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Mobile Gaming or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Android

Like in Stanley Kubrick’s classic dark comedy, certain life-changing events cannot be stopped or ignored. You simply need to accept the fact that the world will eventually end thanks to a madman strapped to the back of a nuclear bomb.
 
 
 
Like in Stanley Kubrick’s classic, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, certain life-changing events cannot be stopped or ignored. You simply need to accept the fact that the world will eventually end thanks to a madman strapped to the back of a nuclear bomb.

You can’t ignore market-defining gadgets like Apple’s iPhone either. However, if the growing pains of iPhone game development are cramping your style, you still have a choice: Google’s Android. This blog will tell you why in 3 easy steps:
 
  1. Congrats! It’s a… robot (Android origins)
  2. iPhone: King of the World (Why the App Store rules the known universe)
  3. The Android Invasion Cometh (Why you should consider Android)
 
Without further ado, let’s now take a quick look at the origins – and development – of Android.

 
Congrats! It’s a… robot

Android was born a Linux-based operating system and announced to the world Nov. 5, 2007 as core component of the Open Handset Alliance. Google’s idea was to supply a top-of-the-line OS for free in order to expand the reach and penetration of web-savvy smartphones.

 
 
After all, mobile Google searches = more ads = more $$$ in Google’s pockets.

The OS evolved quickly: from the messy, unpolished 1.0 release to Flan's animated wallpapers and deep Facebook integration (2.1). 

Most recognize 2.0, Éclair, as Android’s first “market ready” update.

If you remember 2008, the first cell phone powered by Android was the HTC Dream, sold on the U.S. as the T-Mobile G1 (I own one, BTW. It drives me nuts sometimes). 

By October 2009, there were only four Android-powered phones in the U.S.:

On T-Mobile, the G1, MyTouch3G and Motorola Cliq.

On Sprint, the Hero.

Right now, the U.S. Android ranks consist of:

On Verizon, the Droid and Droid Eris (a rebadged HTC Hero)
On Sprint, the Hero and the Samsung Moment
On T-Mobile, the G1, MyTouch3G, Samsung Behold II and (upcoming) Nexus One

Fast-forward to December 2009. Thanks to Verizon and its 85-100 million advertising campaign for the Droid, Android has been quickly gaining ground and is now seen as the probable adversary to Apple’s mighty iPhone. comScore has 17 percent of those currently in the market for a cell phone thinking Android, versus 20 percent for the iPhone. That’s an eye-opening number.

Among tech connoisseurs, many see Microsoft quickly fading into obscurity with the obsolete Windows Mobile 6.5, Symbian stalling, RIM keeping their territory on the corporate side of things (and expanding to certain consumer segments) and Android going for Apple’s throat in no uncertain terms.

It’s not like Gamasutra readers haven’t read all this before. However, many fail to see Android as just another gaming platform, like the Nintendo DS and now, OS. 3.0 (iPhone / iPod Touch) before it. If you see it as a platform, you’re taking the first steps to make the best of it – and maybe even make money.

If the iPhone is over-crowded and Apple’s approval process sucks, why not give Android the old college try?


iPhone: King of the World

The iPhone. It transformed the industry in a way just matched by the first Macintosh computer back in 1984. It dazzled techies all over the world at MacWorld 2007, when Steve Jobs himself made the now-classic pitch “an Internet communicator, an iPod and a phone.” A gorgeous cell phone simply (and aptly) named iPhone.
 
 

After the iPhone launch, nothing was ever the same in the mobile industry.

We all talk about the iPhone’s staggering library of more than 100 thousand apps. It’s a big number and the reason why so many flock to the iPhone. Furthermore, Apple turned the iPhone into a successful gaming platform, reversing the trend seen in previous products (other than the ill-fated Pippin, the Apple II was the last “gaming friendly” Apple product). 

Everyone and their uncle LOVES to buy games for their iPhone. It’s a convenient, fun process. And a profitable one as well: Apple has made billions on the iPhone’s surprising gaming capabilities. It helps that a powerful GPU is included in every iPhone GS and even older models are 3D capable (in the 3 to 4 million polygons range). As Sony’s PSP Go flounders and the DS ages gracefully, millions of would-be gamers – casual gamers – and even the core crowd flock to Apple’s brand of mobile gaming.

