Sunday, July 16, 2017

The state of Mac gaming

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Enlarge / Could this really be a keyboard and mouse for modern gaming? Well...
Andrew Cunningham
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Gaming on the Mac is terrible, right? That has been the consensus among gamers for a decade-plus—Ars even declared Mac gaming dead all the way back in 2007. But in reality, the situation has gotten better. And after Apple dedicated an unprecedented amount of attention to Mac gaming at WWDC 2017, things might be looking up for Mac gamers in the coming years.

When Apple announced new Macs and a major update to its Mac graphics API at this year’s developer conference, there was an air of hope amongst Mac gamers and developers. Gaming on a Mac may look more appealing than ever thanks to the introduction and gradual improvement of Apple’s relatively new Metal graphics API and a better-than-ever-before install base. On top of that, discrete Mac graphics processors have just seen some of their biggest boosts in recent years, VR support is on the way, and external GPU enclosures promise previously impossible upgradeability.

So gaming on the Mac is improving, but is it good or still terrible? Are we on track to parity with Windows? Speaking to game developers who specialize in the Mac about the state of Mac gaming in the wake of WWDC, Ars encountered plenty of optimism. Still, there’s plenty to be cautious about.


  • Back at MacWorld 2008, Aspyr rightfully got major treatment at the gaming pavilion. Alongside Feral, it's one of two major dev companies who have consistently ported titles for Macs over the ages.
    Charles Jade

  • Tales of modern Mac gaming start here, in Tomb Raider II's version of Venice

Decades in a niche

In gamer communities on forums and Reddit, Mac gaming is often the subject of jokes and snarky comments. Again, such snark was not always without justification. There just weren’t many good games on the Mac for years. Nevertheless, a few companies have continuously worked to fill the niche. Two in particular emerged as leaders in the marketplace—Aspyr Media and Feral Interactive.

Aspyr was founded way back in 1996, originally as a retail distributor. The porting aspect of its business came later, with the first game it ported in 1998—Eidos’ Tomb Raider II. Feral got started in 1996, too. And in addition to the Mac, Feral has ported games to Linux and iOS (it plans to expand to Android in the near future).

“We’ve dealt firsthand with all the big changes to the platform that have taken place over the last two decades,” Edwin Smith, Feral’s head of production, told Ars. He cited changes like the advent of dedicated graphics processing units (GPUs), the move to a UNIX-based operating system, and the transition from the PowerPC processor architecture to Intel.

PowerPC-based Macs in the '90s and early '00s used a different processing architecture from the Windows PCs for which most games were primarily developed. It didn’t help, either, that Microsoft’s Direct3D (part of the DirectX suite of APIs) became the industry standard graphics API. The cross-platform OpenGL API used in Apple computers struggled to keep up in the meantime. And frankly back at that point in time, Macs weren’t very popular, so the audience was small. It was abundantly clear to gamers that the Mac was not a competitive platform in the PowerPC days.

“In the years leading up to the transition to Intel CPUs in Macs, the porting process entailed converting games to run on PowerPC hardware,” said Smith. “This was difficult because the existing code was written with x86 architecture in mind, and since this didn’t always have a 1:1 relationship with how PowerPC architecture worked, we had some interesting problems to solve.”

Climbing out into the sun

Players using today’s Mac offerings live within a different landscape. Things became much rosier over the past decade for a number of reasons.

First, there was the switch to Intel. By adopting the same architecture used in most Windows PCs, Apple moved the Mac out of a software engineering wasteland. Second, Mac sales figures grew significantly at the same time. According to data aggregated by Statista, 3.29 million Macs were sold globally in 2004. By 2015, that number had reached more than 20 million.

“Apple today sells in a quarter what they used to sell in a year, so the total market opportunity has grown from what used to be normal,” Elizabeth Howard, vice-president for publishing at Aspyr, told Ars.

The hardware situation looked better, too. Macs enjoyed what Howard called a “halo effect” from the previous generation of consoles. The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 remained gaming hardware standards for nearly a decade—longer than many other console generations. That longevity allowed the Mac’s laptop-grade graphics hardware to catch up to this industry standard.

“Most video games are developed with console or PC as the lead platform, and the system requirements are naturally targeted around what those platforms can handle,” she explained. “Since Mac is a downstream port of these versions, and Macs were well-aligned with last-gen console specs, we were able to easily move games from PC and console over to Mac.”

Finally, Howard and Smith cited the shift to digital distribution. While this was disruptive and concerning for the industry at first, it turned out to be a major boon for Mac-centric gamers.

