The State of OS X Gaming

Macs have never been regarded as machines built for gaming, and are often mocked in the community for their aptitude in this area. In fact, just earlier this day I saw a thread on Reddit mocking the Mac’s ability to play games. That may be true; the Mac certainly isn’t the best platform out there for games.

However, what is undeniable is the improvement the platform has been making in the last 18 months or so. That time has seen the release of two pretty big outlets for games, the Mac App Store and Steam, as well as a steady improvement in the hardware that makes up the Mac family.

Steam Continues to Grow

Just over two years ago, Valve released Steam for OS X, their digital distribution service for games, developed in-house or otherwise. The launch was teased with a series of parodies of popular Apple ads, including swapping out Justin Long in Apple’s “Get a Mac” campaign for a turret from Portal. Likewise, a full-blown video homage to the iconic 1984 commercial was produced, starring characters Alyx Vance, Wallace Breen and the Combine, to promote the release of Half-Life 2.

Steam’s release on the platform brought the launch of a bunch of popular Valve titles including Half-Life 2 and its episodes, Portal and Team Fortress. In 2011, Valve signified a significant step forward by releasing one of the biggest games of the year, Portal 2, simultaneously on both Windows and OS X.

Steam for Mac launched in 2010, bringing with it a number of Valve’s iconic titles.

While a lot of major developers, such as EA, have yet to publish their Mac games on Steam, even when they’re available for Windows via the service, the launch and subsequent growing popularity of the service offer some confidence that future releases will be available alongside or in place of physical media.

Mac App Store Sees Success

The Mac App Store was launched in January of last year as a digital distribution platform for all categories of apps. The growing popularity of the store has seen success for many apps, including a notable catalogue of independent casual games that accompany iOS counterparts. The store’s prominence, much like the iOS equivalent, has allowed games like Angry Birds and Cut the Rope to launch on OS X with a chance of success and not needing to encounter the costs of going through physical retail channels.

The Mac App Store introduced a native digital distribution platform for OS X apps.

The Mac App Store continues to grow, but is yet to really gain much attention from the gaming community. Aside from some older games like Grand Theft Auto 3 and Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, “big name” developers have not adopted the store as a distribution channel so it’s unlikely we’re going to see games like Black Ops 2 make a debut. Allow a few years to pass though, and perhaps a reconsideration of how Apple profits from store sales, and it might just get some credibility from non-indie developers.

Game Center Is Here

Mountain Lion brought Game Center to the Mac with a flagship feature of allowing developers to implement cross-platform gameplay between iOS and OS X. While not at the Ping-level of unpopularity, Game Center is yet to see real traction outside of very casual games. It’s always useful to have should a time come when you need it.

“Big name” titles continue to use their own services for multiplayer – through Steam, Portal 2’s co-op mode can be played between Macs, PCs and PlayStation 3 consoles – but that isn’t having a significant impact on the user experience of such multiplayer modes on the Mac.┬áThe great thing is seeing how many iOS game developers are making their way over to the Mac with the App Store, and having the Game Center on iOS and OS X should help accelerate that trend.

Game Center was brought to the Mac with Mountain Lion.

Macs Remain an Afterthought

While large development companies are getting on board with the idea that Macs play games, few are actually going to the extra effort of producing the title natively. Instead, we’re stuck with ports of PC counterparts that are notably worse than if they were developed for a Mac, and not simply ported over. Although it is an ageing title, The Sims 3 is one game on my shelf that I know is merely a port through the Cider technology that unfortunately leaves the game on OS X inferior to it’s Windows version in performance.

Hopefully this will change at some point. It’s certainly better than nothing and you can still have an enjoyable experience with these afterthought ports, but it’d be nice to see an embrace of OS X properly. Hey, at least they’re half-way to fully supporting the Mac.

Physical Media Is Becoming Irrelevant

The trend that began with the MacBook Air all the way back in 2008, prompted the loss of the Mac Mini’s optical drive in 2011. Just this summer, Apple’s transition away from physical media hit the MacBook Pro, removing the optical drive from the “next-generation” model and leaving only the iMac and Mac Pro with the hardware still on board.

This transition leaves an ultimatum for developers and publishers: drop support for the Mac or move to a digital distribution model. Fortunately, even the big names in games are getting on board with digital distribution for environmental reasons, which should increase the irrelevance of physical media for games over the next few years.

The optical disk drive is dying.

Hardware Continues to Improve

As is customary, the current lineup of Macs are receiving continual updates that improve the specification and performance of models. The entry-level iMac features nice 512mb dedicated graphics and the latest update to the Mac Mini saw one of the two stock consumer builds feature dedicated graphics with 256mb of memory. The continual improvement of graphics in Apple’s hardware constantly improves the value for money of Macs and contributes to dissolving the meme that Macs can’t power gameplay.

My 13″ 2012 MacBook Air sports Intel’s HD Graphics 4000 and that has proven enough, even as an integrated chipset, to power games like Half-Life 2 and its episodes, Portal 2 and The Sims 3 running natively at full resolution (or, near to) and at medium to high graphics with little problem, aside from a somewhat noticeable increase in fan noise and the occasional spike in heat.

In a Nutshell: Improving

In a nutshell, the Mac is improving. Mockery of the platform by the gaming community probably won’t stop anytime soon, and it might take a couple of years before larger gaming franchises see their releases available on Mac-based digital distribution networks. Mac developers like EA have their flagship games on Steam already for Windows, but presumptive technical disparities leave them unavailable for Macs. Hopefully, as our beloved operating system increases in popularity they’ll become more important to gaming companies and see a subsequent support in future releases.

August is Mac.AppStorm’s unofficial gaming month so be sure to keep an eye out for more posts, roundups and reviews of the world of gaming on OS X.