Apple MacBook Pro 13″ M1 AAA Gaming Experience: Good Performance For Thin And Lite, But Rough Experience For Some Games

By Patrick Moorhead - January 15, 2021

My expectations for AAA gaming on any 13" notebook with integrated graphics are low for any IGP notebook brand. At Apple's WWDC and Mac product launch, gaming (game/games/gaming) was cited 23 times, so I believe Apple intended to create a good gaming experience. Gaming has not been much of a focus for the Mac operating system, but it has been a significant point of success for Apple on iOS. I am confident the company is talking more about iOS developers' games, but it did demonstrate AAA games like Tomb Raider, which led me to believe that AAA games were a target. Therefore, I wanted to see how playable AAA games were on the new M1-based Mac, given the giant M1 GPU and its UMA architecture that should speed up memory reads and writes between CPU and GPU. 

This review is a follow-up to my first review using the new M1 MacBook as my primary productivity tool for nearly a week, where I had a mixed experience with some productivity software titles. I will add that the Apple M1-optimized software screamed and was performant. My recent testing of new, unreleased M1-optimized versions of Office 365 (sans Teams and OneDrive) and Edge reduced power draw and improved compatibility a lot. 

Now let's dive into AAA games. 

Apple M1

My test configuration  

I used my new Apple MacBook Pro 13" notebook for the full duration of my testing. It came with the latest macOS Big Sur, Apple M1 processor, and 8GB of RAM. The system also came with a 13.3-inch built-in retina display at 2560 x 1600 resolution and 500GB of storage.  

I want to preface that my MacBook Pro 13" was not the highest-end configuration. The MacBook Pro M1 comes with up to 16GB of RAM and 2TB of storage at the high end. More RAM could increase FPS in certain games, so my results are not the new MacBook Pro ceiling with the new M1 processor. I have ordered a 16GB system, but it does not come in for a while.  

Game test list 

For the gaming titles, I tested Fortnite, Shadow of The Tomb Raider, Dota 2, Sid Meier's: Civilization VI, Empire of Sin, Total War: WARHAMMER II, Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Minecraft, World of Warcraft, Firewatch, and Subnautica. 

Fortnite: While Fortnite is technically not an AAA title, it is undoubtedly one of the world's most popular battle royale games. I tested the game on 1440 x 900 and 2048 x 1280 resolution on high settings. At 1440 x 900 resolution, I was consistently getting in the 70-80 FPS range, and I also saw some FPS scores that peaked into the 100's. I raised the resolution settings to 2048 x 1280, and it dropped the FPS to 50-60 FPS on average, but that was still a good gaming experience. The application did freeze on several different occasions, taking several minutes of waiting or a forced quit to fix the issue each time it happened. Apart from the application freezes, the M1 is performing well out of the gate.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider/Rosetta 2: I used the built-in benchmark within Shadow of the Tomb Raider to test FPS scores on a couple of different resolutions. I ran the game on 1920 x 1200 and 1400 x 900 on high settings for both runs. First, I tried the benchmark at 1920 x 1200 resolution and yielded an average FPS of 20. When I ran the benchmark 1440 x 900 resolution, I got an average FPS of 30. The 30 FPS score may not seem impressive, but it is for a thin and light notebook. Especially when considering this is Apple's first iteration of its notebook silicon. It's worth noting that Shadow of the Tomb Raider is one of the few AAA games that support Apple's Metal API. That could be a reason why it ran well and made its way into Apple's App Store.  

1440 x 900 resolution testing in Shadow of the Tomb Raider 

Dota 2/Rosetta 2: Dota 2 was the only MOBA (multiplayer online battle arena) title that we tested on the MacBook Pro M1 and is a Top 10 Steam game. I tried the game at 1440 x 900 resolution on medium to high resolution. On average, I was getting between 45-60 FPS consistently while battling rival players. Dota 2 was the smoothest game to play on the list that I tested. I never had any issues booting the game or closing it out with no freezes or application shutdowns while playing.  

Sid Meier's: Civilization VI/Rosetta 2: I tested Sid Meier's: Civilization VI at 1440 x 900 resolution on high settings. Throughout the duration of the game testing, I was getting 60 FPS consistently with little variation. Like Dota 2, the game had no freezes or shutdowns throughout the testing. This title isn't too complicated or graphically intensive, so the MacBook Pro handled it with ease. 

Empire of Sin/ Rosetta 2: Empire of Sin is a new game released in early December where the player assumes the role of a 1920s mob boss in Chicago. After downloading the game from Steam, I set it up to run on high quality presets at 1650 x 1050 resolution. The M1 handled this game with ease producing 50-60 FPS efficiently throughout the gameplay. I moved from room to room, sold a property, and interacted with characters throughout with no latency or issues. 

Total War: WARHAMMER II/ Rosetta 2: As I moved from village to village in Total War: WARHAMMER II, I was getting an average FPS of 30-40 on high quality presets at 1440 x 900 resolution. This game has an interesting hovering perspective where the player focuses on exploration and expansion across the fantasy world. While I was moving across the different islands throughout the map, the game was smooth and stutter-free.

