Low End Mac Gaming

The Future of Low-End Gaming

Brian Rumsey - 2000.10.12

So, you have a Quadra 840av. You bought it new just a few years ago, and paid approximately the GNP of any given developing country for it. And what a computer it was! Powered by a 68040 at a sizzling 40 MHz, this machine was worth every cent you paid for it.

It served you well for many years, but now that you have a little spare time, you would like to have some fun with it - play some games or something. So maybe you pick up the phone and order one of those new games you have been hearing about, such as Deus Ex. When the package arrives, you eagerly rip it open, grab the CD, and pop it into your drive. But what is this? "The software to be installed requires a Macintosh with a PowerPC processor. Please check to make sure that your system meets the requirements for Deus Ex."

"Impossible," you think. "This machine was top of the line. There must be a problem with the installer. I'll call Aspyr tech support and see what the problem could be."

And now, back to reality. The plain truth is that the powerhouse Quadra of a few years ago simply can not run most of today's games. Even Apple's most powerful computers before the G3 era, such as the Power Mac 8600 and 9600, will be far overmatched if asked to run some new games such as the aforementioned Deus Ex.

What is the deal with this? Are developers conspiring against who can not buy a new computer every year?

I have been in contact with three developers, learning how they approach developing for older Macs, and the information I have learned is quite interesting to me. I think it will be to you, too.

The developers I have been communicating with are David Dunham, of A-Sharp LLC (King of Dragon Pass); Andrew Welch, president of Ambrosia Software (Developer and/or publisher of many Mac games); and Radar Pangaean (Developer of the GUTS gaming system, a piece of Mac software used in conjunction with traditional role-playing games). I also attempted to contact some of the big commercial names in the Mac gaming world, but I did not get any response. Though this may be due to their not wanting to respond, it is also possible that I was not contacting the right people.

All three of these developers are quite low-end friendly. While some new games require a fast G3 and a powerful 3D accelerator to perform well, the products designed by these developers will generally require a PowerPC-based Mac at most.

One of the questions facing any developer is, are they making their games able to run on as many systems as possible? Would it be feasible to make a 68K version? Or a version that will run without a 3D card?

Dunham says, regarding King of Dragon Pass, "We probably could have done 68K Macs, but I think given its architecture, this might have been difficult. Not to get into technical details, but I think our plug-ins would be too big." This hints at another problem in developing for older computers: while sufficient resources would allow you to program your game from scratch, optimizing it as much as possible, developers with limited resources may find it much easier to build on a product such as Macromedia Director or, a bit further in the past, Apple's own HyperCard. While using these tools reduce work for programmers, it also means that games will probably be much less optimized and therefore require more power to run.

Welch addressed this issue very thoroughly. Looking at which Macs to support, he says, "With each game, you have to make design tradeoffs. It is tempting, as a programmer, to take advantage of as much horsepower is available, for two reasons. First, you can simply do some really cool things on a G4 which wouldn't be possible on a 68040. Secondly, you can be lazy. You can spend more time working on your game and less time worrying about optimizing your code.

"That said, there are some things that simply can't be done on older machines. If you decide that a game really should support certain features as a base, there are going to be some machines that simply can't handle it - no matter how much time you spend optimizing.

"I will say that some of our games which are PPC only, such as Mars Rising, could have run on a 68K machine, with some features turned off perhaps, but the amount of work involved in doing that wasn't deemed worth it."

How much effort to put into supporting as many configurations as possible is definitely a big issue for developers. Dunham says, "(Supporting older machines) is obviously a goal, as KoDP will run on any PowerPC or any Pentium." However, with limited resources, a line had to be drawn somewhere, and with the extra effort which would have been needed to optimize and test on 68K systems, Dunham and the crew at A-Sharp decided that PPC would be the cutoff.

Ambrosia also places a fairly high priority on supporting older systems. As Welch says, "We try pretty hard to make sure that our games are well-optimized and run on lower-end machines. What takes up most of the processing power in games these days is the eye candy. quoteNothing wrong with candy, it's tasty, but it isn't everything. I'm a firm believer that what makes a game fun is separate from what makes it visually interesting. It is like looks and personality - there is the initial attraction, and then there is what keeps you interested."

To some extent, A-Sharp's commitment to supporting a wide range of systems worked against them. When contacting various publishers to see if they might be interested in publishing KoDP, one publisher actually liked the game, but turned down the opportunity to publish it. Why? Because, as Dunham says, "Their charter was to develop games which made you go out and buy new hardware. Clearly, KoDP did not fit this concept." While A-Sharp has since gone on to successfully publish KoDP themselves, it is nonetheless rather disturbing, especially to the low-end gamer, to see games being turned down for reasons such as these.

Money is obviously a big factor in developing games. While all companies are not as centered on pushing new hardware as the above example, they do need to consider where their money will come from.

Supporting older Macs can be a hard sell from a financial viewpoint. As Pangaean says, "I don't see much of a business case for supporting older systems. The number of 68K downloads I have quotegotten for the 68K version of my program, vs the PPC version, is very small. Further, it seems logical to me that shareware authors won't get much return from folks who are still using very old machines, because the same economic factors that stop a person from upgrading their hardware will likely prevent them from registering shareware. For those of us who develop products in hopes of getting a return from their effort, the significance of this can not be minimized." The same argument could obviously be made for commercial software.

However, while this argument is quite valid, it is not without exception. Take myself, for example. Until fall 1999, my main computer was the 68040 based LC 475. While I never had the several hundred dollars needed to upgrade to a substantially more powerful computer, I could generally find the $30 needed to buy the (increasingly rare) new games which I could run. In fact, if new games were still coming out for old Macs like my 475, I could still very well have it as my main computer. It was not so much that I became dissatisfied with the quality of games which I was able to run. The problem was that I had played and replayed most of the games that interested me and were available to me, and to get new ones, I would have to move to newer hardware.

As could be expected, the future for software that will run on Macs of the 68K era, and even early PowerPCs, is not terribly bright. According to Pangaean, "I made a conscious decision to support low end machines in my product, in hopes that making it accessible would increase my sales base. I now see that it didn't gain me any paying customers, but it did limit the features that I could provide in the application to stay within the earlier machines' hardware/software constraints. Future versions of my product will be targeted at more modern machines and thus able to incorporate more features."

Dunham and Welch somewhat echo these sentiments, although not quite as strongly. Dunham says, "I think a 68K version would have consumed a lot of resources and would not have resulted in a lot more players. I know there are a few people who would love to play the game but don't have Power Macs, but we have gotten more complaints about the lack of a Linux version." Welch notes that, especially with the longevity of Macs, they are still working on several products which will support older Macs, but that it is getting harder to spread the resources so far, especially with new emerging technologies such as OS X which also need to be focused on.

While the availability of new software for older Macs is obviously decreasing, it is not dead yet. The best way to support the developers who are still making efforts to support older systems is to pay for their software. Whether this would mean registering shareware, or buying commercial softwarequote instead of pirating it, I encourage you to support these and other developers at any opportunity.

Some of the best Mac games ever run well on 68040s and even older machines, as well as other games which will run on any Power Mac and do not need the latest 3D card. If you are looking for the current first person shooter, well, you may be disappointed, but just about any other genre still has plenty of life even on less than modern Macs.

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