Apple makes a play for gamers

The Mac made a strong showing on the floor of last week's Game Developers Conference, where Apple hosted sessions covering Mac OS X and other technologies

Still a minority player in the gaming world, Apple Computer marshaled its forces to make a splash at last week's Game Developers Conference, and third-party developers seemed eager to join the team. As it did during the previous year's event, Apple footed a well-lit booth just inside the entrance to highlight its wares. Unlike last year, Power Mac systems peppered the show floor, and were featured in the booths of most vendors.

Apple also ran a spate of well-attended conference sessions, with topics that included how to optimise games for the G4 processor's AltiVec instructions and how to build OpenGL applications on the Mac. Another was about what to expect from Mac OS X, which will incorporate Unix underpinnings, a set of revised Mac OS APIs known as Carbon and an advanced object-oriented environment named Cocoa, inherited from Apple-acquired NeXT Software.

In its "Future of Mac OS X" session, Apple revealed little of the forthcoming operating system beyond what company chief executive, Steve Jobs, demonstrated during his keynote speech at January's Macworld Expo in San Francisco. Instead, the session's focus was on quelling any fears that developers might have about having to face an entirely new OS.

"We're focusing on ease of transition for developers," said David Wright, Apple's Mac OS X applications technical manager, noting that the company's goal is to reproduce the easy upgrade path it created when it moved to PowerPC processors. The key, Wright said, is Carbon. Carbon-compliant applications will take advantage of modern features such as protected memory, preemptive multitasking and more, he said.

Apple's analyses showed that most current Mac OS applications, including games, were an average 95 percent Carbon-compliant, Wright said. "Most can be revised in a week." As a result, "getting close to Mac OS 9 gets you close to Mac OS X." Wright pointed out that Carbon-ised applications would also run under Mac OS 8 and 9 via the CarbonLib extension. "One binary will run on both Mac OS 9 and X," he said.

After a quick overview of some elements of Aqua, Mac OS X's graphical user interface, Wright opened the floor to questions from the crowd, which comprised a mix of Mac and Intel standard PC developers.

A majority of the questions indicated that some people were still confused about how to develop applications for Mac OS X. Should they make the simple revision to Carbon or work with the unfamiliar, but powerful, Cocoa environment? "If your code base is for Mac OS 8 or 9, use Carbon," Wright replied. "If you're starting from scratch, though, we recommend you work in Cocoa, which we use for key Mac OS X system applications."

Some developers asked whether certain Unix features would be available to them. They were told that features such as network sockets were already in Mac OS X, but a command line terminal application would not be included in the desktop version. Others wondered if some of their favorite elements from the existing Mac OS would survive the change over. "Game Sprockets will be available in Mac OS X," said Wright, but he confirmed that the Mac OS Control Strip will not be supported. "It simply doesn't fit into the OS X user experience," he said.

As for particular extensions, Wright said they would be examined on a "case by case" basis, although those that patched the system were definitely out. "If you have a particular need, send Apple feedback and we'll try to figure out how to include that functionality," he said.

Wright also fielded repeated questions about which legacy Macs would run OS X. Attendees said a large number of their customers owned the older systems. Wright declined to provide an answer, saying the company won't know details until after the final product has gone through testing. Compatibility with pre-G3 Power Macs would be hit and miss, he suggested.

Although questioners who tried to pry out new info about Mac OS X and Aqua were told that most of their questions would be answered at May's Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, Wright did offer a few teasers. "We can't make any announcements about unreleased products," he said in response to one question, "but the architecture is there [in Mac OS X and 9] to support multiple processors, and we do encourage you to develop for the multiprocessing features in 9 and X." For those used to the hullabaloo of an Electronics Entertainment Expo or a Comdex, the show floor at the Game Developers Conference was refreshingly muted. Games did whoop and tweep in various booths, and there were the requisite dancing motion capture women drawing crowds, but the focus was on business.

And it seemed business was good for Apple. Most booths included Power Macs, and most makers of peripherals demonstrated their USB-based products on blue and white G3s and graphite G4s.

Next to Apple's booth, 3dfx Interactive showed early versions of its forthcoming Voodoo 4 and 5 3D accelerator cards on a Power Mac. The cards will feature full Mac support as well as offer significantly higher frame rates than previous models. In addition, the cards will offer full-screen anti-aliasing -- smoothing out jagged edges for a more realistic look. Certain Voodoo models will also support advanced features such as motion blur, but only if games are programmed for them. The Voodoo cards shown were not a final version; Mac-specific models will hit the market a month or two after the PC versions, which are slated to go on sale within six weeks.

One of 3dfx's competitors in the 3D market, nVidia, hinted that it might follow 3dfx's move into the Mac market. An industry watcher who declined to be identified confirmed that nVidia will release a Mac version of one of its 3D accelerator products by the end of 2000.

Mac-based developers were hovering around Criterion Software's booth, where the UK-based company was displaying the Mac version of its multiplatform RenderWare 3 rendering engine, due by the end of March. A company spokesman said that games using RenderWare 3's engine can be ported across platforms six to 12 months more rapidly than those using proprietary, platform-specific rendering engines. He pointed to a skateboard game that was ported from Sega's Dreamcast console to the PC in two weeks, and demonstrated an early build of the PC game Redline Racer running on a Mac.

In a show of cross marketing, the Apple booth was populated with examples of other companies' games and products. Prominently displayed were movies from Bungie Software's "Halo". Strings of iMacs featuring Apple's wireless AirPort networking technology were set up running MacSoft's "Unreal Tournament" and Id Software's "Quake III: Arena" in a "wireless LAN party". Also, in what could have been a show of developer support or an admission of their mixed reception by users, the iMacs were configured not with Apple's own mouse, but with the Razer Boomslang mouse from Karna LLC.

Read all about 'Catching the Pismo PowerBook wave' with Jason O'Grady. Read the news comment at AnchorDesk UK.

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