Gaming on a Mac in 2021

On September 19th, 2019, we released Crying Suns on Steam and GOG. Since then, the game has also been released on iOS, on Android and on the Epic Games Store. On all PC digital stores, the game is available for Windows and for macOS.

I have been a Mac user for the past 14 years, I work on Mac and I play a lot of games on my computer. Basically, if our games run on Mac, it’s on me. But I hear very often that Macs are not gaming machines. This is only true to some extent. Here’s why.

A Brief History of Mac Gaming

It is often forgotten by younger audiences that PC gaming really took off in the late 70s until early 90s on the Apple II and the Macintosh. Some wildly popular games such as Prince of Persia or Myst have been originally released on Apple machines, preceding any other port by at least a year. Even Bungie, original creators of Halo, debuted with Marathon on the Mac.

Prince of Persia (1989) and Myst (1993)

But during the 90s, Apple was losing ground and became a niche product targeted at creatives. Game studios saw way more opportunities in the rise of Windows, and produced a lot less efforts to bring their games to a wider audience. MacOS (with a capital M) was then a very different operating system. And at the same time, Microsoft was pushing their Direct APIs (DirectDraw, Direct3D and others, now DirectX) that take advantage of accelerated hardware. Macs seemed way behind on that front, and the status quo will remain as such until the late 2000s.

When the iPhone launched in 2007 and the App Store in 2008, Macs were mainly used for productivity and creative work. The general public used Windows PCs. Despite that, many games have been ported over the years, primarily thanks to Aspyr Media or Feral Interactive. But Macs were not seen as a viable gaming platform.

The self-publishing opportunity brought by the App Store and the iPhone changed the paradigm and many small indie developers started to make games for the smartphone and the new market it opened. Some middleware software or game engines like Unity saw a huge growth in the mobile space and exploded in popularity.

In 2010, the Steam platform became available for Mac OS X. The Macs, with fewer games available than on their Windows counterparts, became an interesting market opportunity again and indies took their chance, helped by game engines able to export to almost any major platform.

State of Mac Gaming in 2021

However, even if Macs are once again popular, maybe more than ever, the market share remains small. The latest steam hardware survey counts only 3.44% of Mac users. This is way more than Linux (0.91%) but only a tiny piece of the Windows cake (95.65%). We saw about the same proportion of players with our game Crying Suns, with 4.2% of sales coming from the Mac.

Operating systems respective market share according to the Steam hardware survey for January 2021

The Hardware

It will come as no surprise to anybody that one of the main reasons for the small market share of the Macs comes from the price. Apple computers are expensive. And, at least for Intel Macs, they are not fast gaming machines compared to what the rest of the PC ecosystem has to offer.

When Apple cut nVidia out of their catalog at the end of 2010, they replaced them with the only other choice they had for a dedicated graphics cards supplier: AMD. Unfortunately, at that time and until recently, AMD was behind nVidia in terms of raw performance and despite a lot of optimizations from Apple and AMD, Macs were not huge power houses for gaming. The focus remained on productivity and creative apps.

Furthermore, MacBooks (vanilla, Air or Pro - the most popular kind of Macs) in their Intel version generate a lot of heat under sustained load. And games, especially big AAA games, tend to maintain hardware under sustained load for a long period. Desktops like the 27" iMacs were better suited for gaming, with their big beautiful screens and their more powerful dedicated graphics cards. However, even with this form-factor, Intel iMacs are limited to low power versions of the CPU and the GPU. Nothing comparable to a common gaming rig with a proper desktop-class CPU and a 300-Watt GPU.

The Software

The Apple difference, whatever that means for you, exists also on the software side. From the operating system with macOS to the graphics API with Metal, everything is different on Apple computers. And that’s another blow to compatibility for games (and apps in general). You can’t just take your Windows game and make it run on a Mac. Game studios have to build a specific version. That takes time and money and many don’t see the benefit of such an investment when the market share is so low. In some cases, developers even don’t recoup the cost of the machine(s) needed to build and test the games.

macOS Big Sur is the latest iteration of the Mac operating system

And those who did take the risk have to maintain their games. Indeed, in 2019, Apple basically killed a lot of old games with the release of macOS Catalina and the drop of 32 bits apps support. Many old games were 32 bits only and have not been updated yet, if ever.

If you’re like me and want to continue playing some of your old games, install macOS Mojave on an external drive and boot from there (or in a virtual machine).

Native Support of Controllers

At the same time Catalina killed so many games, it also brought support for popular game controllers, namely the DualShock 4 and some wireless Xbox controllers. Many controllers were already supported by third-party software but macOS now handles those natively.

This move was intimately tied to the release of Apple Arcade (see below). And it is one of many small steps towards making the Mac a better gaming platform (with varying degrees of success).

macOS Big Sur 11.3 should bring support for the DualSense and the Xbox Series X|S controller.

