How console development reflects Mac gaming

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While Mac users are still waiting for Madden NFL 08 and likely will be until September at the earliest, the football game has arrived for the newest console systems, and there’s a dispute about the performance difference between the game’s PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 versions. The Xbox 360 version runs at twice the frame rate—60 frames per second versus 30.

The issue provides some interesting insight into the development processes used to make these games, and should serve as a warning to Mac gamers who may be expecting too much too soon from new entrants into the Mac game market, like EA.

Having spent some quality time with both consoles, I’ve been asked by many friends and colleagues to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of all three systems currently on the market—Nintendo’s Wii, the PS3 and the Xbox 360. Each system has their relative strengths and weaknesses. From where I sit, I break it down like this:

  • The Wii is the best overall system for innovative gameplay and for group fun. There’s nothing as fun as getting a great party game on the Wii with multiple controllers and crowding your living room or media room with people swinging or wielding Wii remotes in the air—it’s a fantastic social experience. The games aren’t for everyone, however, and the Wii’s relative weaknesses in the area of innovative games available for download from the Wii Store online have been noted—Nintendo hopes to remedy that with more than just the retread retro games that have been put up there so far.
  • The Xbox 360 has hit a really sweet spot with gamers. The price on the console dropped a bit this summer, and with three-and-a-half years of development experience under some developers’ belts, development tools have been thoroughly optimized for the Xbox 360—enough that a 60 FPS version of Madden NFL 08 is possible. The library is huge, backward-compatibility with Xbox titles continues to improve, and the system is overall excellent for games. A lack of HD DVD as a built-in optical system is a weakness, though it is available as an add-on. The Xbox 360 is also easily adapted to work as a media delivery center for the Mac, if you haven’t already invested in an , thanks to third-party add-on software.
  • For my money, the PS3 wins on sheer horsepower and stellar features—built-in Blu-ray Disc, for example. And games like MotorStorm can make it shine. Unfortunately, because of the relative novelty of the PS3 in the marketplace—it only came to market in the last holiday season, and only then in very short supply and at a very high price—developers are still working through early development issues, with a handful of exceptions (such as Sony’s own stable of first-party developers. Blu-ray Disc’s dominance as an HD optical media format is still up in the air, however, and recently took a hit with Paramount’s defection to HD DVD.

So what’s all this have to do with the Mac?

Analysis of the current state of the market for consoles aside, this illustrates an interesting point when you contrast it to the current condition of the Macintosh software market. Unlike game consoles, the Mac is a very general-purpose computer and doesn’t necessarily excel at everything.

Ever since Mac users first found themselves on the Usenet in the comp.sys.mac. newsgroup hierarchy, they’ve armchair quarterbacked every Apple product release— is the processor fast enough? Why use this video chip instead of that one? This system needs more VRAM. This one is hamstrung by a lower-than-necessary bus speed.

In some cases, enthusiasts are quite right to criticize, especially when gaming performance appears to take a hit with new hardware introductions, such as the aluminum-clad refresh to the iMac.

That’s one of the reasons why custom-building your own PC has been such a popular pastime of gamers. Unlike almost any other segment of the consumer market, gamers can be obsessed with performance and are willing to pay to get it, even if the difference is measured in fractions of milliseconds.

This becomes a matter of wounded pride for PlayStation 3 owners who have spent, in some cases, almost twice as much as their Xbox 360 counterparts, only to see a major release like Madden NFL 08 run at a fraction of the speed on their system. It’s also a point of shared derision for some game-industry analysts and tech media with more opinion than sense.

Wow, EA must either have really screwed up or the PS3 must really stink , eh?

No, neither condition is necessarily the case.

Any software developer will tell you that their craft is as much art as it is science; that’s one of the myriad reasons why ship dates are missed in this business and why patches are necessary.  Another reason is due to the sheer complexity of code—or a game like Madden NFL 08, millions of lines of source code are produced, much of it from existing libraries, some of it from brand new code bases, some of it licensed from other companies, some of it home-grown.

This doesn’t change just because EA is a multi-billion dollar publisher. Console and PC gaming is an enormously complex process. All the performance differences between versions of Madden illustrate is that EA itself isn’t as far along in refining its PlayStation 3 development tools as it is with its Xbox 360 tools. Given the huge lead time enjoyed by the Xbox, it’s no surprise. Over time, I’m certain that the two platforms will work on parity with each other. I’m also fairly confident that eventually the PS3 will see an edge.

I expect the same to be true for the new Mac games emerging from EA, as well. TransGaming, the developer EA partnered with to bring six games to the Mac, certainly has experience bringing games to market, but it’s bitten off a huge chunk with its EA partnership. There’s going to be learning on both sides of the fence. TransGaming’s CEO told us in June shortly after the EA announcement that Mac gamers won’t see the performance sweet spot of their games until Leopard ships, and clearly EA needs to get up to speed as well.

As the expression goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. And they’re still working on the recipe.

For more console comparisons, check out GamePro’s Game Console Report Card—Fall 2007 edition.

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