Saturday, January 4, 2014

In Depth: Can a Mac be a gaming PC? How the world is changing for Mac gamers

In Depth: Can a Mac be a gaming PC? How the world is changing for Mac gamers

In Depth: Can a Mac be a gaming PC? How the world is changing for Mac gamers

For years, Mac gaming has been almost an oxymoron - not really worth considering if your love of games extends beyond Football Manager. But things are changing. Big games are coming to Mac quicker and quicker, instead of arriving three years later or not at all.

Perhaps more excitingly, new indie games tend to hit Mac at the same time as everything else thanks to improved engine support, with Humble Bundles seeing major uptakes from Apple users, and most Steam Early Access games eager for them, too.

More than that, the hardware is looking better and better for gaming. There are iMacs that take up little desk space, but pack in quad-core processors and good Nvid ia GPUs. The MacBook Pro range offers Intel Iris graphics at the low end, and strong dedicated graphics as you get to the top - and most models have brilliant super high-res screens to show it off, too.

There's the Mac Pro, boasting a Xeon processor and two GPUs in a near-silent, eight-inch-tall enclosure (okay, it really isn't for gaming, but it's gorgeous). Even the MacBook Air is making the most of Haswell, with brand new processors and Intel's decent HD 5000 graphics in a tiny machine that gets 12 hours of battery life.

The hardware is still pretty pricey, of course (especially the new Mac Pro), but some things never really change. The thing is, it's higher quality than just about everything out there, and it's difficult to find anything that actually rivals Apple's laptops for size, weight and specs for the same price.

That's great, because with SteamPlay, you only need to buy a game once on Steam to get it on both platforms. Cloud saves usually wor k on both versions, so you could grab a MacBook for playing the go, and have a big gaming rig at home. And even if you want games that aren't available on Mac, you can use Apple's Boot Camp utility to dual-boot Windows on Apple hardware.

The redheaded stepchild of PC gaming has become an aluminium fox, and that's great for the growth of the industry. It's time to stop looking down on Mac gaming, and welcome it like a long-lost brother - albeit, one who got really into his music and art while he was away.

It's hard for a lot of gamers to remember now, but there was a time when the Mac was fertile ground for great games.

Maxis brought the dozens of Sim-something games it did every month to Mac; Bungie grew big as a Mac-exclusive developer, getting to the point where it announced Halo for Mac and Windows (before being promptly snapped up by Microsoft); and Myst, one of the biggest games of all time, was built in the Mac's 'make your own app!' programming to ol HyperCard before being ported to every electronic platform with a screen.

This time passed, though. Windows pulled further and further ahead in sheer number of games, in providing affordable and decent graphics, and ultimately in performance.

Of course, there were companies that kept the end up, porting what games they could, but Mac gamers mostly had to be content with the likes of The Sims, and occasional scraps like Stubbs the Zombie and Age of Empires tossed their way. If you played a variety of games, you didn't do it on your Mac, or even probably in the same room as it, just to avoid being insensitive and stuff.

Turning point

Apple G5

But in the space of a year, Apple did two things that started the road to a gaming renaissance. In 2006, it switched to using Intel CPUs, bringing its hardware more into line with Windows machines, and in 2007, it introduced the iPhone. The first of these two points certainly made life easier for porting, since Apple's PowerPC processors were a completely different architecture to x86. It wasn't the kind of thing that made an overnight difference, of course, because of games' continued reliance on DirectX, but it was a big step for Apple.

The iPhone was perhaps the more important element, though. Once the SDK was released, gaming absolutely blew up on the iOS App Store. Suddenly, Apple and gaming weren't just being mentioned in the same sentence, but extra phrases like 'future of handheld consoles' were also being thrown in. Big developers started jumping on board and, crucially, made a bunch of money, too.

During this time, Mac sales were ticking up as most of the PC industry slowed and started contracting. At the same time, the Apple audience had showed that it did, in fact, like games, and was willing to pay for them. It was only a matter of time until Steam showed up, and where Steam goes, so go the games. In 2010, sure enough, Valve launched its store and many of its Source games for Mac as well.

The goods

Metro: Last Light

Although the Mac is still a second-class citizen compared to Windows, receiving big titles after a delay of several months, it is getting them. The likes of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, SimCity, BioShock Infinite and Metro: Last Light all arrived on Mac within a few months of their original release - SimCity even had launch issues, as if to prove that we're all equals.

For Feral Interactive, responsible for porting Tomb Raider, the Total War series and XCOM, among others, strategy games tend to be the best sellers. It's no surprise, then, that XCOM: Enemy Within is due to release on Mac o n the same day as Windows.

It's easy to look down on having to wait a few months for games, but in this, Windows and Mac users aren't so different. Too often, the PC finds itself getting the short end of the joystick, getting console ports that are often delayed or badly done. Now spare a thought for your Mac-playing brothers. Windows is the console to them.

Console yourself

As with console games coming to PC, the problem for Mac games is the effort involved in getting the ports working well. The Direct3D elements used to power the graphics in Windows games must become OpenGL elements for Macs, and the whole thing needs to run on the different software platform.

"In the past we have found that some new graphics effects available in the latest version of DirectX are not easily reproduced on the Mac using OpenGL," says David Stephen, managing director of Feral Interactive. "In such cases, we look for the best way to create those effect s with the minimum hit on performance, but there is usually a trade-off involved. However, Apple's support for OpenGL 4.0 and 4.1 in Mavericks means that more processing can now be done natively on the graphics card, and that will definitely help with the performance side of things."

