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Gaming in the Apple ecosystem

From how games are made to how they are played, here’s a complete overview of what gaming in the Apple ecosystem is all about

We’ve all heard time and again that the Mac is not meant for gaming. It’s been a running joke of sorts for quite some time and Mac users are pretty much looked down upon by the gaming community. There’s some truth to it. If you’re looking for a system to dedicatedly game on, you shouldn’t be considering Apple.

However, on the mobile side of things, it’s a completely different story. Apple has actually worked on optimising games for their iPhones and iPads to ensure that players get a good gaming experience. Now you may ask, why give all the attention to gaming on this particular platform and not to their desktops? The answer is simple – consumers. Mobile users and casual gamers are a significantly large consumer population as compared to hardcore gamers who need high-end rigs. Similarly, specialised content creators (the kind that Apple targets with their iMacs and MacBooks) are also a much larger consumer market than gamers. Apple is familiar with a certain type of consumer and perhaps this has deterred them from investing in the gaming market despite all indications of it being on the rise.

Apple gaming

That being said, it’s not impossible to game on a Mac. You could still play most of the latest titles, albeit, on low to medium settings and not very high resolutions either. You can also forget about VR gaming, at least for the time being. Only the most expensive Mac supports VR, so if you’re in the gaming market looking for 4K or VR, you’re out of luck with Apple.

Now that we’ve gotten that disclaimer out of the way, let’s get to gaming on Apple. We’ll start with their more popular gaming platform, the iPhone and iPad.

Gaming on the iPhone/iPad

Apple has reason to make gaming enjoyable on their iPhones and iPads. It’s one of the pros of having an iPhone or iPad. You’ll find that everyone agrees that the gaming experience on either the iPad or iPhone is quite enjoyable. It’s smooth, the phone doesn’t heat up too much, and it’s overall an enjoyable and lag-free experience. Like we mentioned above, Apple actually works on improving the gaming experience on their iPhones and iPads. The App Store has thousands of game titles, each of which provide Apple with a cut of their revenue. That revenue as you can imagine is quite significant; significant enough for Apple to want to continue to provide an optimal gaming performance on their devices.

Everybody recognises these two devices

How do games work so well on these iDevices? Maybe the way they are made holds some clues. Let’s take a look at a few development tools used to make them.

ARKit

AR or Augmented reality is a hot topic right now when it comes to mobile gaming. It’s already being considered the next big thing for mobile gaming, over VR. ARKit is Apple’s framework which lets you create AR experiences for iOS 11.

Apple gaming
Experience AR on your tablets and smartphones

ARKit uses a host of features which help developers seamlessly integrate AR into apps. Let’s take a look at some of them.

  • Visual Inertial Odometry (VIO)

VIO is a feature in ARKit that fuses the iPhone/iPad’s camera sensor data with CoreMotion data. This is important because this is what impacts the accuracy of how well your device tracks objects placed in AR and how they would move in the environment.

  • Horizontal Plane and Light detection

ARKit allows your device to analyze the environment and detect horizontal planes for objects you might wish to place in AR. This means floors, tables, or any flat surfaces. ARKit can also use your camera sensor to detect lighting and thus apply the correct amount of lighting on an object you place virtually.

You need Apple A9 or above processors in order to run ARKit. So you’ll find it’s not compatible with older models. ARKit is optimised for use with Metal, SceneKit and even apps that make use of third-party tools such as Unreal Engine and Unity.

Metal

The Metal framework and library is used to basically make full use of your device’s graphics processing unit (GPU). So if you’re planning on making a graphically intensive app, you’re going to need Metal.

Metal is now Metal 2 and boasts further improved performance by granting even more control on the GPU for users. Some of the improved features in Metal 2 includes:

  • Improved GPU efficiency

Metal 2 allows the GPU to take over even more tasks in terms of graphical processing. For example, shader resource assignment which would be normal done by the CPU will be taken over by the GPU. This improves overall efficiencies.

  • Metal for Mac

With Metal 2, the Metal Performance Shaders (MPS) framework becomes available for the macOS as well. This gives macOS users access to MPS’ library of image processing and machine learning primitives. Additionally, MPS expands Metal’s machine learning capabilities as well.

Metal 2 adds support for VR and External GPUs on the mac as well, though external GPUs aren’t yet available on Mac. But we hear they’re on the way.

Apple gaming
Metal 2’s framework is available for macOS and brings VR support and more

Overall Metal 2 is an improvement over Metal and makes developing apps easier.

SceneKit

While Metal is a lower-level API, like say OpenGL, which requires the user to pay attention to minute details, SceneKit makes this easier. All you need is a description of your scene and its contents along with the animations you want performed. SceneKit resembles modern game engines.

It’s used specifically to create 3D games and add 3D content to apps. These come with animations, particle effects and physics.

SpriteKit

SpriteKit is what you’d use to create 2D sprite-based games. It basically lets you animate the sprites and events, and render everything from the background to the objects, frame by frame. Animation and rendering is done by an SKView object. Content is rendered in a window where you’re free to combine and move views around hierarchically. Once you’re done you’ve created a scene, represented by SKScene objects. These scenes are what you organise to form the frames for your game.

