An Open Letter to Google: It’s Time to Take Gaming Seriously [Opinion]

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This is a guest post written by DL reader Karl Ludwinski, a gaming enthusiast that wants to see Google and Android fully invest in the gaming movement, something they have so far, barely attempted to do.

First, let me say that I am not a developer or programmer of any kind, nor am I a writer. I am merely a tech and gaming enthusiast and a big fan of Android. I believe that by embracing gaming in a few key ways, both the Android platform and gaming as a whole can go further than they ever could by themselves.

To be clear, I’m not looking for any kind of credit for any of this. Most of these ideas (possibly all) have been discussed before in one way or another. I merely want to consolidate them into one list and increase awareness. I’d also love to hear other ideas that people have, any thoughts about these ideas I list, and any explanations of why they would not work as I have explained them or ways to improve them. 

1. Covering the Basics: Cloud Saves

I’d like to start with the biggest problem I currently face with gaming on Android. Mobile devices are in a period of rapid growth and advancement, and few people use the same device for more than a few years – some even upgrading multiple times a year. Android in particular, being an open platform, is incredibly popular with the dev community, resulting in deep customizations and custom roms that can require wiping devices regularly. For these reasons, the fact that app data is not backed up in the cloud is an incredible frustration and a severe hindrance to gaming on the platform.

Every time I upgrade to a new device or install a custom rom, I lose the save data for every game I’m playing. I don’t need to elaborate on that: anyone who has every played a videogame can see why that is a serious issue. Any existing workarounds involving backup apps or manual procedures are too complicated for most regular users (and likely require the device to already be rooted beforehand), are time- and storage-consuming when you are capable of performing them, and even then don’t always work.

Users of multiple devices encounter the same problem. I install a game on my tablet and my smartphone: After starting the game on my tablet and investing time into it, I find that when I leave home and later bring up the game on my phone, I have to start all over. All of my high scores are gone, nothing is unlocked. When I’ve invested time in a game with an engrossing story, the last thing I want to do is play that same part over again. I want to see what happens next!

The point is, there should be no talk of workarounds. The gaming experience should be unhindered and hassle-free across time and devices. This should be automatically implemented for users and just work. Apple has had this feature since late 2011. Google is already synonymous with the cloud, and the infrastructure is already there with services like Google Drive and Google+ that every Google user has access to. Android should have this feature plain and simple, but more importantly at this point, needs this feature to match competing platforms, avoid frustration for users, and advance the state of gaming.

2. The Google+ Equation: Achievements, Leaderboards, Friends

The next step is building a true gaming profile for users and a network to tie them together, ala Xbox Live or PlayStation Network. This is one of the most important factors for engendering user loyalty and increasing their desire to invest in the platform. It’s clear that gamers enjoy achievements and trophies: Not only do they increase replayability for individual games, a “gamerscore” or “trophy level” builds investment into the platform, increasing players’ desire to play more games as they seek to level up.

Global leaderboards can be built into this as well, and more importantly, a global friends list. I already have my Gmail contact list and Google+ circles (which perhaps should not be separate lists, but that’s another discussion), why should I have to go through an entirely separate system for my gaming friends list? It’s already all right there.

Imagine loading up Fruit Ninja: The Google+ system in the background pushes the global scores of everyone in my circles who has played the game to my device. I simply get a notification: my friend Bob just beat my high score in classic mode. Cool, I didn’t even know he played this game. Well, obviously I have to take the top spot back from him.

Then I load up Modern Combat 4. In multiplayer matchmaking, my friends list is automatically populated with people in my circles who play, and I see Joe is playing. I just tap and join his game. I don’t need to sign into an entirely different network, and I don’t have to rebuild my friends list. No muss, no fuss.

There are third-party systems that replicate some of this functionality such as OpenFeint for leaderboards and achievements. The problem is that, because they are third-party, most developers don’t add them to their games. Support is spotty, and when it’s there, it’s unpolished and clunky.

