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Over 4 million Mac gamers - but who's playing "real" games?

Macs still make up a tiny percentage of Steam's customers —less than 3.5 percent, in fact — but it's heartening to talk about Mac gamers in the millions. Still, numbers don't tell the whole story.

A quick look around Steam's OS X section or the Mac App Store reveals a sad truth: A lot of the games that get published on these services are tired retreads — ports, essentially — of games that were originally developed for mobile platforms. I wonder how many of those 4 million Mac gamers are playing crap that was never designed for their platform to begin with?

This isn't unique to Steam, either. I frequently have this problem when I'm cruising the Mac App Store looking for new stuff to play. I'll find something that looks a bit interesting, will click through or do more research on it only to find out it's been on Android or iOS for months.

It's an existential crisis for self-identified computer gamers

Mac gamers have long played second fiddle to PC gamers, but now they're playing second (or maybe third) fiddle to mobile gamers, as well.

It's an existential crisis for self-identified computer gamers, but a few different phenomena have converged to make it happen. First, mobile games are incredibly popular. There are hundreds of millions of people who play games on mobile devices, so it's a huge potential market. The mobile market has been quick to embrace alternative payment methods like free to play/pay to win models, which

What's more, the tools used to develop games make it easier for developers to create one product that can be published on multiple platforms. It's not just Xcode's portability between iOS and OS X, either. Unity is a popular game development tool that has been used in thousands of apps and games, including lots and lots of mobile games. But Unity is not just for mobile games: Look at Cities: Skylines, the popular city building game that some say is better than EA/Maxis' SimCity reboot (and works great on the Mac).

Tools like that are making it easier for developers to cast a wide net without having to invest lots of money and assume the risk of supporting unfamiliar platforms. Mac users are benefitting from that most directly.

What difference does it make if the game I'm playing started life on the iPad, as long as it's fun?

For a fair number of those four million gamers, the difference between a "mobile" game and a "computer" game may be increasingly irrelevant. We're looking to spend a few minutes with a diversion on our computer in between meetings and other work, or perhaps in front of the TV relaxing after supper. What difference does it make if the game I'm playing started life on the iPad, as long as it's fun?

In fairness, it really shouldn't. But my concern is that right now, differentiating first-run Mac games and game ports from mobile conversions requires a bit of detective work. Sometimes it's pretty obvious: If a game is free to play and has some sort of in-app purchase mechanism, I assume it's a mobile port (and I'm usually right). If the screenshots or video show a touchscreen, that's a dead giveaway that the Mac really wasn't targeted as a primary platform.

But it shouldn't be that difficult. And I'm saying this as someone who trolls the stores as part of his job; I can't imagine the casual gamer is going to invest a lot more time or effort in doing so, and as far as I'm concerned, people spending money on software deserve to know what they're getting.

I just wish that the Mac App Store, Steam, Macgamestore.com and other places where Mac games are sold made it easier to differentiate unique Mac games and first-run Mac game ports from the increasingly undifferentiated horde of mobile games that have come to the computer as well.

Caveat emptor, as the expression goes: Let the buyer beware. And ultimately it's on the consumers to educate themselves. But let's not make buying the games any more of a user-hostile experience than it has to be.

