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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Within the next year Tegra 2 will be superceded by a new chip, codenamed Kal-El, with a rumoured five times the performance of Tegra 2, while next-generation Qualcomm Snapdragon processors will also see a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.


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.


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.


June 20, 2011, 3:46 pm

The smartphone is like the John Wayne Gacy of the tech world. It's killed the mp3 player. It's killed the PMP. It's killed the point-and-shoot camera. It's on its way to butcher the portable games console, and some day it even hopes to see off your credit card and cash with NFC. Crazy psycho.


June 20, 2011, 4:02 pm

I don't see the touchscreen gaming revolution being too much of a threat to the likes of Nintendo and Sony. Why else would Sony release two handheld consoles?

It's a bit like the netbook phase in laptops. It's a nice distraction and cheap for the consumer but in the end, everyone knows that it's not a full flavored laptop.

simon jackson

June 21, 2011, 1:53 pm

According to everything i've read, this: "Nvidia's dual-core Tegra2 processor might not be quite as powerful as Apple's dual-core A5" is an unqualified statement. The only direct comparison benchmarks i'm aware of are those conducted by ArsTechnica which were roundly criticised by those in the know for the fact that the benchmark software used was java code running inside a VM, and thus much lower performance than the NDK (native developer kit) that android developers have access to. Both SOCs utilise ARM cortex A9 processors (2 of them), although the tegra 2 configuration does not implement ARMs NEON instruction set, so one might expect lower performance in some areas. Graphics performance however is something that's very hard to compare. I think most people though believe the NVidia gpu to be relatively similar to the powervr chip in the A5.

Personally i think the biggest barrier to playing "real" games on phones and tablets is the touchscreen. Sometimes it can get confused and stick on in one direction because you're multitouching all over the place for aim/fire/etc. Plus some twin stick shooters are irritatingly hard to control accurately (i'm looking at you, guerrilla bob). What we really need is standardised joy pad peripherals, like the icontrolpad.

Luan Bach

June 21, 2011, 2:50 pm

Wel, I'm quite prepare to give my son an £80 DSi to play on road trips, at relations and friends house but won't give him a £300+ phone for such purposes.


June 21, 2011, 4:07 pm

Unless phones will one day, without being jailbroken, be able to run old portable games like Zelda or Final Fantasy, then portable games consoles will continue to be relevant. 50% of the games I play are for previous generation consoles, and every time a company releases a new console that isn't backwards compatible its like they're tearing out a piece of my heart.


June 22, 2011, 10:59 am

I think that this article brings out an interesting, but rather naive and speculative point. Smartphones and the like will probably never take over or endanger the portable systems that you describe for one simple reason. Optimization. Mobile phones and tablets are quite simply mediocre methods for playing games, even if they look pretty and boast large polygon counts. They do not provide the precision and reliability that dedicated gaming consoles and portables provide for competitive and immersive gameplay. Anyone who has played a Wii game with poorly implemented motion controls will know exactly what I'm referring to. A decent gaming control from Apple would require function to be put over form and hell would freeze over before that would happen. Support would be a killer for iOS gaming because the best developers in the industry are not going to force themselves to bear the limitations of the Apple devices to an audience that is not likely to appreciate their efforts.

Their are many more logical reasons why iOS gaming is a joke compared to gaming portables, but the ultimate clincher is the GAMES. I play games on my phone as a last ditch effort to kill some time. I play Zelda on my DS or God of War on my PSP to immerse myself in a fictional world that I can get lost in.

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