The sad state of Mac gaming, and why it’s getting worse

Oh the irony… Intel is making tremendous strides in the graphical power of their integrated GPUs. But I think that this, along with Apple’s primary focus on exquisite design, might be hurting the ever-budding population of Mac gamers.
Read on to find out why. TL:DR at the bottom.

There’s been a lot of debate and consternation about the fact that Blizzard Entertainment’s latest game, “Overwatch“, is officially not in development for the Mac. Blizzard have long been supporters of gaming on Mac, and Appleite gamers were distraught to hear that they wouldn’t get their latest game. Which, incidentally, is awesome and I adore. Also, disclaimer: I used to work for Blizzard. 🙂

Some have suggested that the reason for this decision is that the size of the market doesn’t warrant it. I dispute that idea: the market share of the Mac has never been higher, and Blizzard has supported it without fault until now.
Others have said that they’re allocating Mac budget to consoles (the game is coming to PS4 and XBox One). I also think that makes little sense; Blizzard is a large company, they could do it for all these platforms, and they like money. They would spend less on developing for the Mac than it would bring in.

The official word from game director Jeff Kaplan is that, essentially, the tech behind the Macs today make it challenging. Call it corporate BS all you want, I don’t think they’re happy about disappointing their fans, and I believe the answer is genuine: it’s all about the Intel HD Graphics technology.

 

iMac

 

Here’s a quick and easy recap of the tech involved:

  • Central Processing Units (CPUs) aren’t great at rendering 3D graphics.
  • In the 90’s, external graphics cards ushered the era of 3D gaming.
  • The chips on those are called Graphics Processing Units, or GPUs.
  • GPUs are indispensable for 3D games, but they are also big and power hungry.
  • Laptops can’t handle big and power hungry things.
  • GPU makers started creating “mobile” GPUs with “ok” performance.
  • Those mobile GPUs are discrete, meaning they are separate from the CPU.
  • Intel, chasing 3D performance, started creating CPUs with integrated GPUs.
  • These integrated GPUs weren’t good for a long time. Apple kept using discrete GPUs.
  • Intel’s integrated GPUs have now improved a lot… But they are still poor for gaming.
  • I put together a not-at-all-scientific 3D perf scale (1-10), just to give you an idea:
    • CPU alone, no GPU: 0.5
    • Integrated GPU 3 years ago: 1 to 1.5
    • Discrete mobile GPU 3 years ago: 2 to 2.5
    • Integrated GPU today: 2 to 2.5
    • Discrete mobile GPU today: 3 to 4
    • Discrete desktop GPU (external graphics card): 4 to 10

Please feel free to seek out precise benchmarks for yourself, but I believe that this is roughly representative of the relative performance of these chips, on average.

And the bottom line is this: integrated GPUs, even today, will probably not get you satisfactory gaming experiences in anything other than the most basic games. It might work on a less intensive game (MOBAs on low settings?), but not for something more demanding. Or at least it won’t work “well” (decent FPS at decent detail levels, etc).

Ironically, the discrete GPUs from a few years ago likely gave you similar-ish or better gaming performance than integrated GPUs today. Remember this for later.

The key issue for Mac games:

  • Apple likes things clean, even if they make compromises.
  • Apple thinks sometimes, good enough IS good enough, and it works for the majority.
  • Intel’s integrated “HD Graphics” GPUs are now… good enough.
  • Apple has elected to use integrated GPUs more, including in desktops.
  • This is the state of GPUs on Macs today:
  • The trend is now more than a trend: mobile GPUs are everywhere on Macs.
  • Ever worse: Apple sells mostly 13″ or smaller laptops, which are all integrated GPUs.

Thinner, cleaner, beautiful-er, is what Apple strives for. They solder everything to the motherboards, they make desktop computers so thin you can hardly see them… and that’s awesome. I love my MacBook Pro, and I think it’s an amazing machine. Factually though, this has slowly led to a severe deterioration of the 3D capabilities of the platform. Don’t get me wrong, it was never great to begin with (as PC fanboys will be quick to remind us). But back then, the issues came from market share as much as they did from performance. Those who really did want to develop games on the Mac could do it. My theory is that today, even those who want to develop games on Macs are facing a significant challenge because of the nature of what the hardware platform has become.

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Questions!

