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From Nexus 7 to Galaxy S3 to Ouya: Android gaming is on the rise

Until this year, the idea of Android as a force in the games market was almost laughable. While Apple’s iPhone and iPad were the darlings of everyone from Electronic Arts through to the tiniest indie, Android was widely seen as a disaster. Developers rightly complained about Google’s shoddy Marketplace, Android’s high levels of piracy and the colossal problems of fragmentation, and it was widely said that it was impossible to make money on Android. iOS was the future for the casual gamer. PlayStation, Xbox and Nintendo were still the choice for the hardcore crowd.

Maybe that was true, but no-one should be laughing anymore. Android now powers the $99 console behind one of Kickstarter’s most successful campaigns, not to mention a device that could transform mobile gaming. The twin terrors of piracy and fragmentation won’t be beaten overnight, but Android is fast becoming a viable gaming platform. In fact, it might turn out to be the most disruptive one of all.

Android has always had three problems as a gaming platform. First, for a long time Google just didn’t seem to understand how to sell games (or, indeed, apps). Where the iTunes App store provided game developers with real opportunities to get their titles showcased, Google’s MarketPlace gave you nothing but lists, with no real indication of which games were the most exciting, the most likely to show off your tablet or smartphone, or even which were genuine new titles and which were shoddy ports, rip-offs, dodgy old hits or plain crapware. Buying games on Android was a nightmare; publishing them was arguably worse.

Second, there was the piracy problem. It’s an issue on home consoles and a concern with iOS and Jailbroken phones, but on Android piracy is nothing less than a scourge. While there are dissenting voices – Wind-up Knight Developer Chris Pruett has publically claimed higher piracy rates on iOS than Android – most developers believe that piracy on Android makes it harder to make a profit on the platform. The fact that anyone can download and sideload an APK from any source makes all it too easy, and DRM is practically non-existent. MadFinger, the developers of ShadowGun, have claimed that piracy rates are as high as 80 per cent, leading them to finally release their next game, Dead Trigger, on a freemium (free with paid-for premium add-ons) model. Last year, Appy Entertainment put piracy rate for its Facefighter game as high as 70:1, while this year Sports Interactive’s Miles Jacobson put them even higher, at 9:1 for Football Manager Handheld 2012.

Finally, there’s fragmentation. There are currently around 4,000 different devices running eight different versions of Android on a bewildering range of SoC (System on a Chip) processors and outputting to an array of different screen sizes and resolutions. Admittedly, Some SoCs are more popular than others, while most Android devices are now running Android 2.3, 3.0, 4.0 or 4.1 (Gingerbread, Honeycomb, Ice Cream Sandwich and Jelly Bean). All the same, that’s a lot of different configurations to cater for, not to mention test, bugfix and support. As Simon Morris, Technical Director for console/iOS/Android developer Strawdog Studios puts it, “Developers can’t realistically support every single device on the market, and although the Android OS does make some compatibility issues easier to manage, some devices simply don’t conform 100 per cent to the Android standards either.” “This” Morris adds, “Leads to unhappy customers that have bought content which doesn’t work as they (rightly) expected. This pushes QA and support costs onto publishers, which can sometimes be disproportionate to the revenue being generated.”

None of these problems will go away. As Morris explains “The main area that needs focus now is ensuring publishers can create a robust business case for Android to get a decent return on investment, which at the very least means solutions for piracy, quality control, and more streamlined processes for customers to purchase content.” However, the platform seems to be moving towards resolving them. The Google Play store isn’t perfect, but it now does a much better job of showcasing the best Android games, and websites and interested parties – particularly Nvidia – are providing support, either through apps (like Nvidia’s TegraZone) or just by helping to promote outstanding titles. Sony’s PlayStation Mobile initiative should also help, providing a line-up of games that will play not just on PS Vita and Sony smartphones, but on other PlayStation-certified devices too. Asus and HTC will be among the first partners.

Piracy will doubtless continue, but Jelly Bean supports app encryption for paid apps, which should help provide some protection against sideloading. Meanwhile, as Nvidia’s Bill Rehbock, General Manager for Mobile Games puts it, “Recent changes to the Google search algorithms make it easier to find legitimate content instead of hacked, pirated versions with potential security risks”. Rehbock calls this “a movement in the right direction.”

Meanwhile, more and more developers are adopting Free2Play and Freemium business models, not just on Android but on the equally piracy-prone PC platform. When the likes of Crytek are saying it’s the future, everyone has to take note. Bill Rehbock expects to see “a wave of very creative implementations of in-app purchase that will drive new kinds of games”. His belief is that “As developers realize that Android can be profitable, you will see production values rise and developers taking advantage of what hardware like current and future versions of Tegra can do.”

And if fragmentation can’t be solved, then developers are increasingly showing an awareness that console-quality games will only run on high-end chipsets. We already know that Dead Trigger won’t run on a £69 PAYG smartphone or £99 tablet, and as more tablets and smartphones coalesce around a few SoC platforms – Tegra 3 and Tegra 4, Exynos 4412/5250, Snapdragon S4Pro, Omap 5 – it’s likely that we’ll see developers focussing on those, and on the higher screen resolutions of the phones and tablets based on them.

This all makes Android a stronger games platform, but not necessarily a game-changer. What does is a combination of the hardware, its performance, its ubiquity and its cost. Of course, Nvidia’s Bill Rehbock has an interest in promoting Android, but he’s right when he says that “The flexibility of Android is an amazingly disruptive force.”

