Google today announced Google Play game services, a first-party suite of gaming-specific services that joins similar services on other platforms, like Apple's Game Center and Amazon's GameCircle. Available as a free SDK (software development kit), developers will be able to add the services to their games with support extending as far back as the three-year-old "Froyo" release of Android, version 2.2.
The service uses the company's Google+ social network to power leaderboards, both social and public; an achievement system similar to the one on Apple's platform; the ability to save game states in the cloud; and real-time matchmaking. The entire suite of services also work across the Android, iOS, and "web" platforms, with the exception of the real-time matchmaking component with remains Android-only "for now."
While the most recent version of Android, dubbed Jellybean, shipped nearly a year ago, over 70 percent of all Android phones operate an earlier version of the operating system. Eager for developers to implement the service into their games, it was important that it work on as many Android devices as possible, a problem complicated by the platform's gradual upgrade cycle.
Greg Hartrell, lead product manager for the Google Play game services, told us that the strategy was both user and developer focused. "It's user focused in the sense that we're trying to reach out to the largest number of users," Hartrell said. "And for developers, they want to maximize the size of the audience and the quality of the audience. Both of those things drove that decision." They also drove the decision to offer the services outside of the company's Android ecosystem.
"At Google, we want to make our services available to as many folks as possible," Hartrell said. When asked why the real-time matchmaking service didn't meet that goal, he said, "We always strive for a cross-platform approach, it just happens that this time around for that feature, it's starting Android-only for now."
Over two years after Apple, a company not known for its proactive approach to gaming, launched its Game Center service and nearly a year since Amazon launched GameCircle services for its Android-based Kindle lineup, it's difficult to see Google's entry as anything but late. From Hartrell's perspective, it's anything but.
"Google Play is just over a year old now and within that year we can all see incredible momentum being created around delivering this foundation to developers to design and develop and distribute their apps," he said.
Adding game services to the overall Google Play package took his team "several months" but what's being announced today isn't the end of Google's ambitions for gaming. "We still believe it's the early days for game services but I personally think it's a really solid start," Hartrell said. One obvious area for development would be a standalone application to track a players progress across games, outside of the confines of an individual title.
The opportunity for Google is even greater following GREE's closure of OpenFeint last November, one of Android's most popular cross-platform gaming services. While Apple's Game Center services provide a stable foundation for iOS developers, those looking for a similar solution on Android have had few choices before now.
"Apple just makes really, really good tools and Game Center is definitely one of those tools. It just makes it really easy to add achievements, leaderboards, iCloud or multiplayer," Jordan Schidlowsky, CEO at Noodlecake Games, the team behind the iOS and Android hit Super Stickman Golf 2, told Polygon. "It's imperative for Google to offer this service because it is something that's definitely needed on Android." Noodlecake has added Google's new services to Super Stickman Golf 2, bringing it to parity with its Game Center-backed iOS release.
"Apple's solution, compared to what Google brought out today, is a mixture of Game Center, iOS and Facebook," Niccolo de Masi, CEO at Glu Mobile, told Polygon. "Google has rather elegantly brought out a Google-only ecosystem that ties together, and works really quite elegantly." Glu has updated its Eternity Warriors 2 game to support Google's new game services; the iOS version uses Game Center.
"This is definitely at feature parity with what Apple is doing with Facebook and Game Center and actually probably goes beyond that in terms of how well connected all the different pieces of what Google announced this week are," he said.