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Is it all just a game for Mac users?

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Image from the Mac version of Star Wars: The Force Unleased - Sith Edition.
Image from the Mac version of Star Wars: The Force Unleased - Sith Edition.

I've discussed Mac gaming before on Mac Planet (October 9, 2009 'Gaming on a Mac? Why so hard?' .

It's the one area where Mac can users can justifiably feel well and truly miffed at being users of a platform with small market share.

Although millions of people around the world use Macs, many, many millions more use Windows. In a way, Apple's inability or refusal to engage with gamers – or, more importantly, with game developers (apart from with the iPhone/touch OS) – has conceded the territory to Windows and the consoles.

Microsoft even launched its own console, the Xbox, which proved smart. Although I do feel the choice of the hot-running G5 processor was asking for trouble. Also, the Xbox's rather maverick choice of processor forced developers to add an entirely new and different console platform to their release schedule.

If Microsoft had put Intel chips into the Xbox, PC games would have been fine for it, although Microsoft could then have been accused of actually building its own computers … so I guess that's the logic behind it.

Unlike Apple with its longstanding Apple OS, Microsoft was then singularly successful at getting game developers onboard for Xbox.

Well, Xbox graphics are great. Which begs the other oft-posed question of: why are Apple video cards so middle of the road, yet so pricey compared to those available for PCs? Even when they're the same (virtually) models from the same vendors? This remains a mystery.

However, Apple's Intel processor and the Boot Camp phenomenon of allowing Windows apps to run on Macs was probably the most serious threat to Mac gaming aspirations and yeah, that came straight from Apple.

That's one way of looking at it. The other way to look at it is that virtualisation means Mac users have access to all those PC game titles. But once again, talk about conceding the space to Microsoft's OS.

Not that you have to actually install Windows on your Mac, although many have. (No, I never have.) With Apple's free Boot Camp, you have to install Windows and choose which system to boot at startup, and restart to change. But third party solutions you can buy, like Parallels Workstation and VMWare's Fusion, don't require a reboot. These solutions appreciate lots of RAM.

And there's another solution again, more tailored for games, which I'll come to presently.

An online debate hosted by Wolfire games questions the use of DirectX code compared to the more Mac friendly OpenGL.

Why do I care? Coz I love games. I may be a middle-aged man, but I find a good game, either historic or Sci-Fi, a terrific way to unwind. My two hours allocation per week of Call of Duty 4 online with the MadMacs clan is eagerly anticipated.

Jack Campbell, a university student who has a Mac and who recently bought an Xbox for a fuller gaming experience, plays Call of Duty 4 on his Mac with other MadMacs blokes. He rues the gaming situation as much as I do, although it's probably worse for Jack as he has more time to play.

Lately he got to play the top-selling new Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (which is out for every platform accept Apple) on his Xbox.

Jack is quite au fait with using Windows and has installed it on his Macs before. "What we're missing out on completely (this is where Boot Camp comes in handy) is current stuff that never gets released [for Mac]." This includes "Valve, responsible for the Half-Life series. Its Source engine also powers titles such as Counter-Strike: Source, Team Fortress 2 and Left 4 Dead. The Steam application provides a library for your games, automatic updating, an online community including groups and enables live chat with other players.

Its store boasts perhaps some of the best prices are for games new and old. In the recent Christmas sale, there were massive savings on new games, and old classic titles such as Mass Effect or Deus Ex were available for under US$10.

Jack points out that other top-selling and acclaimed recent PC titles Mac users have completely missed out on include Fallout 3, Crysis, Grand Theft Auto 4, Age Of Conan, Resident Evil 5 and Street Fighter 4.

Most of these titles were released either simultaneously or earlier on Xbox 360 and/or Playstation 3. All these PC games can be played under Boot Camp on Macs, or in the other virtualisation environments mentioned above, but you need to buy and install Windows.
(Bioshock has finally come to Mac, and I'd love to review that, but the developer either doesn't want reviews or I don't have its correct contact details.)

Jack recently became aware of another virtualisation tool called Crossover Games by Codeweavers.

This apparently allows you to run a range of Windows games and apps (particularly the Valve Steam and Source engine ones) within the comfort of Mac OS X. It works on Wine technology, an open source app allowing Windows applications to operate on other platforms without having to own, use or pay for Windows.

Of course, many of the top gaming peripherals are either simply not compatible, or lack the Mac specific drivers to unlock their full potential. This includes the excellent Sidewinder mouse by Microsoft.

Therefore, the experiences even for games that do get simultaneous Mac and PC releases can have discrepancies, especially out there in the multiplayerverse in which you require all the advantages you can get.

Jack feels that simultaneous releases are becoming more and more crucial in online gaming since the maximum experience in these games relies not only on the calibre of the game, but of the other players.

"Mac users being chucked in months down the track puts us at a disadvantage." This can really take the fun out of going online (and is one of the reasons for NZ's MadMacs clan nights).

A case in point is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. It enjoyed simultaneous releases for PC, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3.
Previous versions all had much later ports to the Mac (CoD4 was a full 10 months behind, says Jack, plus extra time to get Mac patches to allow games to be played against with Windows users).

Jack says "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 is awesome. Utterly amazing. The question is, will it still be that way a year down the track? Is any unpopularity of a Mac port a self-fulfilling prophecy? A year can be a long time in the technology world. Perhaps it's about the parent company finding the sweet spot where the extra development for a simultaneous release is 'worthwhile'?".

On that note, says Jack, with apps above like Crossover and Wine, and with developments like the Goblin engine invented by the two Aucklanders for ArtRage mentioned last week, "is porting to Mac really such a stretch? Especially with hardware being more similar than ever between Macs, PCs and the consoles?"

That's a good question. I expect, though (and unfortunately), that if Apple releases a tablet, more gaming resources than those even directed at the iPhone OS will go into that, and even less to us poor, sorry and bewildered Mac games fans.

- Mark Webster mac-nz.com

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