Thursday, January 4, 2024

Apple’s Mac Gaming Push

Raymond Wong (MacRumors, Slashdot):

No doubt “losing” in gaming for decades has not been fun for Apple. It’s certainly painful and disappointing for Mac users both new and old, who have to buy a separate PC or console to play AAA games. But in 2023, the winds of change began to blow.


Gaming on the Mac in the 1990s until 2020, when Apple made a big shift to its own custom silicon, could be boiled down to this: Apple was in a hardware arms race with the PC that it couldn’t win. Mac gamers were hopeful that the switch from PowerPC to Intel CPUs starting in 2005 would turn things around, but it didn’t because by then, GPUs started becoming the more important hardware component for running 3D games, and the Mac’s support for third-party GPUs could only be described as lackluster.


When Apple announced the M3 chips at its “Scary Fast” October event, it touted certain hardware features built into the silicon that were big firsts for Macs. There’s the aforementioned hardware-accelerated ray tracing and mesh shaders, which make games look more realistic with real-time lighting and models with more detailed polygons and textures. But the feature few people are talking about, and the one that could make games on M3-powered Macs and future Apple computers really shine, is Dynamic Caching.

I don’t think the hardware has been the main problem. I wonder how much they’re doing with developers behind the scenes because I doubt Game Porting Toolkit and this PR push on their own are convincing anyone.

When I ask Apple’s marketing managers what they’re doing to improve the distribution of games on the Mac, specifically through the Mac App Store, I get less assuring responses. I remind them that, unlike the App Store for iOS, developers have had a rocky history getting their software sold on the Mac App Store. Panic, makers of the indie game Firewatch and the Playdate handheld, famously gave up on bringing its critically acclaimed Untitled Goose Game to the Mac App Store because of some seemingly arbitrary Mac App Store policies (though it’s still available on Mac via other platforms like Steam).


Update (2024-02-01): Damien Petrilli:

All they focus on is trying to seduce gamers. They listen to them and try to provide what they think is missing: “more power, ray tracing, better GPUs, etc”. However, look at the Switch: underpowered by any metric, yet very successful.

Apple is blind sided by its dogma “developers owe us everything” thus they don’t see their value (they forgot their past, when the Mac was struggling to get any software).

The reality is that game developers bring in gamers. Not the opposite.

Apple won’t accept it because it goes against their vision of the world, they would have to consider developers as equal partners. But Apple sees itself at the top of the hierarchy, which is why Apple platforms won’t go mainstream in gaming anytime soon.

What Apple needs to do is not to seduce gamers, but game developers. Once game developers are on board, gamers will follow.

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Mac gamers were hopeful that the switch from PowerPC to Intel CPUs starting in 2005 would turn things around, but it didn’t because by then, GPUs started becoming the more important hardware component for running 3D games, and the Mac’s support for third-party GPUs could only be described as lackluster.

That's not how I remember it. The Intel years were a high point (albeit still fairly low) in Mac gaming because developers could target standard OpenGL and PC CPUs/GPUs. In those days Macs got many ports of games, sometimes years later but sometimes same-day, from indies and bigger names. And it seemed like the vast majority of those releases were organic decisions of opportunity or enthusiasm, not what today feels like Apple promising companies bags of cash and keynote exposure if they release a quick port.

The Intel gaming heyday ended with the removal of 32-bit support (killing the bulk of the Mac game library at once), the move to the proprietary Metal API with its preciously bespoke Silicon architecture, and the yearly-increasing OS/Store friction for developing and distributing Mac apps to users. That "lackluster" support for third-party GPUs was "fixed" when Apple anti-competitively cut off Nvidia from shipping drivers for external GPUs, and then removed eGPU support altogether.

The interview gets more irritatingly deluded the more I think about it. Universal purchase across Mac/iOS is most often manually unchecked by developers, because they don't want to deal with the outsized hassle of ongoing Mac support for such a vanishingly small audience; it only seems to be left on when Apple demands it from games it features. Touting M3 features and then claiming "tens of millions of Macs with monstrous CPU and GPU capabilities" when most of those are binned M1's with single-digit GBs of memory is farcical, and the visual/performance results from those celebrated recent releases like Resident Evil fall short of actual gaming hardware.