  • But my 3 year old Mac runs Heroes of the Storm / WoW / Super Game X well!
    • That’s not a question, but I get your meaning. There’s a combination of factors I think; first, discrete GPUs from 3 years ago might still be as good as or better than integrated GPUs today, so they’re both OK at running 3 year old games “well”.
      Also, “running well” on a laptop probably means medium settings and sub par FPS. That’s not awesome when the entire install base runs on those same sub-par GPUs, meaning you just cannot get good performance on the large majority of the computers being sold.
      It’s also worth noting that an FPS is very fast paced, which means better performance is more important than in other games (which might be another reason why the Mac isn’t great fit for Overwatch specifically).
      So yes, games do run. It’s not like games will suddenly stop being sold on Macs. Those that are already supported won’t stop working either. But I can understand how a developer would not be relish the idea of porting their game to the Mac in the future.
  • But they could do it anyway, with less details on lower specs… couldn’t they?
    • Well, sure, they could. I’m getting a tiny bit out of my depth here and I’m sure developers will have more to say on this, but you then run into bigger issues: if you have to build your graphics engine to accommodate a wider range of devices and performances, you have to make heavier and heavier compromises, and the end result (and game) suffers. I think that at some point, the cost (for the engine) and the complexity of it just means it’s not worth it.
  • So, does Overwatch actually not run on Mac hardware at all?
    • You can install Windows via Bootcamp, which I did. My almost top of the line 2015 13″ MBPr runs it at 30-35FPS on lowest settings on 1440 x 900 “native” resolution, which doesn’t look great. It would be acceptable though, if the platform was a sliding scale of performance and a 13″ laptop was on the low end. But this is actually typical performance for most users, including many iMac desktop users (21″). And before you get ideas about your uber 27″ iMac which has a discrete GPU, remember that the poor thing is still a mobile GPU, and it has to drive a gigantic 5K display, which takes a high toll on 3D performance. So you might get better performance on your rarest of 3D performing Macs, but I wouldn’t expect something stellar either.
      As a side note, I understand this is still a beta version of the game, but I honestly don’t think the graphics engine will get optimized to the point that it will make a significant difference here.
  • But Metal is coming! Metal is going to make everything better, right? Right?…
    • Sorry, but no. Graphics performance is very dependent on software (as we’ve seen with Steam Machines running games significantly worse than they do on Windows on the same hardware, because of driver performance). So yes, it is important… but it doesn’t do miracles. Macs still have integrated GPUs for the most part, and we can’t escape that fact through software wizardry.
  • Is it all over for gamers on Macs?
    • Who knows… Things were never great, but they had been looking up since the beginning of the 2010s. If Apple decides to start including discrete mobile GPUs in more of their computers (at least on the desktops), maybe. Or maybe Intel will continue to improve the performance of the HD Graphics GPUs to the point that performance will be acceptable. But none of this seems very likely, and honestly, while gaming will never disappear on Macs, things are looking worse today than they have been for a long time. I wouldn’t be surprised if big game developers are looking less at the Mac then they were before, which is saying something.
  • But most PCs are crappy laptops too! What gives?
    • Well, even with the rising market share of the Mac, there are still a lot more PCs on the market. So those X% of PCs that can do proper gaming probably represent more devices than the entire Mac install base. And remember, even on the desktop side, many Macs can’t really do gaming properly nowadays anyway. It’s as if the entire Mac install base was made of laptops in this regard.

Conclusion:

There’s nothing definitive here. It might all just be a big misunderstanding, maybe I’m completely off base, and maybe Blizzard is going to show up at your home in 2016 with a Mac copy of Overwatch and yell “SUPRIIIISE!!!”… but I wouldn’t hold my breath. I think my logic is sound, and my reasoning factually verified. If you disagree, I’d be delighted to hear from you. Mostly because I’d also love to be able to play Overwatch on my MacBook too.

But for now… Well, if I were to troll my sad Mac gamer friends who want to play Overwatch, I’d tell them to buy a console. Wait, actually that would be a good recommendation. Real trolling would be saying “get a PC”.

But of course I wouldn’t do that.

TL;DR: A staggering amount of Mac computers now use integrated GPUs, the lowest performing category of graphics chips. Integrated GPUs are a significant step under discrete mobile GPUs, which are still below par for gaming, and equip the rest of the Mac lineup. Importantly, this is the case not just for laptops, but also for desktops. While the trend has been going for a while, it has now almost entirely overtaken the Mac line, and does great harm to the already poor prospects of gaming on the platform. In my opinion, this is the reason why Blizzard Entertainment, a strong supporter of the platform, has elected not to develop their latest game for the Mac. Sad panda.

November 26th, 2015
  • But hey, there is Apple TV for that :p : https://twitter.com/JulienCdt/status/668765127500525568

  • I’m kidding but I’m actually sad of this situation because with that and the recent report on Steam OS performances it leaves only Windows as the de facto choice for gamers and I’m not happy when there is only one solution for a market. I like when games are universal and you don’t have to be on one particular system.

    I want to be able to switch to Ubuntu or OS X and have my library following me. #WeAreNotConsoles #MasterRace

  • Laurent Théaux

    “Graphics performance is very dependent on software”. I guess you mean hardware.

  • No, I’m saying software does matter, but it can’t make gold out of lead. The rest of the sentence is important too. 🙂

  • Dorkmaster Flek

    Nice write-up, Patrick. Very informative. I looked this up after hearing you mention it on the latest Overwatchers podcast, and I was quite surprised at first when they announced that there would be no Mac client for Overwatch as well. I assumed they meant it just wouldn’t be ready for launch, but I didn’t realize all these things about the state of Mac hardware since I’m not a Mac user myself. This makes a lot more sense now, unfortunately.

    This is a shame even though I don’t use Macs myself, as it would be great for the game to be available to as wide an audience as possible. I hate when people cheer for platform exclusives, it’s so anti-consumer and stupid… Putting it on console makes sense, but it does kinda suck since the playerbase will be segregated and some people will probably end up playing on console even if they have a PC if they have a bunch of friends who don’t. Nothing you can really do about that though, the PC players would annihilate the console players if they could play together unfortunately. I’m sure it will still do really well on PC, and I expect that’s primarily where the e-sports scene will be.