Feral: Apple Silicon Opens Up 'Exciting Opportunities' for the Future of Mac Gaming
Feral Interactive has been porting games to the Mac since 1996, earning it a reputation for extremely faithful, high-quality PC and console conversions. With Apple's transition from Intel processors to Apple silicon across the Mac lineup now almost complete, MacRumors asked the publisher and developer how it thinks the Mac gaming landscape has changed in the intervening years and where it could be headed.
"The changes have been cyclical, but bringing games to the Mac platform over that time has had its challenges," admits Feral. "Apple's move from PPC to Intel, 32-bit to 64-bit and, most recently, Intel to Apple silicon – all of these required transitional periods and substantial work, but in each case they facilitated a situation in which better games could be brought to Mac. What has remained constant is that there is a community of Mac users who want to play games on their computers. There's an audience for good games that are well optimized for the platform."
That doesn't mean Mac gamers haven't felt perpetually frustrated at Apple's seeming lack of interest in the Mac as a gaming-capable machine. As many Mac gaming fans will know, Apple has historically hamstrung the Mac's graphics power by using integrated Intel graphics and designed-for-mobile GPUs in its laptops and all-in-one desktop machines. For this reason, Feral says that apart from their interest in a game, licensing negotiations, and the proven success of a given IP, the other big variable it has always had to consider when porting a triple-A title is how demanding a game is – and if a Mac can handle it.
"Before [Apple silicon], nearly all the most popular Apple computers, particularly their entry level laptops, used Intel Integrated Graphics. That was a problem. We had to spend a large part of extended development cycles optimizing games to make sure they ran as well as possible on devices which were not intended or designed for gaming," says Feral.
"The problem is that AAA games often push the limits on hardware, and we need to be confident that we can get a game to run well on a broad range of machines, often stretching back several years. However, the current transition to Apple silicon opens up some exciting opportunities. In comparison to the previous generation of Intel-based Macs, it offers a big step up in power, and for games that translates to better performance and enhanced graphical fidelity."
"This gives us a greater degree of freedom in looking at more demanding games, as we have greater confidence that they can be made to work well on a broad range of Macs including entry-level laptops, which represent a big chunk of the potential audience."
It hasn't just been hardware that Feral has had to contend with – Apple's shifting software standards have also been a challenge to overcome. In 2018, for example, Apple deprecated OpenGL and OpenCL and encouraged game developers to move to Metal, which is pitched as a platform-optimized, low-overhead API for developing graphics-intensive software.
"When Apple announced Metal for macOS, its implementation of OpenGL already fell well short of DirectX in terms of performance and was missing many of the features needed for gaming," says Feral. "However, Metal is a big step forward, simply by being a performant graphics API."
"We started work the day Apple announced Metal for Mac, and provided a lot of feedback and feature requests to Apple, much of which, to their credit, they acted on." Feral went on to release its first Metal game in early 2017 and updated a number of its older games to use Metal instead of OpenGL. "The benefits of doing so was that it allowed them to run natively on the latest Macs, and in many cases brought big performance improvements," says the publisher.
Feral has already released a native Apple silicon game (Total War: Rome Remastered), and while developing exclusively for Apple silicon will depend on the player base, the specific game requirements, and support from third-party middleware, Feral says that the combination of Apple silicon's power and a modern graphics API in Metal has improved the situation "hugely."
Feral promises it will continue to support Intel Macs "for as long as it is both technically feasible and commercially viable." But while it understands the importance of continuing to support owners of older machines, "with ever more demanding games, we are already beginning to see the end of support for Macs with Intel processors coming into view."
A case in point: Earlier this week Feral released Total War: Warhammer III for Apple silicon Macs only. Reflecting its acceptance of the gradual demise of Intel-powered Macs as gaming platforms, Feral admitted that "Unfortunately, during testing, there were severe performance and stability issues on Intel Macs with integrated Intel GPUs. This means we cannot support them for this game, and will not be able to add support for them in the future."
As for the prospects for Apple silicon Macs and the future of Mac gaming more generally, Feral is bullish. "We're enthusiastic about its renewed capability as a gaming platform. We intend to remain focused on bringing great games to the platform, making them run as well as possible, and supporting them for a long time."