Product vs. process: Is it important how games for the Mac are made?

Product vs. process: Is it important how games for the Mac are made?

There are different ways to get a PC game running on the Mac. Does the method that's used make a difference to you?

Star Trek Online is now available for the Mac, four years after its Windows debut. Better late than never, I say: a Star Trek themed free to play MMO is something I'll be happy to spend some time getting to know.

I reported on it earlier today, and an eagle-eyed reader on Twitter pointed out to me that this isn't a "native" Mac game port (what that means, I'll get to in a moment) — in fact, they'd already been playing Star Trek Online for some time using a program called Wine, and they suggested this wasn't that different. This got me thinking: Does anyone really care if a Mac game is native anymore?

Star Trek Online was developed for the Macintosh using something called Cider, a technology developed by TransGaming. TransGaming has been making Mac games for about seven years now, after Apple transitioned to the Intel microprocessor architecture. TransGaming's Cider is a commercial reimplementation of Wine, a compatibility layer originally developed to allow Linux machines to operate Windows application software.

Cider (and Wine) translates Windows application programming interface (API) calls on the fly, making it possible for Macs to run Windows applications. The Cider environment has been customized with a special emphasis on games, to make them run as fast as possible. It's been proven and it works — TransGaming's created dozens of Mac games over the years, and has relationships with major publishers like EA, Activision, Ubisoft and others.

The reason why Cider works on the Mac is the same reason why Boot Camp lets your Mac run Windows and why virtualization software like VMWare Fusion and Parallels Desktop can work — the CPU is the same as it is in a PC, and in Cider (and Wine's) case the translation between Windows and OS X commands to the CPU can be done fast enough that you can run an app, even a demanding app like a game.

Up until Cider came out, the best, and really only, way to get a PC game to work on the Mac was to rewrite the game using Mac-native code. That's still the way major Mac game publishers like Aspyr and Feral Interactive do it. It's the same method that Maxis used when it brought the new SimCity to the Mac (though Maxis' parent company EA regularly collaborates with TransGaming on Cider conversions, too).

When TransGaming first hit the scene in 2007, I remember that some gamers (and some people in the Mac game business) were quick to dismiss them. The games weren't "real" Mac game ports, as far as those people were concerned, because they fundamentally operated like Windows applications that worked within this wrapper. In fairness, TransGaming's initial ports did sometimes suffer from lackluster performance and sometimes questionable reliability. That improved over time. I admit that TransGaming won a special place in my heart when they worked with CCP Games to bring their space-based MMO EVE Online to the Mac. I still love that game dearly, though I hardly ever have time to play anymore.

Wine — the open source project upon which Cider was developed — exists independently on the Mac too. There's the Wineskin project, and I've seen Wine conversions available for the Mac from GOG.com, the vintage computer game download service. It's easy to pooh pooh Wine and its variants, but the fact is it's been instrumental in bringing a lot more games to the Mac.

As I said at the outset, the reader I tweeted with noted that they'd already been playing Star Trek Online on their Mac using Wine, which led them initially to question why the developer would bother with this release.

It's because using Wine requires some specialized knowledge and is beyond the scope of what a lot of Mac users are willing to do. Instead, the developer and publisher is packaging a Mac version and they're officially supporting it. That's bound to make more Mac users feel comfortable about downloading the game, and hopefully it'll increase the game's popularity, so we Mac gamers will have another MMO to enjoy for years to come.

In the end, the question for most people isn't how the game is made, it's how it runs. I confess that in this case, I've had some reliability issues with Star Trek Online — it's crashed twice on me just getting through the tutorial. But it's free to play, so I'll stick with it a while to see how it improves. Opening day issues with MMOs are nothing new, either — even for ones that have been around for a while. Supporting a new platform is a big deal, and beta tests don't catch everything.

With regards to Cider, Wine and native Mac game ports, I'll posit that the average consumer really couldn't care less how the sausage is made, just how the end product tastes. If the game runs well and if it's supported, that's what they're interested in — not how the game got to the Mac in the first place.

How about you? Does it matter how the game gets to the platform? Or are you just content to be able to play on your Mac? Let me know in the comments.

Peter Cohen

Managing Editor of iMore, Mac and gaming specialist and all-around technologist. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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There are 12 comments. Add yours.

JohnDavid_1 says:

I prefer to have the games native to the Mac but the reason I run Parallels is to be able to play games that are still only available on the Windows platform such as the Magic: The Gathering Online client. As long as I can play a game on my Mac I'm happy, no matter what additional software I might need to run it.

ricnmar says:

I would be happy as long as the game or app runs well. I don't care what kinds of layers exist between me and the game.

macgamecast says:

I prefer native games mostly because I believe it supports the Mac gaming ecosystem better. But I'm not against Cider games so long as they run well (Like Max Payne 3 or The Darkness 2) and it gives us some great games we wouldn't have otherwise.

Nice light read. I thought I'd link that I wrote about this in-depth over at the GA blog. http://blog.gameagent.com/mac-gaming-101-understanding-native-vs-non-nat...

ungibbed says:

Some games that I've bought using Cider really had a lot of odd CPU overhead which really was noticeable. One such example was the GTA trilogy that ran not much faster than a older Pentium 4 powered laptop with Intel video hardware during that time didn't even have the ability to run much more than Everquest. (Poorly...)

