Don't panic over this Intel thing

Okay, Steve Jobs really freaked a lot of game developers and gamers out with his announcement on Monday. Now that the dust has settled a bit, I’m hear to tell you that while changes are surely coming in the Mac game space, it’s not the end of the world.

First, let’s go over what we know for sure: Apple’s switch to Intel is going to create some headaches and some additional work for existing Mac game developers. The architectures of Intel and PowerPC chips are different enough that it’s not going to be an easy switch. But I haven’t talked with any Mac game developer of consequence who’s ready to jump ship over it. They know it’s going to be more work, and who wouldn’t grumble a bit over having to do more work?

This next point is absolutely crucial: For at least the next year or so, PowerPC-based Macs are going to make up the entire Macintosh user base, and after that, Intel-based Macs will likely take a while to catch up to PowerPC-based Macs in overall marketshare. Old timers will tell you: It took a good long while for everyone to migrate from 680x0-based Macs to PowerPC-based Macs a decade ago.

So any Mac game publisher with any desire to see positive short or middle-term revenue is going to have to continue to support your Mac and the millions of other Macs that are already out there. Anyone who’s saying this Intel deal is effectively killing Mac gaming just ain’t thinkin’ straight, folks.

Reports from WWDC are coming forth that suggest Windows can be installed on the Intel-based test units Apple is showing off this week and will be seeding to developers. Apple’s careful to point out that these systems aren’t representative of their final designs, though, so it’s still a mystery as to how the finished product will operate or what it will look like.

Presuming the production units Apple eventually manufactures are the same, that may mean that Mac users can buy a Macintosh that boots into Mac OS X and Windows. Hardcore gamers certainly would be interested in such a box. Even without Apple’s direct support, it’s not a lot of money to get a copy of Windows XP Home and a second hard drive. It’s a strong incentive for gamers to be able to run the latest and greatest games on their Macs without having to wait six months, deal with online gaming compatibility issues, middleware drama and more.

But even if that’s the case, all hope is not lost. That may encourage Mac users who are also hardcore gamers to use Windows for some of their gaming needs, but it’s entirely unlike that mainstream consumers will want to jump through such hoops just to play games — especially if it opens them to the possibility of infection by viruses, malware, trojan horses, spyware and other such dilemmas currently facing our Windows brethren.

To that end, there will remain a market for Mac games — hopefully, one that will grow if Apple can attract new users to the platform. At this point I’ve talked with execs from every major game publisher in the Mac marketplace, and all of them agree that they’re going to continue to back the Mac game market regardless of what Apple does with its hardware. They’re all talking about focusing efforts on making a smooth transition to Intel-based Macs as well.

Interestingly, an Intel-based Mac will eventually (and this really is a long time down the road) make Windows to OS X game conversion less difficult, because Mac game developers won’t have to cope with the same byte-order issues that they do now (Intel and PowerPC processors handle strings of data differently). That is, once developers are freed from having to support PowerPC chips. Years from now.

A look down the road

Realistically, there are changes coming in the Mac game business, but that doesn’t have nearly as much to do with Apple switching to Intel as it does with the nature of the game market itself continuing to evolve.

Macs and PCs alike are increasingly being shoved to the rear when it comes to triple-A list releases, in favor of the much more lucrative, larger and more stable console game market. And with that market about to undergo a sea change thanks to the introduction of three new consoles, that isn’t going to change — in fact, it’ll probably accelerate in the new consoles’ favor, once they’re all released.

What that means is that you’ll see historically Mac-centric game publishers continue to diversify by publishing their own original titles. Destineer stepped up to the plate with Close Combat: First to Fight, which MacSoft actually shipped before the PC version got out the door. And Aspyr Media is planning its first original release this fall with Stubbs the Zombie. Similar efforts will continue in the future.

MacSoft, Aspyr and Feral Interactive are all firmly committed to bringing new games and game conversions to the Macintosh market today and for the foreseeable future. Based on my conversations with them, they’re actually excited, not discouraged, about this change of direction for Apple, because all of them are hoping it means that Apple can make more aggressive moves into wresting significant marketshare from the clutches of Microsoft.

And Apple couldn’t have picked a better time to do it, really: Between Mac OS X v10.5 “Leopard” and Intel-based Macs, Apple should be hitting on all cylinders when Microsoft finally gets around to releasing “Longhorn,” its next major Windows upgrade. With some deft marketing kung-fu, hopefully Apple will be able to turn the ears of consumers and businesses that are turned off by the idea of jumping yet another major Windows hurdle.

And for World of Warcraft fans, I’m delighted to report that Blizzard Entertainment is certainly in no danger of leaving the Mac platform, either. According to a message on their own forums, Blizzard’s Mac engineers (who are at WWDC this week) are reassuring Mac users that their PowerPC systems won’t get short shrift as a result, as well — in fact, they’re even checking out how their World of Warcraft code works with the new Intel compiler.

So cheer up, folks. If anything, this Intel switch will likely put us in better shape to win the hearts and minds of future game developers, and will lead to the creation of even faster Macs that will play games loads better than today’s systems can. The future of Mac gaming is bright indeed.

For more Mac game news, reviews and information, please visit Macworld's Game Room.

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