Lets just address the elephant in the room right away. No, Macs aren’t the best platform for gaming, but they surely aren’t as bad as some may want you to think. In fact, in recent years, and most certainly in the future, you may actually be just as well off as any PC owner.
If you are a white male and want a tiny glimpse of what prejudice and racism is like on the recieving end (with out the risk of physical abuse), then try visiting a gaming forum and tell them you are gaming on a Mac. (To be fair, it’s a lot better today than they it used to be.)
But this is not about the future of Mac gaming or a PC vs Mac discussion, but instead a short guide on how you can started with gaming on your Mac. There are more options than you may be aware of, and while I’ll try to cover as many as possible here, there’s certainly more about. If you have a suggestion, please leave a comment below.
This guide is mainly focused on how to game on your Mac, if you want to know more about which Mac to buy for gaming, Macworld has a great up-to-date guide here.
This will be a quite lengthy post, so a brief index of the content
- The five different ways to game on a Mac
- Where to buy
- Future of Mac gaming
The five paths to enlightenment
As of today, there are five different ways to game on your Mac. Some require more experience and knowledge of you, while others can let you be up and running within minutes.
I’ll go through them all in details, but first, here are the five different ways to game is possible on a Mac:
- Boot Camp
- Cloud Gaming/Remote play
For all but the streaming alternative, it is still very important to check that your Mac meets the minimum hardware requirements. Especially important if you are on a Macbook, as laptops are often limited in power to run games. There’s just no room for a powerful graphics card and fans to cool a high-performance CPU. For the streaming option, the primary concern is that you have a solid internet connection. More on it further down.
Without further ado, lets dive into the different ways.
Native is the most obvious way to play. It’s for games that have been developed for macOS directly and can be bought on any of the eshops (most popular ones are listed later) that sell games for macOS. All you need to do is download, install and run.
While native may seem like the ideal way to play, macOS does suffer from poor or lazy ports. Some games will run better in Windows compared to macOS, on the same hardware! Developers tend to blame macOS, and while that may have been true in the past, it’s been proven that with the introduction of Metal, and later Metal 2, macOS has really made big leaps and it shouldn’t matter these days.
If you have room on your hard drive, and a Windows license, you can install and run Windows on your Mac like any other PC. There are plenty of guides on how to get Boot Camp up and running, so I won’t go through it here, at least not for now.
Once setup, all you do is reboot your Mac and when you hear the boot chime, press down the Alt (⌥) key on your keyboard and select Windows instead of macOS.
You are now running a proper Windows (with all it’s pros and cons) and you can now run any game made for Windows (again, as long as you have the required hardware). The only limitation is that if you are running a Fusion-drive, you wiill only be able to run Windows on the Harddisk Drive (HDD), not the Solid state drive (SSD).
Once you are done, you can reboot back to the comfort of macOS. Obviously, the main drawback of this is that you have to set aside a fair chunk of your precious storage space for a Windows installation plus you have to reboot every time you want to game.
Ok, so far it’s been fairly straight forward. Game native on macOS, or native on Windows, just rebooted. But now things are getting a bit more complicated.
Virtualization means you run Windows (or Linux) in a virtual machine (VM), while still in macOS. You can run the VM both as a window or full screen, and run any app as if you were running a normal version of Windows, with some limations.
As you are running two operating systems, you will have lower performance in the guest OS (VM) than you would have should you have run it through Boot Camp. Still, the apps have greatly improved over the years, and now have DirectX 10 (no 11 yet) support and ways to decide how much of the host computers resources you want to dedicate.
There are two main players on the VM-market, VMware Fusion and Parallels Desktop. Oracle also have VirtualBox, which has the benefit of being free, but it’s far behind the other two when it comes to features and performance.
Personally, I’m more familiar with Parallels Desktop, but I’ve heard good things about Fusion as well. Neither software is cheap though, as they cost around €80-€90. Plus you still need a Windows license.
One neat trick, is that you can add your existing Boot Camp installation as a VM (works in both Fusion and Parallels). It means you will share the installation between your VM and Boot Camp, so you can play in both your VM and Boot Camp. Maybe restarting to Boot Camp for your heavy load games, while saying in macOS and the VM for less taxing games. It’s worth noting though, that this does occasionally confuse Windows and it may want you to re-register your license key.
The easiest way to describe this, is to say it’s emulation. But it’s not, Wine actually stands for Wine Is Not Emulation. Either way, what Wine does is that creates a “bottle” (yes, whoever named it must have been an alcoholic) in which you trick your apps or games to think they are inside a Windows installation. The Bottle then translates all APIs and such between macOS and the app and it works just as if it was in Windows. Sometimes.
This is probably the biggest drawback with Wine, is that it’s quite common that games won’t work, or have problems with broken textures and so on.
For the games that do work, it works really well actually. While you do suffer a small performance loss, it’s not as significant as it is in virtualization. Also, there’s no need for a Windows license since you don’t actually use it.
