Gaming on the Mac is terrible, right? That’s been the consensus among gamers for over a decade – Ars even declared Mac gaming completely dead in 2007. But in reality, the situation has gotten better. And after Apple paid an unprecedented amount of attention to Mac gaming at WWDC 2017, things may look good for Mac gamers in the coming years.
When Apple announced new Macs and a major update to its graphics API for Mac at this year’s developer conference, there was a sense of hope among Mac gamers and developers. Gaming on a Mac can 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 installed base. Additionally, Mac discrete graphics processors have seen some of their biggest boosts in recent years, VR support is on the way, and external GPU cases promise previously impossible upgradability.
So gaming on the Mac is getting better, but is it? good or still terrible? Are we on the road to parity with Windows? Speaking to game developers specializing in the Mac about the state of Mac gaming in the wake of WWDC, Ars encountered a lot of optimism. Still, there’s plenty to be careful with.
Decades in a niche
In gamer communities on forums and Reddit, Mac gaming is often the subject of jokes and snarky comments. Again, such a snarl was not always without justification. There just haven’t been many good games on the Mac for years. Nevertheless, a few companies have continuously worked to fill the niche. Two in particular emerged as market leaders: Aspyr Media and Feral Interactive.
Aspyr was founded way back in 1996, originally as a retail distributor. The port aspect of the company came later, with the first game being released in 1998 – Eidos’ Tomb Raider II. Feral also started in 1996. 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 seen first-hand all the major changes to the platform that have taken place over the past two decades,” Edwin Smith, Feral’s head of production, told Ars. He cited changes such as the arrival 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 1990s and early 2000s used a different processing architecture than the Windows PCs for which most games were developed in the first place. It also didn’t help 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 has struggled to keep up in the meantime. And frankly, Macs weren’t very popular at the time, so the audience was small. It was obvious to gamers that the Mac was not a competitive platform in the PowerPC days.
“In the years leading up to the move to Intel CPUs in Macs, the porting process involved converting games to run on PowerPC hardware,” Smith said. “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 to how PowerPC architecture worked, we had to solve some interesting problems.”
Climbing in the sun
Players using the current Mac offerings live in a different landscape. Things have gotten a lot rosier over the past decade for a number of reasons.
First, there was the switch to Intel. By using the same architecture used on most Windows PCs, Apple has taken the Mac out of a software engineering wasteland. Second, Mac sales grew significantly at the same time. According to data collected by Statista, 3.29 million Macs were sold worldwide in 2004. In 2015, that number was over 20 million.
“Apple now sells in a quarter of what they used to sell in a year, so the overall market opportunity has grown from what used to be normal,” Elizabeth Howard, vice president of publishing at Aspyr, told Ars.
The hardware situation also looked better. Macs enjoyed what Howard called a “halo effect” from the previous generation of consoles. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 remained the standard for gaming hardware for nearly a decade – longer than many other console generations. That longevity allowed the Mac’s laptop-grade graphics hardware to overtake this industry standard.
“Most video games are developed with console or PC as the lead platform, and the system requirements are naturally focused on what those platforms can handle,” she explains. “Because Mac is a downstream port of these versions and Macs were well matched to the specifications of the last generation of consoles, we were able to move games from PC and console to Mac with ease.”
Finally, Howard and Smith mentioned the shift to digital distribution. While this was initially disruptive and worrisome to the industry, it turned out to be a big boon for Mac-centric gamers.
“2011 was the last year Apple had physical game boxes in their stores,” Howard says. “There was a time when we thought this would spell the demise of Mac gaming.” In a few years, Apple will stop shipping computers with physical media drives at all; the platform let them down faster than the PC market did. But instead of hurting 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,” Smith says. “And as a result, our customer base has grown.”
Howard also sees the new marketplace as an improvement: “Digital distribution had a huge impact on our business. Obviously it’s much easier for people to buy games, we had a big catalog to take advantage of with this new audience, and it’s much easier for cash flow with no cost of goods. It was a huge shift.”
And all of this has made the Mac a more vibrant gaming platform than ever before. Mac games have a significantly larger addressable market, economies of scale are more favorable, and for a while the hardware was in a good place. With many great games available on the Mac, gamer snark seems less and less applicable in recent years.