Apple Arcade

This new gaming subscription service opened to the general public on September 19th, 2019 (yes… the same day as Crying Suns). The initial promise was to offer more than 100 exclusively curated ad-free premium-like games for US$4.99 or €4.99.

Apple Arcade is available on all Apple platforms.

And indeed, at the time of writing, there are more than 100 games available on Apple Arcade. However, it is debatable to which audience it is targeted. The service has been marketed towards the average gamer but, in practice, most of the games are designed as short and light experiences instead of very engaging adventures (except maybe for multiplayer titles I don’t play). There are a few gems in the lot that deserve to be played though: Necrobarista, Assemble with Care, The Last Campfire, Cat Quest II, etc.

To many (and to Apple it seems), Arcade is a disappointment and a lot of early subscribers did not commit past the free trial period. But the recent titles like Lumen or Alba: A Wildlife Adventure seem to offer more qualitative experiences. And there more to come with productions like Fantasian.

Digital Distribution Platforms

All major digital game distribution platforms are available on the Mac, notably Steam, GOG (including GOG Galaxy) and the Epic Games Store. On every one of them, games can be filtered by the operating system. It has never been so easy to get access to games on macOS.

Now is the time to address the elephant in the room: the Mac App Store. This is a great source for productivity apps but it has been a very low key store for games for a long time, plagued with low quality ports coming directly from iOS. You can find great games on it, but the offer is scarce. Its only real use is to give you access to Apple Arcade games. It also offers the option for cross-platform purchases with iOS and the Apple TV but it has not been used a lot for games where mobile ports are generally priced lower.

A Quick Tip for Developers (and Players)

As we saw earlier, with the advent of macOS Catalina, 32 bits games are not supported anymore. Old distribution platforms like Steam require that developers change the distribution options for their games, but many did not update that part. Indeed, many games released before Catalina were already Universal binaries including 32 and 64 bits versions. But if the developers or publishers of such games did not update the distribution information on Steam, they appear as incompatible.

If you’re a developer, I encourage you to look into your distribution options and check that “64 bits” box to make your game available on Catalina, Big Sur and later versions of macOS.

As players, you can also help. Even if the games are displayed as incompatible, Steam allows you to install them and try to run them. If they work, notify the developers or publishers on social media to let them know. Once again, the right compatibility status is only a checkbox away.

Alternatives

OK. You’re gaming on a Mac but the game you want to play is not available for macOS. What can you do?

Bootcamp

If you have an Intel Mac, you can probably install Windows by using Bootcamp. What Bootcamp does is basically splitting your internal storage in two different partitions (you can adjust the size of each one) and allows you to install Windows on the second partition. You can then boot to macOS or Windows depending on what you need to do. Once Windows is running, it is a full native version of the system and you can play your games just like on any Windows machine.

Bootcamp support has been dropped on Apple Silicon (M1) Macs, for now at least.

CrossOver and the Likes

CrossOver (paid) or PlayOnMac (free) are simplified packaged versions of a tool called Wine that allows you to run Windows native apps, including games, on macOS (and Linux).

Not all apps or games are working but many are. However, there is a cost as Wine will notably translate DirectX calls to Metal or to OpenGL to make the game work and it can be slow. However, CrossOver on Apple Silicon (M1) Macs seem to be very efficient in some cases.

Cloud Gaming

Many cloud gaming services have seen the light of day recently: GeForce Now, Xbox Cloud Gaming, Stadia (RIP), … I will only focus on GeForce Now and the PlayStation Remote App.

GeForce Now client app

nVidia GeForce Now allows you to play selected games from your own Steam, Ubisoft or Epic libraries for free (with limitations) or for a small monthly fee (with priority queues and the power of a RTX card). Basically, you select your game, you connect to your platform of choice and you play. You can even play through Chrome without the need of installing the native client.

Access your PS4 or PS5 remotely with the PlayStation Remote App

On another hand, the PlayStation Remote App has been made available on the Mac while the PlayStation Now app remains Windows only. Through the Remote App, you can access your PS4 or your PS5 and play your games remotely. If you’re a PlayStation Now subscriber, you can’t stream your favorite PS2 or PS3 games from your Mac (you can’t chain streaming) but you still can play PS4 or PS5 games if you download them to the console first.

What to Come?

As always with Apple, it is very difficult to know what’s coming on their platform. What’s sure is that the Mac is a much more appealing platform for gaming than it was ten years ago. It is far from perfect and there is a lot of ground to regain but the new Apple Silicon chips are very efficient and 2021 should reveal even more powerful versions.

The Vulkan graphics API is not natively supported on macOS, but the MoltenVK compatibility layer should improve availability of games using Vulkan on the Mac.

The main question for gaming now resides in the existence of a dedicated graphics card in future Apple desktop machines. The answer should come in June during the WWDC.

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Christophe SAUVEUR

Christophe SAUVEUR

French Video Game Lead Developer @ Alt Shift. I experiment a lot. I share what I discover. Personal website: https://chsxf.dev