Total War: WARHAMMER II Gameplay on MacBook Pro M1 

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor/Rosetta 2: I tested this title at 1920 x 1200 resolution with a mixture of high and ultra-settings throughout. At the beginning of the story mode, I was getting a steady 60 FPS while playing. When my character engaged in combat with another, the performance quickly dropped from 60 FPS to 27-31 FPS throughout the fighting duration. While my character was swinging a sword, the gameplay was smooth throughout, without lag or stutter. 

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided/Rosetta 2: I tested this first-person shooter at 1920 x 1200 resolution with high-quality settings enabled. The game was smooth while I was running through the map and firing my weapon. I got a range of 26-31 FPS while playing this title, while most of the gameplay was right at the 30 FPS mark. The bottom of the MacBook Pro did get noticeably warm while I was playing Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. The fans didn't come on while I was playing, so the heat wasn't a significant hindrance to gameplay. 

Minecraft/ Rosetta 2: While testing Minecraft Java Edition at 1440 x 900 resolution on 'Fancy' (high) settings. The laptop could not handle Minecraft's 'Fabulous' (Ultra-High) settings. Throughout the duration of gameplay, I tried multiple different rendering distances and ended up staying with the max distance of 32 chunks, frame rates at 120, and maxing out the Biome Blend out to 15x15 as it ran smoothly with no noticeable issues. The only time I found latency was when the in-game weather began to start raining until it stopped but did not compromise gameplay a significant amount. The main issue I had was the inability to use the keypad to click the in-game buttons and place blocks. I had to change the key bindings to play the game successfully. Once that was completed, I built a Christmas-themed Charmander from the world phenomenon 'Pokemon' with ease. Finally, one continuous annoyance was the error code '0' that mentioned that the game had crashed even though I successfully exited it. Once the error message showed and tried to relaunch the game, it would crash, and I would need to try two or three times again to relaunch the game. The gameplay was great, apart from the crashing, but that doesn't surprise me for a simplistic game like Minecraft. 

Christmas theme Charmander built in Minecraft 

World of Warcraft/M1 Native: The first macOS-compatible game that can run natively on Apple's new M1 was not a disappointment. World of Warcraft, even though it is a forgiving game that should run on most, if not all modern Macs, was extremely smooth. I could not find an issue with latency, dropped framerates – nothing. Initially, the max foreground FPS was 100, and I turned it up to 130 while the max background FPS I pushed from 60 to 80 then did the same for the Target FPS from 60 to 80 on 1440 x 990 along with a '6' in graphic quality and pushed it to a 10. All settings were on either 'High' or 'Ultra.' The game handled it perfectly. I was disappointed I could not Ray Trace shadows, but those are not supported for the macOS yet. 

World of Warcraft gameplay on MacBook Pro M1 

Firewatch/Rosetta 2: This slow-paced but stunning game could not have held up any better. The forestry and life within the game moved around freely and without any issues. My settings consisted of 1440 x 990 with the graphics all automatically set on 'High.' I changed the 'World Detail' from 'High' to 'Ultra,' and the gameplay wasn't affected whatsoever. I had to enable 'VSync' as it comes to default. The framerates were still going perfectly without issue: no latency, no mouse lag, and no game crash. 

Subnautica/Rosetta 2: This atmospheric walking simulator has excellent graphics with a rich aquatic life to show for it. The gameplay allowed you to switch between multiple devices to explore the ocean's depths and learn about individual creatures that you encounter with ease. The resolution settings consisted of 1440x990 with graphics automatically set on 'High.' The advanced settings only allowed me to change the water quality to 'medium' and not any higher. I turned off VSync, and the framerates didn't have any issues. Once again, the keypad was practically useless when trying to use simple 'use' and 'let go' for 'left' and 'right' side of the keypad. I had to change 'left' to 'O' and 'right' to 'P..' Movement across the ocean floor was smooth and not choppy. The algae, wildlife, and water shining from the sun glistened beautifully. The 32 bit does not allow me to experiment with the 'medium' Water quality to 'high' in the advanced settings. 

Gameplay on Subnautica with Apple MacBook Pro M1 

The good  

After logging into my new MacBook Pro 13" M1, I could download games from Steam and the App Store pretty quickly. I did have to delete and reinstall Steam a couple of times before it launched successfully for the first time. After I got it installed correctly, it was easy to maneuver and add games to my library. 

Most AAA gamers choose Windows as their OS of choice for obvious reasons. There are more games available for Windows, and the Windows games typically run smoother than the comparable macOS games because developers optimize for Windows. MacBook gamers' potential workaround for this issue is using a virtual desktop interface (VDI) or other virtualization software. Parallels Desktop 15 is a popular solution to this problem, which would give you the ability to play windows DirectX 11 games on your MacBook. I can't vouch for the type of experience you will get as an end-user, but the games look playable from what I have seen. Another option is using GeForce Now, NVIDIA's cloud gaming service, as a way to play games via the cloud.  

