Gaming with Boot Camp: This changes everything

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With the introduction of Apple’s Boot Camp software, Intel- based Macs can now dual-boot Windows XP and Mac OS X. Many people are curious about games performance, and while it’s still a bit early as I write this to provide you with hard and fast numbers, I can tell you this much unequivocally: It works. And it works really well.

A few weeks ago some enterprising Mac experts won a contest when they revealed the first way of getting an Intel-based Mac to run Windows. The problem with their solution is that it didn’t provide Windows with native graphics drivers that let the Mac run 3-D applications as fast as it could. It was also a really complicated process to get Windows installed on the Mac in the first place.

So while Windows could be installed using the hackers’ method, it wasn’t something that anyone could do easily. It was a lot of work to manage. And it didn't provide fast enough performance for gaming.

All three of those roadblocks disappeared with Boot Camp. Installing the software is as easy as falling off a log; the performance is great; and what’s more, it’s non-destructive: You don’t have to reformat your hard disk to make it work.

I’ve been playing with Windows XP SP2 on a 20-inch Intel-based iMac. And it really works quite remarkably. I’ve thrown a bunch of game demos and full games at it, and I haven’t found one yet that doesn’t work.

Boot Camp doesn’t instantly turn a Mac into a “hardcore” gaming system—as far as PCs are concerned, the iMac is pretty middle of the road in terms of its graphics performance and capabilities. I wasn’t able to run most of the games I tried at the iMac’s native resolution, for example, but found just about every game I ran could operate quite successfully at 1,024-by-768 pixels, with many graphics options turned on including full-scene anti aliasing and pixel and shader effects.

People who keep an eye on the Mac game market are worried about this turn of events, and from my perspective, rightfully so: I fully expect that this will effectively decimate the licensing of some Mac conversions of high-profile AAA list releases that fall into the “hardcore” gaming camp.

Mac users who play those kind of games avidly have long complained of the shortcomings of Mac gaming—the time to market, the lack of parity in features and performance, the cost. All those complaints are perfectly valid, and all of them are answered in one fell swoop by the existence of Boot Camp. Download the software, buy a copy of Windows XP, and you’re done.

But all in all, that’s a pretty small bunch of gamers. There are still a lot of games that carry a huge amount of mass market appeal that will continue to come from the same Mac publishers that we know now. Also, more and more publishers are diversifying into original game development or other niche market segments and are supporting the Mac alongside other platforms.

In the best scenario, the existence of Boot Camp will fling the doors open even wider to a new generation of Mac users who wouldn’t have ever thought of buying a Mac before now, but can do it because they can run the same Windows apps that they need or want to use.

A year or two down the road, I hope that Apple’s market share will look much larger than it is today. And if a significant percentage of those buyers are drawn to Macs because they can run Windows, all for the better—because they’ll get to know and love Mac OS X as many of us do now.

And when more people own Macs, more people will be looking for Mac software—including Mac games.

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