What virtualization means for gaming

Virtualization is turning out to be the “killer app” for Intel-based Macs. With it, new Macs can run not only Mac OS X but Windows and other operating systems. And the technology promises to shake things up pretty radically for gamers—it’s also bound to create some confusion, at least in the short term.

Mac gamers first got a taste of what their new Intel-based Macs could do this past April when Apple released a beta version of Boot Camp, a program that enabled new Macs to reboot into Windows. Running Windows natively, Macs can play all the same games their PC counterparts can. That means no more waiting months or a year or more for a Macintosh conversion of a hit PC title (assuming that conversion ever happens).

Unfortunately, rebooting into Windows every time you want to play a game is an unmitigated pain in the posterior. It’s disruptive to the rest of your workflow and time-consuming. So if you’re doing anything with your Mac besides playing games, it’s a lot of trouble. After the initial novelty wore off, I frankly haven’t had a lot of use for Boot Camp on my Intel Mac, and I suspect my experience is pretty typical.

Virtualization options

That’s where virtualization comes into play—products like Parallels Desktop for Mac, CrossOver Mac from CodeWeavers and Cider from TransGaming, and further down the road, VMware. Parallels made its debut at about the same time that Apple introduced Boot Camp, and what makes it special is that you can run Windows alongside Mac OS X without having to restart your machine and hold down a key.

For right now, Parallels isn’t optimized for gaming: there’s no 3-D graphics support, for example. But that’s expected to change by the end of the year, when Parallels introduces a new version of Desktop that it says will support 3-D graphics acceleration. Once that happens, Mac users will be able to run Windows and Windows games alongside Mac OS X.

In the interim, CodeWeavers plans to make inroads with its CrossOver software—an adaptation of the open-source project WINE mainly aimed at business software users who want to run Windows applications that they can’t get on the Mac. While CrossOver’s primary focus is productivity software, CodeWeavers makes no secret of the software’s support for games, either. CrossOver is currently in development.

Cider is perhaps the most intriguing of the bunch. An outgrowth of TransGaming’s Cedega software for Linux, Cider is a distant descendant of WINE as well. What makes Cider different from Parallels and CrossOver is that it doesn’t attempt to reproduce a complete environment from which to run Windows. Instead, it “wraps” Windows-compatible games and is optimized to help those games to run on Mac OS X. So TransGaming will tweak Cider each time for each different game, and your experience as a gamer is the same as if the “Ciderized” game had been ported to the Mac directly — you drag it from the installer disc to your Mac and double-click on an icon, then the game runs.

There’s a lot of healthy skepticism floating around the Mac game community about Cider. TransGaming’s record is spotty—its previous Macintosh game conversions (actual Mac binaries, as opposed to “Cider-wrapped” versions of PC games) weren’t terribly well-received, were late to market, and had some technical problems. And Cedega, which TransGaming sells to Linux users on a subscription basis, hasn’t exactly set the gaming world on fire. Questions have also surfaced about Cider’s ability to translate the complex graphics subroutines used by games that make use of Microsoft DirectX 9 technology.

Looking further down the road, the elephant in the room few are talking about right now is VMware, a company that is the dominant player in the enterprise virtualization market and has made strong inroads to consumers with workstation products that support DirectX technology, making gaming a reality in virtualization as well.

VMware recently announced plans to support the Mac, but the company is holding its cards close to its vest and hasn’t revealed exactly what products will be coming to the Mac. What is known at this point is that VMware’s software, while powerful, is also priced considerably higher than Parallels’s Desktop.

VMware will have a lot of ground to make up, too. By the time the company gets a beta version of its software rolling, Parallels will already be well on its way to getting the second generation of its Mac Desktop software out the door and will be close to getting a server product launched, too. VMware will have to offer some compelling reasons for people to consider their Mac product over Parallels.

The future of porting?

For years, the Mac game market has been dependent on the conversion of existing PC and console titles to the Macintosh platform. This yields a variety of top-tier games for the Macintosh every year, but it’s a business model that’s not without serious shortcomings: Time to market, price parity, feature parity and performance are issues frequently cited by critics of Mac ports who don’t think that what the companies who make many Mac games are doing well enough.

If TransGaming has its way, we could start seeing a slew of “Ciderized” PC games showing up on store shelves at or close to the same time as their Windows versions. TransGaming even hopes that it can make same-day, hybrid disc releases a reality. If that comes to pass, that would change things radically, and it may boost the sales of games on the Mac platform. Perhaps it would draw more PC publishers to the Mac.

Although it’s clear that hybrid discs are the business model that TransGaming would prefer to see put in place, the company’s CEO and chief technology officer have both told me that they’re willing to talk with Mac game publishers about the possibility of licensing Cider. So there isn’t any specific barrier to stop MacSoft and Aspyr and others from getting in on this action, if they want to do that and can work out an equitable arrangement.

What’s more, there isn’t anything stopping existing Mac game companies from developing and using their own virtualization technology—they’re not exactly slouches when it comes to the creative programming department, and in-house talent at some of these publishers have extensive experience with this sort of technology already.

Obviously, virtualization excludes PowerPC-based Mac owners, as it depends on technology built into the Intel chips Apple now uses in its hardware. And those PowerPC-based Macs still make up the bulk of the Macs in use today. That may not be as much of an impediment as you might think, however.

System requirements on major game releases have been steadily ratcheting upward, to the point where some recent releases actually require a G5-class system. What’s more, many software publishers assume (based on market research) that consumers buy most of the software they’ll use on their system within about six months of the system’s purchase. So striking while the iron is hot with an Intel-only gaming technology may indeed make financial sense, even if it’s bound to create some resentment in users of systems who can’t afford or aren’t willing to upgrade to the latest Cupertino iron.

Interim technology

I don’t think that any of these virtualization options ultimately provide the Mac game market with what it needs: A shot in the arm with new products, new tools and new talent. One way or the other, all these different solutions do is let you use software made for Windows on the Mac.

As a result, virtualization won’t do anything to spur original game development on the platform, and probably won’t do much to spur the further refinement of tools to make Mac OS X better for gaming. That’s why efforts like Blizzard’s development of World of Warcraft, Freeverse’s continued support of original Mac games, and the slew of smaller developers remain so important and so vital to the platform.

But all hope is not lost. It’s clear from its discussions with developers at the Worldwide Developers Conference that Apple takes gaming seriously and is making an investment in game-related technology to improve the experience for everyone. Hopefully between now and the time Leopard is released next spring, we’ll continue to see improvements to Mac OS X for gaming. One early example is new technology on the Mac Pro that will offer a shot in the arm to OpenGL graphics performance—key to making Mac games run better.

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