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GAME ON

Thanks to new technology, Macintosh gets in on the action

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 MonkeyByte.com or San Leandro, Cal., 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 CEO. "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's 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 is a black art, requiring an intimate knowledge of both computer 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. Adams says it generally takes about six months to convert a PC game into something that can run on a Mac, though sometimes the process goes much faster. "The fastest port I know was three days," says MacPlay's Roathe. More common was the four months MacPlay needed to create a Mac version of the popular PC game No One Lives Forever 2.

Apple Computer did its share to attract gamers to the Mac. When Steve Jobs regained control of the company in 1997 after a lengthy exile, Apple held a dismal reputation among game developers. The company's computers used lower-quality graphics chips that lagged well behind the gear available on PCs; the Mac operating system didn't support first-class 3-D graphics, either.

These days, Macs run high-end graphics processors from the top producers, ATI Technologies, Inc. and Nvidia Corp., and the Mac operating system features high-end graphics-rendering software called OpenGL. All of which means that Macs are at least as good a gaming platform as your typical PC.

Still, you can't find every kind of game well represented in the Mac universe. Flight simulation titles are hard to come by because they're extremely difficult to convert from the PC format. Besides, flight sims aren't that popular even among PC users; Microsoft's Flight Simulator is the genre's only consistent bestseller, and there's still no Mac version of this title.

Then there are sports games. These sell by the hundreds of thousands to PC and console users, and they could be ported easily enough to the Mac. The problem is finding a Mac owner who's interested. Aspyr brought out a Mac version of EA Sports' Madden NFL football game for the year 2000, but it hasn't rolled out other games in the series. There are some Mac auto-racing games, but baseball, football, and basketball titles have never found an audience among Mac gamers. Says MacPlay's Price, "The Mac market is a really cerebral crowd. They're just not into sports games."

There's plenty of money to be made from Mac versions of fantasy role-playing games like Baldur's Gate, strategy games like Age of Empires, or blood-drenched adventures like Quake III Arena. But MonkeyByte's Hardisty longs for something better. Hardisty thinks today's PC games and their Mac clones have become stale and predictable. His dream is to revitalize the industry by creating a new Mac game as original and daring as the classic game Doom, introduced 10 years ago. "The industry is going to need another Doom," Hardisty says. "And the only place that's going to come from is the Mac community."

There's no way of predicting when this breakthrough game will appear, but at least Mac users can play Wolfenstein and No One Lives Forever 2 while they wait.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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