“2011 was the last year Apple carried any physical game boxes in their stores,” Howard said. “There was a time we thought this would mean the demise of Mac gaming.” Within a few years, Apple was no longer shipping computers with physical media drives at all; the platform abandoned them more quickly than the PC market did. But rather than hurt Mac developers, it helped. Digital marketplaces like Steam and the Mac App Store “made it much easier for us to get our games to end users,” said Smith. “And as a result, our customer base has grown.”

Howard also sees the new marketplace as an improvement: “Digital distribution had a huge impact on our business. It’s obviously much easier for people to buy games, we had a big catalog to leverage with this new audience, and it’s much easier on cash flow with no cost of goods. It was a huge shift.”

And all this has made the Mac a more vibrant gaming platform than ever before. Mac games have a substantially larger addressable market, the economics of scale are more favorable, and for a while, the hardware was in a sweet spot. With plenty of great games available on the Mac, gamer snark has been looking less and less applicable in recent years.

If you're eventually rocking a <a href="https://arstechnica.com/apple/2017/06/mini-review-the-2017-macbook-comes-into-its-own/">2017 MacBook</a>—the first MacBook former editor Andrew Cunningham would be "truly be happy to use as my everyday notebook"—you'll be Metal-equipped for optimal Mac gaming.


Enlarge / If you're eventually rocking a 2017 MacBook—the first MacBook former editor Andrew Cunningham would be "truly be happy to use as my everyday notebook"—you'll be Metal-equipped for optimal Mac gaming.
Andrew Cunningham

Macs are so Metal now

Still, a key obstacle has lingered behind all this progress: OpenGL. This is the API used to develop high-end graphics in most Mac games, and it’s just not very good compared to Windows’ competing Direct3D API—at least not for modern games on the Mac.

The market for classics and indies on the Mac thrived, and more triple-A games have been ported in recent years. But the reality is, those triple-A games have generally performed more poorly and looked worse on Macs than on comparably configured PCs or consoles.


Apple has aggressively worked to address this with its own low-level graphics API, called Metal. It debuted first on iOS in 2012 and came to Macs in 2015. A new iteration, Metal 2, was just announced at WWDC 2017. But how much has Metal really improved things in this short time—why have only a few games supported it so far?

Let’s start with the player’s perspective. Blizzard Entertainment added Metal support to the long-running online RPG World of Warcraft last year. Though WoW is old (released in 2004—folks have played for a decade-plus), it has been updated periodically with new graphical features, meaning its latest iteration won’t run on just any computer. Metal showed a 40-percent improvement in my tests over OpenGL, but its performance still fell far behind the same computer running Direct3D in Windows.

A brief WoW test

I tested WoW in three modes—in macOS Sierra with the OpenGL API, in macOS Sierra running Metal, and in Windows 10 on the same computer via Boot Camp running Direct3D. The tests showed that Metal is a big improvement over the very poor performance of OpenGL, but it still can’t touch Direct3D—at least not as Blizzard has implemented it.


The test machine was a 2016 15-inch MacBook Pro with a 2.7 GHz Intel Core i7 CPU, 16GB of RAM, and Radeon Pro 460 discrete graphics card with 4GB of video memory. I set the game’s graphics settings to the sixth preset (medium-high) at 1680x1050 resolution with no vertical sync and no anti-aliasing, then I ran a predetermined route through the Broken Shore area from WoW’s recent Legion expansion.

Direct3D in Windows 10 averaged 69 frames per second—buttery smooth for most gamers. OpenGL in macOS managed only an average of 32fps. That’s above the 30fps threshold gamers consider playable and comparable to many console games, but it’s a far cry from the 60fps ideal to which most PC players are accustomed. Running Metal in macOS, the game averaged 45fps. That’s an impressive 40-percent improvement over OpenGL’s very poor showing, but Direct3D is still a clear winner.

Of course, it’s likely Blizzard just didn’t dedicate the same amount of resources to optimizing the Metal version of the game as it did Direct3D. But it also turns out that Metal is not always a clear-cut winner over OpenGL to begin with. That’s where the developer’s perspective comes in.

According to Aspyr Technical Director Jez Sherlock, many games are still engineered around higher-level engines that haven’t yet been updated to get the most out of Metal. “Some engines unfortunately sit very uncomfortably between OpenGL and Metal as far as the ideal graphics API goes,” he explained. “This often requires some re-engineering in order to deliver an optimal experience. This will change as engines are gradually updated to function based on the concepts of the lower level APIs such as Direct3D 12, Vulkan, and Metal.”

