Also with contributions by Loyd Case.
One of the most intriguing announcements made at this week’s WWDC 2007 keynote address  was the return to the Mac by Electronic Arts. EA is a huge powerhouse within the gaming industry and its presence on stage with Steve Jobs should not be taken lightly by anyone interested in Mac gaming.
But was the announcement of EA’s return to the Mac market at WWDC 2007 all it was cracked up to be? Did Apple intentionally mislead its customer base by not divulging the details of how EA’s games would be made to run on the Mac?
EA Returns to the Mac
Let’s begin with Electronic Arts. EA is most famous for its sports games and for disturbing allegations a few years back that it was running a gaming sweatshop  of sorts, exploiting its employees and running them into the ground  with whacked out work schedules and poor management practices.
Strangely enough, EA’s labor practices weren’t mentioned by Steve Jobs in his keynote this week. I wonder how many Mac users would buy games from such a company if they were aware of EA’s alleged violations of decency toward its employees? And have such alleged practices actually ended or does EA continue to allegedly abuse its employees? But I digress, let’s get back to EA’s games.
During the announcement, Bing Gordon, an executive from EA, came onstage and touted a number of EA games that would be coming to the Mac platform this summer:
- Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
- Need for Speed Carbon
- Battlefield 2142
- Command and Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars
And later this year EA will ship:
- Madden NFL 08
- Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08
Well I have to say I was very excited when I saw this. Mac gamers have suffered for many years and have had to put up with getting games much later than Windows gamers, if at all. EA’s reentry to the Mac gaming market seemed to promise a solution.
But don’t forget the old saying that some things are too good to be true, which may be the case here.
Cider? What the Heck is Cider?
When I first heard the announcement at WWDC from EA, I assumed immediately EA was going to be releasing native ports for OS X. That, unfortunately, is not true but it was never mentioned at WWDC by Jobs or the EA executive that spoke. The crowd at the show and those who watched the video via the internet, were never made aware and probably never suspected that EA would be going a different route to get its games running on Mac OS X. So how does EA plan to get its games to run on Macs?
EA will be using a program called Cider. Cider is a product created by TransGaming .
TransGaming is famous for (or infamous, depending on how you look at it) for getting Windows games to run on Linux. In the world of Linux gaming, TransGaming is viewed with love and with loathing. Those who simply wish to run Windows games on their favorite Linux distribution love TransGaming for letting them do so. Those who loathe TransGaming tend to be either Linux purists who want native Linux games only or are sometimes those who’ve tried TransGaming’s Linux gaming product and had a bad experience. Either way, you tend to either love TransGaming or hate them.
How does Cider work? Here’s the information from the TransGaming site :
“Cider is a sophisticated portability engine that allows Windows games to be run on Intel Macs without any modi.cations to the original game source code. Cider works by directly loading a Windows program into memory on an Intel-Mac and linking it to an optimized version of the Win32 APIs. Games are .wrapped. with the Cider engine and they simply run on the Mac. This means developers have only one code base to maintain while enjoying the .exibility of targeting multiple platforms and, therefore, multiple revenue streams. Cider powered games use the same copy protection, lobbies, game matching and connectivity as the original Windows game. All this means less effort and lower costs. Cider is targeted to game developers and publishers.”
So, in a nutshell, the games that use Cider will not be running natively in Mac OS X. Why is this significant? Well there may be potential performance hits compared to running the same game under Windows (which is obviously now possible on a Mac given Boot Camp). How big a potential performance hit might we be looking at? There’s no way to know at this point. It could be terrible or it could be small enough so it’s not even noticeable.
It will be very interesting to benchmark the performance of Cider-based games running on OS X versus the same games running natively under Windows on the exact same Mac hardware. Perhaps the potential performance hit will be negligible. If that’s the case then Cider might be a good thing. We’ll have to wait and see though. I remain quite skeptical of Cider’s performance on Mac OS X. Continued…
There’s another aspect of Cider that needs to be considered. What will be the ramifications of it for those still hoping for native Mac OS X games? If company’s like EA can quickly and easily use Cider then why should anybody bother to create native Mac OS X games?
In the past companies like Aspyr ported Windows games to run natively on the Mac. What kind of future does Aspyr or similar companies have in the face of the onslaught of Cider-based games headed for the Mac? Will there be any room left for native Mac game developers? Or will Cider wreak havoc and destroy any hope for native Mac OS X games?
I wish I knew the answer to these questions. I suspect we’ll find out in the years ahead and the end result might be a bloodbath for native Mac game developers and porters. Not a pretty picture to be sure.
And what happens if Aspyr and the other companies that port games to Mac are run out of business and then EA and other Cider-based gaming houses decide to drop the Mac again? Where will the Mac get any kind of games at that point? Cider has the potential to be either a very positive force for Mac gamers or it could be something far more sinister and evil…the death knell for all gaming on the Mac.
The Carmack Factor Collides with Hardware Reality
One other highlight of the show was John Carmack, who showed off a video clip of id Software’s latest game engine, dubbed “Id Tech 5.” The demo looked very lighting- and texture-heavy. If you consider that the most powerful graphics accelerator on Apple hardware is the aging AMD X1900 XT—only available on the $2,500-plus Mac Pro—then it’s likely that most Mac users will never see the full glory of id’s new engine on a Mac. The iMac line offers the anemic 7300GT, one even begins to question how well EA’s games will run on Mac hardware. Cider is all well and good, but Command and Conquer 3 or Battlefield 2142 running on the 7300GT is pretty pathetic.
It’s likely that Apple will upgrade their desktop line before the Christmas buying season, but for the mainstream Mac user, it’s likely that all they’ll get is the upcoming 8400 series from Nvidia—not exactly high horsepower hardware. However, it’s worth noting that Nvidia’s mobile 8600 line is now available for the MacBook Pro. So maybe the iMacs will also get 8600?s. That’s certainly better, but someone with a 24-inch monitor trying to run Battlefield 2 at full resolution may still be disappointed.
Tell Me Lies, Tell Me Sweet Little Lies
Curiously enough, none of these questions was raised at WWDC 2007. Jobs, cunning rascal that he is, never brought any of it up and never even took any steps to publicly reassure Aspyr and other Mac gaming companies (and their customers) that their future wasn’t in danger. Nor did he directly confront the possibility that EA and other Cider-gaming mills might withdraw again from the Mac market if sales figures aren’t what they want. Surely the chairman of Apple should have at least broached this touchy and nettlesome topic?
Or perhaps he deliberately omitted these details? Some would say that a lie of omission is still a lie and some would consider Jobs’ omission to be just that: a lie. Steve Jobs would do well to remember that and Mac gamers would do well to view any further statements from Jobs or EA with a major grain of salt until the questions about the performance of Cider-based games are answered and until the true nature and depth of EA’s commitment to the Mac gaming market is clear to everyone.
What say you? Did Apple deliberately lie to Mac gamers? Is Cider a boon or bane to gaming on the Mac? Is native Mac gaming doomed? Share your thoughts