The Inverse Awards

Inside Apple's Massive Push to Transform the Mac Into a Gaming Paradise

With Apple silicon, Macs finally have the performance to compete with PCs. Now, they just need the AAA games.

Originally Published: 
Inverse; Getty Images, Apple
The Inverse Awards 2023

On July 21, 1999, Steve Jobs stood on stage in front of a packed Macworld Expo New York audience and announced a video game that would go on to influence the entire games industry and turn Apple into a gaming powerhouse.

Half of that promise turned out to be true. The first-person shooter that Jobs revealed did change the course of video game history — but not for Apple. Instead, Microsoft purchased the game’s developer a year later, snatching up the title for the launch of the original Xbox in 2001.

The game Microsoft “stole” from Jobs and Apple was called Halo: Combat Evolved, and the developer was Bungie, a pioneering game studio for the Mac. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

In an alternate universe, Apple never lost Halo to its long-time tech nemesis, the Xbox never became a gaming juggernaut because it didn’t have Master Chief, and the Mac — not PC — went on to become the biggest non-console platform for blockbuster games.

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.

With a lineup of Mac hardware that can finally go toe to toe with some of the best PCs (gaming-specific or not), year-over-year improvements to Apple silicon that push performance higher and higher, and more gaming-focused software optimizations for developers and users, Apple is not looking to repeat history again.

Apple has deployed its teams on the map with capable weapons and plenty of reloads. Now, all it needs to do is capture the flag. Easier said than done, but not impossible for a company valued at nearly $3 trillion and used to playing the long game.

“We've got Mac-specific features that you don't find on every other system like our displays, our speaker systems,” Gordon Keppel, a Mac product marketing manager, tells Inverse. “So when I'm sitting in front of a system that is performant, it looks great, it sounds great, it doesn't get incredibly hot — that is a great gaming experience!”

Hardware Is No Longer A Handicap

Lies of P looks and plays great on an M3 Max MacBook Pro.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

To understand how Apple’s relationship with gaming on the Mac could play out differently than it did in the past, we need a little history lesson. I know, we just took a trip to 1999, but let’s go back further to 1984.

It was the year the original Macintosh launched and the second Apple desktop personal computer to ship with a mouse for controlling its revolutionary graphical user interface. (The Lisa was the first, but it ultimately flopped and its GUI was way more primitive.) Steve Jobs didn’t invent the mouse (that was Douglas Engelbart), and Apple wasn’t the first company to pair one with a personal computer (Xerox was). But the Macintosh was the machine that made the mouse mainstream and inseparable from desktop computers and — very quickly — gaming.

Video games weren’t new by then, either. However, the mouse allowed for a fresh way to control them. At first, games were limited to pointing and clicking. But eventually, free look with mouse support was invented for later Macs (and PCs). Without the Macintosh and the introduction of the mouse to personal computers, modern computer games — where you typically control the in-game camera with the mouse — might not exist as we know it. Bungie wouldn’t have made Marathon, the first first-person shooter to support free look with a mouse, and it would have never had the chance to accept Bill Gates’ massive check for Halo.

So, you see, modern PC gaming — controlled both with keyboard and mouse — is inextricably linked with the Mac. The sad reality, however, is that even though you could trace the origin of modern desktop gaming back to the Mac, game developers were handicapped by Mac hardware pretty quickly in the 1990s and early 2000s. Apple’s computers simply couldn’t keep up with the growing demands of game developers making more advanced and detailed 3D games. It made more sense to develop games for PCs with Intel CPUs, which were rapidly increasing performance year over year, than the Mac’s puny IBM and Motorola PowerPC CPUs, which were falling further and further behind. The same thing went for graphics cards. PCs were supported by GPUs (for example, from the likes of ATI, which was later bought by AMD, and Nvidia) that kept getting more powerful, and at a quicker pace, than the ones inside Macs.

Steve Jobs may not have been a big gamer, but he understood how important gaming was to desktop users.


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.

Fast forward to 2023, and Apple has a renewed interest in gaming on the Mac, the likes of which it hasn’t shown in the last 25 years.

