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Stateside: OpenFeint fiasco proves devs should never get comfortable with third-party APIs

Lessons to be learned

Stateside: OpenFeint fiasco proves devs should never get comfortable with third-party APIs
Chicago-based Carter Dotson is a senior writer at 148Apps.com, which was recently acquired by PocketGamer.biz publisher Steel Media.

OpenFeint's shutdown came as a shock to developers.

Not the actual service termination itself, our course - a 2013 cutoff previously scheduled - but the fact it was coming sooner than expected, and there was barely any warning.

As a result, developers have found themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place: as the service shuts down, they must try to at least disable from older titles, or even possibly replace the service entirely, all during the holiday rush period when new titles are being finished and Apple sorts through a deluge of submissions.

It's a tricky mess to say the least, but there are lessons to be learned here for developers: be wary of third-party APIs.

A cautionary tale

Even industry leaders like OpenFeint, which may have been the most popular social gaming service on iOS before Game Center came along, must be treated with caution.

It's very easy for a change, such as a buyout, to shift the direction of a service to one that will not ensure its long-term viability for those who took advantage of it.

The problem is that for developers is that this leaves them in a lurch. Is it worth supporting features in these third-party APIs that could be useful to their game in the present day, if there's no reason to believe that they might be still functional in around in a year from now?

Pros and cons

Game Center is ubiquitous, but it still doesn't support all the features that OpenFeint did.

Indeed, Apple's platform's solutions pale in comparison to the integrated options OpenFeint provided - features games like Super QuickHook took advantage of.

OpenFeint's cloud backups, though relatively unused, often proved to be more stable than iCloud saves have been. Also, these features were often available on Android as well as iOS, where there is no Game Center equivalent yet.

INC was one of the few games to support cloud saves across platforms using OpenFeint, while Halfbrick got smart and switched over to iCloud during the past year; the OpenFeint shutdown should have a minimal impact on its current titles, as a result.

Yet, the fact many of OpenFeint's primary features became redundant when Apple launched Game Center and many secondary features were rarely used by developers anyway is arguably the big problem.

There's no incentive for GREE's platform - the service that replaces OpenFeint - to support any of these features, so games that rely on them are going to be left high and dry.Time to bail?

Perhaps buyouts should serves as a sign for independent developers to abandon ship.

That's certainly what Pascal Bestebroer, founder of OrangePixel, believes.

"When GREE took over OpenFeint I basically decided to stop using OpenFeint in the new games but also had no interest in the new GREE SDKs," he said.

Since the OpenFeint shutdown, he has removed OpenFeint from the Android versions of his games, but is yet to do so with his iOS releases.

"Sadly for the iOS versions there simply isn't time for this. It would require to remove all the services, upload the games to the app store, wait for approval, hope no other bugs got introduced because the appstore approval queue is very long during these weeks and the app-store even shuts down the last week of the year."


That serves as another concern: when a seemingly profit-driven move like this is made, the parent company may not have developers’' best interests in mind.

OpenFeint may have been built up to be a popular platform in the west, but now it's of little used to new owner GREE, those invested in it are being unceremoniously dumped. But what is a games platform without games and users?

Service issues

The appeal of OpenFeint has much in common with a service like Twitter. Users who signed up to the free social network quickly found out that it's them, rather than the platform itself, that holds all the value.

If, for instance, Twitter started to charge for membership and lost huge chunks of its userbase as a result, then what value would the platform have then?

Either way, for developers that tap into services like OpenFeint, the lesson is a simple one: be prepared.

NimbleBit stripped all Plus+ support from Pocket Frogs - one of its older, but still supported releases.

As Ian Marsh explains, "Development had stopped on the Plus+ client quite some time ago, and it was lacking things like support for the iPhone 5 aspect ratio and armv7 support.

"It was getting harder and harder to continue supporting Plus+ so we dropped it."

However, this came at a cost: user data was at risk because Plus+ was used to back up save files. However, the app is future-proofed going forward if, in the future, Plus+ ever shuts down.


However, less-successful developers may not have the incentive to take the time to remove these kinds of services from their apps. What wins out? Making sure you work on products with actual commercial viability, or making sure an old OpenFeint game still works?

Even just on an emotional level, developers are faced with the taxing question of whether they want their older titles to actually work.

A matter of emotion


Undoubtedly emotions will affect developers in the future who work with GREE, if not other third-parties.

Pascal Bestebroer, for instance, felt particularly betrayed.

"For some reason the way GREE handled the communication towards developers just didn’t feel right with me at that time, and now this handling of the shutdown... a terrible way to communicate with the developers you need so badly to keep your service interesting.

"Gree didn't just drop the ball on this one, they never got the ball it seems.”


But Gavin Bowman of Retro Dreamer thinks that developers will continue to flock to useful services, including GREE, despite their personal feelings.

"Business is business, some developers might have sworn they'll never work with them again, but if they have something that can help a developer build a better app, or reach a bigger audience, they won’t have trouble finding people interested in using it."


As OpenFeint's pending demise proves, those who build on the backs of third-party services need to be ready for them to give out, because they will not last forever.


Stateside columnist

Freelance writer covering mobile and gaming for @toucharcade, @Gamezebo, and more!

Comments

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Simon Edis Game Designer at Ezone.com
The writing was on the wall when Apple introduced GameCenter. If you have a choice between native API and a third-party one, there really is no choice.
Marek Rabas Co-Founder at Madfinger Games
Yup, this is why we are building our own solution...
Jens Lauritzson
This is an interesting topic. By using a dynamic wrapper solution most of these risks can be avoided. If an SDK is no longer supported the integration is not done in the game but with the wrapper and the wrapper can switch to another service without any disastrous effects on the end-users. This applies to most monetisation services that do not require deep integration with the game itself.
Dave Mitchell Founder at Two Tails
The same could be said for Third Party Game Engines or Tools. If your reliant on something and it goes away - what's your backup plan?
Ryan Carson
Yup. 3rd party APIs are the same sort of liability in website development.

In my opinion it's much safer in the long run to go with either first party or self-made.

Even if you can't offer exactly the same service, reliability and responsibility for reliability should come first.