Why Are Macs So Bad For Gaming?


Apple, as a company is always trying to push the limits in terms of innovative design choices. Their products are renowned for being really well-built. When you purchase a Mac, you are buying into an experience- the OS, the slim form factor, top-notch customer support, etc. And let’s not forget the ridiculously exploitative pricing. Otherwise, how would you know you purchased an Apple product? Seriously though, Apple computers deserve far more credit than most PC enthusiasts are willing to give them. There’s a reason professionals in the video and music industry prefer Apple, its software ecosystem is simply too good. But what about gaming? Gaming on Macs is a ridiculous notion, and even diehard Mac fanboys will admit that PC is the better choice in this scenario. But how did things become this way? Why does Mac OS support such a tiny game library? We are here to answer these questions.

So, why are Macs so bad for gaming? Simply put, these machines aren’t designed with gaming in mind (nor are they marketed as such). The upgradability is extremely limited and MacOS is a very locked down, highly regulated platform with a relatively small worldwide install base compared to Windows. On top of that, most decent MacBooks or iMacs will cost a lot more than a good gaming PC. On PC, you can get far more powerful processors and graphics cards to run the latest AAA titles at maximum detail. You also have an abundance of digital marketplaces such as Steam, GOG, Origin, etc. Modding, ultra-high refresh rates, and gaming peripherals are the other strengths of PC which give it an edge over Mac in gaming. 

Macs have always been viewed by Apple users as a machine used primarily by creative professionals and “serious” people, like the ones who make music and movies. Macs aren’t marketed towards gamers, and that’s how Apple wants it to be for the future. PC, on the other hand, has no central regulatory body which presides over everything “PC”. This means it can be used for pretty much any task, one of those happens to be gaming. The modularity of PC makes it much easier to upgrade your GPU or CPU so you can constantly support the latest in graphics tech, and enjoy the prettiest visuals supported by modern AAA games. Technologies like VR and high refresh rate gaming are practically PC exclusives. Not to mention the ease with which you can plug in a controller to your PC for some couch gaming.

Was Gaming on Macs Always This Bad?

No, in fact, Apple Macintoshes used to be the platform of choice for computer gaming enthusiasts back in the 80s leading all the way up to the mid-90s. This favorable position that Apple enjoyed in gaming wasn’t by virtue of the company marketing its products towards gamers. Instead, it was due to the dedication of a tightly-knit community of developers who wanted to showcase the personal computer as a leading home entertainment platform. They created unique interactive experiences that helped shape PC gaming as we know it today. Many innovations in PC gaming, such as mouse input, actually originated on the Mac. Back in the 80s, Macintosh computers enjoyed a significant hardware advantage over DOS PCs of the time period. More advanced graphics hardware, better display devices, etc. This allowed developers to create much more engaging and interactive games for the Macintosh platform. Back in the early 90s, a time when networking on PC was considered difficult, Mac had a game called Spectre. This was a tank game that used AppleTalk networking to support multiplayer action. In 1993, when PCs struggled to even play audio, the legendary game “Myst” was launched on Mac as an exclusive title. It used Apple’s HyperCard and QuickTime technology to accelerate video playback and navigation within the CD-ROM’s world. In 1994, Bungie Studios launched their Sci-Fi shooter Marathon on the Mac. Marathon laid the groundwork for one of THE most revolutionary games in FPS history- Halo: Combat Evolved. 

When Did The Tides Shift?

Starting in the early 80s, Apple wanted to instill a different brand image in the minds of its potential customers. One that displayed Macs as a “serious” machine for offices and enterprises. They hired John Scully as the new CEO in 1983, who at the time was president of Pepsi Cola. Scully wanted to expand the Macintosh beyond a platform that was by kids for learning coding and playing games, placing a higher focus on the business community instead. Apple threatened to pull ads from magazines like MACWORLD and Mac Week if they didn’t cut down on their coverage of games. Game developers were even forced to pay extra for ads, compared to “regular” companies. Apple didn’t like it when people asked for Macs in offices and were denied because the boss suspected they might use it for a little “fun time” in the middle of work. They believed that gaming cheapened the brand image of Macintoshes in the eyes of enterprises and large businesses. The latest Apple Macintosh models were marketed heavily towards enterprise owners, while earlier, less powerful models were supposed to be more “home-oriented”. Apple preferred that users play games on its smaller Apple IIc, reserving the top-end models for professional workloads.

