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Stateside: Is Google's social gaming platform the Game Center people think it is?

Stateside: Is Google's social gaming platform the Game Center people think it is?
Chicago-based Carter Dotson is a senior writer at 148Apps.com, which was acquired by PocketGamer.biz publisher Steel Media in 2012.

Google has finally bolstered Android with a much needed feature: a first-party social gaming service.

Almost three years after Apple introduced its first-party service – packed with leaderboards and achievements, later adding multiplayer and challenges - Google finally has an equivalent with Google Play Game Services.

Catchy name, I know.

So, now that Android has a major feature for games, what impact will this have on developers and the market as a whole?

Games can finally be theoretically equal to their iOS counterparts

Think about it this way: Android games have always been feature-deficient to their iOS equivalents due to the lack of built-in social gaming services – all despite cross-platform engine technologies advancing to greater degrees.

Game Center has worked especially well because it's very easy for users to use it seamlessly as it's one login built in to the system. Because third-party services on Android have been so clunky and user-unfriendly, nothing has reached critical mass.

It's got to the point where many games just eschew their social features altogether.

As such, the quality of these games have usually suffered. For example, Super Stickman Golf 2 for Android launched without its synchronous online multiplayer feature, despite the fact Game Center supported them on iOS.

The sequel - serving as one of the Google Play Game Services launch titles - is now feature-equivalent to the iOS version with both turn-based and live multiplayer on both platforms.

With these services now available, developers now can design their games around features like multiplayer and social competition without having them crippled on Android due to the lack of features.

Oh, and cleverly, Google has made its new services available on old Android versions - dating back to Gingerbread, in fact – as well rival platform iOS, with plugins headed to popular engines such as Unity.

Time to ditch the third-party components

For those already developing for Android that have tapped into some of the myriad third-party services, it's time for a moment of truth: ditch the zero and get with Google's hero .

Every competitor has had at least a three-year head start on Google when it comes to building a compelling social gaming service. Others are equivalent in features, but if even OpenFeint in its heyday couldn't thrive despite a sizeable userbase and no first-party competition, no one else is going to now.

Google's service is one that actually has the potential to spread faster than Game Center ever did, largely because of Google's decision to stretch Game Services back to Gingerbread.

In contrast, Apple took the opposite approach. Game Center's initial reach was hindered by the fact that users needed to upgrade to the latest version of iOS to get it. As a result, older devices like the iPhone 3G were killed overnight.

Few Android devices still in use are on anything earlier than Gingerbread, meaning Google's Game Services can hit a far wider audience from day one. As such, for developers there's very little reason not to switch over to Google Play Game Services in full.

The only service that will probably last? Scoreloop, purely because it's owned by BlackBerry – a platform that, seriously, has recently become a source of optimism. I don't know how that happened either.

But does this all really matter?

This seems like a big deal on paper, but there's reason to be skeptical as well.

Consider whether many of the features Google's new platform packs in are actually in demand. Compare the number of Game Center players to the number of actual users of an app. It's hardly unanimous, and some games have wildly-varying numbers.

Plenty of gamers are more than happy to play on their own, ignoring the need to compete with other gamers or rack up gamer points – even in the rise of gaming culture on mobile platforms.

As a result, it's possible Android users – used to games not featuring such exploits – will be slower to jump on the bandwagon, and it may be wise for developers either to be patient, or simply not to worry about retrofitting their existing games to support Google's new service.

What's more, while additional features like cloud saves are a neat feature on paper, users haven't expressed much of a desire for them either.

On the flip side, Google's basis as a service-oriented company could hand it advantages over Apple when it comes to saving in the cloud. After all, iCloud has the problem of just plain not working frequently.

Remember what this actually is: A ploy to get more people on Google+

Given that the service is so heavily tied to Google+, we can't ignore the fact that this is a clear attempt by Google to drive people towards its social network.

While, firstly, Google+ is more popular than the press would have you believe, it's not quite being mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Twitter and Facebook, and that's obviously Google's aim.

By hooking people into Google+ via their games, the growth of the network could and should be driven – or, at least, place it in the minds of a lot more people.

That it's also on iOS - as with many of their recent innovations - is not coincidental either. It has the secondary effect of creating a cross-platform service, but I'm not certain any third-party gaming service has a realistic future.

For developers, a measured approach is required. For games that are suffering on Android due to the lack of social features, now is a good time to get on the boat with Google Play Game Services.

In the early days of Game Center, support for that network helped drive attention to games, and at worst, for cross-platform developers it means a better product on Android.

But just because it exists on Android now, don't expect it to be as important a feature as Game Center necessarily is, despite the potential.

Carter is a senior writer over at recent Steel Media acquisition 148Apps.com.

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