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Android Gaming: Devices and Market

If Apple’s strength in the games market is sometimes over-hyped, then Android has the opposite problem. Despite the appearance of seriously powerful Android hardware, many gamers and developers see Android as a second-rate platform, hampered by the wildly differing capabilities of handsets and tablets, and by the weaknesses of Android Marketplace, which can submerge quality games beneath a deluge of copyright-infringing clones, buggy novelty apps and poor quality ports.

Epic’s Mark Rein cited the former issue as one of the key reasons why the Unreal engine developer has prioritised iOS over Android, while mobile games publishers like Gameloft have steered clear of Marketplace for their biggest releases, publishing instead on their own online store. The perception is that, while Android devices have potential, Android doesn’t have the infrastructure or the premium titles.
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This is changing. For one thing, with Android phones outselling the iPhone, publishers are waking up to the size of the user-base. The hardware is getting more powerful, too. Nvidia’s dual-core Tegra2 processor might not be quite as powerful as Apple’s dual-core A5, but it’s still a gaming monster. Tegra2-powered phones like the LG Optimus 2X and Motorola Atrix, or tablets such as the Motorola Xoom, LG Optimus Pad and Asus Transformer, are capable of running console-quality apps, even if the console in question is more PS2 than PS3.

Within the next year Tegra 2 will be superceded by a new chip, codenamed Kal-El, with a rumoured five times the performance of Tegra 2, while next-generation Qualcomm Snapdragon processors will also see a dramatic boost in 3D power. By 2012 we can also expect to see new processors incorporating Imagine Technology’s PowerVR Series 6 GPUs, which will be more powerful still than the quad-core SGXMP GPU being used in Sony’s NGP!
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With nVIDIA’s investment has also come support. Keen to flog Tegra chipsets, the company is actively supporting Tegra2-optimised games development, while its TegraZone app showcases the best Tegra games on the Android Marketplace. Major mobile publishers, including Electronic Arts and Gameloft, are also showing more confidence in Android gaming and in a revamped Android Marketplace, which is getting better at highlighting the most exciting gaming apps.

Yet the really big new is Sony’s entry into the fray. Its PlayStation Suite allows developers to tailor software for specific PlayStation Certified devices, including Sony Ericsson’s Xperia Play smartphone and the upcoming Sony S1 and S2 tablets. Some, like the Xperia Play, will have physical controls - addressing the biggest single issue of phone and tablet gaming - while others will offer standardised touchscreen controls.

For Sony, it’s a way of competing with Apple in the space between the casual and hardcore games markets, leaving the NGP as the platform of choice for the high-end. It’s a strong idea, and with its physical controls the Xperia Play is a fine if slightly underpowered gaming handset. However, as we noted in the review, the actual line-up of PlayStation games is limited, while Sony’s approach to finding and buying games is a bit of a mess.
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Android is in a ‘wait and see’ position, with strong devices and strong games, but lacking the momentum that iOS has gathered. With help from Sony and nVIDIA, however, and greater developer support, this situation might still turn around.


Key Titles:

Riptide GP
An excellent jet-boat racer in the mould of classics Waverace and Hydro Thunder, made by the makers of the Xbox Live Arcade title, Hydro Thunder: Hurricane. High speeds and awesome water effects make up for some slightly dull scenery, and the tilt-to-steer handling is excellent.

Cordy
An old-school 2D platformer with some slick 3D elements, Cordy takes inspiration from Mario, Sonic and Little Big Planet, and this tale of a chirpy Robot has platform-jumping and puzzle-solving fun to spare. An excellent showcase for high-end Android devices.

Shadowgun
Still in development, Madfinger’s Shadowgun is a gritty third-person shooter in the Gears of War mould, with cutting-edge graphics optimised for dual-core and future quad-core Tegra processors. We’re keen to see if the final graphics match these ‘target’ visuals.

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