PC gaming on M2 Mac just got more interesting

posted by Jeff | Thursday, September 28, 2023, 5:00 PM | comments: 0

I've spent a lot of time this year thinking about gaming, and how I feel like the Macs I bought this year are just begging to show what they could do. I still haven't bought a current-generation Xbox, and while the PC under my desk actually runs most stuff pretty well, even after four years, I just don't like sitting at my desk to play games. I'm intrigued by the handhelds like the ROG Ally, and the Lenovo Legion Go coming out next month, but I keep going back to the fact that my laptop presumably has insane untapped ability.

To recap, Apple abandoned Intel processors a couple of years ago in favor of their own home-rolled ARM processors. As it turns out, they're insanely powerful without sucking a ton of power. Each one has exceptional GPU ability, too, which means it can push around 3D pixels like crazy. But big game publishers mostly build their stuff to run on the consoles and Windows. Simplifying it, they have to compile all of their code to run specifically on each platform, which often means a lot of optimization necessary for each one, especially in the way that it talks to the graphics hardware.

Well, Apple earlier this year published something that it called the Game Porting Toolkit. It uses a combination of something called Wine, which is open source and has been around for years and allows you to run Windows software in MacOS using some kind of API translation layer, and their own thing that translates Direct3D, Microsoft's graphics API, to Apple's Metal, which talks to their own GPU stuff. What that means is that they create translations layers for Windows and its 3D interface, so it can talk to the Apple silicon. If that sounds computationally expensive, yes, it is, but the point of the toolkit is to show what's possible, as a jumping off point to port a game to the Mac. When they released it earlier this year, some folks were able to hack together some things where PC games would run, with varying degrees of performance.

With the new release of macOS Sonoma, which is otherwise unremarkable, and an open source project called Whisky (to go with Wine, of course), it's easier, though not perfect, to get a machine in a state where it can run a pretty broad collection of Windows things. Well that's fun, because I've been having fun buying a bunch of old games from GOG. Some of them have been ported to run on the Mac, but a bunch are primarily for Windows.

In my previous ramblings, I mentioned revisiting the two Dungeon Keeper games. The first one has a Mac port, which doesn't run all that great, surprisingly for its age. The second one is Windows only (currently $1.49!), so I haven't played it as extensively since I can't run it on my Mac laptop. However, after some fiddling around with the Whisky, I got it to work! The surprising thing is that the 3D frame rate actually appears to be higher than it is on my Windows desktop, which is unexpected. If it's that good through those translation layers, even for a game from 1999, I would imagine that games that are ported to truly run natively on the Mac could be pretty great.

Don't get me wrong, the power of these machines when used for video editing and software development is awesome. But with all of that power, gaming should be there too. Now, perhaps, we're getting closer.


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