The good news is that the new M1 processor's gaming performance was better than I expected, especially when considering Apple's first notebook powered exclusively by its in-house silicon. The FPS scores were similar to what I would expect on a comparable Windows 13" notebook. Out of the 12 games that we tested, only a couple had launch and crash issues. If FPS scores were the only measuring stick for gaming, then the M1 processor would be positioned at the top of the heap for a thin and lite notebook. The introduction of M1 marks the beginning of gaming on Apple silicon, and there is plenty of positive to build on.

The not so good 

There were plenty of positive takeaways from reviewing the MacBook Pro M1 in AAA games, but there were also several drawbacks. To start, I downloaded Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, more popularly known as CS: GO (#1 ranked Steam game as of publication date), on my MacBook Pro M1 for game testing. CS: GO is an excellent game to test because Valve has optimized this game to run smoothly on almost any hardware, and on a desktop gaming PC gets frame rates in the many hundreds, so it should run pretty well on the M1. The game downloaded fine, but it took nearly 10 minutes to load to the main menu when I went to boot. The application froze each time I attempted to play, which caused me to force quit and reboot. While using Steam, I had to force quit the application every second or third time it launched, which I suspected would be an issue beforehand. 

I also had a problem with Minecraft crashing and taking two or three launch attempts to get back into the game after a crash. 

GO never booted past the initial menu. 

I got acquainted with the infamous rainbow spinning wheel that signifies if an application is frozen or has overloaded the machine's processing power. The freezing happened several times while loading into a new game of Fortnite. The freezing also happened in CS: GO, which never booted in a playable fashion for me, even after several attempts. I also had multiple freezes when switching between games while having Safari running as well. I will note this could also be due to having an 8GB system, putting a strain on the system from swapping between the 8GB memory and the SSD. 

Fortnite failing to shut down after freezing. 

The other issue I have with gaming on macOS is AAA game compatibility. There are plenty of MacBook Pro compatible games that you can download from Steam and the Apple App Store, but Apple and developers are leaving a lot off the table. If Apple is serious about gaming on Mac, it will need to get more developers to optimize macOS games. Sadly, most popular AAA games won't run natively on macOS, games like:

  • PUBG (#3 ranked Steam game as of publication date)
  • Cyberpunk 2077 ( #4 ranked Steam game as of publication date)
  • Tom Clancy Rainbow Six Siege (#7 ranked Steam game as of publication date)
  • Apex Legends ( #8 ranked Steam game as of publication date)
  • Destiny 2 (#15 ranked Steam game as of publication date)
  • Monster Hunter: World (#20 ranked Steam game as of publication date)
  • The Witcher 3 (#27 ranked Steam game as of publication date)
  • Red Dead Redemption 2 (#40 ranked Steam game as of publication date)
  • Halo Master Chief Collection (#96 ranked Steam game as of publication date)
  • Call of Duty Warzone
  • Doom Eternal
  • Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020

These and many more are still not available on macOS, although through virtualization like Crossover, the games could be playable, but I cannot speak to the experience.  

CSGO failing to shut down after freezing. 

I double-checked these against this very helpful M1 games compatibility list published here and featured on 9to5Mac. Other standouts from this list include games that won’t currently run on M1 through virtualization like Crysis-Steam/Crossover and Halo MCC-Crossover/Rosetta 2.

Wrapping up  

All in all, I would say the MacBook Pro 13" M1 AAA gaming experience was just “okay” for a thin and lite notebook. If I were judging on FPS alone, I describe the thin and lite performance as “good”, but the experience as “okay”. The continuous game application freezes, lack of certain AAA games, some games failing to boot, and issues installing Steam was frustrating. 

For the games I was able to boot and play, the M1's graphics performance was on par or slightly better than what I have seen in similar-sized Windows notebooks. AAA gaming is possible on the MacBook Pro 13" M1, but I believe there are more reliable systems for the job. Newer AAA games aren't a massive use case on ultrathin notebooks, but it is nice to have, and the value varies from user to user. With Steam made for the Mac and some AAA developers already releasing AAA macOS titles, I must assume this is an essential target for Apple. 

On the bright side, this is Apple's first go around with the M1 processor, and the experience can only get better when and if developers optimize for the platform. Also, I believe this is just the beginning, and I expect Apple to release much higher performant graphics that could discrete mid-range to premium-graphics rasterized performance. One thing I’m keeping my eye on are DX12 versus Metal API as DX12 is harder to virtualize and Apple wants developers to write to Metal. More competition is better and I look forward to see how this ends up in a few years.

Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors contributed to this article. 

Patrick Moorhead
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Patrick founded the firm based on his real-world world technology experiences with the understanding of what he wasn’t getting from analysts and consultants. Ten years later, Patrick is ranked #1 among technology industry analysts in terms of “power” (ARInsights)  in “press citations” (Apollo Research). Moorhead is a contributor at Forbes and frequently appears on CNBC. He is a broad-based analyst covering a wide variety of topics including the cloud, enterprise SaaS, collaboration, client computing, and semiconductors. He has 30 years of experience including 15 years of executive experience at high tech companies (NCR, AT&T, Compaq, now HP, and AMD) leading strategy, product management, product marketing, and corporate marketing, including three industry board appointments.