28 Comments
  • People should not buy Macs for gaming and I wish the people who work in the Apple stores would tell people that.
  • They work for some things. Moba's for example run quite well on Macs. Most MMO's will run better too because the code can be streamlined more. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • Thats true. But most people buy computers primarily for work and then also use if for gaming. Real gamers should buy Xbox or play station. The amount of money you need to spend on computers for all that extra performance gaming requires is really outrageous. Best not to buy computers for gaming at all. Better to get out of the computer table and get to the living room in the couch and play with your friends, sharing screen on a large TV.
  • Right, play on a couch with friends when both consoles seem to be killing splitscreen, and one doesn't need to spend more than $1000 for a very strong build, and no more than $500 for a 2-3 year build, not to mention pc games are generally cheaper and go on sale more often. And there are more avaliable. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • You can always install Windows through Boot Camp and you can have the best of both worlds. I agree that Macs are not for games, but they can be if you're willing to run Windows in order to play them.
    Obviously you won't get crazy performance with your Mac, but overall they are more than enough to run 'certain' games smoothly. I'm running Diablo 3 and World of Warcraft on my MBP late 2010 on medium settings at around 40-50 frame rates (with shadows turned off or on low).
  • You can almost have the best of both worlds. Right now a good windows laptop that is fairly thin and made for gaming runs the nvidia GTX 970m. There is no MacBook Pro that can touch it in graphic, sadly. Hopefully the next round of MacBook pros will have at least the 970m as an option. Really the video card is the only weakness. Fix that and MacBook pros would be great for gaming. Otherwise you need to play older games. Sent from the iMore App
  • If GTA V or Battlefield 4 were to come to Mac it would be pitiful downgraded versions. Can you put a graphics card in any Mac available now? Don't say Mac Pro as I am sure you can't load a 780 GTX in it and it's too stupid expensive for a gaming rig. A great gaming rig can be put together for $1k easy and I mean GREAT!
  • Yes they would be terrible, but not as badly as you would think, I've run Battlefield 4 on a laptop with an i5 and integrated graphics, and at 720p with high textures I still averaged 27 fps. That's playable. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • You're clueless. My 27" iMac can run any game out there. Can it run with all settings max? No it can't and neither can your PC either. Who plays with all settings maxed out? Nobody does. Very few people have the kind of rigs where you can play at max settings for the most demanding games.
  • I know a guy with a rig like that and it cost him $1,576 to build. About as much as the typical Mac. Plays with everything maxed in 3k, and is soon buying a a second 980 so he can triple monitor in 4k.that would bring the price up to about $1,800. Still less than some Macs. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • Macs are made for WORK! That is the reason school systems across America from grade to college are stocking computer labs with Macs and incorporating iPads into curricumlums. When a Mac user wants to game, they turn on the playstation! BSD over everything & Unix-like is the future!
  • Peter, you've probably heard this before, but I and many other people find the whole concept of "real games" and "real gamers" offensive at best. I'm not going to say much more because I know I will probably be jumped on by the whole "gamergate" crowd for even daring to mention it, but a mobile game and a computer game are actually one and the same thing, detailed CGI, explosions and special effects have absolutely nothing to do with the "quality" of a game, and not all "real games" involve spaceships, guns, shooting or even strategy.
  • And I'll argue that a mobile port should be labeled as an app, instead of promising a full featured game and expecting someone to pay $10-15 for it, and it's $. 99 on the app store, or worse free to emulate. And all they did was "update" the graphics and sound. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • Agreed. I don't mind paying $10 for iPad ports of older computer games that originally cost as much as $60, but I refuse to pay $10 or $15 for a game that was 99 cents on mobile first. I also refuse to buy an iPad and iPhone version of a game. Sent from the iMore App
  • If I got a Mac today it would be more than enough for the kinds of games that I play. I don't play high-end games. At most I play Diablo 3, World of Warcraft, and Starcraft 2; three games that hardly push the graphics envelope. I do more work than gaming on my computer.
  • Diablo 3 does at least need a quad core i5 and Intel 4000 graphics. Not huge, but that's a mid range Macbook pro to get 25-30 fps. I don't play WoW and Starcraft looks a bit much to get into. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • This is simply untrue. I run all Blizzard games fine on my 2013 MacBook Air 13" (base model with dual-core i5 and 4GB RAM). It's not pushing 60fps, but I don't care about that. I can reliably game at 30fps and not feel too badly. And the new Airs are even better than mine (better integrated graphics processor).