Now with a then state of the art MacBook Pro with the Nvidia 320m GPU the performance with GTA San Andreas with 8GB of memory and a decent GPU still chugged with my Core 2 Duo. Needless to say, I was rather disappointed when my same Mac was able to run Fable at native resolution of my ACD (2650x1440) with a silky smooth frame rate and every possible detail to its maximum. Add 2x AA on top of that and I was blown away at the power of my once new MacBook Pro. That game though was from Feral Interactive which I continue to support. Aspyr has also gotten quite a bit of my Mac gaming money. I just find it rather frustrating that GTA San Andreas runs smoother on my iPad 2 than it does on my Mac. If that doesn't make a statement of how quick & dirty some Mac ports are from Windows, I have no idea what else can.

Dev from tipb says:

Notch made Minecraft in pure Java - a platform *nobody* considers viable for games - and succeeded wildly, both critically and commercially.

Ideally, it doesn't matter the technology used, unless the choice of technology cannot deliver on the vision for the game.

Unfortunately, Mac hardware typically lags high end PC gaming rigs, even without an intermediate layer, so it is often not possible to bring an A list title over without compromising the game.

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imatty says:

I've been looking for a way to play windows supported games on my Mac. I have no knowledge of how to do it. Where's the best place to learn how?

richard451 says:

Do you prefer native Mac apps, or would you be just as happy with a wrapper around Windows apps (or worst yet, Java)?

I don't see why games should be any different than apps.

Peter Cohen says:

I think that's a false equivalency. Games are largely self-contained, requiring very little interaction with other parts of the operating system or any consistency in user interface (let alone adherence to Apple Human Interface Guidelines).

Matthew Merkle says:

Honestly, the major problem is that Wine (and Cider by extension) is FAR from perfect. And these official ports are no assurance that such problems are fixed. Besides the fact that hardware compatibility is often lacking, graphical quality is severely hampered and weird UI inconsistences are abound, the major issue is performance.

Frankly, Cider/Wine performance is /awful/ compared to native. This is a problem that should concern EVERY Mac user, and they absolutely should be more verbal about it. This lazy Cider porting needs to stop. The performance problem is so significant, Macs that otherwise should run the game just fine, are completely unable under Cider.

Worse still, the situation will never improve because Cider is always playing a game of catch-up. New features are released, new versions of Windows come out, and every time it requires huge R&D for Cider to reach compatibility. DirectX 12 is coming out sometime this year, and who knows how long it'll be before we see any of its features in Cider.

As an aside, I really didn't understand the comparison between Cider and Boot Camp et al. It makes it sound as if their underlying process is somehow similar, when in fact they're not remotely the same. Boot Camp is literally just a partitioning script with some driver downloading thrown in, and VMWare is virtualizing the hardware. WINE emulates Windows via software, making them related in only the loosest of terms.

Finally, the fact that Eve Online was mentioned in support of TransGaming's efforts really surprised me. That port was probably one of the worst I'd ever had the misfortune to use. Performance was dramatically slower, bugs were all over the place, and it even had a tendency to crash. It made the game unplayable for many macs that could otherwise run the game perfectly fine in Windows. Worse still, updates for the Mac version specifically were few and far between.

MacGamerHQ says:

Interesting piece. I mostly agree with you here. But does it really matter if a game is native or not? It depends on who you ask.

If you ask Mac "geeks" (and I mean that as a compliment), then yes, it does, because the game is better optimized and should perform better.

However, for the other 99% of Mac users? I don't think they neither care or even understand the difference between a native game or a wrapper...
In the end, if the game runs fine and is well supported, they have my vote.

Macs are suppposed to just work. Same applies for games. Lots of users just want a platform that works and a good Cider-port does just that...

williamsbh76 says:

I am frankly happy to have STO on the Mac in native form. I played frequently on my issue plagued HP, which I still have before I bought my first Mac. Hell the only reason I kept it was for STO and as a back up computer for work. Now I rarely have time to use the HP to play games or even keep it updated. I even tried STO by running it in parallels but just couldn't get the controls to work right.

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Iocane Powder says:

I missed this post initially and only ran across it searching for reasons why Eve tends to overheat my 2011 iMac when in a station....presumably a place where there should be few demands on the system. Luckily there was a pic of Peter next to the Google link!

Checking iStat Menus I can see the gradual increase in temp till there is a tipping point with a sudden spike. This never happens in combat or mining....just in a station.

iStat Menus shows Cider chewing some incredible processor just as the application locks. I can't say that this is a Cider specific issue or just CCP's implementation, but there are obvious, palpable tradeoffs for using these wrappers vs native coding.

Ultimately I don't care how the application gets to OSX as long as it works. When it doesn't work it does leave a bad taste in your mouth both for the app and OSX. I prefer to no longer give money to MS, especially just to use their bloatware, virus riddled OS for gaming. Unfortunately there are several games that I have not been able to run error free on OSX.

I suspect that I am not the only one to reluctantly hang on to a PC in order to play games. Seems that as big as gaming is to iOS and its potential on OSX, that Apple would take a small fraction of gold out away from their dragon and spend it on making OSX a foolproof gaming platform. With a minuscule investment and inside OS knowledge they could easily build their own transition platform like Cider (except better) or provide other solutions for devs that wish to move their apps to OSX. Focused on gaming as a single slice of pie there might not be great incentive. But looking at what that slice does to improve the overall experience on Apple products goes a long way to making Apple irresistible for those who've not yet drank the cool-aid.