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, 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