The technical effort of porting is just one element, though. "Delays are principally due to the Mac developer/publisher (in this case Feral) not receiving the assets they need to start the porting process until after the Windows version of the game has been released," explains David Stephen. Even this step of starting ports can only come after business negotiations between all the companies involved, which can be complicated.

"We have been working with our partners so that we can commence on the port while the original game is still in development," ; adds Stephen, but this carries its own potential issues. If the game is being ported while still in active development, changes made by the main development team can have a knock-on effect on the port. The Mac version also needs its own separate QA testing, and then even once it's finished, it can be delayed further while awaiting final approval from the publisher.

There have also been delays on Mac games released on specific stores - they might hit the Mac App Store before Steam for example. Steam and SteamPlay can cause business headaches in the case of ports, and that also takes time to sort out. On top of that, if it's on the App Store, it'll need Apple's Game Center adding, and other multiplayer/achievement code removing or suppressing.

Maybe it's no surprise, then, that Aspyr Media, one of the biggest Mac games companies - responsible for the BioShock Infinite port, among others - employs more staff in QA, sales and marketing than it does in engineering duties.

Going native

Mac Pro

Life gets a lot easier for developers if there's no porting required in the first place, of course. Engine changes to allow easy cross-platform development are already happening, with smaller, nimbler games seeing the benefits currently. Unity supports everything going, meaning that games such as Gone Home and the alpha for Sir, You Are Being Hunted arrived on Mac at the same time as everything else - including Linux.

The iPhone helped Apple overall in cross-platform support, getting engine developers interested in making it easy for game devs to put their products on Apple-powered devices (for example, the iPhone's iOS is based on OS X).

SteamOS could be the nex t platform that helps Mac owners. Linux and OS X are far from identical as operating systems, but are close enough that some games run on both in a single binary. Basically, if developers put in the effort to make their games work on Linux, it's not a big step to Mac, and Valve's attempt to get as many games as possible to go cross-platform could be the final step that puts the Mac on pretty much level pegging with Windows for games support in the future.

You might ask, very fairly, why it would take Valve throwing its weight around to make this happen when Apple is pretty hefty itself. The thing is, Apple just never cared about gaming before it became a key selling point in the iPhone, and even now is much better at saying it's doing great things for gamers than actually doing them.

While games companies have been making the moves to get their products on Macs, Apple itself has been slow to help. The problem is partly technical, but partly it's just a failure to engage with what's expected of PC games.

Steam's presence on Mac brings all the usual goodies, like cloud saves, social features and achievements. Not long after Steam arrived, Apple launched its own Mac App Store, and the hope was that it would be another good platform to discover and buy games, especially for people who wouldn't have heard of Steam. To a degree it succeeded, but only for people who aren't used to the kind of features offered by Steam. There's nothing like the ubiquity of Steam Cloud for online saves, and the social features are tied into Apple's Game Center service, which is barely used.

Most irritating of all is the requirement that all Mac App Store games be sandboxed, meaning that developers can't include any ways to tie games into your Steam account so you can see your friends for multiplayer there. The Mac App Store is convenient, but as a gaming platform, it just doesn't compare.

Dem graphics

Then there's the state of graphics support in OS X. It hasn't been the best. Because all of its hardware is so slimline, Apple is loathe to use very large, hot GPUs, so it tends to go for mobile cards, even in desktops. That's still okay - there's great gaming to be had in a Nvidia 750M or Iris Pro - but the drivers often seem to be inferior to their Windows counterparts, and can vary from card to card.

Apple can also be well behind the latest OpenGL versions at times, though its most recent update brought things in line. The problem used to be that Apple only updated OpenGL when it updated the whole OS, and until now that was a paid upgrade, so not every user would get the better features that developers needed to progress. This went for any drivers, too. Funnily, this is very similar to Microsoft's attitude with DirectX, but it's even worse for developers.

Overall, many games perform considerably worse on Macs than Windows PCs - SimCity, for example, can run perfectly smoothly on Inte l HD 4000 graphics at 1080p on low settings on Windows, but on a Mac with an AMD 6750M GPU, those settings are barely playable. As David Stephen suggested earlier, though, that could change with the more advanced APIs available in the latest operating system.

The performance problems aren't the case with all games, though. "I've had some instances of performance hits, but often my ports will have performance increases, depending on the hardware. There have definitely been some OpenGL bugs/ bottlenecks, but that's something that can often be addressed in my code," says Ethan Lee, a developer on the MonoGame framework for porting XNA games to Mac/Linux, and who ported Fez to these very platforms as well.

Put the boot in

Steam big picture

When games don't run as well on OS X, there's always one soluti on: run Windows instead. Apple's Boot Camp software enables you to easily partition your disk drive, and provides all the drivers necessary to get Windows working natively on your Mac.

We recommend replacing the graphics drivers provided by Apple, unsurprisingly, but the odd thing is that Macs tend to be consistently some of the best-performing Windows machines you can buy. Everything works brilliantly, any SteamPlay games you've bought will play on Windows (with your saves brought in over the cloud where supported), and you can play Windows-exclusive games.

You get storage issues if you dual-boot one of the lower-end laptops with small amounts of solid state storage, but with Intel HD 5000 graphics, even something like the MacBook Air is a viable portable gaming machine for smaller indie titles.

Macs don't represent a great deal for someone who wants high-end gaming, but they shouldn't be dismissed because of that. The range of games is already strong, and is only going to grow further - and you can run Windows for the rest.

In a balance of gaming power and size/weight, there's not a lot that can touch the MacBook line. Dear readers, it's time to embrace the Mac and its users to the PC gaming fold. They are our brothers in arms (which was a game released on Mac as well, incidentally).


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//PART 2