Game developers still not sold on Android
Though we’re constantly buffeted by stories about new Android-powered game consoles and the continued growth of the Google Play Store, the fact still stands: An Android port seems to remain a footnote in the development process, an afterthought, a thing that has to be done as opposed to the thing to do. Even today, you’d be hard-pressed to find a game that’s exclusive to the Linux-based platform, or a developer willing to profess an undying affection for Android. People might make Android games, but they don’t seem like it.
It’s a jungle out there
When Apple launched its App Store in 2008, it changed the playing field for mobile games and made them more accessible to people who wouldn’t be caught dead buying a dedicated handheld like a Nintendo DS or a Sony PlayStation Portable. Success stories began rolling in. Angry Birds became a global phenomenon, Rovio Games a national hero. Draw Something drew creator OMGpop away from the brink of bankruptcy and into a $180 million buyout offer—all within seven weeks. The message was clear: The right application can do more than pay your bills; it can make you a rock star.
But while Apple might have been the one to get the ball rolling, Google was not far behind. The Google Play Store has matured since Android first launched, and many of the apps found in the App Store can also be found in Google’s digital store. Android also has a higher market share than iOS, making it the most used mobile operating system worldwide. For all intents and purposes, the Google Play Store should be the ideal environment for any developer, a digital gold mine ready for the harvest.
But is it really the Shangri-La that it has been advertised as?
Chris Pruett certainly thinks so. Chris is a part of Robot Invader, a Silicon Valley-based game development studio with a fondness for 1950s monster movies and cutesy, action-based titles. Both Wind-up Knight and the company’s newest game, Rise of the Blobs, have enjoyed consistently high praise from the press. Pruett says that the revenue garnered from Android users has beaten iOS sales figures by a solid two to one.
Quantity is definitely a factor here. Since its release, Wind-up Knight has been downloaded 7 million times, and close to 5 million of those downloads, Pruett reports, were made by Android users. “In our case, our Android version makes significantly more than its iOS counterpart, despite both being exactly the same game and both receiving similar featuring from their respective platform holders.”
Spacetime Studios, creators of the mobile MMO franchise Legends, had similar opinions. In an interview with TechHive, CEO Gary Gattis noted, “On a day-to-day basis, we actually make more from the Google Play Store than we do the Apple App store. That being said, the average revenue per iOS user is certainly higher, but we just have that many more Android users.”
Android gaming stinks
Such overwhelming positivity for the Google Play Store is not universal, of course. Pocket Tactics editor Owen Faraday, who expounded on Android gaming for Wired sometime ago, called the marketplace “a desolate wasteland.”
Faraday went on to cite a variety of developers, many of whom seem to see Android as a necessary evil that’s plagued by digital pirates. Piracy is a particularly vicious issue. Sports Interactive’s studio director, Miles Jacobson, once reported a staggering 9-to-1 piracy rate for Football Manager Handheld. And while still determined to provide support for Android users, Madfinger Games’ Anna Porizkova previously divulged to Gamasutra that the piracy rate for Shadowgun had, at one point, reached 90 percent before eventually dwindling to a still-striking 78 percent.
Nicholas Vining, chief technical officer of Gaslamp Games, has been working in the industry for well over a decade and is, despite his work on various open-source and Linux-related projects, somewhat dubious about the profitability of the platform. "The people I used to do contract [work] for typically found that Android made [them] about 1 percent of what they made on iOS—if they were lucky. If that’s the case, we would never make our money back doing a Dredmor port, and would probably end up losing cash on the deal."
Even more telling is the stuff that has not been directly spoken. Chair Entertainment put the gorgeous-looking Epic Citadel in the Google Play Store only this January—a full three years after the tech demo was first shown. Is it a positive indication of things to come? Maybe. Maybe not. In an interview with Mashable in 2011, the Mustard brothers intimated that piracy concerns were one of the major problems keeping the Infinity Blade franchise from Android users.
“We’re confident that will be worked out and [the Google Play Store] will become a viable place for game developers, but that hasn’t happened yet," Donald told Mashable. "So it’s not the tech, it’s the business platform.”
It’s March 2013 now, and piracy hasn’t yet stopped being an issue.
Here’s another example of developers’ dissatisfaction with Android. Telltale Games blew away both the press and the public with its Walking Dead point-and-click adventure game. Like the comic book series and the TV show before it, the game gathered an awe-inspiring number of accolades: In total, the game, which is split into five episodes, has won over 80 ‘Game of the Year’ awards. With so much going for the game, an Android port should have been inevitable, a guarantee for even more success. To the dismay of Android users everywhere, however, that much-anticipated port never happened.
In an interview with the PA Report, Telltale Games provided only a nominally favorable explanation of why an Android version of The Walking Dead has yet to happen.
"The disparate hardware specs, piracy concerns and state of the Android equivalent of the App Store make it very hard to bring our games over to the Android OS. To counteract these issues with the Android platform, and ignoring for a minute the huge issue of widely varied specs of Android devices, our games would need to be built and/or sold distinctly different than we do today on all other platforms. Will Walking Dead: The Game come to Android? We hope so, but nothing to announce today."
Too many devices, too little time?
A total of 3997 distinct Android devices—that was the number that came up when OpenSignal tallied up the number of handsets using its services. It’s little wonder that diplomatically phrased frustration seems to be the norm when developers talk about the Android ecosystem.
Paweł Miechowski of 11bit Studios, a company best known for its work with Anomaly: Warzone Earth, observed that while porting to Android itself was not intrinsically difficult, the act of ensuring compatibility was especially difficult when manufacturers insist on putting different drivers on the same devices.
