Until recently, playing games on the Mac was limited to educational titles and the occasional port of a six-year old PC title. But ever since Apple switched to Intel processors back in 2006, the gaming abilities of the Mac have been increasing exponentially. In this guide we’ll look at five ways you can play a wide variety of games on your Mac.
Apple and Gaming
There’s a certain video game franchise that almost everyone has heard of - Halo. But did you know Halo first debuted at MacWorld and was originally developed for the Mac?
Gaming on the Mac could’ve been very different
Bungie debuted a pre-release version of Halo at MacWorld back in 1999 (complete with introduction by Steve Jobs) that ran on the Mac. Unfortunately for Apple, Bungie was bought by Microsoft soon after and Halo became the flagship game and franchise for their Xbox console.
Since then, Apple has found it somewhat difficult to tempt gaming publishers (and by extension, gamers themselves) over to the Mac platform. With the sheer popularity (and performance) of the Mac, over the last few years, the tide is turning.
PC gaming has always been the mainstay of the serious gamer. PC gaming is somewhat of a misnomer and it has actually referred to Windows gaming. Since Windows has been (and still is) the largest PC operating system, it’s little wonder that game developers focus on it. Unfortunately, because Apple Macs ran on PowerPC architecture with a completely different operating system, many games simply never made it to the Mac. Mac gaming publishers such as Aspyr attempted to fill in the gap by creating Mac-compatible conversions (called “ports”). Whilst this meant a number of games did make it to the Mac, they were hardly ever the latest titles and often required extremely powerful Macs to run the games at a playable rate.
Apple has found it somewhat difficult to tempt gaming publishers (and by extension, gamers themselves) over to the Mac platform
All this changed in 2006 when Apple switched to Intel processors. This removed a huge hurdle for developers, the only real hurdle that remains is the different operating system. Not only did Apple switch to Intel, features such as Boot Camp (allowing you to run Windows natively on the Mac) and virtualisation software (such as Parallels and VMWare Fusion) meant that you could now run pretty much any Windows gaming title you wanted to. You no longer had to wait for a Mac-compatible version. This means gaming on the Mac has never been more popular.
Software such as Parallels has allowed users access to Windows that’s as easy as possible
There are still factors that limit gaming on the Mac. For example, the graphics cards Macs ship with are (compared to PC gaming) average at best. In addition, the operating system is still something many developers and publishers are new to and so games aren’t running as efficiently as they can, hence the reason many older games need today’s powerful Macs. Although the Mac is still lagging behind consoles and Windows gaming (by quite a margin), the gap is constantly closing - especially when huge gaming services such as Steam making gaming on the Mac even more accessible.
Gaming on Your Mac
We’re going to look at five ways you can install and/or play games on your Mac.
The Mac App Store
The simplest of all the methods we’re looking at in this guide. There’s a wide range of games on the Mac App Store and some of them are titles you will have heard of before. If the iOS App Store has taught us anything, it’s that games have to be fun above all else.
There are a number of blockbuster titles on the Mac App Store though some of them aren’t as recent as you might like
Installing a Game from the Mac App Store
If you’ve used the Mac App Store at any point then you’ll know how easy it all is. There’s no manual installation, simply select the title you want and then purchase it, which will start the download. Once purchased, you’re also allowed to install it on any other personal Mac on which you use your Apple ID for Mac App Store purchases.
Whilst the Mac App Store is probably the easiest choice for potential Mac gamers, it isn’t without it’s drawbacks.
Tip: Many of the Mac App Store major titles are going to be at least 4GB (Assassin’s Creed II is around 8GB) so be aware it might take some time to download.
Lack of Recent and Major Titles
Although there are some major titles, you won’t find many recent ones. Assassin’s Creed 2 was released at the end of 2009 -- almost four years ago. There are a number of developers and publishers who are making attempts at releasing games on the Mac alongside a PC version, they’re mainly doing this through services such as Steam. You’ll find Call of Duty: Black Ops available on the Mac App Store, but you won’t find the recently launched sequel.
The Mac App Store top gaming chart isn’t filled with blockbuster titles
Performance can be Lacklustre
Even though games such as Call of Duty: Black Ops are available and have been around for a few years on the PC and gaming consoles, you’ll still need a powerful Mac to run it. Whenever you’re wanting to buy a game from the Mac App Store, check the specs in the description first and make sure your Mac is capable of running it.
