Apple’s relationship to videogames has a complicated history. While the Apple II was a popular machine for developers in the late 70s and early 80s and iOS has radically altered the landscape of mobile gaming, Apple's Macintosh lineup has never seen the same support from developers. Sure, games like the original Myst and the Marathon series got started on the Mac, but Microsoft's Windows (and DOS before it) became the de facto platform for computer videogames.
In theory, the Mac's struggle could simply be chalked up to two things: a lack of prevalent market share (around 10% of all desktop users use macOS, and only 3% of all Steam users game on Mac), which in turn results in lessened developer support. But iOS has less market share than Android, yet mobile developers strongly support the device. Why does the Mac not have the same support?
There are two primarily issues with gaming on Mac: its limited selection of hardware, and the lack of support for graphic drivers and APIs.
Since the early 2010s, Apple has been transitioning their computers away from user-accessible parts. Apple wants control of the internal hardware and software. With the advent of high-speed input/output ports in Thunderbolt 3 and USB 3.0, external hardware upgrades have become simpler. Though you can’t update the internal hard drive on the majority of the Mac lineup, but you can plug in an external one.
And while it’s impossible to update the internal central processing unit (CPU) or graphical processing unit (GPU) of a Mac, users are able to utilize external GPUs (eGPUs) as of macOS High Sierra (version 10.13). This is a huge boon to the potential of transforming both Apple’s laptops and desktops into machines that are (in theory) capable of playing AAA games.
The issue with eGPUs are twofold, however. First off, they’re expensive. Not only do you have to purchase the GPU, but you also need to purchase an enclosure that is supported by macOS. These enclosures start at around $300, and that's not including the GPU itself that has to be purchased.
Another, lesser issue is that Thunderbolt 3 ports are anywhere between 20-30% slower than the PCIe 3 slots that house graphic cards on most motherboards. Thunderbolt 3 has a maximum bandwidth of 5 GB/s, compared to PCIe 3 x16 slot with a bandwidth of 15.75 GB/s. Therefore, an eGPU will never be able to match the performance of a dedicated graphics card directly connected to the motherboard.
Another issue in adopting developer support for the Mac is Apple’s fervent push and support of their proprietary Metal API. Starting with macOS Mojave (10.14), OpenGL and OpenCL support has become depreciated; therefore, possible future features of the API will not be included in macOS.
Though OpenGL and OpenCL depreciation is a hit, a larger roadblock is the non-adoption of Vulkan (the successor of OpenGL) on Apple platforms. Yes, the MoltenVK library is being developed, but it lacks many of the features included on standard Vulken. Furthermore, since MoltenVK isn’t a standard on Mac, there’s no guarantee that developers will want to use it for their games. Sure, large multi-platform engines such as Unity and Unreal Engine 4 contain built-in Metal support, but a large amount of AAA developers develop their games on proprietary, home-grown engines. Why spend time and money on developing support for systems that may not even result in a return on investment?
This leaves Metal as the sole graphics API officially supported by Apple. While Metal is a great API, how many developers are going to build their proprietary game engines to support it for a platform that has both less market share than Windows, and has not been historically tailored towards gamers? That's not even mentioning that mid to high-end GPUs aren’t common place on most Mac models outside the higher-end ones. Even then, these AMD graphics cards are better suited for tasks such as video production and photo editing, rather than gaming. Furthermore, many Mac models don’t have the best cooling systems in place, and will often throttle the CPU when it gets too hot.
Perhaps the future of Mac gaming lies in the success of iOS games. With macOS Mojave, Apple is brought over a subset of the iOS UIKit framework over to their desktop operating system. Currently only four Apple apps have been ported over (News, Stocks, Voice Memos, and Home), but Apple will be opening up this functionality to third-party developers when macOS 10.15 Catalina launches in September 2019 with its Catalyst framework.
Depending on how easy or difficult it will be to port iOS apps over, developers may just have iOS games running across the entire Apple hardware ecosystem, from iPhones to Macs (similar to how Microsoft first-party games are currently available across both PC and Xbox One). Even the lower end Macbook running on the Intel m3 could in theory run iOS games. With rumors that Apple will be transitioning its CPU from Intel to Apple’s own A series, the convergence of Mac and iOS games seems like the logical next step.
As both the videogame and technology industries continue to expand and experiment with service-based models, it’s possible that a streaming service such as NVIDIA’s GeForce Now will provide AAA games for the Mac. Obviously this isn’t without issues -- input and network latency is a big issue, as is final image quality over a network. While a degree of latency and reduction in image quality may be fine for a turn-based Role-Playing Game, it’s game changing for a First-Person Shooter or a Racing game. Again, as technology improves and latency decreases, this may become a more viable option -- PlayStation Now has had some degree of success after all, and both Google and Microsoft are pushing their Stadia and xCloud streaming services respectively in the coming years.
This leaves Apple’s macOS is in a precarious position for gaming. The vast majority of hardware isn’t well-suited for AAA games; however, the addition of eGPU support may help alleviate this issue somewhat, despite the fact that the user must purchase both an additional GPU and a supported enclosure. Perhaps the future of Mac gaming is the convergence of iOS gaming on the platform with a decent mix of AAA and indie games. Only time will tell.
Header image courtesy of Apple.