IBM, ATI win with new game consoles

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I’m now in Los Angeles, Calif. for the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), which officially kicks off on Wednesday. It’s an annual pilgrimage for the video game industry — a trade-only event that’s the largest in the world dedicated to the massive video and computer game industry. Like the business it represents, E3 keeps getting bigger every year. And this year it’s all about the hardware.

Although there isn’t a ton of Mac-specific news at this event, E3 is really important for the Mac game market, because the trends that start here give a good insight as to what’s going to happen to Mac gaming over the course of the next year. Of course, all of the major Mac game publishers come to the event, not to display their wares but to meet with their business partners and colleagues to find out what’s hot and what’s not. Apple’s here too: They have a small suite off the main floor where they meet with their clients and contacts in the Mac game market, although show attendees are welcome to drop by and check out the latest Mac games running on the newest Mac hardware.

The most interesting trend at this year’s event is the new hardware that’s being introduced. New iron is coming from Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft, the three dominant players in the business, and all three video game console makers are depending on hardware components from IBM. Two of the companies — Nintendo and Microsoft — will use graphics made by ATI Technologies Inc., while the PS3 will use graphics hardware made by Nvidia Corp. These are the same companies that make the CPUs and the graphics hardware used in Mac systems. And there’s bound to be some trickle-down effect over time that may yield interesting results for Mac gamers.

Nintendo already uses a modified PowerPC in its GameCube console, and that will continue with the new box. Sony’s PS3, which we should know more about in the coming days, uses a “Cell” processor system developed in part by IBM, while the Xbox 360, which had its public debut on MTV last week, utilizes modified PowerPC chip hardware.

A lot of attention has been paid to the fact that the Xbox 360 uses a multi-core PowerPC architecture — something that we haven’t yet seen on the Mac. What’s more, Microsoft has seeded Xbox 360 developers with modified Power Mac G5 systems to help manage their early development, although the company downplays the Mac’s role in future development. Microsoft called the G5s “an interim development tool” that will be replaced by a more powerful system later. It can’t come too much later than now, however: Microsoft hopes to have the Xbox 360 on store shelves in time for Christmas.

None of this means that Mac game companies will have any easier a time porting console titles to the Mac — there are too many core architectural and operating system differences between consoles and the Mac to make that a simple process. But it does mean that ATI and IBM are focused on making their hardware the best it can be to run games on, and this may yield improved manufacturing and design processes for new Macintosh hardware in the months and years to come.

I’ll have more reports from E3 throughout the week, so please check in. And for all the latest Mac game news, reviews and information, please visit Macworld’s Game Room.

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