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Coming to the Mac in 2008: 'Spore'

Electronic Arts plans to release the much-anticipated new game on several platforms at the same time, including the Mac. Photos: Following the evolution of 'Spore'

In its early stages, Electronic Arts' forthcoming and much-anticipated game Spore was code-named Sim Everything, a play on its heritage as the newest game by The Sims creator Will Wright.

But now, "sim everything" has another meaning for the company: EA is set to announce Tuesday it will release Spore later this year simultaneously for PCs and Macs.

The announcement is timed to coincide with the Macworld Expo, which begins Tuesday in San Francisco. At the convention, EA will show Spore running on Macs.

In a joint announcement last year at Apple's developers conference, it was revealed that the video game giant would be bringing some of its biggest franchises to the Mac. The news that Spore will be one of those titles and that it will hit Macs at the same time as PCs is a big move for the company.

The company was not able to meet that standard with any of the games it released for the Mac last year; each Mac version ended up missing the PC launch date by weeks or months--something EA would very much like to avoid in the future.

That's why EA is fine-tuning its relationship with Toronto-based TransGaming Technologies, a company that has developed a technology that makes it relatively easy for publishers like EA to develop Mac--or Linux--versions of a game side by side the PC versions.

According to David McCombe, director of technical design for EA's strategic platforms group, TransGaming's technology effectively creates a "wrapper" that goes around a piece of software developed for the PC, allowing it to run on a Mac.

"The technology wrapper goes around (the software), and traps the (code) calls native to the Windows environment, and converts them to the correct calls for Mac," McCombe said. "It's not a complete code rewrite. It's more wrapper technology with some customer work."

That means, for example, that when a piece of software, in this case, Spore, wants to do a graphics call to DirectX, TransGaming's software translates the call so that it looks instead to the Mac graphics library.

"It serves both as traffic cop and does the conversion on the fly," McCombe said.

The upshot, he added, is that from a user's standpoint, playing Spore on a Mac should be a seamless experience, with no noticeable differences from the PC version.

Spore charges players with taking their characters through a complex growth process, beginning at the primordial cell stage and moving on up the evolutionary ladder, first colonizing small areas on a single planet and eventually heading off into space to find and conquer other societies.

EA is hardly the only game company that has had issues porting PC games to Macs.

Video game technology consultant Mark DeLoura said that Ubisoft--where he was previously a technical director--also found it difficult to make the translation, despite entreaties from Apple to do so.

"The Apple guys, they were always very encouraging," DeLoura said. "'Please bring stuff to the Mac, please bring stuff to the Mac,' but they never gave us a lot of support. They're great guys, but they don't have a lot of resources, I think."

DeLoura said that Ubisoft had also experimented with TransGaming's tools, but decided in the end not to commit to them.

Is the market big enough?
A bigger issue for bringing PC games to the Mac, DeLoura added, is that publishers often don't think that the market is big enough.

"It didn't seem like we could justify porting over a hard-core shooter (game)," DeLoura said, "because as far as we could tell, those games didn't sell on the Mac."

EA, however, has decided the cost is justified. And while it has yet to decide whether it will ship different versions of Spore for PC and Mac or whether it will release both versions on a single DVD, McCombe suggested that is more of a sales or marketing question than a technical one.

In fact, EA is hoping to simultaneously release a number of titles this year on PC and Mac, and Spore may well be among the first. However, the company has yet to announce when Spore will be released.

McCombe said he hoped that EA and TransGaming have learned from their inability to get PC and Mac versions of games out at the same time last year.

"The difference here is that we have a solid version to start off of," he said. "I think both parties have learned how to" make it happen.

As for how much lead time is required to ensure that EA is able to do simultaneous launches, McCombe said, "That's a good question. We need more than we had last time, which we are now getting" with Spore and other titles planned for release this year.

"Last year was the first time going through the process with TransGaming," McCombe said, "so hopefully we have a better feel for the process."

Of course, for a huge company like EA, making the decision to release a game like Spore on the Mac at the same time as the PC version is hardly left entirely to the technical people. It is also a marketing calculation, and in the case of Spore, the company decided that it would be a smart move to ensure that Mac users believe they matter as much as PC users.

"With Spore in particular, we think the Macintosh user is somebody who is, typically, a creative individual," said Patrick Buechner, vice president of marketing for EA's Maxis division. "Part of the appeal of the Mac is that it allows you to do creative things very easily. And we think that lines up very closely with what you can do with Spore, and we think those audiences are very similar. So it just feels like a natural place for Spore to be, and we're thinking about it up front rather than as an afterthought. We want to give it the full attention."