Remember, there are still factors that limit gaming on the Mac such their graphics cards which, compared to gaming PCs, are average at best.
You’ll find some reviews of users experiencing performance issues on even some of Apple’s more recent Macs - but you’ll often find good reviews too
You might find some blockbuster titles may require some serious hardware but don’t let this stop you from enjoying games on your Mac. You’ll find a lot of fun games from indie developers as well as games that are designed for the Mac, rather than being converted to it.
Games such as Angry Birds and Braid run brilliantly on the Mac. Their requirements won’t be as much as bigger titles but their gameplay makes them just as good (if not better) and they’ll run on a wider range of Macs.
Games like the award-winning Braid don’t require much in the way of performance as the focus is always on the gameplay
We’ve covered Steam before on Mactuts+. It’s a gaming service run by Valve, the developers behind the hugely popular and award-winning Half Life and Portal gaming franchises. In 2010, Valve released Steam for Mac which opened the doors to Mac users enabling access their huge library of games. Although you still need to find Mac compatible games, Steam has a dedicated Mac section and if you’ve been gaming with Steam before and owned a title that is now Mac compatible, you don’t have to buy it again.
Steam is the largest online gaming distribution service and has cemented it’s name as the go-to place for games
Moreover, Valve has been porting their own games to the Mac and even gave away Portal for a limited time when the store opened.
Steam operates outside of the Mac App Store. This means that there may be certain restrictions Apple has in place for games on the Mac App Store that Steam does not, allowing game developers and publishers more freedom to develop Mac ports.
Steam also has a number of popular features that make it the almost de-facto gaming store in Windows and makes it a better option than the Mac App Store…
- Cross licensing: If you own a Windows game and a Mac version is available, you get it free
- Hugely popular sales where games can usually be found for less than $10
- Open to any gaming developer
- Multiplayer capability for many games that support it
- Game demos
Since Steam provides many games for a variety of platforms, you don’t have to buy games again if you change. So if you switch from PC to Mac and install Steam, you may find many of your games are Mac-compatible and can be downloaded and installed for free! Just look for the platform badge that denotes what operating system you can use.
You can see what operating systems each games supports by viewing the small platform icons in Steam
Valve is making a big push away from Windows with the launch of Steam for Linux so expect even more Mac support in the coming future.
The only real downside to Steam at the moment is one that is shared with the Mac App Store - there’s just not as much choice as there is for Windows gamers. Steam has, however, a huge range of titles and as Valve pushes towards gaming on alternative platforms, there’ll be more and more games coming.
Steam is an app you that can be downloaded from the Steam website. As well as managing your games, it is also the way to browse the gaming catalogue for games you’d like to purchase, just like the Mac App Store. You can also sign in and browse the Steam store via the website so you can find and buy games on the go, all of which will be scheduled to download the next time you launch Steam.
GOG is another gaming service that has a great back catalogue in older games. It's not as well known as Steam but it has an increasing library of Mac games that you can buy. Similar to Steam, if the game is available for Windows and OS X, you can buy once and run on either operating system.
GOG provides older games from yesteryear
Unlike the Mac App Store or Steam, you download the installers for games directly from their website, so it’s a little more traditional.
There isn’t a big library of games (though of the ones they have, they are very well priced). In addition, You will need to check back with the website should any updates be released.
For the casual gamer or for someone who enjoys nostalgia, GOG is a growing name that is worth checking out.
Many Mac users who play games regularly will no doubt tell you that if you want to play games on the Mac, Boot Camp is the way to go. Depending on how much time you want to spend playing games on the Mac, they’re probably right.
Boot Camp provides a way of installing Windows directly on your Mac
Boot Camp is a free utility that allows you to install Windows side-by-side with OS X. Although this means you have to restart the Mac if you want to switch from one operating system to the other, it lets you run Windows natively. There’s no virtualisation software, no emulation. Whilst your Mac is running Windows it’s no different than any other PC (apart from looking a lot better). Your Windows games will have direct access to the hardware such as graphics card which means it is the best way to run high-performance games.
Why is this important? The whole gaming ecosystem for PCs resides within Windows and since games have been written primarily for Windows, for years, you’ll find a wider range of games that run better than their Mac-based equivalent. This means you can run Steam for Windows, EA’s competing Origin service or even PC DVDs available in video game stores.
