The Game Room

With your permission, sensation seekers, this month I'm going to recklessly abuse the power of my office to settle a personal score. Yeah, I don't like it any more than you do. My mandate as a columnist is to serve you, the readers, and until now I've lived a life of such exhausting purity that the Catholic Church keeps sending me junk mail telling me I'm preapproved for beatification and a Vatican Platinum card with a heavenly introductory APR of 5.9 percent.

(Granted, there was that year I exploited my contacts in the industry to gather insider information about a publicly traded company, information I then parlayed into an enormous financial windfall through a focused campaign of writing misleading and deceptive editorials and articles and spreading strategic disinformation to other insiders and members of the media. But in my own defense, this was back in 1998, for heaven's sake; and if the fact that the Securities and Exchange Commission settled my case without insisting on jail time isn't enough to convince you of my innocence in the matter - well, I don't know what to tell you.)

So I'm going to cash in on that goodwill now and direct this column to one specific reader, a kid I met recently in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I was in town for the MacTechnics user group's annual meeting. For a cozy 90 minutes I inflicted on the auditorium listeners my thoughts about Mac OS X and why all software should embrace the principles of open-source code, and a rundown of my favorite Babylon 5 episodes, and then I opened the floor to questions.

The kid asked me about the future of Mac gaming. I explained that while we weren't out of the woods yet, for the first time in ten years we finally had very tangible cause for optimism. He asked, "But what about console games?" And I didn't want to embarrass the boy for his lack of experience and sophistication, you know? So I just said, "Well, what you have to understand is . . . the thing about the PlayStations and the rest . . . um . . . in this sort of marketplace . . . ," and after a thoughtful pause of some minutes, I finally asked if anyone wanted to see my wrist-computer again.

You see, I made the critical mistake of actually thinking about the question, which is always fatal when you do a Q&A. Arrogance, technical acronyms, and speed are all you need, provided you move on to the next question quickly enough.

It was such a good question, though. There are a lot of reasons to think the Mac has a great future in gaming. Year 2001 will mark the arrival of a boatload of next-generation games, such as Oni. In 2000 we saw ATI's Radeon card and 3dfx's Voodoo 5 card introduced for the Mac. That's a killer development - not just because of the cards' ability to put pixels on the screen and your bladder's contents on your seat, but also because it means we've finally got real competition in this field.

Here's what 2001 will bring in the realm of console games: Sony's PlayStation II and a new Nintendo box code-named Dolphin. Each one has enough raw graphics-crunching power to suggest you can't play them without setting off garage-door openers and car-security systems all over the neighborhood.

Sony's DVD-based system has a so-called "Emotion Engine" chip similar to those on Silicon Graphics workstations. The basic design is so powerful and flexible that Sony showed off a sort of super-PlayStation at last year's Siggraph show. It'll be a graphics workstation featuring 64 processors in parallel and the ability to render near-cinema-quality graphics in real time at 60 frames per second (fps).

Nintendo has a cube-shape system based on PowerPC technology. The GameCube's chipset is so intimately linked, you could argue convincingly that it's all a single graphics circuit. Gaming site ign.com reports that developers are having no problem getting 9 million polygons at 60 fps out of their seed prototypes. Trust me, that translates to a whole lot of blood and flying body parts.

Which is all very nice, of course. I especially like the idea of Nintendo marketing a digital product that borrows the Cube's name and shape. It's been a while since Apple has made any real money off those Wile E. Coyotes in its lawsuit division. Though it's nearly impossible to compare desktop and console video hardware directly, it's clear that Radeon and Voodoo 5 could hold their own. Consoles benefit from both high-performance silicon and the minimal overhead of a games-only system. Graphics cards benefit from some of the lessons and examples of desktop graphic standards, which are constantly evolving and improving. All told, it's a draw.

But let's say you're sitting here with a G3 or G4 Mac and the desire to make it work as well, in effect, as a console. Well, one of those cards will cost you about $300. Add another $50 for a proper game controller (not the least of the PS2 and GameCube's features are powerful controllers with enough buttons, pads, and sticks to kick up any category of game).

So your Cutting-Edge Game Upgrade cost you $350. Incidentally, you also acquired a boatload of enhancements that will increase performance here and there outside game space - particularly if you're involved in digital video - but let's forget that for now. How much will it eventually cost just to go out and buy a PS2? Best guess: $300. A GameCube? Nintendo wants to undercut Sony, possibly by as much as $100. And the PS2 will do double-duty as a DVD player.

In all honesty, it's just not feasible for a Mac - or a Wintel box, for that matter - to compete with a game console. It's an entirely different culture of hardware and software development, one that focuses all monies and all resources on ensuring that when blade strikes neck, blood spurts in the most lifelike and satisfying manner possible.

But even when we acknowledge all of that, it's clear that truly sophisticated games require more than raw processing power. They require OS-level resources. Overall, a Mac might not be a better machine if you just want to fly, shoot, hack, and slash. But if you're looking to fly, think , shoot, deal with a wholly unexpected development, go off on a seemingly unrelated tangent, and then hack and slash, a desktop is tops.

Finally, this is indeed a great time to invest in your Mac as a gaming platform. Microsoft recently acquired Bungie, and immediately thereafter Bungie announced that it now has enough resources to publish all of its future titles for both the PC and the Mac. And with the arrival, finally, of a true Mac gaming juggernaut, United Developers has chosen to beef up its Mac catalog by acquiring MacPlay.

We have an Apple that is betting on open gaming standards, we have competition in gaming hardware - and at last we have two big companies that are determined to do well in the Mac games market. So hold off on the GameCube, kid. Buy the best controller you can afford right now. Budget for a new graphics card at the end of the year in case the games you play between now and then blow you away to such an extent that it loosens your purse strings. It is a good time to kill and a good time to die.

If ANDY IHNATKO's next-door neighbor were to get a life, he wouldn't be so obsessed with what time it is when Andy plays his stereo real loud.

Cube Envy   Hmmm. A cube-shape gaming machine from Nintendo. How interesting.
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