By Andrew O'Hara
Wednesday, June 13, 2018, 08:10 am PT (11:10 am ET)
Macs were okay gaming machines, having some ports of PC games that were superior on the Mac, but that was back in the late 1980s-to-early 1990s, when an Amiga would have been your best bet for a.
Let's be frank: Apple's Mac hardware is not well optimized for gaming. Making matters worse, the marketshare gap between Windows and macOS is profound. That said, the iPhone and iPad are gaming powerhouses for the mainstream consumer, and they aren't showing any signs of slowing.
While venues like Mac Gamer HQ covering Mac gaming still are about, nobody else really has much to say about the situation.
So, let's talk about it.
Apple's hardware is great, but not for gaming
Looking to hardware, Apple uses integrated graphical chipsets in many of their machines, leaving dedicated GPUs to the most high-end Macs. These machines are primarily geared towards creative professionals, and not gamers, leaving that audience underserved.
But, Apple does have a solid workaround for owners of modern machines thanks to the recent macOS 10.13.4 update.
Apple's macOS High Sierra 10.13.4 now supports external GPUs over Thunderbolt 3. Summarizing the situation, a Mac owner with Thunderbolt 3 can buy an external enclosure, and drop in a graphics card that can be upgraded over time.
This comes at a pretty profound price premium, though. With enclosures generally around $300, and a card with any heft hitting $300 and increasing dramatically, doing so is a non-trivial expense in addition to the computer itself. Plus, without hacks, Nvidia card support is non-existent.
BootCamp to install Windows on a Mac is workable, but eGPU support in BootCamp doesn't exist without workarounds right now. So, given Apple's GPU choices, it isn't a great one.
Apple jumping into Virtual Reality
With the eGPU, comes Apple's first tentative steps into virtual reality. At the 2017 WWDC, while talking about eGPUs, Apple officially added support for VR as well. HTC Vive now works on macOS and Valve launched SteamVR at the same time.
This certainly paves the way, especially with an eGPU, for more immersive gaming on the Mac, even if adoption has been tepid to start.
Apple has the smallest gaming platform, and the biggest
Primarily when it comes to gaming, we think of large role-playing games like 'Skyrim' or first-person shooters like 'Destiny' or 'Halo,', but just counting these this ignores the biggest market for games. So-called 'casual' gamers by far make up the largest sector of those who play, and more often than not they do so on their mobile device.
According to Statista, in July 2017, iOS had over 783,000 games available on the App Store. This is a stunning amount of titles.
Apple's new frameworks for porting over iOS applications to the Mac might be a big deal for gamers. This probably won't help with huge AAA titles, but popular ones such as 'Alto's Adventure,' 'Clash of Clans,' and the like.
If this proves to be effective, it could encourage larger-scale mobile developers to give the Mac a second look, at least for more casual titles.
Apple has used this new platform to port a few apps of their own in macOS Mojave; News, Home, Stocks, and Voice Memos. It will become fully available for third-party developers in 2019.
32-bit apps, OpenGL, and Metal
Metal 2 also got screen-time at WWDC. Apple announced the official deprecation of OpenGL, with new titles expected to use Metal 2 as an alternative. Most games running on macOS already use OpenGL which has caused quite a bit of discontent among developers.
Games and graphics-intensive apps that use OpenGL will eventually cease to run as Apple's OS march continues, without maintenance by the developer. This is further complicated by Apple's declaration that 32-bit apps will no longer be supported after macOS Mojave.
But, Apple has provided the ability to make apps 64-bit for a decade. So, it's not like this is a big surprise, unless you're a Valve front-end developer apparently. As of June 13, 2018, the Steam app itself still isn't 64-bit.
Mac App Store, and Steam help —but aren't the solution
Don't get us wrong. Porting houses Feral Interactive and Aspyr are doing a fantastic job. But, they are only two companies and they are vastly outnumbered by the AAA publishing houses.
This all sounds pretty dire. But, popular titles have still shown up on Steam or the Mac App Store. Titles like 'Firewatch' launched on Mac at the same time as other platforms, and 'Civilization 6' was pretty close to day and date.
But, this also exposes some problems. 'Firewatch' launched towards the tail end of 2016 and to this day the Mac App Store is still promoting the game after minor updates. It is a fantastic game, but it shows the lack of other content the Mac App Store has to work with.
Apple Mac For Gaming
Steam, the go-to PC gaming platform, has been available on Mac for years at this point. But, as readers are likely aware, the vast majority of games on it are Windows-only. Looking specifically at the macOS games filter that Steam provides reveals a lot of small titles and new content highlights instead of new, popular games.
We saw this lack of availability recently as we were testing out Steam Link, which allows you to play powerful desktop games on your iOS/tvOS device using your Mac or Windows PC to do the heavy lifting. As we perused the top games Valve recommended to test, the vast majority were not available on macOS.
Valve and Apple have been working together lately, and though Apple eventually rejected the Steam Link from the iOS App Store, they are working together to make it available once more.
Even as Apple has made improvements to the platform, and fully embraced gaming on iOS with nods to it on tvOS, it still has not been enough to entice publishers to throw more weight behind the Mac. In the last several years, very little has changed overall with the lion's share of PC gamers clearly opting for Windows over macOS.
