Sunday, September 26, 2010

iPhone vs. Android: A Gaming Perspective

The hot battle in today's smartphone marketplace is iPhone vs. Android. Each has strengths and weaknesses and diehard fans will argue to the bitter end about which platform is superior. My experience with an actual iPhone is limited, but I have an iPod Touch (3rd generation) and a Droid X, so I have pretty decent experience with the two as gaming platforms. So, how do they compare?

Hardware

This is a difficult category to compare simply because there are a variety of Android phones while there are very few iOS devices in the current generation (I'm going to ignore the iPad for this discussion because it's a different class of device, and I haven't had the pleasure of trying one yet). Consistency in hardware can give developers more control (consider that patches are relatively rare, and until a few years ago non-existent, for controlled hardware like game consoles, while PC patches and fixes in games are very common), though as more iOS devices keep rolling out each year some of that consistency starts to wane (do we support older devices or take advantage of new features?).

I'll let other sites talk about benchmarks, since in my experience both pieces of hardware can run top-notch games very smoothly (Need For Speed: Shift is an impressive game on both of my devices) and there doesn't appear to be a very noticeable difference in technical graphics between them. There are however two hardware differences worth noting:

- Some Android phones, like the Droid X, offer larger 4+ inch screens, which can make gaming a bit more engaging visually as you see more details and get a better view. However, a developer can't count on this, so it isn't really a development difference as much as just a nicer experience for those with larger phones.

- The newest iPods and iPhones include gyroscopes. As I've talked about in previous posts, I consider gyroscopes to be a huge leap forward in terms of potential gameplay. If developers leverage this, we could see some very cool apps that Android won't be able to handle (at least until it steps up to the gyroscope plate as well).

As of yet, I've seen one nifty gyroscope game (Eliminate: GunRange), but I imagine more will come. It's a neat demo of the tech, though really nothing ground-breaking. So, Apple edges this category out with the gyroscope, though I would be somewhat surprised if we didn't see them appearing before long in Android phones, especially since the Android OS appears to support it already.

Non-Market Games

By this, I mean games that you can play without downloading them through the platform's market system. Really, this category could be renamed "Flash games", since that's what we're primarily looking at. With the recent upgrade to Flash 10.1 in Froyo, Android users have a significant point of gloating over iOS users: they can play Flash games on their devices. Flash gaming sites like Kongregate.com (and others, but I'm shamelessly plugging my own site here) have recently started creating mobile versions of their sites to allow Android devices to browse through the growing selection of mobile-enabled games. Hundreds of games have already been converted to work well with a mobile device in the last few months alone.

In many cases, these games actually run quite well. The most intensive games will slow the phone down significantly, but puzzle games especially seem to run extremely well in the embedded Flash environment. This opens up a lot of content for Android users and it looks to be an advantage that will continue to grow as more games are created and as Apple continues to pout with its fingers in its ears about keeping Flash off of their devices.

I've only had Flash on my phone for a few days (Droid X was the last major Droid to get it), so I haven't had a chance to get too far into this yet. Looking at some of our recent mobile contest entries though, this is certainly an emerging field with great potential.

Android wins this one heartily, though don't get used to that for the rest of the post.

Primary Market Application

Both platforms feature a mobile market that allows you to browse through various apps, look at screenshots, purchase, and download directly to your device. Both of these markets are fairly weak in my opinion - they make it difficult to find what you want thanks to a lack of ability to sort by date, rating, etc. In Android's case, the game categories are laughable and actually look like a typo: Arcade & Action, Brain & Puzzle, Cards & Casino, and Casual. Where's the rest of the alphabet? Are we really arguing that all games can be cleanly sorted into those four categories, one of which (Casual) has a ridiculous lack of specificity that bleeds over into the other three?

Android is further hurt by a complete lack of managing apps on your computer. They offer a web-based browser that lets you look at apps, but you can't even purchase and download from here - you are told to look it up on your phone. It's so bad that a 3rd party set up AppBrain as a way of browsing and managing your Android apps from a web interface.

