How to Play Games on a Mac in 2019

Think owning a Mac means you can’t play games? Think again. The Mac gaming ecosystem is robust. From brand new releases to retro classics and even Windows-only titles; there’s plenty of fun to be had on a Mac.

Why You Should (Probably) Skip the Mac App Store

The Mac App Store is full of games. These include big-budget $60 releases like Civilization VI, short indie experiences like Oxenfree, and the kind of casual games you’d find on the iPhone like Donut County. To browse the catalog, open up the Mac App Store app then click on the “Play” tab from the sidebar.

Unfortunately, the Mac App Store isn’t always the best place to buy your games from. It’s often more expensive than other storefronts, and it suffers from too few new releases and a lack of reviews on many items due to relatively low patronage.

Civilization VI on the Mac App Store

Multiplayer games, in particular, have always had issues on the Mac App Store. id Software opted to cut multiplayer entirely from their 2011 shooter RAGE when it was released, and the game has since disappeared from the platform. Gearbox Software’s Borderlands was released on the Mac App Store with rewritten multiplayer support to accommodate Apple’s own Game Center APIs. The game has also disappeared from the service.

Contrast that with Steam, which enjoys far more players on Windows, Linux, and Mac with full support for cross-play. Apple ditched the standalone Game Center app in 2016, but the service lives on as an optional feature that developers can implement. It’s unclear whether Apple still requires multiplayer games to use its own APIs, but most multiplayer games skip the App Store entirely.

With the arrival of Apple’s anticipated porting of iOS apps to the macOS platform sometime in 2019, we could see a lot more iOS experiences arriving on the Mac App Store. That will make it much easier for developers to port their games to the Mac, but you’ll probably be better off playing these games on an iPhone or iPad instead.

Apple’s upcoming subscription gaming service Apple Arcade will also be Mac-compatible. The service launches in fall 2019 on the App Store and promises an ad-free experience, and cross-play between Mac, iOS, and Apple TV. When it launches, Apple Arcade will be another attempt at a “Netflix for games” service, with the main twist being a focus entirely on Apple devices.

Get Games from Steam, GOG, and Other Stores

If you want the latest big-budget releases, particularly multiplayer games, then you’ll need to turn to a third-party storefront like Steam. Valve’s distribution service has been the king of digital game downloads for well over a decade, and it enjoys more users than any other gaming service.

A push toward cross-platform gaming thanks to the arrival of Linux-based SteamOS in 2013 has seen more developers target the Mac for their day one releases. That means there are more Mac games on the service than ever before, including early access releases. Early access games allow you to buy the game early and play pre-release versions, supporting small studios and helping shape the game’s development.

Steam is one storefront where purchasing a game on one platform allows you to play it on any platform. If you have any Windows games in your library that have since received Mac (or Linux) support, you can download them and play them for no extra charge. At the time of writing, Steam offers about 9700 Mac games.

Civilization VI on the Mac App Store

The Epic Games Store is a controversial yet growing contender to Steam. With a more generous revenue split that sees 88% of proceeds going back to developers (as opposed to 70% on Steam and the Mac App Store), the service has been successful in attracting big-name exclusives since launching in early 2019. There’s already a Mac version of the Epic Games Store, though support for the platform is thin on the ground outside of obvious smash hits like Fortnite—but you can play Fortnite on a Mac.

If you want to play Blizzard titles like World of Warcraft, Diablo III, or StarCraft II, then you’ll need to use the launcher. Blizzard was one of the first major publishers to take the Mac seriously as a platform for their games, though the 2014 smash hit Overwatch sadly never received a Mac port.

Good Old Games, also known as GOG, is an alternative storefront with a focus on classic gaming. The service sees new releases too, but the real benefit to using GOG is the ability to play old games on modern platforms. Many old games have been patched to work on recent macOS releases and many others that have not. Generally speaking, most old DOS are Mac compatible (thanks to the cross-platform DOSBox), while most  “golden age” Windows titles released in the late 90s and early 2000s are not.

You Can Play Windows Games on Your Mac, Too

There are three methods you can use to play Windows game on a Mac: WINE, Boot Camp, and virtualization.

If you want to play Windows games with as little trouble as possible, then Boot Camp is the best choice. Virtual machines can work well for older games but lack the performance necessary to play modern titles. WINE, which runs Windows games on macOS, is very hit and miss—even when it works you can encounter bugs and strange behavior—but it may be worth a shot depending on what you’re trying to play.

Play Windows Games Using WINE

Compatibility layer WINE (which stands for “Wine Is Not an Emulator”) is designed to make Windows games and applications work on Linux and Mac computers. You can use WineHQ to check on the status of specific games. Learn more about using WINE to run Windows programs on a Mac.

Sometimes WINE alone isn’t enough, which is why projects like Wineskin exist. Wineskin helps create “wrappers” that tell WINE how best to handle specific applications. You can download prepared wrappers or create your own to share with the community. Other similar projects focused purely on games are Porting Kit and PlayOnMac. All of these projects are free to use and community-driven. There is one premium project called Crossover, which has a free trial you can use to evaluate it.

Civilization VI on the Mac App Store

WINE is a mixed bag. Some games work fine; others fail to launch at all. It can take a lot of additional work to get something working, especially if you have to build a wrapper yourself. WINE can be used to play both old and new games, with similarly mixed results. It’s a good place to start, but be prepared to encounter quirky behavior, crashes, and blank screens.