Valve runs the main gaming store on macOS and can’t even be bothered to modernize their titles for the system.

I’ll take the games that come but will generally be keeping a Steam Deck as backup when the next iteration hits.

Also sucks Apple dropped 2017 iMacs that still had ok GPUs from the latest OS

Can’t get Diablo 4 on Mac.You can’t even get Diablo Immortal on Mac and all Blizzard has to do is hit a checkbox to allow the iPad version to run on Macs.

Who is at fault for that?

Anyone who thinks new hardware will have any long-term positive impact on Mac gaming are deluded. Game developers are not in the business of maintaining support for any given platform; they want to publish, patch as long as the revenue stream is high, and then move on and let whatever income they can get trickle in. That’s impossible on macOS, though, and always has been because Apple doesn’t care about backwards compatibility at all. If you publish on Windows, you’re looking at potential decades of long tail income with virtually no development work and a culture that has been gaming on Windows since they were kids. Good luck getting anything near that on Macs.

Same quote as vitner...

Gaming on the Mac in the 1990s until 2020, when Apple made a big shift to its own custom silicon, could be boiled down to this: Apple was in a hardware arms race with the PC that it couldn’t win.

I don't know. Recall Carmack with the G3 and Quake 3 Test being Mac first. There was a real push around then that MacOS gave you a more controlled platform to deploy on, and with the porting tools -- I remember Heineman's BurgerLib and another lib Aspyr had -- it seemed like maybe we had a chance.

Tsai's link to Cohen's Mastodon is right on the money afaict:

The problem isn't the hardware. The problem is getting an entire industry of developers and publishers on board to support the platform, and consumers to buy them with this purpose in mind. Apple can't fix this with new game-savvy senior management.

We simply must not buy enough games to make parity worthwhile. Until then, we'll keep paying The Mac Tax and playing a veritable museum of "must-play" games. Sometimes I wonder why World of Warcraft keeps supporting us -- do we really play that game disproportionally?

Another wishful thinking piece that this time, Apple is *really* going to make it with gaming.

'Aint going to happen, and yes, it's the hardware that's the problem.

My partner works at a company that produced some of the biggest hits for Apple Arcade over the past couple of years, games Apple paid the studio to make, games Apple filmed actual commercials with actors in costume to promote.

See, Apple has to *pay* companies to make games for their platform and service.

That studio is now going to Console and PC-first. Why? Because working on titles for Apple hardware means working in a (graphically) resource constrained environment. That isn't fun for the developers. It means sitting so far behind the cutting edge, that nothing they produce is worthy of a showreel - they get no portfolio credibility out of it, and nothing to build their careers within the industry. It makes it impossible for the studio to attract and retain talent.

Sidenote: I never fail to be amazed by how Apple fans don't understand that the only presence Apple technologies have in a game studio which produces games as Apple-exclusives, is a couple of Mac Minis in a server cabinet as command-line build engines accessed remotely by Unreal running on Windows machines. All the art, marketing, design, engineering etc, everything in the company is done on Windows. Build server, and on-device testing (and even that is done from the Windows workstations doing direct push-to-device over a wire) - that's all the Apple products in an "Apple-Exclusive Game Studio".

Apple's technologies (Metal etc.) are dumb pipes between the actual platform the developers care about (Unreal / Unity), and the user. No one on Apple devices plays a "Metal game" or a "Mac Game", they play an "Unreal Game, running on a Mac"

Apple does not have a *platform* in gaming. They have a Client System, for running Platforms.

But back to the point at hand - why Apple has, is, and will continue to fail in gaming:

Gaming has two, and two only paradigms. Cheap, unchanging devices with a long lifespan, 10+ years in use, and expensive devices which are upgradable to stay on the cutting edge of performance and technologies.


So, the cheap devices are games consoles - currently the top end of which is the Xbox Series X (which costs about a third of a high-end 11" iPad Pro), and PS5. Even today, companies are still releasing titles for the previous generation of consoles Xbone & PS4. These devices give long, reliable life (you can still find servers for Xbox360 games - no obsolescence due to lack of security updates there), huge back catalogues of previous-generation compatible games, and importantly, remain as performant 10 years after you buy them (or receive them as a hand-me-down), as they are the day you bring them home.

