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
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.
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.
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.