“And it doesn’t matter if the GPU is the same.” He grouses. “It’s literally impossible to have those hundreds of devices and test them internally. So one can count on luck that if a game works on one device from a family, it will on others as well. I think the more demanding the graphics are in a game, the more driver-compatibility problems a developer will face. And then you have many versions of the system you need to support, so yeah, keeping track is necessary.”
Gaslamp Games’ Nicolas Vining is blunt about the matter—he calls the whole procedure a nightmare. “There are just too many Android devices with different specifications, screen sizes, screen resolutions, software revisions, and conflicts. We couldn’t ship a game for Android without a massive support nightmare—and we, as a small company, aren’t capable of handling that nightmare."
He adds, “If your name is on a software product, you are judged by how that software product runs on the consumer’s hardware—and it’s your fault, as a developer, if the game fails to run on some cellphone or tablet that Samsung only manufactured, for six months, for sale in certain parts of Hungary."
To put it another way, developing for Android is a lot like coming up with a unified lunch menu for a school with every allergy known to man. There are a multitude of things to juggle and even more compromises to be made. Though it is theoretically possible to personalize a meal for every student, it would be anything but cost effective.
You’d need to keep tabs on everyone’s dietary requirements, personal preferences, the panoply of ingredients to make it all work and the possibility of the toaster burning out. It gets complicated. What makes it worse is that, at the end of the day, this is all still a business. Even if you were to seek out more efficient alternatives, you’d still be spending time and money, both costs that could be minimized if you were to simply choose to cater to a less problem-riddled (and wealthier) group.
Naturally, Android proponents have a different take; the problem isn’t with the school, it’s with the people trying to feed them. Pruett doesn’t see device fragmentation as something that needs to be ’worked around’ at all. “Our games are available on almost every modern device type but we’ve only have had to deal with bugs in one or two of these.”
For Pruett, the primary point of interest is pertinent to the size and the resolution of the screen; everything else is either irrelevant or working as intended. However, instead of trying to cater to every device, his company uses Google Play’s tools to create a list of incompatible devices. If it doesn’t meet their requirements, users aren’t able to download the company’s games—essentially the same as putting up a sign for our metaphorical cafeteria that says, “Our food contains nuts. Take it or leave it”.
Pruett acknowledges that the whole system is imperfect, though. Non-pistacho eaters still need food like everyone else. Performance and memory variations are two elements his company lacks decent solutions for. “I’m not sure it’s fair to call this an "Android fragmentation" problem, though, because those old devices are not necessarily broken or flawed—they’re just old and lower spec than the bleeding edge. And this problem isn’t unique to Android: we have the same issue delivering high-end 3D games on iOS because we must continue to support aging devices like the iPhone 3GS.”
Much like everyone else, Spacetime Studios found themselves struggling with the enormous number of screen resolutions known to the platform. “When we initially started putting products on both the iOS and the Android marktetplace, we found ourselves doing four times the work we should have.
Expensive as the idea of building for such a diverse range of devices might be, it isn’t an impossible endeavor. Not when you’ve gotten the formula down pat. Baudouin Corman, VP of Publishing for Gameloft, says that the cost behind the production of their Android games has decreased significantly over time. “Partly because we’ve learned how to efficiently handle the diversity of devices without compromising the quality and partly because the Android platform itself has improved greatly in that respect.”
Sitting in between its advocates and its naysayers are folk like Mojang’s Johan Bernhardsson. Unlike many other developers, the Stockholm-based creators of Minecraft released their game on the Google Play Store first. “There have been a few issues with the Android SDK on the way with bugs and problems but I feel that the current NDK has become a lot more stable...One issue with development is that we haven’t found any really good emulator to run the games without going through a phone/tablet.”
Of course, even having a panoply of devices is no guarantee of success. BlitWise Production’s Brian McCabe sent in a photograph of some of the equipment—there were a lot of devices—the company has purchased for this express purpose. “We purchased several ourselves, and struggled also to find a QA source that could meet what we thought were the sine qua non requirements for testing. Sometimes a problem would pop up in one phone but not a very similar one, but the fix for that would break something for the other. (I recall there was a graphical error in large explosions on the Samsung Galaxy S II, I believe, that didn’t show up on either the S I or the S III.)”
A different frontier
From the outside, it’s easy to believe that Android and iOS development are one and the same; both circle around similar-looking, touch-centric devices, after all. A rose by any other name is still a mobile device capable of keeping you up to date with your best friend’s fusillade of Instagram photos, right? In theory? Yes. In practice? Not quite.
Understanding this seems essential to surviving Android’s unusual idiosyncrasies. And while there are those like Vining who seem doubtful about its current status, few are unwilling to offer grudging acknowledgment that things may well change. “There are things that Google can do, or that other Android stakeholders can do, in order to try and make this situation not terrible. Better control over standards, for one thing. I’m all for free market competition, but the incompatibility problems are a good example of free market competition hurting the consumer. If the situation gets better, we’ll reconsider our stance.”
The popularity of Android devices has increased exponentially over the recent years. According to the Gartner group, Samsung ended 2012 as the No.1 company in terms of worldwide smartphone sales and overall mobile phone sales. There’s a lot of potential in this upcoming market but developers also face an equal number of problems. High piracy rates, severe device fragmentation, and a user base that is purportedly more reluctant to pay for premium apps—these are all variables that make life difficult for developers. Still, Rome wasn’t built in a day and if things continue to maintain their momentum, we may one day see iOS users lobbying for equal treatment instead.