“Apple silicon has changed all that,” Keppel tells Inverse. “Now, every Mac that ships with Apple silicon can play AAA games pretty fantastically. Apple silicon has been transformative of our mainstream systems that got tremendous boosts in graphics with M1, M2, and now with M3.”

Ask any gadget reviewer (including myself) and they will tell you Keppel isn’t just drinking the Kool-Aid because Apple pays him to. Macs with Apple silicon really are performant computers that can play some of the latest PC and console games. In three generations of desktop-class chip design, Apple has created a platform with “tens of millions of Apple silicon Macs,” according to Keppel. That’s tens of millions of Macs with monstrous CPU and GPU capabilities for running graphics-intensive games.

Apple’s upgrades to the GPUs on its silicon are especially impressive. The latest Apple silicon, the M3 family of chips, supports hardware-accelerated ray-tracing and mesh shading, features that only a few years ago didn’t seem like they would ever be a priority, let alone ones that are built into the entire spectrum of MacBook Pros.

The “magic” of Apple silicon isn’t just performance, says Leland Martin, an Apple software marketing manager. Whereas Apple’s fallout with game developers on the Mac previously came down to not supporting specific computer hardware, Martin says Apple silicon started fresh with a unified hardware platform that not only makes it easier for developers to create Mac games for, but will allow for those games to run on other Apple devices.

“Gaming was fundamentally part of the Apple silicon design.”

“If you look at the Mac lineup just a few years ago, there was a mix of both integrated and discrete GPUs,” Martin says. “That can add complexity when you’re developing games. Because you have multiple different hardware permutations to consider. Today, we’ve effectively eliminated that completely with Apple silicon, creating a unified gaming platform now across iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Once a game is designed for one platform, it’s a straightforward process to bring it to the other two. We’re seeing this play out with games like Resident Evil Village that launched first [on Mac] followed by iPhone and iPad.”

This unified hardware platform approach is similar to what you get with a console like the PlayStation 5 or Xbox Series S/X. With the same architecture, there’s a guarantee that every Mac with a certain chipset generation can run a certain game at optimal settings right out of the box, as opposed to leaving it to gamers to figure out whether their PC’s specs are enough.

“Gaming was fundamentally part of the Apple silicon design,” Doug Brooks, also on the Mac product marketing team, tells Inverse. “Before a chip even exists, gaming is fundamentally incorporated during those early planning stages and then throughout development. I think, big picture, when we design our chips, we really look at building balanced systems that provide great CPU, GPU, and memory performance. Of course, [games] need powerful GPUs, but they need all of those features, and our chips are designed to deliver on that goal. If you look at the chips that go in the latest consoles, they look a lot like that with integrated CPU, GPU, and memory.”

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.

Baldur’s Gate 3 on Macs is a start.

In a nutshell, Dynamic Caching is a way to deliver just the precise amount of memory to the GPU, which Brooks tells me translates to overall “enhanced performance” in a game. Whereas a traditional GPU architecture needs to estimate a certain amount of memory — usually more than is needed — Brooks says Dynamic Caching allows the M3 chips to allocate memory more resourcefully for other tasks.

“With Dynamic Caching, what we’re able to do is only assign those resources on-demand when they’re needed, and it gives you the ability to make better use of the hardware that’s there and deliver more performance, more efficiency on the GPU. For the user, what it really means is better performance and higher frame rates in your game.”

Much like consoles, Brooks says that it’s all in service to the experience that users have when they fire up a game. My own testing supports the efficiency. 3D games like Lies of P and Resident Evil 4 run just as well on a MacBook Pro’s battery as they do when plugged in; the same can’t be said for gaming laptops that often lose a sizable amount of performance on battery. And while Mac users can go and fiddle with game settings to their heart’s content just like they can on PC, not having to think about them is best suited for most players. Best of all, developers don’t need to do any extra work to get the benefits of Dynamic Caching because it’s built right into the silicon.

“One thing we're excited about with this most recent launch of the M3 family of chips is that we're able to bring these powerful new technologies, Dynamic Caching, as well as ray-tracing and mesh shading across our entire line of chips,” Brook adds. “We didn't start at the high end and trickle them down over time. We really wanted to bring that to as many customers as possible.”

