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Google Play Games on new features, and developing for Android TV
Google Play Games on new features, and developing for Android TV
June 25, 2014 | By Christian Nutt

Today at Google I/O, the company announced its new Android TV platform initiative -- but for more on Google Play Games SDK and how it interfaces with that new platform, we spoke to Play Games' Greg Hartrell. Hartrell comes from Capcom and, before that, Microsoft, where he worked on the Xbox Live service.

Google Play Games has two components: It's a consumer-facing game network with the features you'd expect from a service like Xbox Live or Apple's Game Center, including multiplayer support, and it's a suite of developer tools for iOS and Android.

Hartrell describes it like this: "What we get out of it at the end of the day is, we're able to hone -- call it a 'special interest group,' toward the content that they love." It's "a concentrated audience, compared to the grander Google Play user base."

It's also picked up 100 million new users in the last six months.

Google Play Games is a "set of services that are designed to enhance gameplay" with "very low effort," says Hartrell, offering "material bumps in engagement, retention, and monetization when designed properly." Players who engage with Google Play Games, he says, are more likely to come back to their games -- and more likely to find other games they like.

"Our game services are there, and our game network is there, to bring together this concentrated network of people who love playing games."

"Our game services are there, and our game network is there, to bring together this concentrated network of people who love playing games -- to make it easier for someone who is a game creator to reach that highly valuable audience," Hartrell says.

New Features for Google Play Games

Today, the company announced that it is adding three major features, across both platforms: Game Profiles, which brings an achievements system and a persistent profile; Quests, which allow developers to create live events using Google's back-end; and Saved Games, which will allow developers to store game states, cross-device, allowing for synchronized and persistent progress saves.

"We want the services to show that they enhance gameplay," says Hartrell. "Creating a little bit of a meta-experience and a meta-game helps add that extra layer."

These features will launch to developers on both iOS and Android on June 25. Google Play Games is also implemented in the developer preview of Android TV, so developers making games for the platform can use these and other features of the SDK.

While feature parity between the Apple and Google's platforms is not "100 percent" at the moment, Hartrell says Google is "very sensitive to what developers are asking for," and "virtually all of the services we have with Play Games are available from Android and iOS. That is particularly true for the new services."

"It gets difficult to reach certain kinds of people," he says. Google Play Games "creates a great destination, and set of experiences that are discovered inside a game" -- hence the introduction of more design-oriented functions like the Quests system.

Even after adding 100 million new Google Play Games users, Hartrell says that at Google, "we really just view it as the beginning." The company is planning "more services that connect people together" for its network -- in an attempt to get more players engaged with games, particularly on Android, over the long term.

"Investing in these game services and getting this kind of experience out for [developers] is another way to make the platform that much more attractive," Hartrell says.

Developing Games on Android TV

Of course, developers may have questions about working on Android TV -- particularly around game controllers. While the Android SDK already supports them, the new version of the Google Play Games SDK will "make it a lot easier for doing more advanced things," says Hartrell. The company is "formalizing a lot of the primitives that the Android platform already supports" so as to help OEMs and developers "get predictability" from it.

However, as Android TV is a platform that companies will use to create set-top boxes, microconsoles, and embed in televisions -- as Hartrell says, "we anticipate OEMs will bring a variety of form factors to market" -- there's not as much predictability as there is with a single-format Android device such as Amazon's Fire TV or the Ouya.

There are some buttons that the company requires Android input devices to have, but various third parties will be creating the controllers that ship with the devices or which consumers buy to pair with them. This is "true to being a platform as opposed to launching a specific product," Hartrell says.

"The lowest common denominator for a television is going to be the TV remote."

In fact, Hartrell expects that developers that target the "five-way" control experience -- four cardinal directions and an enter button -- will find success with Android TV. "The lowest common denominator for a television is going to be the TV remote," Hartrell says. "Games that optimize for the five-way D-pad, those games could thrive in that type of experience."