The Rise of Windows In Gaming

Before Windows, there was DOS. A command-line based operating system which gave you more direct access to hardware such as video cards, sound devices, and keyboards. DOS-based PC sales started to skyrocket in the early 90s, while Mac sales remained relatively flat. When Windows was released, many gamers preferred to stick with the older DOS OS because Windows used a protected memory model that restricted access to peripherals and hardware. This made it harder for both game programmers, as well as tech-savvy PC gamers. In the mid-90s, Microsoft pushed hard to make Windows (their flagship product) easier for game programmers by creating APIs (DirectX) that gave them better access to the hardware. This massive push for Windows-based gaming started with Windows 95, and Bill Gates himself appeared in an ad for DOOM (promoting Windows). Microsoft acquired RenderMorphics, the company behind Reality Lab 3D API. They repackaged Reality Lab as DirectX and made it the default graphics API for Windows. DirectX was introduced alongside Windows 95 in 1996. This helped Microsoft steal the spotlight from both OpenGL and QD3D, and it also forced DOS-based gaming to shift towards Windows. Microsoft’s DirectX API helped them strike deals with developers, culminating in the introduction of the Xbox game console in 2001 which was a direct competitor to PS2.

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Are We About To See A Resurgence Of Mac Gaming?

Recently, Apple has demonstrated a distinct shift in their marketing strategies. They have been more focused than ever before on promoting the Apple ecosystem as a gaming platform, evident from their investment of a few hundred million dollars into the Apple Arcade subscription service. Apple has been partnering up with developers such as SMG Studio, Capcom, SEGA, etc. to create revolutionary new games for the iPad, iPhone, MacBook, Apple TV, and iMac. These indie-scale games aren’t exactly comparable with the latest AAA PC/ console titles such as Battlefield, Assassins Creed, Witcher, etc. But it’s a start, an initiative to create first-party titles for the Apple ecosystem which should help attract a new gaming audience. Apple is also promoting its new “Metal” graphics API which gives developers near-direct access to graphics hardware. This is intended to compete against Microsoft’s DirectX API which has been the go-to choice for game programmers since the 90s. Previously, Apple computers were held back by OpenGL and a lack of sufficiently powerful graphics hardware. Now, you can get an RX 580 or Vega 56 in a Mac. Couple this with the Metal 2 API, and it might actually be possible to get Windows PC like gaming performance on a Mac.

The Difference In Hardware Capabilities Between Mac And PC

People eventually realized that you don’t need the latest, most cutting-edge CPU or graphics card to edit videos or make music. In offices, the hardware and software are usually a couple of generations behind what you’ll find on systems in the home of a PC enthusiast. This focus that Mac placed on business machines in the 90s hurt them significantly in the long run since PC was capable of doing both- being fun for the kids, and providing a workstation for the adults of the home. A lot of the hardware on Mac is proprietary, for example- you will need Thunderbolt 3 external GPU enclosures and software mods to plug an aftermarket graphics card into your Mac. The motherboard is proprietary, the cooling system is underpowered to save on space, and a lot of gaming peripherals don’t have software support for Mac OS. 

The Game Library Is Extremely Limited On Macs

If you’re a game developer looking to target the largest possible audience, would you choose Mac or PC? The answer to that is simple, and PC has several hundred times more games spread across a variety of genres over the period of multiple decades. RTS, MMO, MOBA, FPS, 3rd person action-adventure, casual, competitive, indie, AAA- everything can be found on PC. There are some older AAA titles such as COD: Modern Warfare (2007), Batman: Arkham City (2011), Deus Ex: Human Revolution (2011), etc. which were ported to Mac following their initial Windows release. But performance on iMacs of that era was atrocious compared to Windows gaming PCs, and you’d have to sacrifice graphical fidelity. There’s Fortnite for Mac too if you’re into that. But generally speaking, the majority of OS X games are either indies or less graphically demanding titles such as Minecraft. 