Things are moving slowly because developers are still familiarizing themselves with Metal. Aspyr told us that recent release Civilization VI didn’t use Metal because it was more important to simply get the game out in close timing with the Windows PC release. “After all, if Mac gamers are not getting the same deal as Windows gamers for titles as important as Civ VI, we’re not doing our jobs properly,” Howard said.

Feral reported similar challenges. “Since Metal is a newer API, we sometimes encounter teething issues that do not arise when using software that has been battle-tested over many years,” Smith told Ars.


  • WoW Legion was perfectly playable on our modern Mac Metal test rig...

  • ...but Civ VI?! No one even has a chance to test its Metal merit at the moment.
Overall, the improvement with the Metal-era Macs is marked in many cases, and it’s likely to get better over time. Metal adds support for new features whose absence had stymied developers in the past. For example, Feral is able to tap Metal’s support for compute shaders, which were not supported in Apple’s deployment of OpenGL. “That meant that before Metal, we had to rewrite game code to use OpenCL in order to work around missing features,” Smith said. “And although that solution worked, it was cumbersome.”

Some of those engines are already making moves here. The Unity engine, which is frequently used by small studios, began supporting Metal back when it was first announced. When Ars reached out to Unity about this, the company’s director of development for platforms, Ralph Hauwert, said that they’ve been improving support since launch. Accordingly, the Unity Editor received Metal support recently. But even as he talked about how Unity wants to fully support all platforms developers could want, he noted that Mac software developers are “not the overwhelming majority” of Unity users.


All this is to say that support is just beginning, but the Mac development community is optimistic and expects Metal to become more common as we go. “We’ve already shipped two Metal-powered games, and other companies are starting to release or announce them, too,” said Smith. He ventured that Metal will be the standard graphics API on Macs by this time next year.

Metal 2's unveiling came alongside this: the first-ever HTC Vive demo from Apple on a Mac system.


Enlarge / Metal 2's unveiling came alongside this: the first-ever HTC Vive demo from Apple on a Mac system.
Apple

Metal 2 and virtual reality

To make that happen, Apple announced Metal 2 at WWDC 2017. A big chunk of the WWDC keynote this year was dedicated to it. There’s no need to get too far into the weeds here, but you can learn more at Apple’s developer site or in its video of the “Intro to Metal 2” session. The changes can be broadly summarized as significant performance enhancements and support for VR and external GPUs.

Scott Flynn, Unity’s director of AR and VR development, told Ars that Unity has worked with Apple and Valve to optimize Metal 2 to work with Unity’s current VR rendering paths. “We’re excited to gain extra performance by making use of the new Metal 2 features announced at WWDC and combine them with the use of instancing, essentially halving the draw calls required,” he said.

Elsewhere, the folks at Aspyr and Feral were careful not to predict too much about Metal 2’s performance without adequate time to work with it. And as for VR, the consensus seems to be that Apple’s move into the space feels more like catching up than leading.

Sherlock said Aspyr is excited about coming VR support, but “right now, it feels like Apple is enabling VR support more so than leading VR development and technology.” He added that he expects the Mac to be just another platform to port VR products to.

VR on Macs probably won’t be a hotbed of innovation for now based on what Apple has announced. So if it’s too early to make definitive judgments about the performance of Metal 2 and if Apple’s VR support isn’t anything to write home about, then why were Mac gaming devs excited by WWDC this year?

The hardware problem

The answer comes down to the hardware situation—Mac hardware looks poised for a revolutionary improvement. A few years ago, you would find only frustration when shopping for a laptop that would allow you to play hardcore games while still offering satisfactory battery life and portability. That computer did not exist. It arguably does now with the Razer Blade laptop popular among gamers and game devs, but that machine embraces compromises to battery life, heat management, and build that Apple isn’t willing to make in the MacBook Pro.

Instead of compromising those things, Apple traditionally sacrifices gaming performance. Feral’s Smith says the Mac isn’t a gaming platform, as “it has to serve numerous audiences.” To address a broad range of user needs, “compromises are inevitably made.”

To that point, a wild idea has been floating around gaming hardware forums for years: wouldn’t it be cool if you could connect an external GPU to your laptop? That way, at least when you’re home, you could have close to desktop-grade gaming performance. Though gearheads have played with hacking the idea together, the desired outcome was always just a fantasy. For one thing, there was no I/O fast enough to make it worthwhile.

Craig Federighi isn't the only one excited about the fact that macOS and Metal 2 will pick up native support for external Thunderbolt 3 GPU enclosures.


