Yesterday we wrote an article on using the iPad as a retro gaming device. While I was doing research for the list of games to include in that post I had a weird feeling: a lot of the games I’m including in the list and talking about aren’t really playable on modern Macs anymore.
Apple, starting with MacOS Catalina, dropped support for 32bit apps, which meant losing compatibility with your library of old games. However, a lot of games have been ported and are available on the iPad and that got me thinking: Can I use my iPad for gaming instead of my Mac? Can you play Mac games on an iPad?
Your Answer Upfront:
A lot of modern Mac games have been released on the iPad, offering you a huge library of games to play. And a lot of older Mac games that won’t work on modern Macs are still updated and available on the App Store making the iPad an even better gaming device than an Intel MacBook running Catalina or newer. So yes, you can play Mac games on an iPad.
The Problem with my $6000 iMac Pro – and how the iPad can fix it
For the past two or three years I’ve been using an iMac Pro as my workstation. I’m a Game Developer and Designer and I do a lot of freelancing and contracting work for the mobile gaming industry. Since a lot of my clients revolve around making games for iOS Devices, I purchased an iMac Pro in order to make games for them. It’s fast and compared to the previous 2014 MacBook Pro I was using, the difference in speed is like night and day. I can make a build for a complex iOS games in minutes on the iMac pro while on the 2014 MacBook? It would take hours.
So it’s safe to say I’m not getting rid of the iMac Pro any time soon. But there’s a problem with it. A ton of my Steam Library isn’t playable on it anymore. A lot of the games, especially older games, don’t work on it anymore.
If I want to game on my iMac Pro my options are a bit limited. It doesn’t have Apple Silicon so I can’t leverage all the iOS games that modern Macs can. The solution? Pair it with my iPad Air!
Using SideCar and Screen Sharing to play Mac games on an iPad (and vice versa)
Both the iPad running iPadOS 15 and the iMac Pro with Monterey have the ability to share their screen with each other. I can use the iPad as a secondary display for my iMac Pro when I’m working and I can use the iMac Pro as my iPad’s screen when I want to play something. And I can do them both at the same time.
Sometimes I have to work on very complex projects and scenes for my games. Generating a lightmap at huge graphical details can take a while and can use up 90% of the CPU and GPU power. But my iPad is free at that point and I can switch to it to play while the iMac computes stuff in the background.
All I need to do is open the iPad’s Control Center by swiping down from the top left part of the screen and press the Screen Sharing button and Select my iMac Pro. Tadaa, I am now mirroring the iPad Air’s screen to the beautiful 5K iMac Pro screen.
And when I’m done playing, or the build is done and I have to get ready for work again, I can just bring up Spotlight, type in Display Preferences and select the iPad Air 4 as my target display. And I can move Slack, Discord or YouTube to the iPad which now acts as a secondary monitor.
How can you game on an iPad?
It’s fairly easy (barely an inconvenience) – the iPad has an extensive library of games ported or designed for it. I even wrote an article covering how I play retro and classic games on the iPad. There are a lot of high quality games available for it. For example, did you know that GTA: San Andreas isn’t available for purchase on Steam Anymore? And that it doesn’t work on Macs running Catalina or newer? Well here it is running like a champ using this setup!
Can you game on an iPad with a PS4 controller?
I almost always keep a DualShock 4 controller next to my iPad for situations like this. A modern gamepad/controller is supported in many iPad and iPhone games nowadays and the experience of using it is great. So the answer is YES, you can use a PS4 controller with the iPad for games.
Many Apple Arcade games have controller support built in. I found myself playing a lot of Oceanhorn 2 and The Path. Here’s a clip showing how I instantly go from work mode to gaming mode using a PS4 controller with just a couple of button presses.
What Steam games work on the iPad?
Alright, cool. But I said I’m using the iPad as a way to play games that won’t work on my iMac Pro anymore. Steam games. Here’s a list of games that aren’t available in my Mac Steam Library, that I have downloaded and played from the App Store:
- Broken Sword 2
- GTA San Andreas (and the rest of the original trilogy)
- Knights of Pen And Paper
- Lego Star Wars – the complete saga
- Muffin Knight
- Penny Arcade Adventures – Precipice of Darkness
- PUBG (which was never released for Mac)
- Riptide GP2
- Sid Meier’s Starships
- Surgeon Simulator
- XCOM – Enemy Unknown/Within
All of these games aren’t playable anymore on my iMac Pro. But you can play these mac games on an iPad.
However, many more games are available on both the iPad and on Steam. Some of my favorite games can be played cross platform, including Divinity Original Sin 2 and XCOM 2. It might not look like it yet, but Apple is clearly working in the background to fix gaming on Mac – but not in the way we expected it.
The Future of iPad and Mac gaming is intertwined
This calls for an article all for itself but for now let me just say this. The lines between mobile and PC/Mac gaming is going to become really blurred in the future. Now that the latest iPads and Macs share the same processor and GPU there’s no reason for a platform getting access to games that the other doesn’t have.
