Gaming on a Mac: Technically Speaking
"The PC market is like the Wild West, and the console space is like living in the domed city in 'Logan's Run.' The Mac is sort of a hybrid. You can try new things on the Mac, but you get a more structured environment with hardware and software libraries. It's the best of both worlds," said Freeverse's Bruce Morrison.
It's been nearly three years since Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced that Mac computers would sport Intel processors. In that time, however, the number of games ported for Mac computers continues at a relative trickle, with only six to eight top-tier games coming out in a given year.
Despite Electronic Arts' announcement in January that it would release Will Wright's long-awaited "Spore" simultaneously for the PC and the Mac, such occurrences remain rare in an industry where game development easily runs into the millions of dollars.
There are several companies -- Aspyr Media, Feral Interactive, MacSoft Games, Red Marble Games, MacPlay and Robosoft Technologies, for example -- that develop and port games for the Mac. However, these independent studios normally consider sales of roughly 50,000 units to be a successful launch. Major game developers like Blizzard and Electronic Arts typically look for sales in the millions before they call it a hit.
However, as more and more people opt for a Mac over a PC and Apple's market share continues to grow, will game developers see the light and begin turning out more Mac-based games? Or are the technological differences between PCs and Macs still great enough that they will continue to hang back without fully entering the Mac game world?
"Yes, Apple is getting recognized as an interesting platform for games. The thing that has held back developers has been the small installed base, the [operating system] and the hardware differences," Jon Peddie, president of Jon Peddie Research, told MacNewsWorld
In 2006, Intel's x86 processor replaced the PowerPC chip used in Mac computers since 1994. Since the switch, Apple's share of the market has grown from just under 3 percent in 2004 to just over 6 percent in December 2006, according to Gartner. Mac sales from 2005 to 2006 increased by more than 30 percent.
Game industry experts acknowledge that the relative lack of Mac-ported video games is due in large part to Apple's relatively small share of the personal computer market. However, the Intel processor has made it a little easier to create Mac-based games, Glenda Adams, director of development at Aspyr Media, a Mac game developer, told MacNewsWorld.
"Most of the decisions to make a game for the Mac come down to sales. The Intel switch has made some of the technical work a little easier, but what really drives publishers to make or license games for the Mac are what projected sales will be. So in that sense, the Mac isn't more or less attractive than it has been the last few years."
Though difficult to pinpoint, the installed base of Mac computers has risen to nearly 10 percent. In a January report, Gartner predicted that 12 percent of computer users would own a Mac by 2011. The research firm credited its predicted rise on easy-to-use integrated software, the company's continuous level of innovation in hardware and software, and Apple's concentration on interoperability across all of its product lines.
Forrester Research estimates that by the end of 2008, there will be more than one billion personal computers in use globally. The firm expects that number to double by 2015 with two billion PCs in use, a compound annual growth of more than 12 percent from 2003 to 2015.
With a market that size, even a 12 percent market share looks substantial. By 2015, there could be some 240 million Macs in use. Numbers like that have to mean something, even to a community as driven by an installed base as the gaming industry has been historically.
Easier, but Still No Piece of Cake
Shifting to Intel processors definitely made life easier for game developers, said Mark DeLoura, a video game technology consultant. The problem from a game development perspective is that there is "a lot more to it than just [Apple's] processor choice.
"One of the bigger challenges now is that on the PC, Microsoft provides quite a suite of tools for game developers -- the DirectX SDK (software developer kit) makes programming for graphics, audio, controller input, network communication -- pretty much all the things that developers use -- much ... easier," he explained.
On the Mac side, there's nothing analogous to DirectX. That means porting a game over to the Mac will require more work to use Apple's SDK or reproduce parts of the Direct X SDK, DeLoura continued.
"It's a bit similar to creating a game for both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360," he noted.
Game makers need to become more knowledgeable about OS X, the Mac operating system, and stop relying on DirectX, according to Bruce Morrison, a producer for Freeverse, a Mac game developer and publisher.
"The PowerPC barrier was never that large. It's really all about learning OS X and giving up on DirectX. Companies like Blizzard have proven you can do [development for both] at the same time. We have [come] to love the Unity engine a lot, as it gives us Mac and PC and lets us keep our Mac tool chain," he told MacNewsWorld.
