Apple’s operating system has always received the short end of the stick when it comes to games. There were several good reasons for this, but the switch from PowerPC to Intel a decade ago eliminated one major barrier and, as a result, Mac gaming has slowly improved over the last decade.
But can players finally ditch Windows completely and use a Mac for work and play?
Hardware’s Steady March Forward
With the exception of the Mac Pro, which is powerful but also very expensive, nothing in the Mac lineup is specifically targeted towards extreme power users and nothing, including the Mac Pro, is built for gamers alone. Whatever limited interest Apple has in gaming has grown in response to the success of mobile games on the iTunes and Mac App Stores.
Yet the steady forward march of hardware, combined with a lack of interest among developers in building games that target higher specced machines has created a favorable atmosphere for Mac gaming. Even a MacBook Air or Mac Mini will play a number of recent games, like Divinity: Original Sin, Civilization V and The Walking Dead, at low to medium detail.
Spring for a MacBook Pro or iMac and you’re in even better shape, as you’ll have at least Intel’s Iris 5100 (the best integrated graphics solution available) or a discrete graphics chip. These configurations can handle any game that’s compatible with your Mac, though you may in some cases be restricted to medium detail. Buyers should also be aware that not all games play nice with Retina MacBook Pros, so you may have to run them at a reduced resolution or deal with mediocre performance.
Gamers would still love to see a variety of graphics options for the MacBook Pro and iMac, of course, but Apple’s decision to make a base level of discrete graphics performance standard among most of its lineup is the next-best thing. Today’s models also use hardware commonly available to PCs, which means running a game under Windows via Boot Camp is a cinch.
Less Reason To Wait
Hardware parity between Mac and Windows systems has helped developers bring out OS X versions of their software more quickly than ever before. The latest games from Blizzard have released simultaneously on Windows and Mac OS X, Civilization V arrived on the Mac just a month after its Windows debut, and Defense Of The Ancients 2 has been developed for both simultaneously. Cutting down on the lag between Windows and OS X helps Mac gamers stay up-to-date with current releases.
Steam has further eased the pain with the introduction of SteamPlay. Titles sold with this feature only need to be purchased once to play on all compatible platforms. Players can even access saves between Linux, Mac and Windows machines. Blizzard and Electronics Arts have followed the same approach and no longer sell separate Mac OS X editions; instead your license entitles you to play on both Mac and Windows.
The introduction of cross-platform game licensing means that there’s less reason to fear a delay in the release of an OS X client. You can simply play the game in Windows via Boot Camp until the Mac version is ready and then continue on afterwards, often with the same save game.
Indies Love The Mac
Smaller studios struggle with meagre budgets and stretched teams, but that hasn’t been a barrier for entry into OS X gaming. About half of the top-20 best-selling indie games on Steam support Mac OS X and SteamPlay. That ratio is maintained throughout the store; about 700 of the 1460 titles categorized as “indie” offer OS X support. In fact, two-thirds of all games that support OS X are listed as “indie”, leaving large studios to contribute the remaining third.
Indie support for Mac might not make much sense at first, but there are a few good reasons for it. The tools used by small developers contribute to this because unlike big studios, which build their own game engines from the ground up to support cutting-edge features and outrageous graphics, indies rely on packaged toolsets like Unity or Unreal Engine. Such tools are often built with cross-platform support in mind, which makes distributing a game on both Windows and OS X an easy, viable and more profitable decision for developers.
Smaller studios also seem to benefit more from releasing on OS X than raw usage statistics suggest. Less than 5% of computers worldwide are built by Apple, but developers often see more than 5% of their sales come from OS X gamers. It’s possible the Mac’s limited selection means there’s less competition, which gives small studios lost in the noise of PC gaming a chance to stand out on the Mac. In short, indies develop for Mac because you – the Mac gamer – are likely to buy their game if they do.
Many Games Are Still Missing
The unexpected support indies continue to receive outlines a fundamental problem that continues to plague Mac gamers: a lack of consideration from large studios. None of the best selling games of 2013 were available on the Mac with the exception of Minecraft (the Xbox 360 version made the list at number 9). Console games continue to top charts and studios often can’t be troubled to build a half-decent PC port, let alone a Mac version!
Even games built exclusively or primarily for computers tend to favor Windows. At the time of this writing only nine of the top twenty-five best selling games on Steam offer OS X support. Top-ranked titles that remain Windows only include EverQuest Next, DayZ and Skyrim (yes, Skyrim is still among the top 25).
You can, of course, work around this limitation by using Boot Camp to install Windows. This will set you back $100 for a Windows OEM license, however, and switching to Windows every time you want to play a game is far from convenient. You may also run into small (or, on occasion, major) issues relating to hardware compatibility. Retina displays can cause trouble in Windows as well as in OS X; some games just weren’t designed to handle anything beyond 2560x1440p.
As the saying goes: “The more things change, the more the stay the same.” Mac gamers have more options than ever before, but major titles are still more likely to ignore OS X than embrace it.
SteamOS – A New Hope?
Valve’s SteamOS has progressed slowly and, at first glance, seems more bane than boon. Adding another platform to the list developers might target threatens the Mac’s position as the second largest operating system a studio might develop for. And while SteamOS can technically run on a Mac, its unknown if Valve will put any effort into making installation easy.
There is a light on the horizon, though: both operating systems use OpenGL. This graphics API was born in 1992 but has been overshadowed by Microsoft’s DirectX for the last decade, which in turn has made porting games built for DirectX a real hassle. Unlike OpenGL, which is open-source, DirectX is in the hands of Microsoft, and it can’t be used by platforms Redmond doesn’t control. This is the single largest barrier preventing ports from Windows to OS X.
If SteamOS becomes popular, OpenGL will be more relevant. More developers will make games for OpenGL and porting games to OS X will be simpler as a result. Mobile platforms often use OpenGL too, further bolstering the strength of this open-source API. The combined popularity of Android, iOS, OS X and Linux/SteamOS may be enough to topple Microsoft’s DirectX, even if Windows remains the most popular computer operating system.
In a way, then, SteamOS could be a boon for Mac gaming even if Valve puts no effort into making the operating system easy for Mac owners to install and use. It’s still anyone’s guess if Valve’s endeavor will be successful, but Mac gamers should be cheering it on.
There’s no doubt the Mac gaming scene has improved drastically over the last decade. There are more games available for the platform than one gamer could ever hope to finish and many highly praised titles can now be enjoyed without using Boot Camp to switch to Windows. And, when Boot Camp is used, the similarities between Mac and Windows hardware make compatibility issues less likely than ever before.
When compared to itself, then, Mac gaming is in a great place. Whether it holds up next to Windows is a different question, and the answer depends on your preferences.
Gamers who do all their gaming on a computer will still find OS X lacking because only a tiny fraction of big-name releases ever make their way to the platform. Yes, you can use Boot Camp, but why pay for a Mac (and then pay more for a Windows license) if computer gaming is the end goal? There’s still no answer to that question, and as such members of the “PC gaming master race” will stick with Windows.
If you don’t mind playing games on a console, however, OS X is a fine choice. Most game that never come to the Mac (like Battlefield 4, Call of Duty: Ghosts and Dark Souls II) can be enjoyed on the PlayStation or Xbox. A Mac, meanwhile, can play indie games that are only available on computers. We’re still a long way from the day a gamer buys a Mac for games, but the current state of Mac gaming is manageable for gamers who already own a home console.
Do you play games on your Mac? Which ones? Talk about it in the comments, below.