This year we attended the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. It was a good time and I met lots of interesting people. Attending talks, meeting bloggers, writers, and other developers, and walking the showroom floor is a great way to take the pulse of the industry. The buzz this year was all about mobile gaming.
Smart phones have totally taken mindshare from Facebook. Facebook’s policy changes over the last year have not quite forced all of the independents out, but they’ve certainly made a platform that was previously very indie-friendly no longer so. Smart phone ownership among the two biggest platforms is probably somewhere around 200 million and growing rapidly. There is good chance that there will be a billion people with iPhone or Android models before there are a billion Facebook users.
Right now mobile gaming pretty much means iOS gaming. Everyone agrees that Android RPUs are just too low and spreading a game there is just too hard. Their app market’s poor usability, difficult payment system, and terrible ranking algorithms, along with Android’s inferior demographics, have discouraged use of it as a discovery tool. Google almost seems to be hoping customers will find apps the same way websites are found (ie. through Google) rather than through a centralized app market, and that’s just not panning out.
There is one bright spot, and that’s free to play games. Android users, like iOS users, monetize well. Especially now that Google is working on carrier billing with major carriers everywhere, if you can get customers in the door you can make money off of them.
I’ve argued with friends over whether or not Facebook would revert their developer platform to its glory days (I contend no) and whether or not Google will improve the app market (ditto) and I’m now more convinced of both. I spoke to a developer advocate for Android and am more convinced than ever that they don’t even understand that their app market is failing, let alone why, and that any changes beyond the cosmetic won’t be coming any time soon. They’ll put out graphical refreshes a couple times a year, but they’ll also keep choosing Google Checkout over something people actually want (PayPal), keep failing to make users sign up for it upon activation, and assure themselves that there terrible ranking algorithms which keep the same three sucky apps at the top of the charts for months at a time are superior.
Tablets were in full force at GDC. I got to play with the Motorola Xoom and the RIM Playbook. The Playbook might do alright with the business crowd, I really don’t know. Both Android and iOS have mediocre at best email applications, which might be a draw. It won’t rival the iPad in sales, but it might have been worth developing for RIM.
Android, on the other hand, will be outselling the iPad possibly this year, and if not definitely in 2011. The Xoom isn’t there yet, but it’s damn close and there will be new tablets shipping every month soon, and by the end of the year even more frequently than that.
It’ll be fun to see where the gaming industry goes. I expect soon we’ll even see a wholesale shift away from consoles toward mobile as the user numbers just dwarf everything that came before.