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The state of Android gaming

Portable gaming used to be dominated by Nintendo. The Game Boy and DS are among the highest selling systems of all time. Even after Sony entered the fray with with the PlayStation Portable in 2004/2005, Nintendo retained its firm grasp on that sector of the industry. In June of 2007, however, Apple stepped in and released “The phone that changed everything.”

As far as gaming is concerned, the iPhone did two things: Placed a gaming device in millions of peoples’ hands, and created the most indie game-friendly platform that beyond the PC. Love it or hate it, the iPhone opened the potential for portable gaming in a manner which the industry hadn’t seen before.

The key flaw with the iPhone as a gaming platform for the first few years of its life was that in the US, it was only available to AT&T customers. October 2008 marked the release of the HTC Dream/T-Mobile G1, which boasted a new smartphone operating system—powered by Google—intended to rival the iPhone in every way possible. This ambitious piece of technology was known as Android.

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While the iPhone’s marketplace was filling up with thousands upon thousands of apps, created by thousands of developers—both big and small—the fledgling Android marketplace had a slow start. This slow was understandable, since Android devices quickly gained a reputation as being geared toward the tech-savvy. The iPhone, on the other hand, built up a rather sizable game catalog, ranging from titles developed by individuals to spin-offs of major console games by big developers.

The Android platform quickly spread to all major (and most minor) cellular phone providers, and eventually topped the iPhone in terms of total market share. Very few wireless providers carried the iPhone for its first couple years, while many hardware companies released numerous Android devices on all major carriers. Despite this quick growth, the iPhone was still the king of smartphone games.

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And that is where the state of mobile gaming is today. While the iPhone has become just as legitimate a gaming device as Nintendo’s and Sony’s portables, Android still struggles to find its place. There are a few major reasons why Android is still lacking.

iPhone did it first. It is the simplest of reasons the truest. At the release of the iPhone, the smartphone medium of gaming was one that was virtually unexplored. Sony and Nintendo had nothing to do with portable gaming, outside of their own systems, and it did not appear as if Microsoft had any intention on joining them. Because the iPhone was released a good year prior to the first Android handset, developers used that time to learn the ins and outs of developing for mobile devices. This head start has meant that a lot of prolific developers (such as Capcom) choose to make a lot of their big-name mobile games exclusive to the iPhone. Likewise, a still-high level of iPhone app exclusivity has lead to…

Few Android-exclusive games. In terms of notable Android-exclusive games, there really are none. Some games get more exposure on Android over iPhone (such as Angry Birds), but finding notable Android-exclusive games is a game in itself. On the other hand, the iPhone gets most of the games released on Android, and them some, such as Capcom’s Street Fighter IV Volt. In 2011, Sony attempted to deliver a new breath of gaming life to Android by releasing the Sony Ericsson Xperia Play, often referred to as the “PlayStation Phone.” The Xperia Play was an Android device with a touchscreen that slid up to reveal a directional pad, PlayStation-style face buttons, and a large touchpad between the two. Complementing the device, Sony also announced the PlayStation Suite, a service similar to the PlayStation Network that would allow downloadable versions of classic PlayStation titles onto PlayStation-certified devices. Currently, there are only a small handful of PlayStation-certified devices, and the PlayStation Suite is pending a full release.

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Android handsets are too diverse. This is one of the biggest roadblocks as far as Android gaming is concerned. One of the big-name mobile games released in the last few months was the anniversary edition of Rockstar’s hit Grand Theft Auto III, released on the iPhone and “compatible” Android devices. Unfortunately, of the dozens of Android phones on the market, only seven are able to run the title, while eight Android tablets have that ability.

The iPhone faces similar problems, since older versions of the iPhone cannot run newer games, but that issue is much less profound since there is typically only one new model of the iPhone (along with the iPad) each year. Android, on the other hand, may see a dozen new devices in a busy month, ranging from entry-level models to high-end. It seems very likely moving forward that gamers preferring Android devices will need to treat their phone/tablet purchases much like computers, passing up cheaper models in order to get better hardware to play more demanding games.

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There’s no denying that for the foreseeable future, Apple is the leader of mobile gaming, while Android is in a solid second place. Both large and independent developers have become more and more open to mobile game development, with titles like Angry Birds getting big enough to be injected into pop culture. Furthermore, it is not uncommon for large developers to port their hits to mobile devices, such as games like Final Fantasy, Grand Theft Auto III, and Scribblenauts. Some games are iPhone exlcusives, but there are still many prolific mobile games already on and making their way to Android. Unfortunately for Android users, the diversity of high and low-end Android devices will make it difficult for the bulk of the users to receive some of those big games.

That’s not to say there isn’t fun to be had. There is a large number of Android games that have met both critical and financial success, but most of those titles are also on the iPhone. With more developers entering the mobile arena, and with features like the PlayStation Suite on the horizon, there’s a lot of potential in mobile gaming.

There are many reasons to choose an iPhone or Android device over the other. And ultimately, your choice as a gaming device will likely come down to intangibles such as brand loyalty, wireless provider preference, or perceived gaming potential. It has been a rough road for Android, and while it has taken a different path than the iPhone, they both appear to be heading toward the same place and the same bright future.

The author of this fine article

is a Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in January 2012. Get in touch on Twitter @DCTillotson.

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