Macs get in on gaming action

Software: While development is skewed toward Windows-based PCs, those made and adapted for the competing system the apple of users' eye.

October 02, 2003|By Hiawatha Bray | Hiawatha Bray,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

With its muscular 64-bit processor and high-velocity hard drive, the new Apple Power Mac G5 is among the most powerful desktop computers on earth. It's just what you'd want for playing a sophisticated 3-D adventure game.

But if you buy game software from of San Leandro, Calif., you're more likely to get a game that resembles something you played in a video arcade circa 1985.

That's fine with Yon Hardisty, MonkeyByte's chief executive officer. "Maybe they're not as pretty as Quake and Age of Empires, [two classic PC games] but it's good, solid game play," Hardisty says.

Users of Apple's Macintosh computers certainly love their games. Too bad there aren't more of them.

There are 660 million personal computers in use worldwide, but only 40 million of them are Macs. Nearly all the rest use Microsoft Windows operating systems. That means few companies will spend the millions needed to produce a top-drawer 3-D game just for Mac users, preferring to target the huge Windows market instead. The few companies that do create Mac games have to keep them simple in order to make a profit.

Galactic Patrol, one of MonkeyByte's titles, cost only about $10,000 to develop. But Mac users can't get enough of this simple spaceship shooter, which resembles the arcade favorite Galaga. MonkeyByte has been selling it for $20 a pop ever since 1998.

"We are not millionaires," says Hardisty, "but we're well taken care of by our community."

Even though there's little original game development for the Mac, this is a golden era for Mac gaming. Major PC game makers now routinely issue Mac versions of their most popular titles. You don't need a PC to play hot PC games such as Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Warcraft III, Soldier of Fortune II or The Sims. A Mac will do just fine.

"If you always want to have the ability to play the latest game right when it comes out, then a Mac isn't your best bet," says Lane Roathe, chief technical officer for MacPlay LLC, a Macintosh game development house in Dallas.

But if you're willing to wait a little while, there's a good chance that companies such as MacPlay and its Austin, Texas, rival, Aspyr Media Inc., will serve up a Macintosh version.

Creating a new 3-D game for the Mac from scratch would be a costly and perilous task. But "porting" an existing game is a very different matter. That's the process of converting PC software so it will run on a Mac. Porting requires an intimate knowledge of both systems and of the software being modified.

For instance, Macs use a computer chip called a PowerPC, while Windows computers use the famous Intel Pentium chip.

"Since the PowerPC and Pentium read numbers from memory different ways, every piece of data loaded from disk has to be swapped around on the Mac before you can use it," says Glenda Adams, Aspyr Media's director of PC and Mac development.

Aspyr produced the Mac version of Return to Castle Wolfenstein, as well as several Harry Potter, Star Trek and Star Wars games.

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