In the past, Mac gamers have had to deal both with delayed releases and poorly ported games on the Mac platform. With game developers using Windows-optimized code and not putting much effort into the Mac ports (at times contracting with other companies to do the Mac version), game titles either have not made it to the Mac, or have shown poor performance when running on the Mac. The Mac has been regarded by many companies as a second-tier gaming platform, but it appears that sentiment is changing.
Over the years a few companies such as Blizzard have been very fair to the Mac platform, releasing major game titles for both the Mac and PC at the same time. This has helped a few Mac gamers keep up with PCs, but for the most part there is a significant delay in when Mac users will see popular titles be available for them. For instance, even today Valve software just released the popular Half-Life 2 game for Mac, which was initially available for Windows over five years ago.
However, despite the delayed release of Half-Life 2, the more important news is that like Blizzard, Valve is now treating the Mac as a first-tier platform just like Windows, and their future major game titles will be released on a "day-and-date" basis with the Mac version. To exemplify this and also promote its Steam client, Valve will also be rolling out new Mac titles every Wednesday through Steam. Yes Half-Life is late for the Mac, but it is finally here, and from now on we should see future releases from Valve be out on the Mac the same time as PCs.
Many times a single company's decision is enough to propel an industry in a certain direction, such as Warner Brothers' drop of HD-DVD support resulting in an overnight adoption of Blu-Ray worldwide. Lets hope Valve's decisions coupled with the increasing marketshare for Macs will similarly mark a turnaround in how the Mac is viewed as a gaming platform, both by Apple as well as game developers.
Will the performance be good?
There is no denying that games on the Mac have been plagued by performance gaps when compared to their Windows counterparts. I once had a copy of SimCity 4 that ran quite well on my friend's 1.8GHz PC with a mediocre GPU, and yet my dual PowerPC G5 with a Geforce 6800 GPU (the latest and greatest at the time) seemed to chop and crash very frequently, making the game unplayable. The main reason for this gap is years of optimization both in drivers, graphics APIs such as Microsoft's Direct X, which all have been tailored for specific games. Windows graphics drivers have profiles for many games that are enabled when a specific title is launched, allowing the game to run as fast as possible. This kind of tailoring has not been done on the Mac, where instead we see more global approaches such as having OpenGL be an integral layer in the OS instead of being just part of the graphics driver system.
Performance differences are happening even in current releases such as those in Valve's Steam client, running on the latest Apple hardware. Recently AnandTech did a side-by-side comparison of Steam for the Mac with Steam for Windows, and on similar hardware the Windows experience is both sharper and faster. The games are definitely playable, so casual gamers will not mind, but those who are keen on performance and details will note there is major room for optimization and growth on the Mac. Fixing this gap will require an effort both from Apple as well as the game developers, but will Apple play ball?
Open platform and open standards
Unfortunately Apple is a company known for not only being secretive but also for going their own way with the industry, and this may affect gaming development and performance on the Mac. Apple seems to like advancements, as long as the advancements are done their way. While Apple embraces open standards like OpenGL, OpenAL, OpenCL, PDF, H.264, and many more, the company develops these into relatively closed platforms. On the iPhone, Apple has entire control over what content is available, and also limits how much developers can interact with the device itself.
Unlike the iPhone OS, the Mac OS is more open; however, there are still limitations both in the OS as well as in the Mac hardware that will affect gaming performance on the machines. For instance, Apple supplies the graphics drivers for all supported GPUs, which results in functional and stable but performance-limited graphics capabilities. On the hardware level, there is no support for enhanced graphics such as the Crossfire and SLI technologies from ATI and Nvidia which have been on the PC for years.
Is Apple's stability priority a hindrance?
Despite these limitations, games will run at very playable levels on the Mac. Much of Apple's hardware is fully capable of gaming, and despite performance gaps as exemplified by AnandTech's review of Steam, the games are here and usable. Hardcore gamers who strive for frame rates and tweaked systems will not yet find that on the Mac, but hopefully Apple will allow for more performance tailoring options as gaming increases on the Mac.
Recent developments such as Apple's "Game Center" suggest Apple seems motivated to keeping gaming alive, and given the popularity of games on the iPhone I think it's likely that we will see games develop faster for the Mac. Just don't expect Apple to support features and performance at the expense of stability. OS X has a solid framework of Core technologies and APIs that game developers can tap into, and hopefully other game titles will soon start making their way to the Mac faster than what we have seen in the past.
Time will tell, and we will wait and see.