Middleware messing up Mac game development

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Ever wonder why a game you want hasn’t made it to the Mac, or the games that you’re interested in may lack some features as their PC counterparts? The answer is increasingly thanks to something called middleware.

Unless you’re in software development, you probably don’t know exactly what middleware is—though the term has been used often enough that you may have heard of it. It’s something that’s really messing up Mac gaming. Let’s take a look at why.

First let’s understand what middleware is, and why it matters to gaming on the Mac. Within the context of game development, middleware is used to help manage everything from complex physics to online gaming to digital-movie file playback and lots more. It saves game developers from having to “roll their own” solutions to these complex problems, typically at a fraction of the cost it would for those developers to make the technology themselves.

Still, middleware ain’t cheap. Licensing middleware typically costs game makers thousands of dollars, often tens of thousands of dollars. And middleware adds costs and layers of complexity to Mac game making.

Mac game publishers don’t pay a flat rate to a PC or console game publisher to license a title to be published on the Mac. They also have to pay separate licensing fees to middleware developers. They often have to do work to get the middleware code working on the Mac, too. This all adds up to increased costs, raising the budget on major commercial Mac games.

Fortunately, some middleware developers are willing to negotiate a lower cost for Mac game publishers, since Mac game companies have a smaller base of users to defer that cost to and generally sell games in much lower volumes than their PC or console counterparts. Middleware licensing fees can occupy anywhere from 5 to 30 percent of the total cost of a Mac game’s budget.

But sometimes middleware developers aren’t willing to negotiate a lower price. That can increase the budget for a Mac game to 50 percent more than it would be otherwise. When that happens, Mac game publishers are faced with a very difficult decision: Kill the project, find a workaround, or pay the fee and forget about making a profit.

Take the case of GameSpy, for example. It’s a popular PC game matching and chat service. GameSpy works on multiple platforms, including the Mac, and is used by some leading game developers to provide in-game matching services so you can find an online opponent.

When Aspyr Media brought the popular arena combat game Star Wars Battlefront to the Mac in 2005, it had no choice but to excise GameSpy from the Mac version. Why? GameSpy’s developer had decided to stop licensing the Mac software for a lower fee than its PC counterpart. The Mac game did end up with Mac-to-PC gaming, after a sort—as long as you know your opponent’s TCP/IP address. But the truly transparent solution featured in the PC version was gone.

Aspyr ultimately found a workaround for GameSpy—Star Wars Battlefront ships with support for GameRanger, a Mac-to-Mac only gaming service. It may have limited Battlefront’s multiplayer capability, but at least a solution was available. Many projects aren’t so fortunate. Aspyr cancelled plans to bring forth a Mac version of Men of Valor, a Vietnam-era first person shooter, for example. Although GameSpy wasn’t the only reason that project got cancelled, it certainly contributed to the problem.

GameSpy’s licensing terms also affected the development of the Mac version of America’s Army, a popular online first-person shooter action game that’s actually paid for by the U.S. Army (and used as a recruitment tool of sorts, as well). Eventually the programmer of the Mac version—Ryan Gordon, the same guy who ported Unreal Tournament 2004 and many other games to the Mac—found a workable alternative. But it took a while.

Havok is another practical example, and this one’s even harsher, because Havok’s absence on the Mac has killed a number of possible Mac game conversions over the past couple of years. This middleware is used to provide very realistic physics effects in a number of popular PC and console games. It’s what makes “ragdoll”-style physics possible in games like Half- Life 2, for example.

Unfortunately, Havok’s developers have been extremely reluctant to make the technology available for the Macintosh. Initially it was just a case of money—the price they were charging was a lot higher than Mac game publishers could afford. Recently, though, it looks like there’s something else is going on—Havok apparently just doesn’t want to deal with the Mac.

I tried to get a word with Havok at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in 2005. But Havok didn’t want to talk with me, on or off the record. It’s unfortunate—I’d like to hear Havok’s side of the story. I’m sure you would too.

Replacing a physics engine is a much bigger programming challenge than online gaming, as well. So it’s not something that Mac game publishers can work around as easily as they could in the case of GameSpy. That translates into fewer games for the Mac.

So without Havok, what games will probably never make it to the Mac? Well, we’ve already missed out on Uru: Ages Beyond Myst. Say goodbye to Half-Life 2. Full Spectrum Warrior. Medal of Honor: Pacific Assault. Splinter Cell 3. Thief: Deadly Shadows. The list goes on and on. There are dozens of PC and console games that have licensed Havok for their physics engine.

To add insult to injury, Havok and Nvidia just announced a deal that will enable Havok’s new Havok FX technology to be accelerated using Nvidia’s graphics processors. That means that PC games will get more realistic physics engines and physics-based effects, while Mac games won’t—at least not by this method, unless Havok decides otherwise.

Middleware isn’t unique to major commercial releases, either, and it’s not unique to Mac game conversions alone. Even shareware and freeware developers can depend on middleware—in some cases, very inexpensive or even free open source middleware — to help create their games. I know of some developers of original Mac games who have had trouble getting their projects updated with Universal Binaries for Intel-based Macs because the middleware they depend on isn’t yet Intel-ready. It means more work and more roadblocks for them.

Ultimately, middleware is a necessary evil in the game development business. Otherwise, each game maker needs to fend for themselves to make very, very complex tools to solve problems like character modeling, online gaming and physics engines. But don’t count on it making financial sense for these games to keep coming to the Mac unless more people buy them and make it worth the publishers’ and the licensers’ whiles to do it.

Ultimately, as unfortunate as it sounds, it mainly comes down to money.

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