Gaming on the new Apple Silicon M1 Macs – opportunities and problems

Apple has never had much left over for gaming, and Mac OS has rarely received game-promoting news. The company stopped updating the old graphics engine opengl a long time ago. Although Metal is really powerful, Apple has not bothered to make sure that the framework has all the features for games that are in competing frameworks such as Vulkan and Direct3d.

In a way, this has been understandable, as the Macs that sell best have had substandard graphics performance due to Intel’s integrated graphics chips. But now that these have been replaced by the Apple Silicon processor M1, the game graphics are taking a huge leap upwards.

The M1’s GPU beats graphics cards such as the Geforce 1050 Ti and Radeon RX 560 and is not far behind newer cards such as the Geforce 1650 Max-Q and Radeon 5500M. Apple still has a long way to go to reach fatter graphics cards like the Radeon RX 5700 XT, which you can buy in a 27-inch Imac, but you no longer need an egpu to play newer, heavier titles on a Macbook Air or 13-inch Macbook Pro.

Which games work and how well?

If you do not want to sit and look for yourself, we can suggest a practical resource. Thomas Schranz has developed the site which lists a long list of games tested by himself or others. In most cases, the table shows how the game has been installed (Steam, App Store, etc.), if it has been optimized for the arm architecture or run via Rosetta (or Crossover) and on which computer they have been tested. Many also list which graphics framework the game uses (opengl or Metal), which resolution the tester used, how many frames per second the computer can handle and which graphics settings were used.

This is a great way to avoid testing yourself with different resolutions and settings to find the optimal balance between nice graphics and playable refresh rate. For example, we can see that Fortnite goes almost as fast with 4k resolution as with 1080p.

Over time, we will get a better picture of which graphics settings tend to slow down games on Apple chips and which you can pull up to the max. Different GPU architectures are optimized for different things and something that is demanding on one can be a simple thing for another (and vice versa). Just as Apple seems to have optimized the M1’s cpu to expand compressed zip files quickly, the gpu may be optimized for things that AMD’s and Intel’s graphics circuits are not optimized for. Higher resolution, for example, seems to affect the speed less than expected, while other settings will certainly prove to degrade performance more than usual.

If you try another game or just want to test it yourself, we can recommend that you try it out systematically. For example, select medium graphics settings and test with different resolutions. Then switch to high settings and test again with the same resolution and so on. If the same resolution as the screen is sluggish, you can try turning off antialiasing – sometimes 2,560 x 1,600 pixels (used by Apple’s 13-inch screens) go without antialiasing faster than 1,280 x 800 with ditto on, and look better out.

Game table

Windows games

Many game-crazy Mac users have long given up hope of an equivalent offering that Windows has. They boot completely sonic about the computer to Windows via Boot Camp if they want to play. In games that still use opengl, it can provide both twice as fast speed as in Mac OS and also nicer graphics as the Windows version of the game uses Direct3d, Vulcan or at least a newer version of opengl.

As Boot Camp is not available on the M1 Macs, this is no longer an option. Many games will no longer be playable on Mac at all.

The only option is to use Crossover Mac from Codeweavers, which translates x86-64 code for Windows to arm64 code for Mac OS in two steps, first via Wine and then Rosetta. This requires at least Mac OS 11.1 (which is still in beta testing at the time of writing), but actually works with both some new games like The Witcher 3 and old classics that no longer work on Mac OS like Diablo 2.

(Craig Federighi recently said that if Microsoft wants, Apple will not prevent the arm version of Windows 10 from running on the new Macs. But for games, it will do no good: Windows game developers will hardly start redoing their games to support arm processors.)

The future

The M1 is the first generation of Apple’s Mac processors and we are waiting with excitement for what the M2 or M1X (or whatever they will now be called) will be able to achieve in the 16-inch Macbook Pro and Imac. Graphics cards naturally have a high degree of parallelism and Apple can probably easily plug in twice as many, or even more, GPU cores. For high-resolution screens, memory will also begin to become a limitation, but we expect that the more powerful models will be able to be expanded to 32 or 64 gigabytes of internal memory.

One development that may lead to the fact that more games ported to Mac OS is actually starting to appear is the success of the Moltenvk project. It is an open source project that forms a bridge between the graphics framework Vulkan and Apple’s Metal. Today, it is almost 100 percent compatible with Vulcan 1.1. A couple of years ago, there was a lack of support for several important features used by game developers, but most have now been fixed. Major games that already use Vulkan on the Windows side are, for example, Red Dead Redemption 2 and the modern Doom series.

So far, there has been a lack of incentive for many game developers to develop Mac versions, as a large majority of Apple’s Macs sold simply do not have the strength to run the games. But with Apple Silicon, the game plan is changing and in a couple of years there will be a larger potential customer base for games. That the developers at the same time can no longer point to Boot Camp and shrug their shoulders means that hope is now increasing that there will be more games for Mac.