Apple retreats on gaming tools at WWDC

Sources say Apple is cutting down on its Game Sprockets APIs and turning most gaming hooks back over to third-party developers -- raising compatibility concerns
Written by Daniel Turner, Contributor

Game developers attending Tuesday's "Games and Mac OS X" session at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference this week in San Jose, California, didn't get what they expected.

Many had hoped to at least sneak a peek at Apple's road map for Game Sprockets, the company's suite of networking, graphics and input APIs for games. What they saw instead, according to sources, was a sign that said end of the line.

Up until this week Apple had pushed Game Sprockets as the APIs to use for games, going so far as to hint that they'd be included in Carbon, the refined set of APIs in Mac OS X that provide such modern features as protected memory, pre-emptive multitasking and more. However, sources told ZDNet News that Apple representatives announced most Sprockets will not be present in Mac OS X, with others playing a far more limited role than before.

"We're very disappointed and worried," said Mark Adams, president of top game porting house Westlake Interactive of Austin, Texas, who said he'd heard about the announcement. "It's definitely not good from our perspective."

Sources said that Mac OS X, now due in January, will not include NetSprocket, the communication API; InputSprocket, which configured joysticks, mice and other input devices; and the sound API SoundSprocket. The graphics API DrawSprocket will be included, although it will lose hardware-accelerated "blitting" support and its multimonitor selection user interface -- it will support screen resolution selection only.

Apple refused to comment on the fate of Game Sprockets.

"We were told Sprockets would be in Carbon," Adams said. "That would've made our lives a lot easier."

Without Sprockets support, Adams said, all Mac game companies that plan to work with Mac OS X, whether porting an existing game from another platform or producing their own, will have to develop brand-new code to replace Sprockets functionality or "at least rewrite our code to work with what Mac OS X will have."

This represents an additional month of work per title, Adams estimated, but what worried him more is the possibility that games already developed with Sprockets -- most titles made in the past few years -- will not be compatible even with Mac OS X's Classic environment.

"The big question is, Will old and current games run on Mac OS X? We don't know," he said. "We don't know if stuff like Sprockets and RAVE will work in the Classic compatibility layer, either. That would shut out a lot of games."

"Ironically, when Apple was telling us that Sprockets would be in Carbon, we thought updating our games would be pretty easy, since 40 to 50 percent of our calls go through Sprockets," Adams said. "Now that means more reworking than a graphics or word-processing application would require."

Adams did have praise for features in InputSprocket's replacement, however. The new manager, called the Human Interface Device (HID) Manager, will enable developers to create their own user interfaces for setting key presses and calibrating joysticks. Under InputSprockets, gamers adjusting settings would be jolted out of the game to a standard Mac dialog box. "That may actually be a step in the right direction," Adams said.

"The downside is that we now have to redo old games or write two versions for Mac OS 9 and Mac OS X," he said.

Some developers left the session saying that these moves by Apple may not represent a big step backward -- but certainly show lack of forward progress.

Adams was even less sanguine: "It's kind of a backward step compared to DirectX" -- the graphics API for games in Microsoft Windows.

"DirectX has been developing and refining new features like bump mapping," Adams said. "We're losing Sprocket functionality while being told we have to write it ourselves." Adams added that developers could look to OpenPlay, an open-source suite of APIs co-developed by Apple and game developer Bungie Software, "but that's a lot like writing things yourself from scratch."

"This doesn't reflect well on Apple as compared to Microsoft," Adams said. "Apple has more publicly embraced gaming than what we've seen behind the scenes, and now they're making things doubly difficult."

"Apple has control of the whole OS and hardware, but now they're telling us that it's up to us," Adams said. "There hasn't been a lot of good news for games at this WWDC."

Having introduced design sense to the realm of PC hardware, Apple is preparing to repeat the trick in software with its next-generation operating system. Go with Andreas Pfeiffer for the news comment at AnchorDesk UK.

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