Apple gaming
Here’s what SpriteKit looks like Credit: codeandweb

What happens in scenes is determined by Nodes, represented by SKNode. Nodes are present in a tree or branch like structure which determine how content is rendered and actions take place. Keep in mind, the Node class itself doesn’t draw anything, it just determines when its subclasses should take action. Following this, you have Texture objects and Nodes that execute animations and body objects to simulate physics and movable joints etc.

This is just a basic explanation, it’s far more complicated than this, but documentation on how to use these frameworks is freely available online.

Now let’s move on to Apple’s desktops, the Mac.

Gaming on a Mac

If you’re hellbent on gaming on a Mac, you’re going to have to keep a few things in mind. Here, we’ll go through those things.

  • Compatibility

Casual games will run just fine on a Mac. Even older games shouldn’t have too many problems, at least when it comes to hardware requirements. The biggest thorn in that path would be compatibility, since many of the older games are not compatible with Apple’s macOS. However, it is possible to circumvent this issue by installing Windows on your Mac via Boot Camp. But that’s kind of cheating in a way. Regardless, a lot of games releasing these days come with support for Mac so you don’t have to worry all that much. Even Steam and a lot of the major players (i.e., EA Origin, Uplay etc) are Mac compatible now with several games that release Mac-ready. Of the almost 15,000 titles on Steam right now, 5095 games are compatible with the Mac. That’s 33 percent or almost a third of all games on Steam.

  • GPU and Display

Gaming can be quite taxing on a system. There’s a reason you have those bulky graphics cards installed into your systems in order to run games smoothly. Now if you look at a Mac, they’re rather slim and tend not to take up too much space. Apple prefers to keep it that way. So you won’t be seeing any bulky cards that might compromise that slimness in a Mac, ever. As a result, most Macs have integrated GPUs. Most Macs use Intel processors and come with Intel’s integrated GPUs: Intel HD and Intel Iris. Most of us know that is never enough to run games smoothly. However, the newer integrated GPUs, namely the Intel Iris Pro, seems to give much better performance than the Intel HD lineup. The models with the Iris Pro cost more too (obviously).

Apple gaming
The new Iris Pro GPUs are significantly better than previously used integrated GPUs

Then there are Macs with discrete GPUs as well. Meaning the graphics processor is separate and not integrated into the CPU. Macs’ lineup of discrete GPUs consists of only AMD cards as of now and the higher-end Macs can handle recent games quite decently to a limit.

In a test run by Ars Technica recently, they ran an fps comparison for WoW (World of Warcraft) on a Mac under three circumstances. One was on a Mac running OpenGL, one on a Mac with Metal 2 and finally a Mac running Windows via Boot Camp (i.e. Direct3D). While OpenGL showed an average fps of only 32, Metal averaged at 45, which was a significant improvement. However, Windows (Direct3D) outperformed both and ran far smoother than the other two at 69 frames per second.

The screen display department is one that Apple does really well. They do have nice displays, which games could look very nice on. But those high-def retina displays will (again) need a strong GPU powering them to drive those pixels.

As of now if you’re looking for a Mac that can run high-end games without much trouble, you’ll only find that the most expensive of Macs have cards strong enough to run them. Be it the highest end MacBook Pro or the latest iMac, it’s going to cost you a bomb. However, if the games you play aren’t too graphics intensive, are mostly casual games, or aren’t relatively recent, most mid-range Macs should also be able to run them no problem.

Macworld has compiled a neat list of 141 games you can play on your Mac which you can check out here.

Gaming on Apple TV

Apple TV is relatively new and hasn’t been around as much as the rest of Apple’s contenders. However, when it was announced there was a lot of hype surrounding it. People were even calling it Apple’s gaming console while imagining the possibilities the little device could unlock. However, the gaming aspect somehow failed to take off. There are many factors as to why but it doesn’t mean that it still can’t take off.

Apple gaming
The Apple TV simply isn’t cut out to be a gaming console

Apps on Apple TV weren’t exactly designed for the TV console gaming audience. So if you happen to have gamed on a console before, you’re not going to be impressed by what Apple TV has to offer.

The Apple TV doesn’t measure up to other consoles in terms of specifications. In terms of power, it’s about as powerful as an iPhone. Next, you have the Siri Remote, while it has features that some console controllers have, i.e., a touchpad and motion sensors, it just doesn’t feel like a gaming controller in your hand. However, you can circumvent this by just buying a Bluetooth controller that’s compatible with Apple TV.

The Siri Remote is more than enough for simple games, which is about all you’ll be able to game on an Apple TV. Older games that have been ported to smartphones will be playable, since the hardware can support those, but it’ll be pretty messy unless you invest in a compatible Bluetooth controller.

In conclusion, it doesn’t look you’ll be able to seriously game on the Apple TV anytime soon. It doesn’t look like Apple intended the Apple TV to be a gaming console either.

So, can we game on Apple yet?

The saying, “Macs are terrible for gaming”, still applies. Just not to the extremes that it did when the sentiment first originated. You have a large selection of games to play on the Mac, albeit, not at the best quality but they’re there. Then you have their mobile devices: the iPhones and iPad, which could arguably be called the best when it comes to handheld gaming, save Nintendo’s consoles. The Apple TV is a terrible gaming console for your TV, but it’s great at whatever else it does – this seems to be a common theme with most of Apple’s products.

Manish Rajesh

Manish Rajesh