Now that the Mac update dry spell is about to end this coming Thursday, I thought it was time to revisit a topic that is near and dear to my heart: PC Gaming on the Mac. Ever since I started coveting a Mac back in the mid-2000s, the topic of Mac gaming has always stuck with me. I can't help it; I love PC games. My childhood memories are filled with PC platformers, strategy games and educational puzzlers. When I started high school my love for PC gaming was reignited again with games like Warcraft III and its most famous mod DotA. It shouldn't come as a surprise that I wanted to have my cake and eat it when I wanted to continue my PC gaming hobby even as I was switching from Windows. Even almost a decade into the Apple ecosystem, one thing still hasn't changed: Mac Gaming Still Sucks.
Despite genuinely enjoying using the Mac I was still a PC gamer at heart, and seeing the Mac's gaming prowess go almost nowhere for almost a decade is heartbreaking. Maybe the Mac was never meant to game, maybe PC gaming is too much of a niche on top of an existing niche. Those are valid points, but it will always bother me that the potential to have the perfect PC platform for me (Gaming + Mac) was there, but never achieved.
Lack of Hardware
There are two components of a computer that make PC gaming remotely possible: the CPU and the GPU. If you wanted an especially rich and immersive gaming experience, having a good GPU is an absolute must. As most people who criticize the Mac will tell you, Macs don't deliver on the GPU front.
Ever since Macs started to use Intel processors in the mid-2000s, Apple has always stuck to using integrated graphics in their mainstream Macs. Intel's integrated GPU was enough to handle movie playback and other basic media experiences, but left a lot to be desired when it came to gaming. Adding a dedicated GPU that was actually capable of gaming would have added power consumption, weight and cost. Apple is unwilling to add any of these to their mainstream lineup, and instead reserved the GPU for their more professional lineup. It is a complete lie that Macs are $2000 Facebook machines, but calling them $2000 gaming machines is right on the money.
To be fair, things are a lot better now than they were before for those with integrated graphics. The early-2010s saw Intel renew their commitment to integrated graphics. Integrated GPUs suddenly found themselves with more silicon, and some power consumption that previously went exclusively to the CPU were now redirected to graphics. Nowadays an integrated GPU can play some modern games at low settings, whereas before it was nigh impossible.
Still, PC gaming continues to be unkind to integrated GPUs and the Mac. Some big budget titles flat out require the massive amounts of graphics horsepower that only a separate graphics chip can provide. Unfortunately this is a physics problem that is extremely difficult to overcome. As long as the average gaming PC continues to run hardware that consumes many times more power than a Mac noteboook to run their games, PC games will continue to target the kind computers that are antithetical to what makes the Mac so great. For there to be a level playing field between Macs and Gaming PCs, either the Mac needs to add more power consumption to access more firepower, or the PC needs to lower it's definition of "high performance" to include low-power computers like the 13-inch Macbook Pro. Neither are budging.
Lack of Software
It's bad enough that the Mac is locked out of running a certain class of games based on hardware alone, but the software aspect of game development makes things even worse. Microsoft's DirectX API contributed to Windows' dominance in the PC gaming market, and as the industry standard it very much ensured that PC games targeted Windows first, and often exclusively.
Developers wishing to support other platforms had to rewrite their games to support an alternative graphics API like OpenGL. While OpenGL is an open standard and is supported across multiple platforms (including Windows and Mac), its ancient heritage meant it wasn't optimized for modern computer architectures, and lacked game-specific features that made DirectX an industry powerhouse to begin with. It also didn't help that OpenGL was designed by committee, meaning its development was bogged down by bureaucracy. Microsoft, on the other hand, can iterate DirectX as quickly as it wants.
The legacy cruft and slow development of OpenGL can be blamed for the Mac's lackluster support for PC games that could have actually ran on its hardware. Combined with the fact that DirectX was (arguably) more developer-friendly, was reliably supported by every graphics vendor, and immediately supported over 90% of the PC market, should it come as no surprise why Mac gaming is seen as an afterthought?
Other Little Things
There are other little things that make Mac gaming an even worse proposition. Support for controllers is abysmal, meaning games like platformers don't have plug and play support on the Mac. Apple also doesn't support the latest version of OpenGL on the Mac, making the herculean task of porting games on the Mac possibly more difficult since it's cross-platform API is behind other platforms when it comes to features.
Lastly there's the fact that Apple no longer updates its Macs as aggressively as it used to. That means the GPUs in our Macs are falling behind in the gaming race simply because they are getting older, but Apple isn't providing updated hardware to keep up with the times. The fact that Apple's high-end Mac Pro doesn't have the hardware to support VR should say a lot. This might get partially resolved with this week's keynote, but it doesn't excuse the agonizing waiting game that Apple made us play these past couple of years.
Glimmers of Hope
Things are in dire straits right now for Mac gamers, but no matter how much it sucks, I still see hope for Mac gaming going forward.
The first piece of optimism I have is the possibility for external GPUs. The Macs that are expected to be introduced this Thursday will most likely come with Thunderbolt 3, a data transfer protocol with enough bandwidth to support external graphics cards. This means Apple can continue to make their Macs thinner and lighter, while a gamer can use an external GPU to turn her Mac into a viable gaming machine. Right now the technology is still really expensive, but hopefully that will change a few years from now.
Another reason to get excited is the meteoric rise of third-party game engines. The increased horsepower of mobile devices has allowed companies like Unity and Epic Games to scale their game engines from smartphones all the way up to consoles and gaming rigs. This desire to embrace cross-platform development has benefited the Mac as well. For the first time in a long time the Mac is now a first-class citizen of the Unreal Engine.
Lastly, I think Apple's Metal API is going to help the Mac in the long run. When the Unity Engine and Unreal Engine finally support Metal, there will finally be the potential for high quality games that run very well on the Mac. Many games now run on either of these engines, and adding Metal support could actually legitimize the Mac as a viable gaming platform.
Not all of these things are set in stone, so it's not as if Mac gaming is going to be a guaranteed thing. Still, it would be nice to finally live in a future where Mac gaming is a thing. This week's keynote is unlikely to immediately solve the Mac's gaming pains, but maybe it doesn't have to. Maybe all that Apple needs to do is continue to make the Mac a platform worth investing in, and should these upcoming developments come true, everything else will hopefully fall into place.
To be clear I would still prefer that Apple add Vulkan support to iOS and macOS in addition to Metal. For developers making their own game engine, the idea of supporting a third graphics API doesn't do the Mac any favors. At least iOS has market leverage; macOS doesn't. ↩︎