It’s the 20th anniversary of OS X — so why is Mac gaming still so bad?

Gaming on Macs needs to evolve — here's why
(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The M1 chip Macs showed that gaming on the Mac gaming could be better — running big-time games rather well, even without a discrete graphics card. That said, as Apple celebrates the 20th anniversary of OS X’s public release, the whole concept of gaming on the Mac is still years behind where it should be. And that needs to change. 

The issues start with the still-frustrating and alarming lack of important games, which give PCs an instant leg up. Apple's gaming issues also threaten its relationship with the creative community, something the company has always prided itself on. And last, but not least, Apple is still trying to figure out the situation with its Apple TV, which was supposed to be buoyed by gaming. 

While I've been thinking about the woes of gaming on the Mac for a while, it came back into the headlines now that Valve released Steam Link for macOS. Steam Link, for those who don't know, allows you to stream PC games onto a Mac, but it has a major catch. You need to own the PC you're streaming from. I can think of a few edge-cases where this could be valuable, but most people I assume would just play the game on the PC, rather than also run it on a Mac remotely.

More interesting are cloud gaming alternatives, such as Nvidia GeForce Experience and Google Stadia (as much as it seems to be a failed project). But neither seems to be truly complete at this stage, giving me reason to wonder when the Mac will find its way with gaming.

Streaming is not new, by any stretch, but when I finally started streaming this winter, it was mostly possible because I had a PC I could use. And this is hilarious to me because I've resisted using a PC for far longer than I've had an interest in streaming. I spent a month on the MateBook X Pro forever ago, but because PC gaming didn't matter to me then, I saw little reason to stay. But now I'm back, and I'm seeing how PCs could lure long-time Mac users away.

The big games are missing — and that's a problem

I personally turned to using a PC because of wanting to stream Persona 4 Golden, a JRPG from 2012 originally released on the PS Vita, that was released on Steam for PCs (and not Macs) last summer. The fact that we haven't gotten a Mac version in the following months is maddening. When I tested the MacBook Air with M1, I saw 2015's Rise of the Tomb Raider run smoothly on the system. Other sites have even reported 2018's Shadows of the Tomb Raider also runs well on that same laptop. And if those games can do well on the Mac, there's no reason that Atlus' Persona games aren't on the Mac. 

Look at the top sellers on Steam — Half-Life: Alyx, Valheim, Outriders, Cyberpunk 2077 and The Witcher 3 — none of them have a macOS version.

And this situation isn't limited to this one weird relatively-old game. Look at the top sellers on Steam — Half-Life: Alyx, Valheim, Outriders, Cyberpunk 2077 and The Witcher 3 — none of them have a macOS version. Yes, there is software such as Parallels and Crossover from Codeweavers, which allows emulation of PC games on the Mac, but that's not good enough.

Apple has been working on its Metal framework to get games to run better (having switched to it from OpenGL) but that still hasn't led to the change in availability of titles that Mac-owning gamers need or deserve. So at this point, it's on Apple to improve its developer relationships. I don't know how they'd do it, but at this point in the game, it should not be hard to find the games you want on the Mac. Maybe game developers don't want to give up a cut of their earnings via the Mac App Store. I get that. Apple probably wants that cut, and to make game purchases as simple as using Apple Arcade, but it hasn't worked so far. Sure, there are some good mobile games (Sayonara Wild Hearts and Grindstone were early hits), but it's got nothing that can touch the likes of a Dark Souls game, for example.

While Apple is pushing Apple Arcade, and its hyped title Fantasian (coming from Final Fantasy creator Hironobu Sakaguchi), the subscription service doesn't feel like enough. Yes, a big exclusive may help drive attention, but not all gamers want to buy another subscription service, not when Xbox Game Pass and PlayStation Plus already eat at your budget. 

Apple's big streamers problem

For as long ago as I can remember, the old saying went that creative professionals only used Macs. Whenever I worked in layout software for printed publications — it was always on a Mac. 

But the Mac's dominance in the creative world is not what it used to be. Now, the PC versions of the Adobe suite of applications have reached parity. Don't take my word for it, that's what I'm reading on Reddit, Quora and Creative Pro, too. 

And now we have streamers. A new (and often younger) group of creators, producing hours and hours of video for Twitch, YouTube and other platforms. And if they wanted to use a Mac to game and record said gaming, they'd have to be using either a capture card to connect to a console, or emulation to run big games from other platforms. 

Macs aren't priced competitively enough to be so deficient when it comes to games — and this needs to end.

While the former is the standard for many streamers, the latter is putting too much friction in the way of performance. You want your videos to look crisp and smooth, and while the M1 chip macs can get games to run smoothly in the moment, pushing your Mac to stream that video out at the same time is a lot to ask when emulation is involved. The more games that are written for Apple silicon Macs, the better things will be for Mac owners who want to use their device.

The sooner Macs get big-name games, the sooner they can have a better reputation among this new, growing market.

What about the Apple TV?

And at the center of Apple's gaming story lies a story of unfulfilled promise on the Apple TV. The company is likely to release a new Apple TV 2021 this spring at the rumored Apple April event. And while I'd rather Apple focus its efforts outside of Apple Arcade — the next Apple TV is a crucial part of making that service important. And it will need more than just the aforementioned Fantasian. Apple has long said that games will be great on the Apple TV, and it's time for that claim to come true.

If the next Apple TV runs on the next generation of Apple silicon — that's as powerful as its next laptops and desktops — it could help the company make game developers think the Apple TV is worth developing for. And even worth the cut Apple would take from games sold in its online stores (since tvOS is a walled garden, much like iOS). Apple needs to find a way to put the Apple TV icon alongside the PlayStation, Xbox, PC and Stadia logos in gaming commercials. 

Important games would give the Apple TV a reason to continue existing — which it sorely needs. Right now, the $179 Apple TV 4K is 265% more expensive than the $50 Roku Streaming Stick Plus and Chromecast with Google TV.

Mac gaming outlook

Macs aren't priced competitively enough to be so deficient when it comes to games — and this needs to end. Yes, Intel's 'Justin' ad featuring the former Apple spokesperson was incredibly cringe-worthy, but it nailed a solid point: PC gaming is just that much better than Mac gaming. 

If Apple can turn this ship around, though, it could keep them in good graces with the next generation and/or give their streaming device a reason to exist. I don't know what Apple's next steps in gaming are, but as someone who is considering buying the upcoming MacBook Pro 2021, I hope they get this fixed. I simply prefer the creative applications on macOS over their PC counterparts, and the overall OS is designed better in my humble opinion. 

But if you made me pick a new gaming PC or a new MacBook, I'd have a hard time being sure about my decision. And I could not have imagined myself saying that a year ago. 

Henry T. Casey
Managing Editor (Entertainment, Streaming)

Henry is a managing editor at Tom’s Guide covering streaming media, laptops and all things Apple, reviewing devices and services for the past seven years. Prior to joining Tom's Guide, he reviewed software and hardware for TechRadar Pro, and interviewed artists for Patek Philippe International Magazine. He's also covered the wild world of professional wrestling for Cageside Seats, interviewing athletes and other industry veterans.