What will finally bring game makers to the Mac platform, Morrison opined, is the community. Whereas PC users see the Mac's closed architecture as a downside, the relatively locked-down hardware and the almost console-like environment are a plus for developers.
"The PC market is like the Wild West, and the console space is like living in the domed city in 'Logan's Run.' The Mac is sort of a hybrid. You can try new things on the Mac, but you get a more structured environment with hardware and software libraries. It's the best of both worlds," he suggested.
A PC Preference
In developing for the Mac, designers still have to overcome three key problems, Peddie noted.
"[Hardware] is part of the problem -- the OS (operating system) and API (application programming interface) are the biggest barrier," he said.
While development has become simpler with the move to the x86 chip, Aspyr's Adams acknowledged there are other difficulties facing game designers. The challenges stretch beyond learning OS X as they try to port games for both the PC and Mac.
"[Intel in the Mac] does make the development simpler, since you don't have to worry about some of the CPU-specific differences anymore. But there are still many technical hurdles, from getting high-end 3-D graphics tailored for Direct3D to work on Apple's OpenGL, to supporting lower-end hardware on the Mac," she pointed out.
Given that "not too many developers are ready to go Intel-only" programming for the Mac and PC despite their common CPU is not really that much easier, according to Morrison.
"We only have one Intel-only product -- 'Heroes of Might and Magic V.' The rest of our titles are both, so we have to still pay attention to byte order. Again, the bigger hurdles are the software libraries and OpenGL versus DirectX," he explained.
Open GL and DirectX are "very different beasts," Morrison explained. In some ways, the former is harder to program for than the latter.
"What it comes down to is what you started on. A PC developer can do DirectX better not because it's better but because it's what he or she knows. Same goes for Open GL. We have to deal with both regularly. Any good programmer can do both; anyone who complains is probably not a good programmer," he added.
Ready For a Close-Up?
The Intel microprocessor did make the Mac a more game-friendly environment for PC-focused developers, but when it comes to the machines' game-readiness -- well, that's contingent upon which model a gamer has and how much money he or she is willing to pay.
"Depending on the model of Mac you get, your games will run at different speeds, have better or worse graphics, etc. The higher-spec machine you have, the better off you will be, for certain. Many of the more casual titles are not very demanding on the hardware, though, and will run on most Macs," DeLoura said.
However, while the CPU has given Apple a "very good line of game-ready computers," Adams believes the computer maker could still do a bit more hardware-wise, especially when it comes to the Macs' graphics cards.
"Unfortunately, graphics cards on the Mac are on the lower end of the spectrum compared to the PC. A vast majority of Apple's best-selling Macs have integrated graphics chips, as opposed to dedicated 3-D GPUs (graphics processing units). Since you can't upgrade the video card in most Macs -- only the high-end Mac Pros -- users have to choose wisely when they want to be able to run the latest games," she recommended.
"If you want to play 'Crysis' or 'Unreal Tournament 4,' you will need to go top-of-the-line in graphics cards," Morrison echoed. "For Freeverse games, it's pretty much if it's a Mac made in the last five years, you are golden. Granted, there is an enormous difference between MacBooks -- and Minis -- and the rest of the lineup. The [graphics media accelerator] chipset has to be approached very carefully."
Hardcore gamers interested in purchasing a Mac on which they can also play games will want to go for the higher performance Macs and stay away from less expensive models, DeLoura said. However, even with a stellar Mac, the lack of games could still stymie their goals. In the long run, they may well be better off with a PC.
"The higher-performance Macs are certainly capable of running hardcore games, if they existed for the platform. At this time, though, there isn't much to attract a hardcore gamer to the Mac -- they can buy a PC with similar performance for much cheaper, and the PC is much easier to upgrade over time to improve performance and keep up with the latest hardcore games," he stated.
In the end, it still comes back to numbers, and it will be a while before gamers will find a robust selection of Mac games, according to DeLoura.
"Game developers would love to have a thriving video game market on the Mac. But with Macs still owning a small percentage of the personal computer market, games not selling particularly well on the platform and mediocre support from Apple, it doesn't seem likely in the near future," he concluded.