Play Windows Games Natively Using Boot Camp

You can also enjoy Windows games natively on a Mac. One way of doing this is by installing Windows on your Mac’s hard drive using Boot Camp. This effectively turns your Mac into a Windows PC, and you will need to reboot into Windows each time you want to play a game. The main benefit to using Boot Camp is the improved performance since there is no third party software standing between you and your game. Learn how to install Windows on a Mac with Boot Camp.

Play Windows Games Using a Virtual Machine

Finally, there is one more option in using a virtual machine. This is a stop-gap between the previous two methods. It works best for older Windows games, which don’t demand high-end hardware. By running a virtual machine on your Mac, you’re effectively running Windows from within macOS. This means you will have to share available resources (processing power, RAM, and so on) between the two operating systems.

The cheapest and easiest way to do this is to use the free virtualization tool VirtualBox. There are premium virtual machines that will generally offer more support and better features like Parallels and VMWare. Going this route means you avoid compatibility issues seen using WINE, but lose out on the raw power gained from running Windows natively.

Play Retro Games with Sourceports

If you’re interested in playing older games, try source ports. A source port is a rebuild of a game engine that has been made open source. Many engines have been made open source over the years including idTech 1 (Doom) through to idTech 4 and the Build engine (Duke Nukem 3D). The result is an arsenal of open source engines that have been improved over time. These can be used to play classic titles on modern hardware, regardless of which operating system you use.

Civilization VI on the Mac App Store

There is one caveat, though. Even though many engines are released under an open-source license, most game assets are not. That means you have to provide your own original assets from legally purchased versions of the game. These can come from the original game media, or from re-releases found on services like GOG. Most source ports only require you to copy a few files into the right directory before you can play.

Some of the best Mac-compatible source ports include:

Civilization VI on the Mac App Store

Not only are source ports a great way to relive some of the best games ever made, but they also pack in improvements. Many source ports include new rendering engines, widescreen support, and back-end improvements that give life to new projects. Check out some of the best games that rely on source ports available right now.

Related: How Quake Shook the World: Quake Turns 25

Play Old Games WIth Emulation on a Mac

Emulators are another great way to play games on your Mac, though they exist in a legal gray area. Even though emulators themselves are not illegal, procuring games (known as ROMs) that you do not own is. Many jurisdictions allow you to create software backups (ROMs) and play them provided you own the original media.

Multiple Video Game Console Emulation System OpenEmu for macOS

One of the best emulators available for Mac in terms of ease of use is OpenEmu. This emulator includes supports for a wide variety of systems including Nintendo’s NES, SNES, Game Boy, N64, and DS; Sega’s Master System, Genesis, CD, Saturn, Game Gear, and PSP; the Atari 2600 through to the Lynx, PC Engine, and NeoGeo Pocket. There are also some more obscure entries like the Vectrex, WonderSwan, and Virtual Boy.

DOSBox is an emulator that allows you to play just about any game written for MS-DOS on your Mac. DOSBox requires a working knowledge of DOS, namely the ability to bind folders, change directories, and launch executables. If you’re not too keen on command line prompts, Mac app Boxer automates just about every aspect of DOSBox and will even import box art and display your games on a virtual shelf.

Civilization VI on the Mac App Store

If you’re looking for more emulators and ROMs, check out The Old School Emulation Center at the Internet Archive. They have tens of thousands of ROMs available for all sorts of systems, some of which you can even play in your browser.

Related: Is Downloading Retro Video Game ROMs Ever Legal?

Controlling The Action

If you’re looking to play games on your Mac, you might want a controller or gaming mouse and keyboard. Luckily, whatever controller you have lying around will probably work well. Most generic USB devices work just fine on the Mac, allowing you to bind button presses to actions in your favorite games and source ports. Free app Enjoyable lets you map keypresses and mouse input to a controller, should you need it.

Some popular controllers you can use with your Mac are:

Sony DualShock 4 Controller

Most USB mice and keyboards will also work on a Mac, even if they have a Windows key layout. Peripheral manufacturers will indicate Mac support on the box or their websites, so always check before you buy. You can fully customize the behavior of any Mac keyboard—including remapping the entire layout—using the free app Karabiner-Elements.

More Mac Games Are Available Than Ever

The Mac gaming scene is relatively healthy in 2019. Even though the platform still isn’t widely targeted for most big-budget AAA releases, the number of indie developers building their games with multi-platform releases in mind has increased dramatically.

Windows continues to be the dominant gaming platform outside of consoles, but more new games are coming to the Mac than ever before. With Apple Arcade scheduled for release in the fall of 2019, you’ll even find some exclusive titles that will run on a Mac but not a Windows PC.

Even if you can’t get the latest and greatest games working on your Mac, you can always turn to the golden oldies through emulation and source ports.

And hey, unlike on Windows, you won’t need to update your Mac’s graphics drivers. They’re built right into macOS itself—just update your Mac.

What About Game Streaming?

The future is looking exciting, too. With game-streaming services like Google’s Stadia and Microsoft’s xCloud on the horizon, you might soon be able to play all the latest PC games on any Mac with great performance—assuming you have a good internet connection.

If you’re interested in this technology, you can try Shadow to get a remote Windows gaming PC and stream games from it today.

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