October 17, 2013
In waiting rooms and lines across the world, a new breed of gamer is emerging. With the proliferation of mobile devices, people who wouldn’t have called themselves “gamers” are now playing Angry Birds and Fruit Ninja. While they might not consider themselves serious gamers, they play nonetheless. With most Triple A developers making games for the upcoming next generation consoles, many indie developers are focused on the Android ecosystem. This change in focus for new designers is a fundamental shift in how we play and Android could be the future of that shift – if they can overcome several hurdles.
Designing with touchscreens and mobile in mind
We’ve had touch screens in our pockets going on six years, but even now games seem to be forever plagued by on-screen joysticks and buttons that make mobile game controls feel clunky and imprecise. Of the thousands of games in the Play Store (not even counting the emulator applications, which allow for some serious retrogaming) most don’t feel designed for touchscreens. Dead Trigger is a prime example of developers shoehorning a genre that relies on precise synchronized controls onto a platform that struggles to emulate them. Touchscreens provide an inherently different experience than the tactile feedback of controllers and keyboards. Developers need to start designing games to take advantage of the touchscreen’s unique strengths. There are new and interesting gameplay mechanics waiting to be unlocked in new and established genres. Some developers like Capybara Games understand this and have created an amazing touchscreen gaming experience with their game Sword and Sorcery EP. Ingress by Niantic Labs @ Google has other great mechanics like GPS, and competitive AR (augmented reality) gameplay only available on mobile devices. Android phones and tablets are packed with sensors that (save for a few gems) go woefully unused. By developing games designed for the touchscreen and mobile experience, serious gamers will begin to consider Android as a viable platform. However this isn’t necessarily too big of a problem because…
Android isn’t just for your phone anymore
With new Android powered consoles like Nvidia’s Project Shield, Google Chromecast or the recently Kickstarted Ouya, developers have more options with the controls and scope of their game. They could use the Ouya’s controller, a mouse and keyboard, controllers from old consoles for their emulator or motion tracking hardware like the Kinect. Developers could have a game that requires intensive console play for some levels and more immersive, out-in-the-world exploration for others. Mobile devices with touchscreens are more suited to games that deliver quick bursts of fun (think WarioWare) that can be played for a few minutes while you take the bus. Long, story-driven games or competitive, high-action games are best enjoyed at home over the course of a few hours. The benefit of an Android console such as OUYA is that developers have access to the huge open (and free) ecosystem that is Android. Developers should have no issues bringing games to an Android console if it means no more paid Dev kits and NDAs through Sony and Microsoft. Perhaps in the future serious console games will be “Available on the PlayStation, Xbox, and Android”. But for that to happen we’d need to see…
Established developers/distributors in Android
Right now there’s a stigma that Android isn’t for “serious gamers”, and for good reason: with established systems like Steam and Xbox Live, hardcore gamers already have a place to call home. That could all change if Valve, or someone like them, started working with Google to integrate products like Steam or PSN with the Play Store. Imagine being able to show off all your achievements and game progress displayed in your Steam account for all your friends to see. Valve, who offers Steam as a digital distribution software (which includes features such as social networking, DRM, cloud saving, in-game voice chat, and more) caters to both casual and hardcore gamers. A company such as Valve could pave the way for bringing both of these worlds together on a single, open source platform. Considering Gabe Newell’s worries with Windows 8 and Valve’s intention of making their own gaming console Linux based, there’s quite the opportunity for a team up. Even if Google took a page out of Steam’s handbook and offered widely publicized sales, it would create an opportunity for people to purchase games they may not have otherwise considered due to price. They’re already taking steps toward this with the new features like cloud saving, leaderboards, and achievements that we saw at this year’s Google I/O. Thankfully, the ever popular Humble Bundle has been offering it’s package deals that have drawn some PC gamers to pick up a few games for their phone (all in the name of charity, no less). Speaking of Humble Bundles’ charitable donations, games should no longer be ruined by…
Free to play (pay to win)
Companies like Zynga have been pushing this destructive model into mobile and browser games for a while now, and it’s poisoning the water of in-app purchases and turning the Play Store into a minefield. It’s important that developers make money off of their work, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it (and a request to plunder your wallet for in-game currency is not the right way). There is nothing wrong with in-app purchases if done correctly. A prime example of this is in Radiant Defense. In the game, you can play for free through the entire game without purchasing anything. However, you can purchase three modules for a dollar each that unlock a few different helpful turrets. The League of Legends model is also an acceptable solution, where you can purchase additions to the game which aren’t required to complete the game (such as skins for your existing characters, or the ability to unlock additional characters early). Neither of these examples require additional (or worse, repeated) payments to remain competitive.
There’s a long and uncertain road ahead for gaming in Android, and we’ve only scratched the surface of the challenges it faces. But look how far we’ve come from playing Tetris on our flip-phones to playing games with rich 3D graphics and innovative gameplay. And who knows, before long we could see game companies completely forgo producing games for Playstation or Xbox in favor of the flexible and ubiquitous OS in everyone’s pocket and in every living room.