WWDC: Game developers react to Intel news

Macintosh software development will soon shift to focus on an Intel-based architecture. How is this major change in the way Macs work likely to affect Macintosh game development? Experts in the Mac game business see both positives and negatives in this latest turn of events.

Executives with two of the most influential companies in Mac gaming both agree that Apple’s next big move may let them reap big rewards, if Apple plays its cards right.

Destineer and MacSoft president Peter Tamte calls Apple’s decision to switch to an Intel-based architecture “an aggressive move” to grow the size of the Macintosh’s market. “The switch to Intel should also help us narrow the gap between a game’s release on Windows and release on Mac.”

Aspyr Media director of development Glenda Adams hopes Apple can “explode their marketshare” with a move to competitively-priced Intel-based hardware. “If OS X has a 20 percent market share the revenue possibilities for native games could make things a lot different.”

The dual-boot quandary

Apple has said that it won’t prevent Windows from running on an Intel-based Mac, though it won’t sell or support Windows either. Some in the industry have taken that as implicit acknowledgment that Windows will run natively on an Intel-based Mac, or at the very least, considerably faster than is now possible using Microsoft’s Virtual PC emulator.

If that’s the case, it’s conceivable that serious Mac gamers could create a dual-boot system that would allow them to run Windows versions of games. That could decimate the Mac game business, which is dependent on conversions of PC and console games that take months to release after their original counterparts.

“This may result in developers not wishing to spend the money to port games to the Mac, certainly,” said Ambrosia Software president Andrew Welch.

Epic Games programmer Ryan C. Gordon compared the current concern over Mac gaming to another platform he’s familiar with: Linux. Gordon has brought games to the Mac and Linux including Unreal Tournament 2004, America’s Army, and Postal 2. Gordon advocates against Intel-based Macs’ potential ability to run Windows in a posting on his Web site.

“Will people dual boot? Will they still prefer a native port, even if they can run Windows? What about a Windows emulation layer like Linux’s WINE project … would that kill native game ports?” Gordon asked.

“In the end, at least we’re going to find out whether it was Linux that made Linux gamers a hard market or Mac OS that made Mac gamers into discerning customers,” Gordon told MacCentral.

Carrots and sticks

“Even if users can run Windows on a Mac, we’ll still make Mac OS X versions of our original games,” said Tamte. “Plus, if Apple’s shift to Intel does grow the Mac market, I’m willing to bet there will be lots of unique features we’ll be able to build into our Mac versions in the future.”

Adding value to Macintosh conversions is an approach shared by another major Mac game publisher, Feral Interactive. “We at Feral improve games, and add extra features over the PC version,” said Edwin Smith, who’s in San Francisco this week to attend WWDC.

For Feral’s conversion of Chessmaster 9000, for example, the company reworked the game’s interface to be more Mac-like. Its most recent release, Commandos Battle Pack, comprises two releases, Commandos 2 and Commando 3, into one package. That approach has also been used by Aspyr Media Inc., which has created “Deluxe” editions that include expansion packs and other add-ons not included with the original PC game.

Aspyr’s Adams believes that the switch to Intel may have “a negligible change” on sales of Mac games, at least to start. While she agrees that a dual-boot Mac might cause hardcore gamers to simply buy Windows and Windows games, she doesn’t think that “normal” Mac users will want to jump through hoops. “So the net effect may be a shift in products, but revenue may stay about the same overall,” said Adams.

Potential pitfalls

Pangea Software president Brian Greenstone suggests that Mac game developers who need to get existing projects working on Intel-based Macs are in for a tough ride, Steve Jobs’ Monday comments about recompiling and gaining Intel compatibility notwithstanding.

“This is far, far worse than the switch from 68000 to PowerPC ten years ago,” said Greenstone. “That was essentially just a recompile. This require a complete recode of data handling.”

That opinion is shared by Brad Oliver, who works with Glenda Adams at Aspyr Studios, Aspyr’s internal game development house. “Byte-swapping bugs are a pain to track down,” Oliver told MacCentral.

Oliver added that this also puts in a quandary game developers who rely on Codewarrior, the Integrated Development Environment (IDE) created by Freescale-owned Metrowerks. Steve Jobs made it clear during his keynote that developers using Codewarrior will need to migrate to Xcode if they want to make the jump to Intel-based Macs.

“For porting, Codewarrior is still the main option, although we’re moving to Xcode,” said Adams.

What’s more, added Greenstone, Rosetta isn’t a viable solution for game developers. Rosetta is Apple’s code name for the emulation solution that will allow new Intel-based based Macs to run unaltered PowerPC code. “Rosetta doesn’t work with applications that use AltiVec,” he said.

AltiVec, or Velocity Engine, is a floating point instruction set implemented in G4 and G5 processors. Using AltiVec, programmers can accelerate the display of graphics and other operations, and support for the technology has been used extensively in some games. AltiVec operations need to be converted to similar functions supported in Intel’s hardware, and Rosetta doesn’t support AltiVec.

“Rosetta will almost certainly be useless for games,” said Gordon.

Original Mac game developers speak out

Colin Lynch Smith of Freeverse Software said that he doesn’t think updating their titles to run on Intel-based Macs will prove to be much of a problem, and he’s also hoping that Rosetta will help ease the transition to the new platform for some titles in Freeverse’s catalog. “Although we’ll probably have to put a guy on doing this, which will cost us money,” he said.

Aaron Fothergill is one half of Strange Flavour, a U.K.-based original game developer responsible for creating Freeverse Software’s Toysight and AirBurst games. As an original developer of Mac games, Fothergill has concerns that are different from Mac game conversion studios.

“Our future games are using Xcode at the moment, so it shouldn’t be too much of an issue, technically,” Fothergill told MacCentral. “And as the phase-in will take until the end of 2007, it’s not something we need to put a lot of development time into at the moment.”

Taking the long view

“I think it may end up being a good move long-term, but every transition [Apple has] done, they have lost developers, and lost a number of programs that developers never bother to port/recompile,” said Welch.

“If there was ever a time for [Apple] to do the transition, though, it’s now. Macs are on the upswing, attracting a lot of attention, the iPod is selling like gangbusters, and Windows users are fed up with spyware/viruses, et cetera. The interesting thing to me is that the transition will be happening while Microsoft is in the middle of releasing Longhorn,” he added. “That could either be an excellent opportunity or a PR nightmare where Apple is drowned out by the Windows PR machine. Time will tell.”

Pangea’s Greenstone expects that what’s inside a computer will ultimately become less important to even technically-savvy customers than what the computer can do. “It’s going to be about internet bandwidth and how I can get more data faster,” he said.

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