The problem for the casual users is that it’s not the easiest thing in the world to get a bottle properly setup and work as you want it to. Luckily, the Mac community has you covered. There are two good sites I can recommend. The first is PaulTheTall who’s a dedicated “bottle”-maker and has made ones for lots of games, all of which you can download for free at his website. This is not piracy, the actual games are not included, just the bottle. You still need to bring the game.
The second site is PortingTeam. Just as Paul, they had ready-made bottles.
Also, If you do want to try yourself, you can download all the tools from the official website WineHQ.
Just recently, Wine 3.0 was release with support for both DirectX 10 and 11. I’ve not yet tested it, but this could be quite awesome news for bottle-making and running modern Windows games through Wine.
Finally, if you want commercial help, there’s Codeweavers Crossover. It’s built on Wine, and they fund a lot of the development of Wine, but is something you pay for. For the money, you get an installer that helps you create your own bottles as well as a library of validated games that works in Crossover. Over the years, I’ve found the Codeweavers has focused less and less at supporting games, so I think you are better off with the community alternatives.
Cloud Gaming/Remote Play
The final option you have to play games on Mac is through streaming, or Cloud gaming as it’s mostly called. What it means, is that you don’t actually run the game on your computer, but instead remotely connect to the system running the game. The beauty of this is that it means you will have very low performance requirements on your Mac, and the world of both Windows and PlayStation opens up.
Common for all these services, are that while they don’t require a lot of computing power locally, they do require a stable network connection, and if you connect over internet, a fast internet connection. I recommend either ethernet cable, or if you want to use WiFi, use the 5Ghz 802.11ac standard.
OnLive was the pioneers in Cloud Gaming, but was ahead of its time and couldn’t find enough customers at the time to make it viable.
But now, there are dozens of alternatives either here, or coming soon. I’ve written a full post about NVIDIAs attempt at this, so I won’t go too much into it here, but one popular alternative is LiquidSky. Unfortunately, they don’t have a macOS client yet, but they promise one soon. They still come with the limitation that games needs to be supported by the service. There are lots of games on it, but still.
If you want more control, you could try out Parsec. It basically allows you to rent a computer in the cloud, and you can do pretty much what you want with it. Note though, this is a quite pricey alternative.
During the coming weeks, I will continue to dig into the different cloud services and post updates as I go through them.
Steam In-Home Streaming
If you have a nice gaming PC at home, you can use services like the one Steam offers, and create your own little local cloud gaming service. Steam also offers a hardware device that you can connect to your TV for playing on it. But both require that you have a PC yourself.
PlayStation Remote Play
Finally, we have Remote Play from Sony. Microsoft hasn’t blessed us with remote play to the Xbox One, but if you have a PlayStation (3 or 4), you can connect remotely to your console and play on your Mac. This also works remotely, so you don’t need to be at home. But just as steam, you still need to own a PlayStation. If you own a Vita or Sony Xperia phone, you can also play through them.
Sony also have PlayStation Now, which allows you to connect to games without owning a PlayStation. Oddly though, there’s no Mac support for their app, and it’s also quite limited in which countries it’s available.
Where to Buy
Ok, so now you’ve learned the basic on how to play games on your Mac, but where do you buy them. I’m mainly going to go through digital download stores, but you can of course buy games at your local retailer.
Well, there’s countless of alternatives, but the most popular ones are:
- Steam – largest library of games, hands-down.
- Origin – EA’s alternative to Steam, and the only place to buy their games.
- GOG.com – DRM free games, and very popular with indie games. Also have a huge catalogue of old games, not available anywhere else.
- Humble Store – Sort of a charity storefront for Steam. All purchases means a donation to a charity and you still usually get the game on Steam.
- Mac App Store – Apple’s own store, which of course has a lot of games. Be careful with multiplayer support though. Games such as Civilization 6 requires SteamWorks for multiplayer, and as such only have multiplayer if you’ve bought it through Steam. Games are also often more expensive here, and not as often on sale. Easiest way to access is by clicking the Apple menu and select App Store.
- Battle.net – Exclusive to Blizzard games.
Remember that all of these stores, except the Mac App Store, don’t sell Mac games exclusively, so make sure that the game you pick support Mac, if you intend to run it natively.
It’s also worth mentioning that not all games are sold through platforms like Steam, but instead offered directly from the developer, like Riot’s League of Legends.
So, to summarize I’ve made this chart with pros and cons to help you chose how and where to play.
|Native||Easiest and fastest way to get started.||Still many games not available.|
|Boot Camp||All Windows games you’d be able to play on a PC.||Requires rebooting and a sizable part of your hard drive.
|Virtualization||Fast access to many Windows games||Significant loss in performance. Expensive software and Windows license required.|
|Wine||Low performance loss.||Few games that works. Difficult to setup.|
|Cloud Gaming||Almost no requirements on your Mac||Except fast and solid internet connection. And services can be quite pricey.|
I have no doubt that cloud gaming is the future, and that whatever hardware you have infront of you will not matter. But while I’ll take a deeper look at the different cloud services, I still believe we are a few years out from it being truly established.
Until then, I’m sticking with primarily native gaming (and PS Remote Play). There’s plenty of games available, and I figure that if the developer don’t bother with supporting Macs, I don’t bother with supporting them. But I’m quite odd like that.