And while Apple’s unified memory isn’t new — it’s been a core part of Apple silicon since the M1 chip — Keppel also said it’s “foundational” to gaming on the Mac. “The ability for the GPU and CPU to work off the same memory pool without having to duplicate data, without having to introduce additional latency, that is a huge, huge, huge feature. That makes a big, big difference over a PC.”

Making macOS More Game-Friendly

Mac hardware isn’t the only area Apple improved to make gaming on its computers more attractive. The company made two major announcements at its Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) that, at the very least, nudged its gaming ambitions in the right direction.

The first was the Game Porting Toolkit, a translation layer that lets developers easily get their Windows games up and running on a Mac, all without having to rewrite any code. Although developers can’t simply use the Game Porting Toolkit to instantly port their games over to the Mac — games still need to be optimized for Metal, the hardware-accelerated graphics shader API on Macs — it does simplify and speed up development time.

“We’ve definitely seen interest from developers and publishers like Kojima Productions (Death Stranding: Director’s Cut coming out in early 2024) and Annapurna Interactive Games (Stray) on how to take advantage of both parts of the Game Porting Toolkit,” Martin says. “When you download the toolkit, there’s really two parts to it. There’s that emulation environment and that’s helped demonstrate today’s game — you drop in an existing Windows game and see how well it could run on the Mac. The second part is the Metal shader converter and that’s there to help developers convert their tens of thousands of shader code into Metal. And they’ve praised how incredibly useful this is and how it’s saved them a bunch of time in their development timeline.”

Martin explained to me that the Game Porting Toolkit isn’t only for porting old games to the Mac. How much time it will save during the development process will depend on the complexity of the individual game, but he’s confident it’ll help bring virtually any game, no matter the game engine, be it Unity or Unreal, to Macs.

“Games are becoming more cross-platform, supporting many different platforms, especially PC and consoles,” he says. “The Game Porting Toolkit is designed to help those types of games come to Apple platforms. A good example would be Bloober Team. They used the Game Porting Toolkit earlier this year to bring over The Medium and then they went and brought Layers of Fear, a new title, day and date, also using the Game Porting Toolkit.”

macOS Sonoma’s Game Mode automatically kicks in when a game is open in full screen. It prioritizes CPU and GPU resources to the game, and reduces latency for wireless controllers and audio headsets.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

The other major piece of software announced at WWDC — now available in macOS Sonoma — was Game Mode. When a game is expanded to full screen, Game Mode automatically optimizes the CPU and GPU, prioritizing performance for the game. Apple also says Game Mode doubles the Bluetooth sampling rate, which means less latency for wireless headphones or earbuds and connected game controllers.

Game Mode’s functionality is limited compared to the more advanced suite of settings adjustments that you might find in similar modes on PCs and even some phones and tablets, but it’s a good start that shows Apple is thinking about the gaming experience from more than just a chip perspective.

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).

“It’s our ongoing mission to continue investing in the success of the global developer community who are really just transforming what’s possible on our products that we love, and we’re constantly listening to feedback and looking for ways to improve the App Store,” says Martin. He adds that where a game is made available for purchase on a Mac is up to the developer or publisher.

The Mac App Store could use a lot more games, especially ones that support universal purchase and cross-progression.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

Keppel defended the Mac’s breadth of distribution methods. “For me, it’s an indication of how much there is available because you have all of these different distribution models that developers can choose,” he says. “Whether this is the Mac App Store or whether this is Steam or whether this is [Apple] Arcade or whether this is something else that they want to do, I think the Mac comes with open arms, and the more content we have the more it benefits literally everyone involved.”

I’m all for letting publishers sell their games on whatever digital store helps their bottom line the most, but at the same time, I can’t help but feel Apple could and should provide better incentives to distribute games on the Mac App Store. The biggest downside to the Mac App Store is no secret: Apple gets a 30 percent cut of the revenue for every paid app sold, including games (Steam also takes 30 percent of sales, while Epic takes a 12 percent commission). But there are two reasons in favor of the Mac App Store: universal purchase and cross-progression. With universal purchase, you only buy the game once and you can play it on multiple Apple devices. For example, if you buy Resident Evil 4 for the Mac, you can download it for free on iPhone or iPad. And with cross-progress, supported games will let you resume playing where you left off between games.

