The Mac has never been the strongest platform for gaming, but that doesn’t mean you can’t game on a Mac. Apple’s new ARM-based Apple Silicon chips have seen big performance gains in optimized apps, so what does this mean for gaming?
Optimized Games Run Best
Apple is transitioning from Intel’s 64-bit x86 architecture to its own ARM-based systems-on-chip (SoCs). The company has designed its own iPhone and iPad SoCs for well over a decade and is now applying the same approach and architecture to the Mac lineup.
Since Apple Silicon and Intel chips are fundamentally different in how they interpret software instructions, they can’t natively use the same software builds. Fortunately, Apple has updated its developer tools to allow developers to create universal binaries, which are optimized for both Intel and Apple Silicon models.
Not everything has been updated, and most games are still only built for Intel Macs. It’s early days for Apple Silicon, which means that there aren’t many games that have been optimized for the new hardware. At the time of writing in July 2021, there are just a handful of titles that aren’t ports.
World of Warcraft was the first game to receive the Apple Silicon treatment with the release of patch 9.0.2. Disco Elysium, a narrative-driven roleplaying game, has also been optimized for Apple Silicon. Also of note is The Survivalists, which is currently included with Apple Arcade.
Apple Arcade Just Works
Apple Arcade takes the Netflix subscription model and applies it to mobile gaming. Imagine if Microsoft had designed Game Pass primarily with mobile platforms in mind, and you’re most of the way there.
The service features over 180 games that you can play on your iPhone, iPad, Mac, and Apple TV. Some are designed purely with touch interfaces in mind, while others have support for controller and mouse input. You can preview which Apple Arcade games are available by launching the Mac App Store and clicking on the Arcade tab.
There’s a great mix of new and old titles on Apple Arcade, but the service is more Angry Birds than APEX Legends. If you’re already paying for iCloud and Apple Music or Apple TV, you might be interested in upgrading to Apple One to get Apple Arcade for one flat fee.
iPhone and iPad Games Run Natively
If you have a Mac with Apple Silicon, you can download and run iPhone and iPad apps natively. This includes games that have been created with touch devices in mind, although developers can exclude their games if they wish. As a result, the user experience in some titles can be a bit wonky.
iPhone versions of GTA: San Andreas and Stardew Valley run natively on Apple Silicon, providing even better performance than a top-of-the-line iPhone. Mobile games like Asphalt 9: Legends and Monument Valley also run fine. Any games that work with controllers on the iPhone should also work with controllers on the Mac.
Unfortunately, touch emulation within macOS is still underwhelming. You’ll need to do things like click and drag to emulate a swipe, while alternate inputs like right-click don’t work. You’ll also be limited to a small window on which to play, which is worse in iPhone apps compared with iPad versions.
It’s an often underwhelming experience, but it’s also the only way to play certain games. You can find games by simply searching the Mac App Store, or you can comb through your iPhone purchases, launch the store, click on your name in the bottom-left corner, and click “iPhone & iPad Apps” on the Account screen.
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Non-Optimized Games Might Run Under Rosetta
Apple’s answer to getting older apps running on new Apple Silicon chips is Rosetta, a transpiler that converts Intel-based applications into code that Apple Silicon can use. Since these apps don’t run natively, expect performance to take a hit. It’s not uncommon to see apps running at around 60% of their native speed using Rosetta.
This solution is a stop-gap intended to allow early adopters to use their favorite native Intel apps while developers work on native Apple Silicon versions. Rosetta doesn’t only work with desktop apps, it can work for many games, too.
Apple Silicon Games is a website that tracks which games you can play on your ARM-based Mac. This includes user-submitted reports for whether games run, what additional software is required (if any), which settings work best, and a rough idea of how the game performs.
Many of these games work without a hitch on Apple Silicon using Rosetta and an Intel Mac build. What’s even more promising is that CrossOver has already been updated to work natively on Apple Silicon. This project is a lot like the WINE compatibility layer in that it converts Windows binaries to run natively on an Intel Mac.
Any games that previously ran the Windows version via CrossOver can now potentially run on Apple Silicon, too, although you should check the Apple Silicon Games list beforehand (and consider submitting your own reports).
Don’t Forget about Emulation
Emulators allow you to emulate gaming hardware like consoles and handhelds on a computer. This allows you to play software backups of games (known as ROMs). While emulation isn’t illegal, downloading ROMs can be. We won’t be linking to any websites that host these files, and you should comply with local copyright laws in your region.
RELATED: Is Downloading Retro Video Game ROMs Ever Legal?
Since emulation is often used to play older games, most emulators written for Intel Macs that are able to run under Rosetta should work fine. For example, do-it-all emulator OpenEmu has no problem running Nintendo 64, SNES, and CPS1 games (among others) via Rosetta.
Some projects, like GameCube and Wii emulator Dolphin, have already received native Apple Silicon ports. A post on the Dolphin blog describes the M1 chip in glowing terms, noting:
“There’s no denying it; macOS M1 hardware kicks some serious ass. It absolutely obliterates a two and a half year old Intel MacBook Pro that was over three times its price all while keeping within ARM’s reach of a powerful desktop computer. We were so impressed, we decided to make a second graph to express it.”
Another emulator that has received the native treatment is DOSBox-X. If a project is still under active development, it’s a fair expectation that it will receive a native Apple Silicon version. For older projects, Rosetta will have to do.
Cloud Gaming Is an Option, Too
The other option for playing games on your Mac is to use a cloud gaming service like Microsoft’s Xbox Cloud Gaming beta for Game Pass subscribers and Google Stadia.
These services require little more than an internet connection and the right app or web browser. The games run on remote hardware and are then streamed to your Mac. You can use a controller and often maintain progress between cloud and physical versions.
Unfortunately, Game Pass is still in invite-only beta on Mac, although some users have reported that it’s possible to stream cloud games using Parallels and a copy of Windows 10.
Want More? Consider Consoles or a Windows PC
If gaming is your primary concern, a Mac is a poor choice. You’re better off getting a console like the Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5 or building a Windows gaming PC instead.
Even Valve’s upcoming handheld Steam Deck will provide a broader range of supported games out of the box, and you can install Windows on it to boot.
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