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Google makes Android more friendly to game developers and players

Samit Sarkar (he/him) is Polygon’s deputy managing editor. He has more than 15 years of experience covering video games, movies, television, and technology.

Google's mobile platform, Android, still plays second fiddle to Apple's iOS when it comes to gaming: Most developers still target iOS first and bring their game to Android afterward, and there can be a lengthy delay between those releases. But that began to change over the past year, and Google is trying to push that trend along with a suite of updates this week to Google Play game services and the Google Play Games app, both of which the company introduced in 2013.

"Last year was all about delivering the core platform experiences to help developers build up their own amazing game experiences for players to discover those games," said Greg Hartrell, lead product manager for Google Play Games, in a phone interview with Polygon last week.

"And it turns out it was a breakout year for Google Play Games," he continued, calling it the "fastest-growing mobile gaming network in history." Google says that three in four Android users are now playing games, which makes for a huge audience of gamers on the platform, considering that Google surpassed 1 billion total activations of Android devices last September.

"we paid out more than four times as much money to developers in 2013 than we did in 2012"

According to Hartrell, developers are indicating to Google that they're now seeing longer play sessions and "higher monetization rates" on Google Play. "And as a side note, more broadly on Google Play, we paid out more than four times as much money to developers in 2013 than we did in 2012," he added, referring to developers of all apps, not just games.

The updates that Google announced today are geared toward improving the chances that players will find games and stay engaged in them for longer periods of time.

Google Play game services, Google's cross-platform software development kit (SDK) for game makers, will now allow developers to build "game gifts" into their titles. Players can use game gifts to send in-game items to friends in their Google Plus circles, a feature that should improve engagement. Developers will also be better able to measure that engagement with Play Games statistics on the Google Play developer console. Hartrell referred to those stats as "easy-effort game analytics" with data on daily active users, leaderboard performance and more.

In addition, Google is adding iOS support for multiplayer gaming in Google Play game services, including multiplayer invite functionality in the Play Games app, which will allow for both turn-based and real-time multiplayer action across Android and iOS. An update to the Unity plugin in game services will bring in cross-platform multiplayer support, and Google is also introducing a C++ SDK that will support leaderboards and achievements in its initial incarnation. On the monetization side, Google is integrating Google Analytics directly into AdMob, the company's mobile advertising platform, and giving developers the ability to create specific ads to encourage in-app purchases.

"we've never had a role-playing game category"

Discoverability on Google Play is getting a boost with 18 new categories in which users can browse for games. That may not sound like a big deal, but Hartrell explained that the store currently lets developers apply only six different classifications to games, and they're rather vague: Arcade & Action, Brain & Puzzle, Cards & Casino, Casual, Racing and Sports Games. The new list offers more granular categories such as Trivia and Word.

"We've never had a role-playing game category," Hartrell noted. "There isn't a music game category. And if you're into those types of games, you're relegated to using search right now, or relying on it being recommended to you."

Google hopes that these changes will continue to make Android more attractive for game developers. A year ago, Dutch indie studio Vlambeer launched Ridiculous Fishing exclusively on iOS and said it was considering bringing the game to Android; an Android version didn't launch until mid-November. In early February 2014, Sirvo released Threes! on iOS to critical acclaim; an Android port came out last week, less than five weeks following the initial release.

Most of the aforementioned updates will launch tomorrow, March 18, which is the same day that Google will be hosting a Developer Day at the 2014 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. The full schedule of sessions is available on the GDC website, and Google will livestream all of them on YouTube.

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