A year on, Cider takes Mac game world by storm

Depending on where your loyalties lie, TransGaming’s Cider is either the best thing to happen to Mac gaming in years or a technology that’s destined to disappoint. To help understand what Cider’s continuing role is in the Mac game market, Macworld recently spoke at length with the company’s CEO, Vikas Gupta.

For years, Mac users have lamented the state of Mac games. Macs have a smaller piece of the pie than the PC game market, disproportionately so given the market share. While high-quality Mac game titles abound, the major commercial releases often taken months or a year or more to come to the Mac, and sometimes miss features like network interoperability with their PC counterparts. That’s relegated the Mac to an “also-ran” status as a gaming platform, and made many Mac users turn to greener pastures, such as game consoles or a PC.

Enter Cider from TransGaming. TransGaming says that Cider can be used deliver Macintosh games to market at the same time as their PC or console versions ship—that’s something that will be tested later this summer with two new games from Electronic Arts (EA)—Tiger Woods PGA Tour 2008 and Madden NFL 2008. 

Those two are part of a half-dozen titles that EA co-founder Bing Gordon recently announced were coming to the Mac; the others are a new Harry Potter game, Battlefield 2142, Command and Conquer 3, and Need for Speed Carbon. Though Gordon didn’t mention it at the time, TransGaming later revealed that Cider is being used to develop all of these titles for the Mac.

Initial validation

Almost a year ago, TransGaming’s chief technology officer Gavriel State first demonstrated Cider at work. TransGaming developed Cider as a result of its work with Cedega, a similar technology for the Linux platform—it leverages the Intel microprocessors used in Apple’s newer Macintosh models to enable Windows games to run on Mac OS X. 

Unlike Parallels Desktop for Mac, VMware Fusion, or Boot Camp, Cider doesn’t require a separate Windows partition to be installed—Cider encapsulates the Windows game, acting as a translation layer between the game and the Mac OS X operating system.

Already, Cider has been used to bring three PC titles to the Mac space: Heroes of Might & Magic V, published for the Mac by Freeverse Software; Myst Online: Uru Live by GameTap, and X3: Reunion by Virtual Programming. Cider is also being used by GameTap to release a Mac version of its classic arcade gaming service and by CCP Games to bring its massively multiplayer game EVE Online to the Mac later this summer.

These efforts helped to demonstrate TransGaming’s commitment to the Mac market, said Gupta. “We knew that there had to be some initial validation, and these projects have helped to prove that the technology is real,” he said.

“We’ve been steadily ramping up. We have one of the best development teams in the world,” said Gupta proudly. “Kudos to them that they’ve been able to pull together what they have in this timeframe.”

“In the game industry, unless you come from an existing studio it takes a long time to build up your reputation. We’ve been demonstrating incremental successes along the way,” said Gupta.

EA has been “very supportive” of TransGaming’s efforts, said Gupta. “They identified a number of titles that they felt were fantastic candidates for the Mac market. The message we got from them was ‘If we’re going to do this, we’re going to do it right and in a big way.’”

Apple, likewise, has been a big help. “Apple and their OpenGL team have been working with us to find issues and challenges and helping us surmount them,” said Gupta. It helps that TransGaming is trying to provide users with as Mac-like an experience as possible.

“We have the flexibility to do Mac-specific things,” he said. “As an example, Mac users are used to having a drag-and-drop install, or using Apple-Q to quit.”

To that end, TransGaming is also working with its publishing partners to determine what games are likely to succeed in the Mac market. Gupta is quick to point out that TransGaming isn’t trying to dictate what’s available for the Mac, however.

“There’s a lot at stake for all parties concerned, and we have to protect the interest of our partners,” Gupta said. “We will, on a discretionary basis, say no to other titles if we see potential conflicts.”

How Cider’s different from traditional porting

The Mac game market has mainly been dependent on “ports” of existing titles—conversions that require developers to rewrite and recompile source code to run natively on the Mac, often replacing code that’s optimized for the Windows operating system with code designed to work on the Mac instead. Cider’s different, says Gupta.

“We do not touch the original game’s source code,” explained Gupta. “The developer gives us complete binaries, copy-protected and ready to go.”

TransGaming then analyzes how the code runs to see how Cider can be used to get it to work on the Mac. If there are any components that the software isn’t able to support already, TransGaming can tweak Cider to make that happen.

Most of the work to actually make games run on the Mac using Cider is done in-house at TransGaming, according to Gupta. In this respect, TransGaming is taking the role of a traditional game porting development studio, but without some of the risk that role has posed in the past.

Because TransGaming works with copy-protected binaries, that’s a big benefit to game developers and publishers concerned about their intellectual property, Gupta said: “Many companies are very resistant to giving up their source code.”

TransGaming also doesn’t want to get in the way of the original game’s development. This can be a risk if you’re aiming for a simultaneous release and need to change source code.

“The one thing we won’t do is disrupt the original development schedule,” Gupta said.

“For us and the way our technology works, the ‘Ciderization’ process, as it’s come to be known, doesn’t take as long as optimization and performance. That’s where we focus the majority of our time,” Gupta added. “Our quality assurance team pounds away at the game to make sure it runs at par or reasonably close to the software running on Windows, and that’s how we base our performance.

“We understand what’s important to the consumer, to the publisher and to the developer. This is what we know and what we do.”

It’s that approach that makes the biggest difference between running a Cider version of a game, or running that same game using Parallels or some other virtualization technology, said Gupta.

“I use Parallels and I think it’s wonderful,” he said. “But we know 3-D and we understand performance.”

To that end, Gupta said that gamers looking for maximum performance on their Macs using Cider and other game technology have a lot to look forward to this year. 

“I really believe that Mac users will be happy overall with Cider gameplay and performance, and Leopard will boost performance even further, without a doubt,” he said.

“The renewed interest in the Mac as a gaming platform is higher than it’s ever been,” said Gupta, referring to the interest shown by game publishers in particular. “This is only the beginning.”

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