Why gaming on MacOS is dead forever and never coming back

mac gaming lifestyle
Mac gaming is dead.

Right now, there are just 4,500 games to play on Steam for MacOS. That’s more than zero, but as a means of comparison, it’s around the number of PC games that will hit Steam this year alone.

While gaming on Apple’s iOS platform keeps growing, gaming on MacOS isn’t in good shape. But then again, the hope of gaming on your Mac never had much justification. It was a pipedream for those who wished they could also play games on the computers they used for the rest of their lives.

The hope of gaming on your Mac never had much justification.

However, over the past few years, Apple developed its own graphical API called Metal as a competitor to DirectX and OpenGL. It started as an iOS exclusive, but the newest version of Metal (Metal 2) is now included in every copy of MacOS High Sierra. Suddenly, the conversation of Mac gaming was back in the air. Was Metal 2 going to usher in a new era of Mac gaming? Would Apple begin to divulge serious resources into pleasing gamers?

Unfortunately, the answers are still no — and no. Mac gaming is still dead, and it’s time we opened an investigation as to who killed it. Let’s bring in the suspects one at a time to find out who pulled the trigger, and why.

Our first suspect – OpenGL

The strength of the competition is an obvious choice as the force that not only killed Mac gaming, but prevented it from ever standing a chance.

As our Steam statistic shows, Windows has always been the PC platform of choice for gamers. Even if every Mac user in the world was a gamer, all 100 million of them, it would be a very small audience compared to the potential audience of active Windows 10 users — about 600 million. Not all of them are gamers, but it’s a tantalizing number for developers.

mac gaming civ vi

If games eventually do make it over to MacOS — and that’s a big ‘if’ — the result is often a mixed bag. When PC games are ported to MacOS, they’re often handed off to a third-party developer who then makes all the behind-the-scenes adjustments to get the game to work on a new operating system. That means a game like Civilization VI isn’t built from the ground up to work on MacOS — in fact, it doesn’t even use Metal to drive its graphics. Even though it’s a relatively recent game, the developers choose to use a different API called OpenGL to run Civilization VI on MacOS. OpenGL was around long before Metal showed up on the scene, and still powers a lot of the games that can be played on a Mac.

In our tests, the game only achieved about 22 frames per second during an internal benchmark at 1,620 x 1,050 resolution, on medium settings. We ran the benchmark on a 15-inch MacBook Pro with an AMD Radeon Pro 455 graphics card while running in MacOS. The same system hit 66 FPS when we ran the same benchmark on Windows 10.

MacOS isn’t even compatible with the most recent version of OpenGL.

That’s not just an extra frame here and there — Civilization VI runs three times faster on Windows 10 than it does on MacOS. Like we said earlier, Civilization VI doesn’t use Metal to push its graphics — and that’s the primary problem.

OpenGL isn’t a proprietary API like Microsoft’s DirectX. It’s an open graphical platform that runs on Windows, MacOS, and Linux. It gets the job done, but it’s not as high-performing as DirectX because it’s not built from the ground-up to cater to MacOS’ needs the same way DirectX is for Windows.

To make matters worse, MacOS isn’t even compatible with the most recent version of OpenGL. MacOS uses version 4.1 which was released in 2010, the most recent version is 4.6, and it came out in 2017. Apple is trying to stiff-arm developers into using Metal, but in the process, gamers end up getting the short end of the stick.

Our second suspect – DirectX

DirectX is a collection of APIs that Microsoft has built over decades to help developers bring their applications and games into the world of Windows. It’s the part of Windows that does all the graphical heavy lifting, and it’s the primary reason players and developers flock Windows computers for all their designated gaming needs. But can it really be blamed for the death of MacOS gaming?

We’ve established that games on the Mac don’t always use Metal, but what about when they do? Let’s see how well the performance stacks up.

mac gaming metal
Metal 2, the successor to Apple’s Metal API, was revealed at WWDC earlier this year.

at 1,620 x 1,050 resolution, with all the settings turned to medium, we saw a consistent 33 FPS on MacOS. We ran the benchmark on a 15-inch MacBook Pro with an AMD Radeon Pro 455 graphics card while running in MacOS.

That’s a significant gain over Civilization VI, a less graphically demanding game run by OpenGL, so Metal clearly has a few tricks up its sleeves.

Yet in Windows 10, at the same settings, we saw 74 FPS. That’s well over twice the framerate. Keep in mind these tests were all conducted on the same machine. According to our results, you will typically see more than double the framerate just by running games in Windows 10. It’s a remarkable performance gain, the likes of which you usually see only when you upgrade your hardware.

You will typically see more than double the framerate just by running games in Windows 10.

Metal might someday come close to DirectX in terms of raw performance, but it’s unlikely it’ll ever offer better performance than DirectX or Vulkan — an upcoming graphics API. Because of the resources Microsoft has devoted to building up DirectX over the years, it’s always seeing updates, unlike OpenGL or Metal.

Even if Metal offered the same performance as DirectX, there’s the issue of availability. The fact games typically release for MacOS later than they do for Windows is big hurdle, and it’s not something that’s going to change overnight.

Suspect number three, Boot Camp

The final nail in the coffin comes from Apple itself.

Boot Camp is the quickest and easiest way to get Windows 10 working on a Mac. Installing Windows is a one-time setup that takes about an hour at most — and at this point, it’s worth the extra effort. You end up with a platform that will run your games better, and give you access to them on day one. Even if Metal caught up to DirectX in terms of performance, not having to wait an extra few weeks, or months, to play a game you’ve been waiting for is a pretty big deal.

This isn’t how it ought to be. You shouldn’t have to partition a part of your hard drive for an entire operating system just to play a game, especially not on an expensive laptop that has the same raw power as its Windows counterparts.

By clearing the way for Mac users to install Windows, Apple has given gamers an appealing alternative to poorly optimized MacOS ports of popular games, without having to do the work of investing in the future of Mac gaming. Between the performance differences and release date problems, Apple has given zero reasons for developers or gamers to use MacOS to play games. It might feel like a handy solution now, but it’s killing any sort of future for MacOS as a real gaming platform.

That brings us to our next and final suspect.

The real culprit is revealed

Let’s look at our previous suspects. Metal is engineered to provide near-direct access to the GPU for professionals and iOS games, but it does a poor job competing with DirectX. That’s the first piece of evidence pointing to the kingpin lurking in the shadows. The second suspect is Boot Camp. Having an easy way to install Windows on Macs has created a growing community of Mac gamers who don’t even have to bother with MacOS’ poor gaming performance. Apple hasn’t discouraged the use of Boot Camp in the slightest — it’s only made it more convenient.

Add those up, and it becomes clear that Apple itself is the reason MacOS gaming is dying, and unlikely to ever make a comeback. Sure, iOS games make their way to MacOS often enough, and Steam has many MacOS titles available, but the aforementioned problems — poor performance, and easy access to Windows — offer a strong argument against gaming on MacOS at all.

This all provides the more damning evidence that Apple doesn’t, and probably never will, care about gaming on the Mac. There are plenty of reasons why gaming on MacOS is dead, but Apple itself pulled the trigger.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.


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