Bridging the Mac-Windows Gaming Gap

New developments announced at Apple's Developers Conference take different approaches to getting games to run on both platforms

It's hard for Mac users to be into computer games.

Whenever there's been a popular title that runs on Microsoft's (MSFT) Windows operating system, Mac users have always had to wait—and wait and wait— until someone decided there might be enough demand, given the smaller market, to make a profit on an adapted version for Apple's (AAPL) Macintosh platform.

Resigned to this fate, many Mac users have bought a Sony (SNE) PlayStation or Xbox system, or even a Windows computer to devote to games. Ultimately, I bought a Windows machine. I told that story in this space a year ago (see, 6/1/06, "Apple Needs to Get Its Game On"), expressing hope for change.

Wizardry of Id

With last year's launch of Apple's Boot Camp software for installing Windows XP on a Mac, I could pretty much play any game released for Windows that I wanted without muss or fuss. All I had to do was buy a copy of Windows XP. But the Windows-on-Mac phenomenon, now also possible with Parallels virtualization software to run Windows alongside the Mac OS, has unleashed a strange phase in Mac gaming. Having suffered from a lack of options for years, now there are many, and they are confusing.

Take for instance the two gaming-related announcements to come out of Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco this week. EA (ERTS) and Id Software, the company behind the Quake gaming franchise, both made new, but vastly different commitments to the Mac market this week.

Id said it is developing a new gaming engine called Id Tech 5 that works on the Mac. Think of a game engine as the engine of a car. The better it is under the hood, the more fun the car can be to drive. Id's engine looked pretty impressive based on the video presented at the developer's conference. In the Windows world, Id can be used to build extremely detailed virtual worlds with stunning graphical features, and now those developers writing for that platform can do so for the Mac, too. From there, it follows that more games developed on that engine—which Id plans to license—could support the Mac natively. This is very good news for Mac games.

Apple Wrappers

EA announced it would release a handful of its more popular games on the Mac. This included the latest chapter in Command & Conquer, this one called Tiberium Wars. Other EA games coming to the Mac include a Harry Potter game, Battlefield 2142, and the racing game Need for Speed. More titles are slated for 2008. My first reaction was something like a Jim Cramer-esque "booyah!"

But then I scratched my head. It seems what EA is doing is something else entirely. It's not building Mac-native versions of these games. Instead, it's working with a Canadian software company called Transgaming, which makes a product called Cider. What Cider does is interesting. Basically it takes advantage of the fact that a Mac and a PC are essentially the same inside. They have the same type of processor, use the same graphics chips, and so on.

Cider allows games developed first for Windows to run on a Mac by in essence acting as an interpreter between them. Instead of forcing developers to spend months rebuilding a PC game, Cider simplifies the process of Mac-ifying a Windows game. The original game doesn't even need to be changed. Instead it's wrapped with a few needed pieces of software that make the Windows-friendly bits friendly to Mac OS X. My only wonder is whether there's going to be a performance hit. Will the wrappers that translate the Windows-speak to Mac-speak slow things down? I'll have to wait and see.

Crowded Landscape

Meanwhile, the new Parallels Desktop 3.0 supports 3D graphics, making it a contender for bridging the Mac-Windows gaming gap as well. Still, it would seem to me that if gaming is the primary reason you want to run Windows on your Mac, Boot Camp is the smarter option for two reasons: First, getting Parallels adds another $80 to the overall price you have to pay to get your Windows games running on the Mac. Second, since Parallels runs a second virtual computer within the Mac, you can't help but lose a little bit of the performance you'd have running Windows by itself.

But these new developments aren't quite what I had in mind when I bemoaned the lack of gaming opportunities on the Mac a year ago. I had hoped that Apple would do less to bridge the gap between Windows and Mac and do more to encourage, assist, and promote native game development for the Mac.

Instead, the Mac gaming landscape is starting to look crowded. Id Software's engine is certainly encouraging.

Not So Simple

Yet some games, like those from Aspyr Media, will continue to be Mac-rebuilds of the Windows editions. Aspyr has put out Mac versions of The Sims 2 and Star Wars: Empire at War. Still more will be "Ciderized" using the Transgaming technology. And then there will be people like me who'll just install Boot Camp or Parallels and play Windows games on a Mac.

As a longtime Mac user, I can sort through such confusion. But who's going to explain all this to the person who's dumping Windows but still wants to play games on a new Mac?

I can just imagine the scene in an Apple store: "Well, it's like this,"says the Apple sales associate, proceeding to run through the litany of gaming options. Thusly bombarded, the would-be, first-time Mac owner makes a powerful observation: "I thought owning a Mac was supposed to be simple."

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.