Android: What game devs need to know about the future of Google's OS

ARM's Nizar Rhomdhane looks at the opportunities that will soon be in developers' hands
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At ARM we try to be as neutral as possible when it comes to the mobile platforms developers want to work on. That said, as the number one Android GPU IP supplier in the world, we obviously have more expertise on Android.

Overall though, our goal is to ensure that from a technical perspective, all mobile platforms are capable of delivering an ever-richer experience and improved performance. So that more amazing games can be made, driving more revenue for developers.

Following the TIGA & ARM Android Game Dev Day last week, we wanted to share some of our expertise, and outline what the biggest opportunities and challenges are for developers working on the platform. For those that couldn’t make it, you can also download all the presentations, for free, right here.

An unprecedented opportunity

At present, Android represents the largest mobile gaming market in the world with an estimated 80 per cent share of all global users. Also encouraging for those invested in the platform is that mobile app revenue is apparently growing faster on Android than on other platforms.

With regard to the UK, our recent TIGA & ARM Toolbox Report found that Android is set to overtake PC to become the third most popular platform with developers.

What’s also interesting about Android is the range of devices that run on it. We estimate that 80 per cent of mobile powered devices that feature a screen use Android. It’s not just smartphones either, smart TVs, tablets – Android has a greater presence on a wider variety of devices than any other OS.

The upshot for Android developers is that whether they’re looking to integrate with high-end phablets or basic fitness monitors, they have the biggest ecosystem out there through which to leverage their content. Plus Android scales well, and the OS’ shared store, APKs, tools and APIs make it easier to test and publish across the whole ecosystem. It’s a platform developers are now used to working with and making money from.

Due to the wider range of pricing and greater worldwide popularity of Android mobile devices, game developers also have a far broader demographic to aim for. Lower-cost smartphones will be the medium through which millions of people around the world experience the internet for the first time. We believe there will be four billion internet connected screens in the world by 2017, which means four billion potential gamers.

In other words, mobile gaming, and primarily Android, provides a unique opportunity to expose millions of people of all ages and from all walks of life, to videogames for the first time. Over the next ten years, mobile gaming has arguably the biggest opportunity in the history of our industry to change the global perception of video games.

Optimising for individuals

Key to taking advantage of this opportunity to engage a new worldwide audience will be the ability to optimise mobile games, and deliver the best possible player experience across a wide range of devices. This is a lot more challenging on Android, given the large variations there are in the devices that run on it.

The good news is that this challenge is made easier by the widespread adoption of ARM’s Mali GPU and CPUs. To put this into context, ARM’s Mali GPU powers 50 per cent of all Android tablets on the market, 25 per cent of Android smartphones and more than a third of all Android devices full stop. ARM’s CPU architecture is also present in over 95 per cent of mobile devices.

Thus developers familiar with Android and Mali will be well placed to optimise their games for maximum performance across the market and device ecosystem as a whole. Which could range from a £40 smartphone with basic functionality to a high-end smartphone like the Samsung Galaxy Note 4.

Another aspect of optimisation to consider is that at present, it’s really only PC games that allow players to alter graphics and resolution settings based on the capabilities of their particular machine. Yet this represents the future of Android and mobile games too. The difference is that the average smartphone user is likely to be far less tech-savvy than your typical PC gamer. So this will need to be a user-friendly automated process that queries device capabilities when the game launches and uses micro-benchmarks to maximise performance.

I’d encourage developers to check out the (totally free) resources on ARM’s Mali Developer Center where we have a range of game development guides, tips and techniques for getting the most performance out of Mali GPU based hardware.

On the right side of the rising tide

Each year we are seeing, on average, a 30 to 50 per cent increase in the performance of mobile devices. When you consider the ten-year lifecycle of consoles, it’s likely that smartphones and tablets will surpass them in terms of computing capability.

This year, mobile gaming GPU’s are already largely on par with the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and these are running in relatively tiny battery powered devices. There are still challenges around, for example, memory bandwidth compared to the Xbox 360, but we have developed ways round this, which along with other solutions, can be found on our developer portal.

Obviously PlayStation 4 and Xbox One are both great machines that have delivered a welcome boost for our industry, but it’s hard to argue that long-term the future isn’t mobile; with Android being the best placed OS at present. No one really knows what this will look like in practice just yet. However, an Android smartphone that docks with your TV or monitor and keyboard, to act as an all-in-one games console, office PC and entertainment hub is not beyond the realm of possibility.

We’re also going to see 64-bit Android devices in the very near future – as early as next year; another area of increasing parity where mobile is catching up with desktop. This will mean better performance, more capabilities and greater synergy with what people are using in desktop and server development tools.

Ready for whatever comes next

Ultimately, Android devs who understand how to use and monetise the platform, and how to get the most of ARM’s CPUs and Mali GPUs are in a good position to deal with the future of mobile gaming, come what may.

Clearly there are challenges, with a potential market of four billion people there are always going to be complexities, not least when it comes to adapting and optimising your games. However, as well as the growing market, there is also an increasing range of tools and content to help developers navigate these obstacles and make even better games for the Android platform. We place a great deal of value on our developer relations programme, and I’d encourage any developers that are interested to get in touch, come to our events and review some of our free tutorials and guides.

Earlier this year we were at the Mobile Games Forum, demonstrating a great looking 3D space racing game demo that we developed internally, which was running on a Mali GPU, on an Android smart watch. As people saw it, and were surprised at how good it looked and how well it played, you could see the light bulbs going on – these are exciting times.

If we can apply greater intelligence to the technical power of new mobile platforms, combined with Android’s ability to reach people of all ages and walks of life around the world, the potential of mobile gaming is limitless.

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