Martin says Apple doesn’t require publishers to include universal purchase or cross-progression, but if you ask me, it should. For customers deep in Apple’s ecosystem, both features are good incentives to purchase games on Apple devices. If, as Martin says, powerful Mac hardware can now attract players, which in turn attracts more developers and publishers, and then the cycle repeats itself until the Mac is, hopefully, a vibrant and expanding game platform, then I think you need to dangle a few tasty carrots first. Why not lean into the advantages of universal purchase and cross-progression as reasons to buy games on Mac?

It All Hinges On The Games

There are so many games on Steam that don’t support Macs. Apple needs to change that.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

At the end of the day, consumers don’t care about any of these changes happening mostly in the background. They only care whether or not the games they want to play are available on the platform of their choice.

Apple is betting that expanding the library of games on the Mac isn’t a matter of if, but when. The hardware is powerful enough. It’s providing developers with the necessary tools to bring their games to the Mac. The software optimizations in macOS are happening. There’s even the ability to play on multiple Apple devices. It’s spinning all of the necessary gears.

To quote Ray Kinsella in Field of Dreams: “If you build it, they will come.” Right?

Apple hopes that once there’s a large enough install base of Macs with Apple silicon (and iOS devices that share the same architecture), publishers would be foolish to ignore it (and leave money on the table).

“It’s really about being proactive in a number of critical areas,” says Martin. “There's now tens of millions of Apple silicon Macs out there and growing, and now with iPhone 15 Pro and 15 Pro Max, every iPad with an M1 chip or later, that number becomes even larger of an opportunity.”

“There's now tens of millions of Apple silicon Macs out there and growing...”

There’s no guarantee that Apple’s efforts will amount to anything meaningful, but we also can’t see into the future. There is no deadline for when the Mac might become a proper gaming platform. It could happen next year. It could take five years, 10 years, or more. I didn’t get any sense of urgency that Apple is trying to break into gaming fast, only that it’s going to do what it does best: keep iterating and keep improving. Slow and steady, the compounded effect will be felt down the road.

For obvious reasons, Apple couldn’t share anything about its future plans, including unannounced games, partnerships, or anything really. In the gaming industry, one easy way to attract customers to a specific platform is to write a fat check to a publisher. Naturally, Apple declined my probing.

From what I can tell, the company does seem genuinely serious this time about getting new games simultaneously (or very shortly after launch date) released on Mac alongside PC and consoles. Neowiz Games’ Lies of P was released at the same time as on other platforms, and Baldur’s Gate 3 (Inverse’s Game of the Year) launched on Mac in September, only about two months after the Windows version, two weeks after the PS5 release, and nearly three months before the Xbox port. To secure one of the best games of the year for the Mac is not nothing.

Releasing games months or even years after their launch on other platforms helps pad out the Mac’s library, but the real test is going to be whether or not Apple can bring in the new hits. And it can’t just be a handful of AAA titles every year. There’s no way around it, Apple needs to roll up its sleeves and start schmoozing developers and publishers. Or maybe even buy some game makers, à la Microsoft buying Activision Blizzard.

Scoring GTA VI would be a huge win for the Mac.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

One game that could single-handedly give Apple a gaming edge is GTA VI. Rockstar’s sixth installment of its immensely popular open-world game is currently slated for a release on PS5 and Xbox Series S/X in 2025. Assuming the PC version will launch between 1.5 and 2 years after, like it did for GTA V, we could calculate that a Mac version would either release simultaneously (or shortly after) sometime by 2027. (More than a decade after its release, GTA V is still not available for macOS.)

If, by the end of the 2020s, GTA VI is not on the Mac, then something will have gone horribly wrong. The gaming industry is projected to be worth $389.70 billion by 2028. It’s Apple’s market to lose, and the company will have let another generation of gaming slip out of its hands. If it fails to capture the flag this time, it might not get another chance to redeem itself with gamers.

“We’re innovating at this tremendous pace,” says Martin. “When you look at this from a macro level, it becomes much easier to see how all these pieces are coming together in a way that hasn’t happened before.”

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