, from Spore to Red Alert 3 and The Sims 3. But just how easy is it to develop for the Mac?

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Ex-EA and Lionhead developer James Brown continues to develop his Ancient Frog game simultaneously for iPhone, Mac and PC; "Games are probably the easiest type of application to adapt from PC to Mac. Where you run into difficulty porting an application from one platform to another is in the user interface. And a game pretty much is a user interface – it exists solely as something to be interacted with, and that interaction is something which shouldn't be shoe-horned into the platform's general look and feel. Imagine writing a puzzle game that conforms to the Mac OS human interface guidelines; it would just show you the completed puzzle."

Industry veteran Dallas Snell, who worked on Ultima 1 to 8 and now works on social games and MMOs for Portalarium, says that the hardware isn't the problem: "The real magic is keeping everyone's social graph interconnected with our back-end infrastructure that spans multiple clients, multiple devices, multiple operating systems, multiple browsers and multiple social networks."

Transgaming's States points out: "One nice advantage to developing for the Mac is that there are few system configurations that must be supported compared to PCs. Most Mac gamers are quick to adopt the latest OS updates, especially compared to what happens with PCs. On the flipside, because the Mac OS is so tightly integrated with hardware, Mac users only get new updates to video drivers as part of the OS."

Are these porting houses still necessary then? "If you're a Windows developer making Windows games, then a porting house will save you an awful lot of work." says Brown. "But you're paying someone else to do what is really your business, and for your next game you have to get them in again to do pretty much exactly the same work."

States, CTO of the biggest rival to porting houses, the conversion technology Cider, is even more scathing: "The kind of porting house that was typical of the Mac gaming world is likely to have little place in its future. As the Mac becomes a bigger percentage of the overall PC market, more game developers and publishers are looking at getting into the platform directly, rather than trust IP and profit margins to third parties."

Transgaming's Cider engine makes porting a lot easier, dodging problems involving build systems, middleware adaptation and graphics paths, and helping with the difficult UI adaptation.

One of the most annoying aspects of current releases is that the Mac seems to lag behind the PS3, PC and 360 – the Chronicles of Riddick took an extra year to come out on Mac. So are simultaneous releases possible in the future?

"Definitely!" says States. "The easiest way to handle multi-platform development is to make sure you're building on each platform right from the start."

And Brown is ahead of the game: "One of the reasons I'm constantly switching back and forth between the Mac and PC is that I catch any non-portable code immediately, while it's still fresh in my mind and it hasn't burrowed its way to the heart of the code base. When the game is finished on the Mac, it's finished on the PC." Even Valve has committed to releasing Portal 2 simultaneously on all platforms.

There's a caveat here though – while we've been talking about this being a new age for Macs, it's a more of an age for low-powered gaming. The real platform of the moment isn't the iPhone, or the Wii or even the Mac. The most played game today, with 28.8 million players every day, three times that of World of Warcraft, is… Farmville. And Facebook is the platform.

Love it or hate it

Yes, 'social gaming' is the phenomenon of the moment and hugely profitable – MobWars is estimated to earn $1,000,000 a month from micropayments alone. Developers are cutting their teeth in indie games and then racing from the saturated iPhone market and the heavily restricted console markets over to Facebook. A good, well-integrated game can set a lone developer up for life.

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Even the big developers, like iD and Firaxis, are porting their games to a free-to-play model. Quake Live is out, the next Civilization game will be Facebook only, and a free-to-play massively multiplayer version of Tiger Woods is available already.

These are the games that are really eroding the difference between Mac and PC, and as these and game-streaming services like OnLive grow, players will no longer have to invest in expensive hardware on any system.

So what does the future hold for Mac gaming? As we've seen, the additional cost for developers to develop for the Mac is shrinking, especially with tools like Cider available. So it's likely we'll see the Mac taking its place alongside the other platforms, receiving simultaneous releases.

Still, the real gaming, on any platform, is going to be online and free.

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First published in MacFormat Issue 222

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