The ups and downs of EA's Mac return

Steve Jobs led off this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference keynote address with an announcement from Electronic Arts (EA) that it would bring some hit software to the Mac itself this year. That’s great news for gamers, but it’s only a start, and a lot more needs to be done before the Mac will be taken seriously as a gaming platform.

EA co-founder Bing Gordon announced that beginning in July, the mammoth video and computer game publisher will bring six major game releases to the Mac, including the already-released Need for Speed Carbon, Command and Conquer 3 Tiberium Wars, and Battlefield 2142. Also coming are Macintosh versions of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Madden NFL ’08 and Tiger Woods PGA Tour ’08—the latter two are expected to be released simultaneously with their counterparts on other platforms.

EA is no stranger to the Macintosh platform. For years, the company’s games have come our way thanks to publishing deals with Aspyr Media, which has taken the games’ source code, rewritten it to run natively on the Macintosh, and published a Mac version. What’s different about this announcement is that for the first time since Mac OS X was released, EA is releasing the games itself.

This is a sea change for gaming on the Mac, as those conversions produced by other publishers often take months or a year or more to see the light of day. That’s relegated the Mac to “also ran” status as a gaming platform—people who want timely releases own PCs or, increasingly, video game consoles, and leave the Mac to iLife applications, pro apps and Web surfing.

EA counts its annual revenue in the multiple billions of dollars, so directly involving itself in the comparatively small Mac gaming market is no big deal from a dollars-and-cents perspective. But it is a big deal for Mac gaming as a whole—a company with the marketing muscle of EA could certainly make a big difference in changing the visibility of the Macintosh as a valid gaming system. If nothing else, it’ll be great to see Mac versions of these games ride the momentum of EA’s marketing push for their non-Mac counterparts.

On the other hand, EA’s size makes me a bit nervous. The Mac platform will be just one more that EA supports, and a small one at that. What if EA has unrealistic expectations for how many Mac game units it sells?

Also, this announcement basically covers July and August. Is EA only prepared to make a two-month commitment to the Mac platform? I’d like to see the company put its money where its mouth is and step forth with a lot of other announcements too. Then again, between now and the end of the year there’s the E3 Media and Business Summit and the E for All gaming shows. Maybe we’ll hear more from EA then.

A draught of hard Cider

The technology that EA is using to make these games is TransGaming’s Cider. Cider enables Windows games to work on Intel-based Macs much in the same way that Parallels enables Windows to work on Intel-based Macs—by creating a virtual machine, of sorts, that runs the game just like a Mac OS X application. The difference is that “Ciderized” games don’t need a copy of Windows to operate.

The downside, as you may have figured out from what I’ve just said, is that this leaves the millions of PowerPC-based Macs floating around out there out of luck—these games are coming to Intel-based Macs only.

The deal with EA is a huge win for TransGaming. So far the company’s technology has been used to bring three Windows games to the Mac: Heroes of Might & Magic V, published earlier this year by Freeverse Software, Myst Online: Uru Live, from GameTap, and X3: Reunion from Virtual Programming. CCP Games has also announced plans to use Cider to bring its massively multiplayer online role playing game EVE Online to the Mac (that’s expected to happen later this summer), and GameTap seems happy enough with Myst Online to bring the rest of its “classic” gaming service to the Mac using Cider, as well.

Cider is not a magic sausage-maker that lets you pour in Windows game code in one end and get a shiny new Mac game at the other, however. While getting a Windows game working on the Mac using Cider might not require the same level of engineering experience as a full-blown Mac conversion, it still requires some massaging and careful manipulation of code in order to work. Still, it’s clear that Cider has won the attention—and, more importantly, the business—of major players in the game market, and that’s good for the Mac.

Regardless, I see Cider as one step in the right direction. Ultimately, I hope that EA and others who leverage TransGaming’s technology see success with it, enough so that they decide to do simultaneous native Mac OS X game development in the future, similar to what Blizzard Entertainment does with World of Warcraft and its upcoming release StarCraft II.

Winning hearts and minds

Getting a game working on the Mac is only one part of the equation. The other part of it is making the game attractive enough to Mac users in order to buy, and that’s a very different story. For years, Mac games have languished. And while Steve Jobs claims that Apple “gets” games, there’s been very little evidence of that in Apple’s actions.

Games have a small area in an out-of-the-way spot on Apple’s Web site; games (along with other Mac software) have increasingly taken a back seat to iPod peripherals at Apple’s retail locations; there’s no marketing message to speak of, either. I can’t remember when the last time I saw Apple actually include games as part of its Mac marketing message.

EA can bring all the games it wants to the Mac, but it’s going to take more than that for Mac users to understand that their Macs are good game systems. To that end, we need Apple to take a proactive step to get the word out. And on that end, we’re still waiting.

Also, as I’m sure you know, EA’s Gordon wasn’t the only gaming luminary on stage with Steve Jobs at this year’s WWDC keynote — John Carmack, CTO and owner of Id Software was also there, giving the first public demonstration of idTech 5, the company’s newest game engine. I’ll have more thoughts on that in a future Game Room post.

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