Their operating systems don't get slower over upgrades, and the games are optimised for their fixed resource limits.

Developers love working for them, because they are known quantities, with expectable and innovative (in Nintendo's case) control systems, stable targets, & hit a huge audience of people who love games enough to own an entire device whose only purpose is to play games.


The other end is the Gaming PC (which is also known as a 3D & Graphics Workstation when its owner uses it for work). This is expensive - 10x or more the price of the console, and highly upgradable, so every component can be kept on the cutting edge, and reconfigured for specific duty. The Gaming PC is about pushing the limits of what is possible in gaming, and a lot of that is in the direction of reality simulation. High resolutions, at high frames per second, with a high degree of detail. Each year, a new batch of graphics cards is released, and each year game devs expand their ambition to fill the capabilities of those cards. To stay resonably current, you're buying a new GPU every 2-3 years, but for a serious gamer hobby, annual GPU upgrades are not out of the question. Each GPU costs maybe 2-3 times the cost of a console, and represents a significant percentage of the overall cost of the compouter. Upgrade pricing of hardware keeps the steady stream of new purchases within a reasonable level, which keeps the gamer at the cutting edge the whole time.

Developers love working for PC because they can go hog wild - a system can always be built to realise their craziest ambition, and back-compatibility is a priority for Windows, so keeping your old titles on sale is relatively easy. The customer is one who wants the crazy ambition, and the upgrade paradigm lets them keep their systems in a state that can realise that ambition.


What does Apple offer?

Apple's paradigm is devices with the performance of a Console (no don't kid yourself, the best Apple processors are not remotely competitive with Nvidia or AMD on the things games do with graphics cards, nor are they ever likely to be so), the zero upgradablity of a Console, but without the long service life of the Games Console, as security updates and OS upgrades make devices slower, obsolete, and unsafe for online use, and Apple pushes developers to only target new OS versions.

Combined with this, the Mac has the price of a Gaming PC, and the cutting-edge instability of a Gaming PC, without even the backward compatible games library of a Gaming PC.

It's a real "Nuts & Gum, together at last" combo.

Who in their right mind with a career in gaming is going to want to make games for an audience who don't like games enough to just buy a Games Console, but don't care enough about gaming to demand the performance of a Gaming PC? Even if someone pretends there's a market of customers there, no game developer is going to want to spend their one and only life making games for such an uninspring target market.


The only people who seriously argue that there is a future in Mac (and Apple in general) gaming, are people trying to sell you something - trying to sell you a Mac, or trying to sell you their influence so Apple will notice them and beam them up to the mothership with a job offer.

And don't get started on Apple Vision Pro, because it's just an iPad you wear on your face, with the same price / performance paradigmatic compromises as the Mac from a games point of view.

“But in 2023, the winds of change began to blow” - I don't know who is going to believe that, I certainly don't. Virtually every interesting game I see has no Mac version. The primary game store for Mac (at least as far as I'm concerned) is Steam, not MAS, and so it's even less likely that Apple will care or do anything. And the move to faster hardware (Apple Silicon) may be great for many things, but it's even less likely game developers are going to be interested. Games are a unique class of application where they typically do their entire UI on a blank canvas, so all the frameworks Apple has to support its various facilities are virtually useless. If Apple were serious about game development, they would provide an API that matched Windows (ideally open source so developers can resolve the bugs that otherwise will be left unfixed by Apple) so that games could be ported to the Mac with basically no effort - nothing else is likely to improve the situation. Heck, even zero effort porting is not likely to be enough for most developers.

Apple is not serious about gaming and/or it doesn't understand it.

If Apple was serious, they'd put serious graphics and include a real first-party high-quality gamepad in the Apple TV, turning it into a console. Then push it for real.

When Microsoft and Sony entered the game console market, they also bought development of top-tier games in-house. Apple would do the same.

And they'd make development easy. Deprecating APIs and replacing with Apple-only APIs set gaming back a lot for Apple.

As far as the Mac is concerned... I think it's hopeless.

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