Enlarge / Craig Federighi isn't the only one excited about the fact that macOS and Metal 2 will pick up native support for external Thunderbolt 3 GPU enclosures.
Andrew Cunningham
But now we have Thunderbolt 3, a standard capable of data transfer rates up to 40 Gbps (the reality may be lower in usage, of course). Even if the 40 Gbps figure is a hypothetical high-end, such transfer speeds would have been inconceivable not so many years ago. Thunderbolt 3 and other modern ports make external GPUs possible, which is why devs and Mac gamers alike came away from WWDC happy.

When asked about how Metal 2 will impact his work, Aspyr’s Jez Sherlock skipped the software discussion and went right for the external GPU enclosure. “We’re excited to see how that can help extend the lifespan of existing machines and enable more people to play AAA games,” he said. He noted that lots of people are currently unable to do this due to lack of capable hardware.

For Feral’s part, Smith was also excited about external GPUs for the same reasons: upgradeability and “longevity of individual Macs.”

This longevity question is key. While the last generation of consoles was a good match for Mac hardware of the past few years, consoles have leaped ahead two steps since then. Sony and Microsoft launched the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One a few years ago, and the latest MacBook Pro releases are still closing the gap. But Sony just launched the more powerful PlayStation 4 Pro, and the Xbox One X is due out from Microsoft later this year. Both crush current Mac graphics hardware.

Yes, it will take a while for consumers to adopt the newest consoles—especially given their focus on 4K, which most people haven’t adopted yet—and yes, Microsoft and Sony are requiring developers to support the original PlayStation 4 and Xbox One in addition to the new PS4 Pro and Xbox One X. That backwards compatibility will help.

But the comfort zone for internal, discrete Mac GPUs is slipping, nevertheless. With external GPU enclosures, it could finally be possible for Mac owners to keep up. That solution may be the best and arguably only hope for Mac gamers, especially since the newly announced iMac Pro is not currently priced at a consumer-friendly point.

The gaming pavilion at <a href="https://arstechnica.com/apple/2008/01/macworld-ars-the-death-and-life-of-mac-gaming/">MacWorld 2008</a> held such promise...

The gaming pavilion at MacWorld 2008 held such promise...
Charles Jade

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it”

If we’re talking about the longterm viability of the Mac for some application, who better to quote on this subject than Steve Jobs? Smith cited the famous founder’s maxim when asked about where we’re headed. “Seriously, the future of Mac gaming is really hard to predict,” he said.

Even though progress has been made, challenges obviously remain. Cross-platform multiplayer support is one example; Mac gamers are stuck in a small, walled-off community in many cases. Smith explained this problem thusly: “Most games use a deterministic engine, which relies on client-side processing to calculate things such as pathfinding, unit positions, spawns, and combat. Any differences between the maths of different clients, however tiny, will accumulate to a tangible divergence in behavior, and ultimately a disconnect.”

Implementing multiplayer across multiple operating systems and architectures is therefore not always possible.

Furthermore, there is a threat that the gap between the Mac graphics APIs and those on Windows will widen even further despite the introduction of Metal 2. That’s because a new API called Vulkan—a relative of OpenGL, oddly enough—is gaining traction on Windows, Android, and other platforms. It offers many performance advantages over Direct3D, though it’s much more technically challenging to work with. It’s not supported in macOS except through some third-party implementations like MoltenVK. Every developer we talked to volunteered a wish for Apple to double down on Vulkan support, but this seems unlikely given Apple’s focus on Metal.


“In a perfect world, our games would play on every Mac and iOS device,” said Sherlock. “As to the state of Mac gaming hardware, it’s safe to say it’s better than it’s ever been, and we really hope that trend continues.”

Recent announcements have fostered a sense of optimism among Mac developers, but after all this improvement, no one is sure how much more progress to expect. Howard sounded almost whimsical when discussing what’s next. “Who knows,” she said. “In five years, flying cars and hoverboards could change everything.”

Yes, we were asking about Mac gaming’s future—it can be that unclear for many. It seems she meant this as a metaphor for the ever-shifting sands of Apple initiatives and game technologies; disruption always comes. But the response should be resonant for Mac gamers in a different way. The dream of a wildly different future exists, but it’s as uncertainly defined as an “in the year 2000” segment produced in 1955. Still, what a lovely future it could be.

Samuel Axon is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor covering tech, software development, games, and digital entertainment. He has previously worked as an editor at Mashable and Engadget, and as editorial director of CBS.com.

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