We aren't going to claim to be big Mac gamers. We have a few, but the couple of AppleInsider staffers who game have Windows PCs, or consoles —or just play on our iPads or iPhones.
Looking to the future, gaming on the Mac overall seems unlikely to get better.
Gaming on the Mac is terrible, right? That has been the consensus among gamers for a decade-plus—Ars even declared Mac gaming dead all the way back in 2007. But in reality, the situation has gotten better. And after Apple dedicated an unprecedented amount of attention to Mac gaming at WWDC 2017, things might be looking up for Mac gamers in the coming years.
When Apple announced new Macs and a major update to its Mac graphics API at this year’s developer conference, there was an air of hope amongst Mac gamers and developers. Gaming on a Mac may look more appealing than ever thanks to the introduction and gradual improvement of Apple’s relatively new Metal graphics API and a better-than-ever-before install base. On top of that, discrete Mac graphics processors have just seen some of their biggest boosts in recent years, VR support is on the way, and external GPU enclosures promise previously impossible upgradeability.
So gaming on the Mac is improving, but is it good or still terrible? Are we on track to parity with Windows? Speaking to game developers who specialize in the Mac about the state of Mac gaming in the wake of WWDC, Ars encountered plenty of optimism. Still, there’s plenty to be cautious about.
Decades in a niche
In gamer communities on forums and Reddit, Mac gaming is often the subject of jokes and snarky comments. Again, such snark was not always without justification. There just weren’t many good games on the Mac for years. Nevertheless, a few companies have continuously worked to fill the niche. Two in particular emerged as leaders in the marketplace—Aspyr Media and Feral Interactive.
Aspyr was founded way back in 1996, originally as a retail distributor. The porting aspect of its business came later, with the first game it ported in 1998—Eidos’ Tomb Raider II. Feral got started in 1996, too. And in addition to the Mac, Feral has ported games to Linux and iOS (it plans to expand to Android in the near future).
“We’ve dealt firsthand with all the big changes to the platform that have taken place over the last two decades,” Edwin Smith, Feral’s head of production, told Ars. He cited changes like the advent of dedicated graphics processing units (GPUs), the move to a UNIX-based operating system, and the transition from the PowerPC processor architecture to Intel.
PowerPC-based Macs in the '90s and early '00s used a different processing architecture from the Windows PCs for which most games were primarily developed. It didn’t help, either, that Microsoft’s Direct3D (part of the DirectX suite of APIs) became the industry standard graphics API. The cross-platform OpenGL API used in Apple computers struggled to keep up in the meantime. And frankly back at that point in time, Macs weren’t very popular, so the audience was small. It was abundantly clear to gamers that the Mac was not a competitive platform in the PowerPC days.
“In the years leading up to the transition to Intel CPUs in Macs, the porting process entailed converting games to run on PowerPC hardware,” said Smith. “This was difficult because the existing code was written with x86 architecture in mind, and since this didn’t always have a 1:1 relationship with how PowerPC architecture worked, we had some interesting problems to solve.”
Climbing out into the sun
Players using today’s Mac offerings live within a different landscape. Things became much rosier over the past decade for a number of reasons.
First, there was the switch to Intel. By adopting the same architecture used in most Windows PCs, Apple moved the Mac out of a software engineering wasteland. Second, Mac sales figures grew significantly at the same time. According to data aggregated by Statista, 3.29 million Macs were sold globally in 2004. By 2015, that number had reached more than 20 million.
“Apple today sells in a quarter what they used to sell in a year, so the total market opportunity has grown from what used to be normal,” Elizabeth Howard, vice-president for publishing at Aspyr, told Ars.
The hardware situation looked better, too. Macs enjoyed what Howard called a “halo effect” from the previous generation of consoles. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 remained gaming hardware standards for nearly a decade—longer than many other console generations. That longevity allowed the Mac’s laptop-grade graphics hardware to catch up to this industry standard.
“Most video games are developed with console or PC as the lead platform, and the system requirements are naturally targeted around what those platforms can handle,” she explained. “Since Mac is a downstream port of these versions, and Macs were well-aligned with last-gen console specs, we were able to easily move games from PC and console over to Mac.”
Finally, Howard and Smith cited the shift to digital distribution. While this was disruptive and concerning for the industry at first, it turned out to be a major boon for Mac-centric gamers.
“2011 was the last year Apple carried any physical game boxes in their stores,” Howard said. “There was a time we thought this would mean the demise of Mac gaming.” Within a few years, Apple was no longer shipping computers with physical media drives at all; the platform abandoned them more quickly than the PC market did. But rather than hurt Mac developers, it helped. Digital marketplaces like Steam and the Mac App Store “made it much easier for us to get our games to end users,” said Smith. “And as a result, our customer base has grown.”
Mac For Gaming 2018
Howard also sees the new marketplace as an improvement: “Digital distribution had a huge impact on our business. It’s obviously much easier for people to buy games, we had a big catalog to leverage with this new audience, and it’s much easier on cash flow with no cost of goods. It was a huge shift.”
Pc Or Mac For Gaming
And all this has made the Mac a more vibrant gaming platform than ever before. Mac games have a substantially larger addressable market, the economics of scale are more favorable, and for a while, the hardware was in a sweet spot. With plenty of great games available on the Mac, gamer snark has been looking less and less applicable in recent years.