The success of high-end, big-screen smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S3 and HTC One X is helping to build a bigger audience for high-end Android games, as is the appearance of quad-core tablets like the Asus Transformer Prime and Transformer Pad Infinity, the Acer Iconia A510 and A700 and Toshiba’s AT300 – not to mention Sony’s upcoming Xperia Tablet. All but the Samsung use Nvidia’s Tegra 3 SoC, and Tegra 3 has plenty of 3D graphics horsepower. We’re not talking about the same levels of image quality or performance as the current console generation – let alone a future Xbox 720 or PS4 – but Tegra 3 can deliver something that’s close enough for many gamers, and future generations should get closer yet.

Still, if these high-end phones and tablets are impressive, they don’t quite have the potential to disrupt the games market. What does is arguably the most exciting piece of gaming hardware to see release this year – and by this we don’t mean PlayStation Vita or the 3DS XL.

We don’t really need to go into all the reasons why the Asus/Google Nexus 7 is an amazing bit of kit, but it all comes down to this. For £159 – roughly £40 less than a PS Vita and £10 less than a 3DS XL – you can have a well-built Tegra 3 tablet with a fine 7in 1,280 x 800 screen. “The Nexus7 is a great example of a disruptive mobile gaming device,” says Ian Morris, “Equivalent in performance to something like 18x Nintendo DS.” “Mine has already been press-ganged by my kids to play Minecraft on it” Morris adds.

Storage is limited on the entry-level model at just 8GB (though with its over-priced, proprietary memory cards, PS Vita hardly has an advantage here) and you don’t get the superb analogue controls, but the potential for Nexus 7 is obvious. It already has access to a growing library of decent games, and its success could be the catalyst for more developers to join the party. And if Android hasn’t got games of the quality of Uncharted: The Golden Abyss or Super Mario 3D Land, then a lot of people are happy with quantity and lower prices.

Don’t get us wrong. We still love the 3DS and particularly Vita (especially now that Sony has resumed announcing quality games). However, the Nexus 7 is selling like hot cakes and has the potential to do for Android gaming what the iPhone did for gaming on iOS – turn it from a zero to a hero overnight. Suddenly a huge number of people have access to a device with Tegra 3 graphics that doesn’t cost the Earth. You don’t even need to do the maths.

The biggest argument against the Nexus 7 as a games device is controls. Touch or tilt controls work well for certain genres, but what if you want to play platformers or shooters? Well, Jelly Bean can support an external controller, and all it takes to attach a wired PS3 or 360 USB controller is a micro USB on-the-go adapter cable (roughly £5 to £10), and many Android games on the TegraZone feature built-in support. Meanwhile, third-party manufacturers like Nyko are producing Android-specific Bluetooth pads. Admittedly, none of this makes the Nexus 7 more playable on the bus or train, but in the home, where a lot of mobile games are actually played? Definitely.

The Ouya Effect

Of course, Android isn’t just upsetting the mobile gaming market – it also has potential to disrupt the home console sector. Last week Ouya, the open-source, Android-based console raised in the region of £5.5 million through Kickstarter funding, with over 63,416 people backing the project. Based again on Tegra 3 and supporting 1080p gaming through a TV, Ouya will have its own marketplace showcasing Android and Ouya-exclusive games, with support for the OnLive cloud gaming service and the XBMC media centre app.

Ian Morris feels that Android has potential in the home. Tablets and phones with HDMI outputs and wireless controller support already provide Android with an opportunity to lure customers away from Microsoft and Sony. However, Ouya adds something else. “One of the key advantages for Ouya is fixed hardware” says Morris. “With a good price point, good spec, open platform and a good content delivery mechanism, Ouya will undoubtedly attract premium publishers and content if it can acquire a significant install base.”

This will be the challenge for Ouya; to scale upwards from the thousands of gamers, developers and geeks who funded the Kickstarter and grab a wider audience. It’s a console that has a lot of people excited, but that’s unlikely to have had Microsoft and Sony quaking in their boots. All the same, the success of a Tegra 3-powered console in the home would be a victory both for Ouya and for Android. Android developers would get another installed base of users with a widely-used SoC to cater for, while Ouya has the potential to launch with a larger library of games than any previous console – with more to come.

The Games

What’s really exciting, however, is that Android no-longer feels like a second-rate alternative to iOS when it comes to gaming. When EA’s Firemonkeys studio revealed the astonishing-looking Real Racing 3, it announced it on iOS and Android. Games like Puddle THD, Horn THD, Wild Blood and Bladeslinger are pushing the visual boundaries and showing what high-end Android hardware can do. “Just three years ago, Android developers were targeting hardware specifications that seemed broadly equivalent to PlayStation and GameCube” says Ian Morris. “Right now, with the fantastic performance of generation-defining chipsets such as Tegra 3 and popular support for 720p displays in devices, publishers are looking to deliver games with higher production values, more depth of game play, and performance that definitely gives current-gen consoles a run for their money.”

Of course, producing games that look like proper console games is one thing. Producing games with the depth, the polish and the high production values quite another. The big question is whether we’ll ever see the kind of Triple-A titles that Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo and the big third-party publishers can put together. An Uncharted or a Legend of Zelda demands a huge budget, and what mobile publishers can afford or take the risk? But then there’s always a matter of expectation. Those paying under a fiver for a game don’t expect something on the scale of Halo 4. Those paying £40 do.

Android has a real opportunity right now. With PS Vita continuing to struggle, at least a year until the launch of next-generation home consoles and Wii U and 3DS the only real competition, Android could match and even surpass iOS in providing a real alternative to the established platforms, and one that stretches between smartphones, tablets and home consoles. To take advantage will take real effort from Google and from developers – and more coherent online services would help – but the hardware is there, the market is there, and all it needs is one big push.