The importance of integrating this is the simplicity and lack of additional steps for users. Google already has a much bigger back-end cloud infrastructure than even XBL and PSN with all of their services such as Google+ and Drive, and leveraging all of these would create the most powerful and expansive gaming network there is. Everyone on Android already has a Google account, so everything is already right there; the gamey bits are all that need to be added. Once I set up my device and log in with my Google account, I should never have to sign into anything else for any game ever again.

3. The Nail in the Coffin for Dedicated Consoles: The Controller

In almost every article that has discussed a fancy new mobile game, and especially those forecasting doom for dedicated consoles due to the rise of mobile gaming, the majority of comments are guaranteed to be a variant of “Pfft, you can’t really game on mobile, touchscreens suck. They’ll never match a real controller.” And while often written even less eloquently than that, it is still partly true. Touchscreens can’t compare to the precision and fidelity of a real controller in most console game genres. Developers like Gameloft have proven you can fake it enough to make a game such as an FPS that is actually playable, but “It’s actually playable!” should not be the biggest praise you can heap on a game.

In this area also, third-parties are trying to make a difference. Products like OUYA, GameStick, and nVidia’s Project SHIELD seek to create the perfect open gaming system, while others like PowerA with their MOGA controller simply seek to make gaming on existing tablet and smartphone hardware better. Unfortunately, all of these have fatal problems.

For those products mentioned above that are essentially dedicated consoles, two main factors will prevent them from ever seeing mass adoption:

a.  As mentioned before, mobile hardware is advancing incredibly rapidly. As an example:  The Tegra 3 SoC was announced in February 2011 and released in November of the same year. The OUYA console was announced in July 2012 utilizing the Tegra 3, and will be released to retail in April 2013. However, in January 2013 nVidia announced the Tegra 4, expected to be 6 times faster than the Tegra 3. This will be released in Project SHIELD in Q2 2013, meaning that when OUYA releases, one of it’s competitors is going to have the next generation of it’s very own processor.

This is the problem any such device is going to face for the foreseeable future, as long as this pace of mobile hardware advancement keeps up. Home consoles have set hardware, which is fine when there are only a few consoles released around the same time with state-of-the-art technology, and nothing will be released to compete with them for another 5-10 years. When dealing with mobile hardware however, something faster will be out in a couple months, and again a few months later

b.  Hundreds of millions of people have smartphones or tablets or both, and this number is always increasing. If all these people already have an Android device, why would they want to spend hundreds of dollars to buy another Android device (most likely with inferior specs) just to play games? A smaller selection of games that have to be specifically coded to work with that device, no less.

For controllers like MOGA and it’s ilk, the problem is that there are a variety of these third-party controllers, and developers have to specifically code their games to support each and every one of them. Big surprise: They don’t. Not many people have these controllers, so why waste time and money coding for them? Users then don’t buy them because they don’t have support, meaning devs don’t support them… you get the idea.

From my limited understanding of development, this is what I think should be done: implement a simple standard controller input API right into Android. Use the standard controller scheme:

  • Two analog sticks with depressible buttons.
  • 8-way dpad.
  • Four face buttons (X, Y, A, B).
  • Two shoulder buttons and two triggers.
  • Start and Select buttons.
  • Perhaps a “Google Games” button similar to the Xbox 360 controller Guide button and the DualShock 3 PlayStation button (depending on how the Google+ integration works and if it makes sense), and maybe the Android Home and Back buttons.
  • If possible, optional rumble support.

Any third-party can make a controller that is a certified “Google GamePad” as long as it utilizes this API. They can be wired USB or Bluetooth.

Now, all a dev has to do for games where a controller makes sense is to utilize this built-in API that every Android device will have and every controller uses. This will be far less work than coding for the multiple different methods third-party controllers currently use, and much more viable as the install base will be much bigger with a standard.