  • Hmm, I'm used to frame drops with the duel cores, but if that's what you get that's what you get. Personally I'm fine with 27-45 FPS in anything, I actually don't quite like 60+ unless it's something competitive. Like when I play Urban Terror (poor man's CS) I have to be locked at 125fps because you know everyone else is. Diablo 3? 30-45 works. Online is where I'd want 60. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • If a standard Mac's graphics capabilities is better than the old nVidia GTX 460 that I have, which by the way plays those three games at acceptably good frame rates, than a Mac Mini would be more than enough hardware.
  • Yes, integrated graphics have passed that particular graphics card now. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • I should also note that this is, of course, with low graphics settings. I like to tweak my graphics since I'd rather have lower textures but higher particle effects, for instance. You can't expect a lower-end Mac to have stellar graphics performance. I haven't tested the newer Mac Minis so I can't say what you'd get. Keep in mind the MBA has a rather good SSD. That makes up for a lot when it comes to performance. I think a spinning disc would lower the performance a bit, at least perceived performance, if not actual performance. Edit: I think the MBA 2013 has an HD 5000 as well. So if there is a minimum of an HD 4000 then yes some of the older Macs might not be able to run Diablo 3. (It's very, very sad when you get that "doesn't meet minimum specs" dialog. I specifically purchased my MacBook Air to upgrade an old desktop system that was encountering that error.)
  • There you go. Although, why particles? I personally prefer higher textures and minimal particles? In larger battles there are so many on the screen that I see frame hits and that's not fun. "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • I think where the ball is dropped is in a $2000 MacBook Pro having integrated graphics. I can't even run DaVinci Resolve worth a damn with that. I really just want a 970m in the next round of 15" MacBook Pros and I would be happy for two or three years. Sent from the iMore App
  • Mr. Cohen, I'm back again with a game recommendation that runs on Macs. Catacomb Kids. Runs about $15 on steam, and I'll add a link because I'm too tied up to describe it right now. It is early access (gasp) but the single development has kept up with the monthly content updates and patches. I've clocked about 54 hours since Mid March. On top of working and playing other things. http://store.steampowered.com/app/315840/ "I'm da Blur boys!" - Me with 1200 ping. Fiber in Nashville? Save me based Google.
  • If I had to guess most people play'n higher end games on steam are do'n so on Hackintosh's. Other than the MacPro & high End MacBook Pro's, it's the only way to get a mac with the specs needed to play quality games with full or close to visual effects and resolutions.
  • To be honest, Macs do better than what most people think. A friend came over while I was playing Tomb Raider on my 55" TV....it wasn't until I turned off the game that he noticed I wasn't using a Playstation. I had my PS3 remote linked to my MacBook Pro and it plays awesome.
  • It's pretty clear that if you want to play all of the best games at the highest possible frame rate then you're going to have to get a console or even a gaming PC. That much is obvious. However there's something that critics of Mac gaming fail to understand time and time again. People love their Macs and the operating system made for it. They love the community and the wonderful applications that are created for our beloved platform (Pixelmator, Byword, Day One, etc..). It's just a great environment to exist in, no matter what you're doing. So it's no surprise, at least to me, that people would also want to play games within this environment. Yes they would miss out on the GTA 5's, Skyrim's, Dragon Age: Inquisition's, etc.. of the world, unless they felt it necessary to install Boot Camp or get themselves a gaming PC or console. But it's not as if they wouldn't have anything to play, especially in the last few years since Steam and GOG came onto the scene for Macs. It may sound crazy but if you're playing games solely within the Mac operating system you can easily and very quickly rack up a queue that you can never possibly get through. And for every GTA 5, Skyrim, Dragon Age: Inquisition, and whatever else you can think of there's Pillars of Eternity, Wasteland 2, Cities: Skylines, This War of Mine, Age of Wonders 3, etc.. One person can only play so much so if you're playing games of the former variety then you're probably not playing games of the latter variety. Mac users may be stuck with those of the latter variety for the most part but I don't exactly call that a consolation prize because in the long run who's to say which experiences is better?
  • There are many reasons why there is a lack of games available for Mac. For one, Apple is restrictive on what software can operate on its the iOS (a mistake that even Nintendo makes). Second is that there doesn't seem to be a customization option available for Mac computers while a PC user could build a system that could operate Crysis on high settings for less the coast of the average Mac system. Finally it takes a long time for a PC game to come over to the Mac, example would be the fact that the Mac version of Modern Warfare 2 was released in 2013, that is 5 years after its release on the PC and major consoles. After all there is a reason why PC gamers are refereed to as "The Glorious Master Race" - LOL.