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Apple computers, like all of the company’s products, are supposed to be more intuitive and user-friendly than the alternative. Generally that is true, but there are some areas where Macs clearly fall behind the competition. Gaming is one such area.
Gamers who want to use a Mac shouldn’t give up hope, however. The experience is not as simple as it is with Windows, but with the right software and hardware, it’s still possible to have an experience similar to what PC gamers enjoy. Here’s what you need to know – and buy – to get the most out of Mac gaming.
Find Games for Mac
Gaming on the Mac turned a corner when the old PowerPC processors were kicked to the curb in favour of Intel x86 processors, identical to those used in PCs. This has made it easier for developers to port over to the Mac, or develop a PC and Mac version in tandem, so there’s now a fair selection of titles. We’ve recently rounded up some great picks in top-ten lists for strategy games on Mac and role-playing games on Mac.
Major digital game stores like Steam, GOG and Origin now have Mac sections with a wide variety of entries both new and old. While the majority of games are still released for PC exclusively, many of the largest and most popular titles come to Mac as well, so the selection’s not bad at all. Recent games like Starcraft II, DOTA2, Civilization V and Borderlands 2 are available, among others. Prices are usually the same for the Mac version, and in some cases, buying one copy of the game provides a PC and a Mac copy.
Amazon is also a great place to look for Mac games, as you’ll often find older titles that haven’t made their way to digital platforms for one reason or another. You can pick up Star Wars: Knights Of The Old Republic for $9.99, as well as classics like Roller Coaster Tycoon and Civilization IV (but make sure you’re not buying PowerPC versions).
Buy Windows (or Download WINE)
The selection of games for OS X has certainly increased since Apple decided to switch to Intel processors, but Mac owners still miss out on a lot. Steam, for example, lists a 750 games, which seems like a huge number – but it’s not a lot compared to the thousands Windows users can enjoy. Serious gamers will miss out on some must-play titles by sticking to OS X.
There are two different paths that provide access to Windows games. The most complicated one involves installing Windows through Boot Camp or using a virtualization environment like Parallels. We’ve already covered each in previous articles, so check the links for more information.
The advantage to going with Windows is that you’ll obtain the best performance and compatibility possible on your Mac. For all the games are concerned, you’re actually playing on a PC. This is balanced by cost and convenience, however, as you’ll have to buy Windows and then boot into that OS whenever you want to play a game.
Those on a budget might want to try WINE instead. This free program uses Windows APIs to launch PC executables without booting into the Windows operating system. Sounds great, right? The downside is limited compatibility, performance sacrifices and lack of support. If WINE seems complicated, you can instead try using WineBottler to run Windows apps on Mac.
Grab a Gaming Mouse and Xbox 360 Controller
The navigation devices used by Apple are pretty nice for browsing the web, but gaming? Not so much. The shortage of buttons, poor resolution and reliance on multi-touch makes the average Mac mouse rather useless for gamers.
Most third-party replacements are Windows only, but there are some alternatives. These include the Steelseries Diablo III, MadCatz R.A.T. 5 and most of Razer’s products. It’s important to note that while almost any mouse will “work” with OS X, the special drivers and functions a gaming mouse provides may not be functional if the mouse doesn’t specifically state it offers Mac support.
While you’re at it, you should also pick up an Xbox 360 controller. Microsoft’s gamepad is sort of an industry standard now, and most titles ported to the PC/Mac from console will assume any gamepad connected is a 360 controller (rather than, say, a Dual Shock 3).
The controller doesn’t explicitly support Mac, but an independent user has created a 360 controller driver that works with both the wired and wireless versions. You will also need to buy the Microsoft Wireless Gaming Receiver to use a wireless controller, so a wired controller might be a better choice for budget gamers. If you have a PS3 controller you’d prefer to use, you can read our guide on connecting controllers to a Mac without having to buy anything else.
Buy A Cooling Pad (If You Have A MacBook)
I’ve owned and reviewed a few MacBooks in my time, and something I’ve noticed is their tendency to run very hot when playing modern 3D games. This is actually true of most laptops not built specifically for gaming, PC or Mac, but there are no MacBooks built with gaming in mind.
The heat probably won’t damage your hardware, but it can damage your experience, as the toasty keyboard will become uncomfortable within minutes. A cooling pad can help solve the problem without much expense. Some great options include the Cooler Master NotePal X-Slim, Targus Chill Mat and Logitech N315. The Logitech is particularly nice for travellers because it has a built-in retractable mouse pad.
What You Don’t Need, But Want: External Graphics Card
The tips provided so far will pretty much get you up to speed with Mac gaming. You’ll have the ability to play Windows titles, a nice mouse, a gamepad, and a cooler to keep your MacBook humming along. There’s nothing else you need to do, but there is something else – a rather crazy something else – you can do. Add a graphics card.
You see, Thunderbolt has a nifty feature that’s not often discussed; the ability to act as a PCIe bridge. In other words, it can communicate in a language video cards understand. And a fellow who goes by the name of Kloper at Tech Inferno figured out how to use that capability to connect an external graphics card to a MacBook Air. His build requires about $250 worth of equipment in addition to the video card itself.
As you might expect, the hack is a bit complex, but it’s not all that bad and contains no real risk; worse come to worse, you can just give up and return the parts you purchased. The real downside to this is that the finished external card is rather bulky and requires its own power supply, so this is only practical for gaming at home.
You now know everything you need to play games on your Mac as well as you would on a PC. You’ll have access to just as many titles, you’ll have great peripherals, and you’ll have a setup that runs cool under load. What more could a gamer ask for?
Add your tips for getting the most out of an Apple computer’s gaming potential in the comments, below.