The way the market is now with all these different Android consoles and controllers just isn’t working for the consumer, and the fragmentation is preventing the growth of gaming on Android from reaching it’s potential. With official “Google GamePad Compatible” controllers, all these problems are solved: I don’t need to purchase additional Android devices for different uses, and when I do upgrade to a new tablet or smartphone, I can choose whichever one suits my fancy and I can continue using my same GamePad.

4.  The Future: Wireless Everything, Cross-Platform Ubiquity

All of this is going to be especially important going forward in conjunction with other new Android features and Google’s expressed goals for gaming on their various platforms and services.

For one, Android now supports Miracast. Hopefully this will soon be in every TV as well, or at least the prices of adapters will come down to reasonable levels. Once all of the above is implemented, the ultimate portable wireless gaming machine emerges: I turn on my TV, switch my phone or tablet to Wireless Display, turn on my GamePad, and boom: the future of gaming. I no longer have any need of any other console. Anywhere I go, I have my own personal system with me, with all of my games and data.

An incredibly exciting detail to this is that with Android, this is more than just display mirroring:

“Android now allows your app to display unique content on additional screens that are connected to the user’s device over either a wired connection or Wi-Fi.”

The Wii U’s killer feature is it’s secondary display. PlayStation 3 now does this also using the Vita, and Xbox 360 has Smart Glass. Apparently this is the next big thing in gaming. Guess what? Android already has this too.

The Wii U’s killer feature is it’s secondary display. PlayStation 3 now does this also using the Vita, and Xbox 360 has Smart Glass. Apparently this is the next big thing in gaming. Guess what? Android already has this too.

As mobile processing power increases it’s getting closer and closer to computers and consoles, and the point will come where developers will be able to do pretty much whatever they can dream on these devices. The increased processing power of other non-mobile devices won’t make enough of a difference to warrant their existence. Major publishers like EA are already putting out games on Android, and as mobile power and capabilities increase we’ll only see them bringing over more and more AAA releases. Eventually (and I think sooner rather than later, perhaps after this upcoming console generation) it’s not going to be economically feasible to release games on a new console with an install base of perhaps hundreds of thousands, when they can release comparable games on mobile devices with an install base of hundreds of millions, and the idea of a dedicated home console is going to be a memory.

Secondly, everything here extends beyond Android to the PC as well. During GDC 2012, Punit Soni said:

“By next year, we will not be here talking about Google+ Games, Chrome Web Store games, Games for Native Client and Android games,” he said. “We will be talking about Google games.”

Google+ is not an Android-exclusive service: When it gets its injection of gaming goodness, that’s going to be on computers as well. We don’t need three versions of Angry Birds for Android, Google+, and Chrome. There can be one version that just works everywhere. Especially once publishers start porting more AAA games to Android due to the advancement of mobile power, this same store and gaming network will span across the Android and computer platforms meaning they only need to release it on Google and it will work for both mobile and computer gamers. With something like Native Client, it’s even possible that at some point developers could code one version of the game that works across both platforms. That may not be possible for a while and not for every game, in which case they can optimize for each instance and when you install the game, it automatically determines what your platform and device is and what version to install.

This is another reason we need an official “Google GamePad”. We can use the exact same controller for PC gaming too.

With home consoles gone and cross-platform gaming with an incredibly powerful integrated gaming network all available through Google, it’s possible and even probable that even the mighty Steam would become a secondary gaming platform on the computer.
So this is my wish list. This is what I envision as the future of gaming, and Google just happens to be perfectly poised to make it a reality. Most of what is listed above is actually possible on Android right now; there are complicated ways to manually back up app data, there are gaming networks like OpenFeint and ScoreLoop, there are a plethora of controllers, and Android can connect to TVs using HDMI or Miracast. Unfortunately, as I’ve explained, these currently aren’t good enough. All we need are these few additions to have the best gaming platform there has ever been.

Anyway, that’s what I think.



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