PC Is So Much More Affordable

This requires very little explanation; you can get a PC with the same hardware specs as a Mac for a lot less money. To illustrate this, let’s visit the official Apple website and configure a Macintosh. You’ve only got two choices with the base (non-pro) iMac- either you get a 21.5” display, or a 27” display. This already places severe limitations on your gaming experience. PC will accept literally any display, as long as you have the appropriate output from your mainboard or graphics card (HDMI, VGA, DVI, DisplayPort, Type C, etc.). You can have a 24” 1080p panel (standard for gamers) on your desk, or a giant 43” 4k monitor/ TV mounted on the wall (as well as anything in-between). The cheapest configuration for a 21.5” iMac costs nearly 1100 dollars, and features a measly 2.3GHz dual-core 7th gen Intel i5 processor. While the Iris Plus 640 integrated graphics is far superior to Intel’s older HD series of onboard graphics, it still pales in comparison to even an entry-level dedicated GPU like the RX 560. You get 8GB of RAM and a 1TB HDD. Now, let’s visit pcpartpicker to see what we can cook up with an 1100 dollar budget. We came up with a build that has a Ryzen 5 3600 6-core 12 thread CPU, an NVIDIA GTX 1660 Super graphics card, 16GB of 3000MHz DDR4 memory, a 500GB SSD, a 1TB 7200rpm HDD, and a 144Hz 1080p gaming monitor- all for under 1100 dollars. This is several times (3x to 4x) faster in terms of gaming performance when compared to the 1100 dollar iMac, and you get a high refresh rate monitor for competitive gaming (same resolution as the iMac). A small example, but it proves our point.

On top of that, you can tinker with your PC hardware to extract even more performance out of it, through methods like overclocking. Or you can undervolt things if you’re going with an SFF build or looking to conserve energy and lower noise. Point is, PC is cheaper and gives gamers more options to tune their hardware based on each individual’s needs. The modularity of PC makes it an extremely lucrative choice for people looking to build 2nd hand gaming systems. All you need is a budget graphics card like the NVIDIA GTX 1650 super or AMD RX 5500XT. Plug one of those into an old Dell or HP office tower, and you’ll transform them from a spreadsheet machine into an entry-level gaming PC. It is almost impossible to carry out a similar upgrade with Macintoshes because they use proprietary mainboards and the GPUs are often soldered onto the board. 

PC Supports Better And More Peripherals

RGB gaming mice with customizable DPI, adjustable weight systems, support for 3D- printed grips, lift sensors, built-in LED displays, etc. are exclusive to PC. On PC, you can plug in an Xbox or PlayStation controller. You can even attach a steering wheel and pedals for racing games. Or a guitar. Or a dance mat. Any input device you want, PC supports it. With Mac, you’re pretty much at the mercy of peripheral manufacturers and 3rd party driver developers to ensure that a certain mouse or controller will work. And even then, there’s no way you’ll ever be able to match the input device versatility of a PC.

Conclusion

Exponentially larger game library, modular design, more cost-effective, upgradeable, customizable experience, support for more peripherals, the list goes on. PC gaming is far superior to Mac, and that’s an objective fact. Will Macs become more gamer-friendly in the future? That’s very unlikely to happen anytime soon. But maybe in the next 4 to 5 years, with the rise of game streaming services which will make it unnecessary to have powerful local hardware (since everything is processed online within a server farm). And with Apple Arcade, we might even get to see some interesting exclusive titles. For now, PC is the undisputed king of gaming.

Jacob

As long as I can remember myself I always enjoyed video games. I had amazing moments playing them and that's why I became a game developer, to create amazing experiences for the players. Read More About Me

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