Installing Boot Camp
Boot Camp can be installed via the Boot Camp Assistant, located in your Mac’s /Applications/Utilities folder.
Installing Boot Camp is quite easy to do - just make sure you read the instructions
When you run the assistant, you’re given the option of printing the setup instructions. I’d highly recommend doing this just in case things go wrong and you need to fix a problem.
Boot Camp will even create a bootable USB stick with your Windows 7 installation should you be using a Mac that doesn’t contain an optical drive, along with any additional drivers it might need.
You can customise your Windows installation using the Boot Camp Assistant
Once you’ve completed the Boot Camp Assistant, your Mac will partition your drive (which can take some time) and then will restart to allow you to begin the Windows installation.
There are some caveats for Boot Camp though…
Windows License Needed
You need to purchase a copy of Windows. Boot Camp is just the utility to let you install Windows, it doesn’t include a license. For that, you need to buy one separately which is an additional cost.
Hard Disk Space
Installing Windows requires partitioning your hard drive with a fixed amount of space. Too small a space and you won’t be able to store a lot of games on it. Boot Camp can’t be used to set up Windows on an external drive however you can then install games to an external drive - just make sure to plan accordingly.
If you’re on a Mac with a solid-state drive (SSD) then make sure you have plenty of space free. SSDs are a lot smaller than traditional drives by comparison so if you were using a MacBook Pro with 256GB SSD and used the average 60GB installation, you’re going to find 60GB disappears immediately, make sure you’ve got plenty of space to keep you going in the future.
For occasional use or if restarting your Mac is too much of a chore, you have the option to use something like Parallels or VMWare Fusion.
Software such as Parallels has allowed users access to Windows that’s as easy as possible without partitioning or using Boot Camp
Virtualisation is the method of running two or more operating systems concurrently. You can be using OS X but also have Windows 7 installed in Parallels and running at the same time. This gives you all the benefits of Boot Camp but with greater control of hard disk space and not needing to restart your Mac. However, it still has some drawbacks.
Most Virtualisation Software isn’t (all) Free
Parallels and VMWare Fusion, the two most popular virtualisation software packages, aren’t free. Parallels is $79.99 and VMWare Fusion is $49.99. There’s a free alternative called VirtualBox which is an open-source alternative that you might be able to use though it does lack some features that paid-for versions have, such as advanced 3D acceleration.
Windows License Needed
Just like the Boot Camp installation, you need to purchase a copy of Windows. Again, Parallels or VMWare Fusion only provide the utility to run Windows, not the operating system itself.
Disk Space is Still an Issue
Though you have greater control over disk space (and can even store virtual machines on an external drive), they’ll still take up a lot of space - so plan accordingly. If you’re wanting to store them on an external drive, try to use the fastest method available to you (such as USB 3.0 over USB 2.0).
Performance is Reduced
Whilst virtualisation software works extremely well when it comes to the processors in our Macs, the same cannot be said for the graphics cards. They aren’t designed for virtualisation so you’ll find the graphics performance won’t be as good as running Windows via Boot Camp. Companies such as NVIDIA are working towards new graphics cards that take advantage of virtualisation and software, such as Parallels and VMWare Fusion, has had huge developments in allowing some more advanced graphics features. If you’re planning to play games frequently using a Windows environment then Boot Camp will be the better choice.
Conclusion and Recommendations
There’s a number of ways to play games on your Mac. Due to the Mac’s infancy when it comes to serious gaming, you’ll need to be prepared to spend some time looking into the best option for you.
For me, Boot Camp and Steam seem to be the best fit.
So what should you use? Well, that honestly depends on what you plan to play, how much you plan to play and what Mac you’ve got. But overall, I would actually recommend two options - Boot Camp and Steam.
Why? Because Steam supports cross-licensing, any game you buy that’s Windows and Mac compatible (for example, Portal) can be played in both Boot Camp and OS X via Steam - you pay for the game so if it’s available for PC and Mac then you get the best of both worlds. Moreover, if you change Mac or decide to get a PC for gaming, you still have all your games and don’t need to buy them again.
Boot Camp and Steam make a great combination
I would stay in the Windows environment when playing games (since my saved games and gaming content will be there) but if you ever decide to remove Steam or Boot Camp, at least you still have some games that are Mac compatible.
Do you play games on your Mac? If so, what’s the best way you’ve found to play?
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