 
 
However, like everything in life, gaming on the iPhone has its dark side:

  1. The lack of physical buttons makes playing “core” games more difficult
  2. Piracy is rampant (a previous Gamasutra blog explains it)
  3. The App Store is over-crowded (duh)
  4. Prices are trending down thanks to a seemingly endless supply of inexpensive titles, many in the 99c range

There’s no “quick fix” to any of these problems. Apple is rebuilding the App Store and iTunes, but can do little to “limit” new releases, other than vetoing bad games on technicalities. In regard to a physical keyboard, the iPhone will never have one: that’s just not the way Apple does things. Piracy can be combated with in-game downloads and DRM, but not all developers are willing to go this far.

As profitable and popular as the iPhone is, its flaws still mean death to hundreds of indie developers vying to make a living on high-quality iPhone games. It’s a tough place to be right now, with no clear solution in sight.


The Android Invasion Cometh

I mentioned before that my G1 occasionally drives me nuts. It’s true; the 528 MHz processor & 192MB of RAM can barely keep pace with browsing the Internet, having Twidroid open in the background, the occasional podcast playing off DroidLive and a phone call. It freezes from time to time or simply hangs on the “Home Screen of Death” – when your icons take 10 seconds to suddenly – and magically – appear.

When all is said and done, I still like Android. I like the fact that any app can be installed on the phone, either from the web or from the Android Market. I like the trusting, Linux-like “you can do it” approach taken by Google on the OS’s design. Most of all, I like playing games on my phone.

But games mostly suck on Android. Badly.

I know of a single, successful 3D title: Speed Forge 3D
 
 
 

 
Our first conclusion is:

“Make games for Android before it's too late.”
 
There are thousands of well-intentioned, free games on Android. Sadly, many of them are not very good. The OS's saving grace are the many classic console emulators – paid emulators – embraced by those in need of a healthy dose of hardcore gaming.

The lack of quality games is my main argument for developers to embrace Android. Less competition. Did you hear that? 16,000 apps, total, instead of 200,000. Think of the possibilities. 

Second conclusion:

“Make sure your games run on T-Mobile’s handsets. They’ll be easier to buy and probably lead to better sales.”
 
Android detractors complain, with reason, that buying games on the OS is much harder than it should be. Google Checkout is cumbersome to the point that many simply never buy games, clearly no match for Apple’s seamless iTunes billing. Things are slowly changing, though: T-Mobile now allows sales to be added directly to each customer’s monthly bill. This is why app sales on T-Mobile handsets are about to explode – including Nexus One owners.

Third conclusion:

“Start development early in 2010 to, hopefully, release your app just when the storage issue gets resolved.”

Another negative of Android development is the limited storage for games. Yes, we all know that having only 256MB for storage – like the Droid – is a joke near the iPhone’s 800MB-ish Myst port. We can all agree that’s a big flaw in the architecture of the entire system. Here’s why Google did it this way: they were afraid of piracy. They decided to prevent apps from being fully installed to the SD card to prevent users from doing the same thing they do on the iPhone. You can put most of your files – the large texture packages, sounds, etc – on the SD card but not the entire app. And you’ll suffer a performance penalty as well. 
 
According to insiders, Google is already working on a solution to this. So, if you start development in January 2010 and take, let’s say, 5 months to finish your app, chances are the whole storage issue will be resolved by then. This will be an official App2SD-like solution.

Fourth conclusion:

“Approval on Android will make you sleep better at night.”

Do I need to state that Google’s approval process is painless when compared to Apple’s? Really? Even if you ignore all my other arguments, this one is a no-brainer.

Fifth (and final) conclusion:

“3D will kick a** on Android.”


And finally, 3D performance. The GPU on third-generation Android phones (Motorola Droid, Acer Liquid, Sony Xperia X10) will have a similar (or superior, in some cases) performance envelope than the current GPU on the iPhone 3GS. We’re talking 40M plus polygons per second. As a comparison, this is supposed to be a little above a PlayStation 2, with OpenGL ES 2.0. You’ll be able to do the same insane graphics we now see on the 3GS on any modern, next generation Android phone.

 
It’s a tough world out there. I’m not suggesting that developers abandon the iPhone. Nothing further from the truth – they should develop for both. Better yet, why not make multiplayer all-inclusive? Someone on iPhone should be able to headshot that noob on Android. Now that’s an inclusive thought.

I’m dying to see your comments. Don’t keep me waiting :)

(if you fancy Twitter, you can follow me -- and reply -- at www.twitter.com/AtmanRising)

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