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Developing Games for Android

October 13, 2009 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

On the one hand, that seems like good news to Android developers. An increase in the market can only be good, right? Well, an open issue is one of device compatibility. The current HTC devices have a trackball, while other devices may or may not, opting for a touchpad or alternative input device. Another issue is screen resolution. The current devices all have a 3.2 inch screen with a resolution of 480x320, but newer devices may have resolutions that are smaller or larger (e.g. there are already tablet PCs running Android slated for release).

In terms of RAM and processing power, there are not significant differences in the devices rolled out thus far. Although continued improvements and custom builds of Android can get the most out of existing specs, the newer generation of Android smartphones -- those poised to be released by the end of this year -- should have more RAM and more powerful chipsets. So building more CPU-intensive games for the platform will only get easier, but the decision to do so may become more difficult.

One advantage of programming for the iPhone is not having to worry (much) about hardware compatibility. This could potentially be a problem for Android game developers as new handsets emerge. The possibility of a backlash exists if users buy a new Android smartphone only to find that the most popular games in the market don't render properly on their screen, or that the control scheme for the game doesn't work. A developer can try to work their way around these issues by designing for multiple screen resolutions and including multiple input methods, but this of course means extra work.

Other issues include the limitations of the first-generation hardware that's currently running Android. Specifically, battery life and storage space are both big issues on the G1, and games can tend to hog both, especially the more features they use. I just finished a game for the second iteration of the Android Developers Challenge -- more on that in a moment -- and it uses the GPS functionality of the device. Unfortunately, the GPS finder is a huge drain on the battery.

As for storage space, the G1 only has 70MB of storage allocated for apps. That means designing lean games in terms of music and art assets, since users may not want to delete a bunch of existing apps to make way for your 10MB masterpiece. The newer generation devices have several times the capacity, so in a sense these problems are being resolved as new hardware rolls off the shelves. But the limitations are in place for most of the current generation of users and developers.

Likely because Google is behind the curve in the smartphone game, it has instituted a strategy designed to lure developers to the platform with the promise of cash -- not in the form of market profit, but in prize money. Last year Google held an open contest for the best apps, the Android Developer Challenge, a free-for-all in which candidate apps were selected by a panel of judges.

This year, it kicked off the Android Developer Challenge II, with $2M in prizes. Rather than lumping all entries into one bin, ADC II is divided into 10 categories, including two for games (Casual/Puzzle and Arcade/Action). The deadline for submissions closed on August 31st, and winners are to be decided by two rounds of judging: one by users and one by a panel of judges.

However, If you hadn't heard of the challenge, you're probably not alone. Google didn't do much to spread the word, probably assuming that the lure of large cash prizes would carry the news effectively. With the overall winner set to take home $250,000, the strategy seems sound. But the jury is out on whether or not the ADC II has been effective in drawing game developers to the platform. The first contest had about 1,700 entrants, but no numbers on the second challenge have been released as of this writing.

I spent the summer working on an entrant into the ADC II, a puzzle/RPG hybrid along the lines of Puzzle Quest, with the twist that the player must physically visit locations near them, such as coffee shops and grocery stores, in order to unlock content.

Developing the game presented some unique challenges, learning how to incorporate the Google Map API, for example. And some aspects of development still need a lot of work. For example, the functionality for playing sounds and music is extremely limited and has been historically buggy. However, overall the experience was very rewarding, and grassroots developer communities provided answers to nearly every issue I encountered. In particular, the sites and the Android Developers Google Group have been helpful.

Still, there are existing issues that are problematic for the platform. There are quite a few games for the iPhone that utilize an underlying physics engine, but I'm currently not aware of any games for Android that are physics-based. Ports of some existing 2D engines to Android have apparently not performed well enough to use them for games. Again, as with the other issues related to developing on first-generation hardware, newer devices will probably render them obsolete.

For now, if a developer decides to implement a game exclusively for a particular smartphone platform, and the choice is between the iPhone and Android, the tradeoff is between trying to get noticed in an incredibly crowded and competitive market where the potential payoff is huge for those at the top, or entering a market with low barriers, little competition, currently low returns, but the possibility of potential growth. Hopefully there will continue to be developers that take both roads, and the smartphone market will continue to grow as a diverse outlet for game development.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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