Apple is bringing games back to the Mac, but not how you hoped

Apple already has the most successful gaming device ever made with the iPhone. And with the launch of Apple Arcade, the company seems more serious about gaming than ever.

But don’t go thinking Apple is about to switch to Nvidia graphics or start making gaming laptops. Being Apple, it’s insisting on doing things its own way, on its own terms. It’s taking active strides to make its Mac platform a more attractive gaming destination, while also restricting the type of gaming that’s possible in order to shape it to its own tastes.

Here’s what changing and how the Mac may soon become a gaming powerhouse — just not in the way you might want.

Apple changes its thinking

The most obvious indication that something is changing in the world of Mac gaming is Apple Arcade. Available on all of Apple’s devices (bar the Apple Watch), Apple Arcade grants access to over 100 games with no ads for $5 a month, and is playable on all your Apple devices. We’re not just talking simple arcade games either — Apple has managed to get some heavyweight developers on board, including Will Wright, original designer for The Sims, and Hironobu Sakaguchi, the creator of Final Fantasy.

The well-known creators. The aggressive pricing. The cross-platform compatibility. Apple is clearly making a serious push with Apple Arcade. It’s seen the runaway success games have had on iOS — where games make up nearly a quarter of all available apps on the iOS App Store, according to Statista — and wants to bring that success to as many of its platforms as possible, including the Mac.

It’s not the only cross-platform project Apple is working on. Mac Catalyst exists to help developers port their iPad apps across to the Mac. The upshot is that more of the games that have proved so successful on the iPhone and iPad will come to the Mac, enriching the gaming landscape on a platform that has often struggled to boost its games roster.

Without the hardware to run these games, not much will change.

Elsewhere, Apple recently permitted developers to sell app bundles on the App Store. While that’ll be useful for apps of all kinds, it’s a move that shifts the App Store closer to online games marketplaces like Steam and Humble Bundle — places where games bundles are common and an attractive tool for developers.

That’s all well and good, but without the hardware to run these games, not much will change. That, too, is an area that Apple seems to be trying to improve. In 2018, Apple opened Macs to work with external graphics cards (eGPUs) for the first time. There’s even talk that Apple will be adding AMD’s powerful Navi graphics chips to future Macs.

Add to that rumors of an Apple augmented reality (AR) headset. In March 2020, it was discovered that Apple is apparently testing Vive-like controllers to be used with an AR headset, and leaks have previously popped up claiming the company is working with both HTC and Valve on creating a headset. That’s unsurprising given Apple’s heavy AR push on iOS in recent years, but given the company’s approach to Apple Arcade, it’s hard to believe this won’t be a cross-platform experience.

Something like this — a piece of Apple-branded, games-specific hardware — would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. That it now seems a near-certainty shows how much Apple’s thinking has changed.

Alone, each of these developments may not amount to much. But taken together, they point to something much larger: The last few years have seen Apple making a greater effort to convince people that the Mac is a viable gaming machine. But don’t be misled. Apple will only do this its own way.

Gaming — Apple style

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At the same time that it’s taking steps to make the Mac a more attractive gaming platform, Apple is also imposing restrictions and carefully shaping its image. Most of these measures aren’t necessarily done with games in mind, but the effects are still keenly felt in this area.

Take Apple’s ban on cloud streaming services, for example. Apple’s App Store review guidelines state that any developer selling a subscription service must either own or exclusively license everything included in that subscription. Doesn’t that mean Apple Arcade is breaking the rules? No — the key part is in section 3.1.2(a) of the rules: “Each game [within a subscription service] must be downloaded directly from the App Store.” Apple Arcade games are downloaded to the Mac, not streamed from the cloud.

Apple adds a little more clarification in section 4.2.7 on remote desktop apps: “The app must only connect to a user-owned host device that is a personal computer or dedicated game console owned by the user … Thin clients for cloud-based apps are not appropriate for the App Store.” The whole point of apps like Google Stadia is to connect to powerful computers not owned by the user that are then used to stream games, thus making them incompatible with the App Store rules.

Apple likely wants to stamp out parallel app stores.

Why is Apple doing this? The likelihood is it wants to stamp out the emergence of “parallel” app stores. Section 4.2.7 spells this out: “The UI appearing on the client [must] not resemble an iOS or App Store view, [must] not provide a store-like interface, or include the ability to browse, select, or purchase software not already owned or licensed by the user.”

A parallel app store could potentially bypass the 30% cut Apple takes on all App Store purchases, something that Apple would be none too happy about. The effect, though, is that rival games subscription services (or at least those that are shaped around streaming) are locked out of the Apple ecosystem.

That’s not all Apple is doing. MacOS Catalina was the first to completely drop support for 32-bit apps, enabling Apple to stop worrying about legacy support and focus on 64-bit development. The upshot, though, is that many older games that relied on the 32-bit architecture will no longer work on the Mac without the use of an emulator. Again, this isn’t a games-specific move by Apple, but it helps shape the Mac games landscape in a certain way.

In some ways, it mirrors Apple’s end of support for the OpenGL graphics API in 2018, with Apple insisting it was outdated and had been superseded. Many games are built with OpenGL in mind, making it more difficult for full-fledged PC games to be ported to the Mac. Apple didn’t just cut OpenGL and be done with it — these days it points developers to its own Metal graphics API as an alternative. Not only is it a more modern system, but it provides Apple the control that it so often desires.

If you want an example of Metal’s strength, you need look no further than Apple’s A-Series chips on iOS, which have helped turn Apple’s mobile devices into leading handheld gaming machines. These processors are built with Metal in mind, where Apple’s control of both the hardware and software sides gives it an advantage. There is much talk of Apple switching its Macs to its own Arm chips before too long — if it does make the leap, gaming will surely benefit from this close collaboration.

What does the future hold?

Apple’s dual-strand approach — combining deliberate pro-gaming moves and decisions that indirectly impact games on the Mac — make up the company’s evolving approach to Mac gaming. If Apple stays the course, what might the landscape look like in a couple of years?

For one thing, we’d expect to see more powerful graphics chips in the Mac. AMD Navi 21 seems to be the immediate candidate, but when considered alongside Apple’s other moves in the games space, it’s unlikely to be a one-off. As processors get more capable at lower power levels (as typified by AMD’s eight-core, 15-watt Ryzen 4000-series), a Mac kitted out with a beefy GPU that still runs quietly could become a reality.

This could go some way toward remedying a major problem with Mac gaming: The lack of AAA titles. Blockbuster games usually either arrive late on the Mac or don’t make the shift from Windows at all, and part of the reason is because the pool of Mac gamers is so small, making development unappealing. It’s a perpetual cycle that Apple needs to break if it’s to change anything. If Apple can make the Mac a more attractive gaming destination, it might end that discrepancy with its Microsoft rival.

For now, Apple is focusing Apple Arcade mostly on casual “living room” games to make sure its current crop of Macs can run them smoothly. But we’d hope that as Mac hardware improves, top-tier games become less of a rarity as Apple convinces developers that its computing platform is a worthwhile destination.

Whether that happens or not, Apple seems determined to improve the outlook for Mac gamers. We could finally see the Mac become a decent choice if you want a gaming machine — albeit with the situation firmly under Apple’s tight control.

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