The Weird, Cyclical State of Mac Gaming
May 9, 2023 • Extra Ordinary
Lately, Apple has been trying to drum up interest in a Mac gaming community. Despite touting the versatility of their Metal APIs and the power of their hardware, the industry does not seem to have responded to Apple’s latest efforts.
Apple has been here before, but it might play out different this time.
A brief heyday
Believe it or not, the Mac was once a strong platform for gaming. A standard part of the Keynote pitch for the latest Power Mac in the ’90s typically included a segment playing Quake II, Halo, a top PC game of the time.
They mostly got there by accident. Developers liked the QuickDraw 3D graphics API. Kids, ask your parents (…if your parents were massive Apple nerds back in the ’90s). While Classic Mac OS was a primitive operating system, it was well-understood and well-documented.
In switching to Mac OS X, an unreliable new platform that was too powerful to comfortably run on anything less than a top-of-the-line machine; in ditching the versatile and popular InputSprockets API for the buggy new HID Manager; it’s no wonder that soon into the Mac OS X era, Apple quietly stopped talking about gaming.
To get a better understanding of where the market is today, I consulted several different lists and compiled the most commonly-cited titles of popular Mac games:
- Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2019)
- Civilization VI (2016)
- Stardew Valley (2016)
- Hades (2020)
- The Sims 4 (2014)
- Fortnite (2017)
- Kerbal Space Program (2015)
- Cities: Skylines (2015)
- Elder Scrolls Online (2014)
- Cuphead (2018)
You can see that the Mac actually had a quiet comeback to AAA gaming in the second half of the 2010s. I myself logged hundreds of hours in Cities: Skylines and American Truck Simulator on my 2015 MacBook Pro. Granted, if a Mac release came at all it was often late, killing much of the launch momentum, but nonetheless, these are popular well-known titles.
We got here again because Mac ports were easy to supply, not because Mac games were in overwhelming demand. The Mac and PC were synchronized on the 64-bit Intel architecture and OpenGL. Hell, even if your favorite title wasn’t on the Mac, you could just boot into Windows.
Nothing lasts forever. In dropping 32-bit app support in macOS Catalina, in refusing to provide first-party support for the fast-growing new Vulkan API and in switching to Apple silicon, Apple has once again shaken off game studio interest like water off a dog.
Mac gaming post-Apple silicon
At every Mac introduction, Apple has been touting M1- and M2-friendly games like No Man’s Sky, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and… well, that’s pretty much it.
I can’t say that either of the Mac’s two AAA titles are my style. But that’s not the end of the story — I decided to turn to Apple Arcade. Most of the selection is comprised of 2D games clearly designed first for the iPhone, and trust me, we’ll get back to that. But first, I set out to find the most impressive, stunning 3D graphics — the games that I figured would make the most of my new M2 Pro machine.
In play testing Asphalt 8 and Gear.Club-Stradale, I was reasonably impressed for several thrilling minutes until the race was over and you could bask in the blocky environments and low-resolution textures.
One of those above screenshots is actually from GRID Autosport for the Playstation 3, a console that released in 2006. They’re within spitting distance of each other in terms of shadows, reflections and lighting.
As I alluded to, these are clearly iPhone games first.
- Sometimes the game is too shy about hiding the cursor and it stays visible the entire time.
- Sometimes the game is too bold in hiding the cursor and you have to navigate a series of menus completely blind.
- Sometimes you have to scroll through a list with no scroll buttons, so you use the two-finger scroll gesture and it flies through a hundred items in one flick.
- More often than not, there’s no keyboard control for things like pause and resume.
It doesn’t instill confidence that developers care about the Mac.
To bring back the Mac gaming market, the games need to be easier to port and the demand must be overwhelming.
Microsoft, a company that has seemingly killed more ARM-based operating systems than they’ve shipped, is being outpaced by the Amish community in adopting the new architecture. The thought of headline-breaking PC games being compiled simulataneously for Windows on ARM and Apple silicon is a dream.
So, the supply will continue to be thin.
And the Mac community has largely given up on expecting AAA titles to come to our favorite platform. Diehard Mac users who care about gaming throw in their cards and build a gaming PC — Cult of Mac’s Setups series had three (1) (2) (3) joint Mac & PC setups in the March alone.
So, the demand will continue to be thin.
History suggests that given time, tides will turn once again. All we need to do is ask Microsoft for a public release of Windows 11 on ARM, ask Apple to bring back Boot Camp and ask major game studios to move beyond the Intel x86_64 architecture.
How long could that take?
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