While the unpredictability of what your players will actually have in their hands has always been the Achilles' heel of Android development, the massive audience is the advantage. Hartrell points out that the company currently has 1 billion active Android users.

"The promise of having an open platform for game developers to get their content out to a mass audience is pretty compelling," he says. "We're really excited to see what Android TV can do for game developers." He envisions "cross-screen scenarios" using Google Play Games tech. All of the new features detailed above, as well as the rest of the service and SDK, will work with Android TV, of course.

For the full announcement on Android TV, read our earlier story. You can find out more about Google Play Games at Google's developer portal.

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Javier Degirolmo
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Huh, relying on the TV remote as the lowest common denominator doesn't seem like a good idea unless you're sticking to standard GUIs. You can't rely on multiple simultaneous presses to work at all, in fact you can't even rely on keeping a button held down to work properly. Sure, that can be fixed in theory, but the whole point of a TV remote is that it's as cheap as possible, so many things get cut off.

SD Marlow
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Well that's a lot of fine words but I'm not sure he said anything. The SDK for games that use back-end services I get (Apple and Amazon have the same), but stopping short of a micro-console OS, isn't this just chromecast for 3rd party hardware?

Jean-Claude Cottier
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My game Animal Battle is on FireTV as I was lucky to be able to remap the controls on the remote. So, it should work almost with no work on Android TV. But it's true that this is limiting a lot the type of interaction. You will probably need to code 2 ways to play with your games: remote and game controllers.

Wendelin Reich
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Does it limit the fun as well?

Look at any 4-year old playing an iPad game and you see that touchscreens can be a tremendously enjoyable form of interaction, despite their limitations. But the experience of holding a slender remote in one hand and nothing in the other could actually be quite detrimental, in an almost physical sense. Are there a lot of people who enjoy playing games with a remote??

Wendelin Reich
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-deleted because I was off-topic-

Alan Barton
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@"four cardinal directions and an enter button" & "Games that optimize for the five-way D-pad"

*deep breath*

4 ways. Not 8 ways!. SERIOUSLY?!

I know TV joypads are 4 ways. But games joypads have to be 8 ways! (And please don't put the enter button in the middle of (or under) the 8 way joypads!). Oh and we do need more than 1 enter button! (and 5 way makes it sound like they press the middle of the joypad).

Its not difficult to get this right, they just have to have someone with some experience design the thing!

Why not design to allow diagonal movement! In 2014, a joypad without diagonal moment is awful. 8 way movement controllers have been around for more than 3 decades and hundreds of millions of players have used them!

I remember pointing this problem out back when mobile phones first came out. It was bad enough in 2000 that many phones failed to allow diagonal movements and sure enough they were awful for playing games on.

But now, come on. Seriously?!

Please Google, get this right from day one! Please!

Christian Nutt
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I think you're misunderstanding what he's saying. This is not a paradigm for what Google thinks makes a good game controller. It's the type of control that's typically found on a TV remote, and which Hartnell expects to be the default control on TVs/set top boxes that run on Android TV. Which is highly likely, if you consider what's in the wild already (for example, the remote that ships with Amazon Fire TV, or Apple TV, or most if not all HDTVs.)

Alan Barton
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But shouldn't it be about what Google thinks makes a suitable even base level games controller? They can set a standard just as they provide the OS as a standard. 4-way isn't enough. It never has been.

If any TV manufacturering company expects to have games on their TV, as a selling point, then surely they have to have a means to play games on their TV and how we interact with interactive entertainment is critially important.

If Google want this to be a success, they have an oppotunity to get this right on day one. If they get this wrong, it'll be another of a long line of smart TV failures.

Its really not that difficult to design an 8 way controller. I started my career as a professionally trained electronics engineer, so I know what it would take to design even a good one and its really not that difficult and its cheap to make. It justs takes the will to make it happen and Google have an oppotunity to make it happen.