I mean sure, one needs touch controls and the other one requires a Mouse and Keyboard. But when I turn on my Dual Shock controller and enable screen sharing from my iPad to Mac or Mac to iPad I can’t which is which.
Add to the fact that you don’t even need to screen share from an iPad to a Mac to play iPad games. Apple Silicon powered Macs can natively play iPad games (if the developers allow it). Purchasing a Macbook Pro gives you the best of both worlds.
XCOM doesn’t work on your Macbook Pro? Well there’s an iPad version for it and that one works. PUBG is not there? There’s an iPad app for that. And so on and so forth.
And this isn’t just great for those of us in the Apple Ecosystem. In the article called “Are iPhones Good For Gaming” I mentioned how a lot of developers choose to port their games to the iPhone first – especially if they are making a Premium Mobile Game.
Those games end up being brought to Android in order to maximize their profits (in some cases, not always. I wrote about this in an article called “Why don’t Developers Port Their Games To Mobile“). Thanks to engines like Unity and Unreal, I can see a future where devs write their games to target the iPad and Macs and, since the game uses Mobile Design Principles, they can also be released for Android Phones and Tablets.
You never thought you’d see the day when Apple is going to be helping Google but I’m willing to bet this is going to happen.
Closing thoughts about playing Mac games on an iPad
The only big problem I’m seeing right now with the future of gaming on an iPad X Mac is that Apple is being Apple. Here’s something not many people know: iOS implementation of a physical keyboard is completely and utterly broken. Ask me how I know. Alright fine, I’ll tell you.
I know because I’ve been experimenting with keyboard support on iOS Games. Physical Keyboard support. My iPad is using the discount magic keyboard (the keyboard folio or whatever Apple is calling it).
GTA San Andreas has keyboard support built in but good luck playing it with that keyboard. It registers keys being held down only once or twice and then ignores them.
You could make the argument that it’s only that game but that’s not the case. I’m releasing my own game for a case study on this blog and I designed it on a Mac and tested it on the Mac. I ended up using the keyboard to “emulate” swipes and the mouse to control the camera instead of the gyroscope.
It worked perfect on the Mac, in the editor and it worked perfectly on my iPad Air 4 and on my iPhone Mini 12. So naturally I enabled it to be available for my M1 Macbook Pro and… well guess what happened when I tried keeping the Left Swipe key pressed down. Also the mouse was acting really weird.
And I saw this happen quite a few times with other games.
I don’t think we’re quite there yet for cross-device gaming with a single binary but we’re getting close. And there are rumors of Apple starting it’s own in-house gaming studio. Get ready for more games available on Apple Silicon devices. I hope they’ll do a good job of it because I’m not sure they’ll get a second chance at it.
Why use an iPad for Gaming instead of Bootcamp?
First of – Bootcamp isn’t supported anymore on Apple Silicon Macs. Older Intel Macs can install Windows for gaming but new Apple Devices? That’s a big no no. Besides, I was never a fan of Windows so I don’t plan on using it. It’s an all Apple Desk Setup.
The second reason is that I have to do a lot of work. Between this blog, my clients and my own games and projects, I’m sitting at a desk for ungodly amount of times.
Imagine having to do a multi hour render and wanting to play something. I couldn’t, I’d have to either pause the renderer, restart in Windows, play, restart in MacOS and no progress on the rendering has been made.
With the iPad I can just stream over the iMac’s screen without disrupting the rendering or compilation process.
Why not game on a separate device?
I mean, I could but it has to be on a laptop or another computer at my desk. It needs to allow me to check the progress of what I’m doing and by streaming from the iPad I can just CMD + TAB (or Alt+TAB) to see what up. Or listen for audio queues.
And as an added bonus, once I go somewhere else I can continue where I left off with my game. This way my iMac Pro actually stays as a work station and I can do most of my gaming on the iPad.
Can you play games on Sidecar? Stream games from your Mac to the iPad?
Why yes, you can – in a way. The iPad acts as a secondary monitor so as long as you have access to the keyboard and mouse, you’ll be able to. Apple is being Apple once again though and it doesn’t allow touch inputs to go through, only if you use an Apple Pencil. But if you’re playing a game designed for mouse input, it should work.
Is Sidecar faster when plugged in?
iPads using sidecar while plugged in have a much better streaming quality and response time. It’s the same with screen sharing. That’s why in the videos I shared above you can see a USB-C cable plugged into the iPad Air 4. I use the wire connection to reduce latency AND charge my iPad at the same time.
Where To Next?
Assuming you liked this article, the setup and you’re thinking of getting an Apple Silicon Mac then my guide on “How to play iOS Games on a Mac” might be relevant for you. If you have an iPad and want to find some premium quality retro games I have you covered with another article called “Can You Play Retro Games On The iPad“.
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