One of the reasons Valve’s Steam Deck has become such a great platform for gaming is that, despite running a Linux-based operating system, it can run thousands of Windows games without any modifications thanks to Valve’s Proton compatibility layer (which is based on Wine).
Now Apple is bringing a similar feature to macOS… but it’s not really meant to let users play Windows games on Macs. It’s designed to make it easier for game developers to test their Windows games on Macs before porting them to run natively. That hasn’t stopped users from using Apple’s new Game Porting Toolkit to run games like Cyberpunk 2077 on a Mac though.
In a WWDC session this week, Apple described how the toolkit allows Windows games to run on a Mac without any modifications thanks to software that translates system calls from Windows APIs to their equivalent Mac APIs.
The Toolkit allows Windows games to access Mac input devices, audio playback, networking and file system hardware, and graphics. Games designed to use Microsoft’s DirectX 12 graphics can instead run on Apple systems that use Metal 3 graphics
Like Valve’s Proton software, Apple’s Game Porting Toolkit is based on Wine code… although in Apple’s case, the company worked with source code from CrossOver, the primary corporate backer of the Wine project, which also offers its own software for running Windows apps and games on Mac and Linux computers.
But unlike Proton, which is designed to let end users run Windows games on Linux systems without any help from the game developers, the Game Porting Toolkit is designed as a developer tool. Apple says it’s meant to help shorten the amount of time it takes developers to port their games to run natively on Macs… because that’s what it’s really hoping to encourage.
While you can already run many existing Windows games on a mac by tapping into this developer tool, Apple notes that they may be buggy and/or slower or less efficient than games that run natively. That’s because when you run a Windows game on a Mac using the toolkit, not only are you running a game, but you’re also adding the overhead that comes from running the toolkit, translating APIs, and translating instructions set architecture (most Windows games are designed to run on computers with x86_64 processors, while modern Macs have ARM-based Apple M series processors).
With that in mind, the toolkit also includes a Metal Performance HUD (heads up display) that can highlight performance metrics and help developers identify problems that would be resolved by taking the extra steps to compile the games to run natively on Apple hardware.
But companies have been working for years to make it easier for developers to make their apps and games cross-platform, often with limited success. There’s a chicken and egg problem here: Apple’s laptop and desktop computers have long been considered tools that professionals can use as graphics workstations for creating content… but they’re not widely considered to be gaming machines. And so developers haven’t had much reason to port their titles to run on Mac.
Maybe that’ll change now that Apple is making it easier than ever. But maybe now that Apple has also taken a baby step into simply allowing unmodified Windows games to run on a Mac, the company could eventually take a page out of Valve’s playbook and just make this a user-oriented feature one day rather than one aimed at developers.