Let’s start with getting this out of the way: the new MacBooks powered by the M1 Pro and M1 Max may have the most efficient silicon on the planet, but have done nothing to change the gaming experience on macOS. The Mac lineup is still a third-class country for games, but those who can run show lot of promise.
Digital Trends is quite frank with what the new MacBooks are to video games: these machines can pack a lot of power, but there are few to no games that actually can use wisely that amount of power:
If you want the M1 Max MacBook Pro, buy it for creative work, not for gaming.
To play games on a computer or laptop you will need a Windows PC with a GeForce graphics card. The market share for Microsoft’s operating system is just second to Android, and NVIDIA conquered the collective unconscious a while ago.
For a developer and a publisher, making a game for Mac doesn’t make financial sense, because it means selling a game to 1 of 10 desktop users.
For Apple, investing into better gaming experiences on Mac doesn’t benefit them directly, but rather ties them perpetual maintenance.
And for the gamer… well, you don’t have a Mac in the first place.
A chicken problem?
Imagine that a developer has a great idea for a game.
Given the current affairs of the gaming industry, the main (but not exclusive) target of any project is the mobile market, which means releasing it in the App Store and Google Play Store. Having gatcha, casino-like gambling, and other predatory mechanics, just adds more reasons to target smartphones. Since these mechanics are not regulated globally, it’s very tempting as they can bring millions of dollars.
The only way Apple will give sh*t about gaming on Mac will be when there is money to be made.
Any executive can take a graph after a few weeks of launch and see when it will hit the market cap — when the game doesn’t bring more players, or for better wording, when all the players for a given platform. That’s when you hear about ports done to other smaller markets, like consoles, handhelds, and if there is little to no effort, PC. You could even see media spin-offs like comics, movies, TV series, or even other games aimed to different public. League of Legends and Dota 2 players can relate.
That’s the one and most important reason why games don’t hit Mac: the market share is not as big as the PC. Mac is the last option.
A point can be made on the Steam Deck. Strictly speaking, this PC-console hybrid has 0% market-share, but is more than an exciting gaming product than the Mac for one simple reason: it plays almost all Steam games, and developers have to make little to no effort to port their games to the Steam Deck thanks to Proton.
Consoles are better in terms of market share than the PC, a trend that capitulated around 2015. Unless there is certainty that will exceed all expectations, any game developer will happily take any check from Microsoft, Nintendo or Sony to make their game exclusive for a year. Even an exclusive deal for the Epic Games Store is on the table for anyone who think the game is going to sell less than the deal amount.
An Egg Problem?
Let’s say there already is a console or PC game that could make some revenue from the insipid Mac market share. Here is a technical problem: making it run on Mac is not just a recompile & repackage away.
Games are made through licensed tools. You can also make your own with some time and money. Tools are complete engines like Unreal, Unity, CryEngine, GameMaker, and many others, to lesser than just software to create cross-compatible libraries. It’s not impossible to create one, as you can see many games with their own engines, like Metroid Prime to Halo 3, but it’s mostly thanks to the work of an entire developer team focused on a given list of features.
Any game targeting PC or latest consoles is compiled to x86 code and OS-specific bindings (Windows, Xbox OS, OrbisOS, etc). To port a PC game to macOS you will need a tool that exports a macOS-compatible executable, and coded to run native on Apple Silicon or through the Rosetta translation layer. That’s only half of the story.
A tool may not support Apple Silicon, or even macOS at all, meaning you will have to find a tool that does. Updates or radical toolset changes bring breaking changes and may affect the game work pipeline negatively.
Even porting the game can introduce some bugs and performance penalties. On the graphic side, Mac doesn’t support Vulkan, so you’re bound to use MoltenVK or port the graphic engine of your game to Metal yourself, which in some cases kills the whole endeavour.
There are many games that depend on external libraries that were made for Windows. Until these libraries are not rewritten for Mac, and hopefully ARM, no game will be ported there. And consider that is the same case as the toolset for developing a game.
It’s all worse when you try to convince the publisher to fund a Mac port, something that takes time, money, and developers. That money that can be better spent elsewhere, like porting the game to broader markets like consoles and smartphones.
A chicken’s parent problem then?
There is no incentive for Apple to push Mac into the gaming space, and won’t be for many years.
The first reason is market share. Currently, their highest grossing income segment comes from the App Store. Moving money there makes more sense than anything.
The second reason is the clear list winners of an hypothetical gaming endeavour. Apple would have to invest to lower the gap for game developers first. That means adding a cross-compatible way to bring in developers that are using Vulkan, OpenGL, DirectX and others APIs.
With a lower entrance bar, the only beneficiaries will be Valve, Microsoft, Epic Games, and many other companies with already robust gaming platforms that take their cut. They will reap the fruits day one, while Apple would be forced to spend perpetually into supporting the platform to not break anything.
Apple still makes most of their money from software, namely the App Store. They can create a similar wallet warden model with an “Mac Game Store” from scratch. Let’s imagine a curated store with no third-party shenanigans, iCloud integration, Apple-Silicon-native games, may be one or two new features like “Remote Play”, and Apple’s Tax prices.
Even that would be laughable at best when you consider that not even Epic and Microsoft offerings could compete with Steam features and catalog, and the latter just had to bow down and push their games into Steam.
It’s disappointing to think about making a more enjoyable experience to port and play games in the Mac ecosystem when you consider users may already have a PC or console for their video gaming needs, the latter costing a fraction of a mac, and having a big catalog of indie-to-AAA-exclusives. It’s an uphill battle from the start because, no matter what Apple does, they never started.
It’s hard to convince a gamer to pay twice for a Mac game they already played in a PC or console, when they can spend it on the next new game everyone will play and talk about. A PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series X/S, if you can find one, will cost a fraction of what a Mac or a PC can cost, and offer a better experience that whatever Apple can come up to.
It’s the market fault
It’s funny to see videos and articles saying “Apple gaming is back”, when it’s clearly not. Gaming on Mac was, is, and will be an afterthought for Apple because it moves less money compared to any other thing they do.
For sake of analogies, we can make an example with a sedan. It’s clearly capable of racing to 100 miles per hour, but adding two tubes of Nitro for an occasional street racing once a week is not gonna get past your wife if you use it mostly for commuting.
Effort is one of the reasons why Apple allows iOS games to run on Mac M1, if the developer desires. There is no big investment from Apple to enable it and they can keep their wallet warden alive. At this point Apple Arcade is more important than even the Mac App Store, or the iTunes store.
The only way Apple will give sh*t about gaming on Mac will be when there is money to be made, for both Apple and the game publisher and developer. Until that miracle, happens, the Cupertino squad won’t be interested into investing one single cent on games.