Meanwhile, iPhones of course get access to iTunes. While hardly perfect (browsing for games there is even worse, with user-ratings bizarrely and frustratingly hidden until you click on a game), it offers a convenient way to back up, manage, browse, and purchase your apps (and media) on your computer. It's also easy to link to and recommend apps to your friends, which is always useful for word-of-mouth marketing.

In this category, Apple is the hands-down winner.

Software Selection

Here's where we start to see Apple pull away from Google. Yes, iPhone has been around longer, but the disparity is far larger than that. While Android has a great selection of social networking, local, and utility apps, close to rivaling the iPhone, when it comes to game selection it's an absolute joke.

The best comparison I can make is through this ironic analogy:

Android games are to iPhone games as Mac games are to PC games.

On the Android, we see a few iPhone games (MiniSquadron, Zenonia, Doodle Jump) coming out months later at higher prices, while the iPhone gets tons of exclusive killer apps. I can't think of a single Android-exclusive game that I would consider "must-have".

There is a huge disparity in the overall quality as well. iPhone, perhaps due to being first-to-market, has gotten support from big names like PopCap and EA, with a huge range of top PC games making their way over to the iOS. The only such game I've seen on the Android is the aforementioned NFS: Shift. Additionally, the independent developer games just seem to be of a general higher quality than Android games, most of which lack polish and look extremely amateur.

While Android may be catching up to iOS in terms of number of apps, when it comes to games there is simply no comparison - iOS beats the crap out of Android's selection in every conceivable way.

Market Attitude and Culture

There's a lot to be said with how a market treats its customers, and the difference between iOS and Android markets is huge. On Apple's market, we see constant sales and promotions, often fronted by companies like OpenFeint and FreeAppADay, bringing cheap or free content to gamers. I've yet to see any such activity on the Android market, so if it's there it is definitely not being advertised well.

My guess is that game developers are hoping that they can train Android users to spend more than iOS users are used to spending on games. It's true that most paid games on iPhone and iPod devices (iPads are a little more expensive) range between $0.99 and $1.99 - very cheap for a quality game. Even heavy-weights like Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies, selling for $10+ on the PC, go for a mere $2.99 on the iPod.

So perhaps developers are attempting to avoid the super-cheap price-points on the Android market. For those who only have access to an Android device, this could work, though I have to question just how well. I have yet to purchase a single game on my Android phone. I have spent probably $100 on games for my iPod. It's true that I haven't spent more than $3 on a single game, but in this case quantity over quality wins, especially when the quantity is 0 on the Android market.

For those of us lucky enough to have both an iOS and Android devices, we end up with rather silly pricing situations. I offer this example of just how absurd the difference is between the markets:

When I got my Droid X, I saw that they had "pre-loaded" (clever industry term for "bloatware") NFS: Shift onto my phone. Unlike my Blockbuster app that's also "pre-loaded", I was excited about this one. "Cool," I thought, "an actual benefit from Verizon and Motorola." Of course, upon getting into the game, you find out that it's just a demo and they want you to fork over cash for it. So I did some research. The game normally retails on the iPod for $6.99. It was currently on sale for $2.99, though I actually managed the nab the game a few months earlier for a fabulous $0.99. Still, I'd love to have it on my phone, and would be willing to spend $2.99 to grab it. I headed over to the Android market to buy it. Not only was this identical game not on sale at the $2.99, it was currently going for $9.99, three dollars over the normal iPod price.

Summary

While the hardware is very similar between these two platforms, the iOS market is much more mature, has strong developer support, and is more active in engaging users than the anemic and I would say even embarrassing Android market. I truly hope that Android developers, both of the market and of the games, can turn this around, but right now there's no question that the iOS devices aren't even remotely threatened by Android's gaming marketspace. For me, my iPod has actually replaced my Nintendo DS. My Android I only play games on if I've accidentally left my iPod at home (though that's changing now with Flash).