Will Android game development ever catch up to iOS?

Jason Ankeny

It took Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) about 20 months to reach its first billion Android application installations--five months after that, Android apps reached the 2 billion milestone, and last week, Google announced the platform now exceeds 3 billion total app installs, which equates to about 500,000 new downloads per month. Speaking last week on Google's Q1 earnings call, senior vice president of commerce and local Jeff Huber said app installs increased 50 percent over the previous quarter, adding that the company is now activating around 350,000 Android smartphones every day. Google senior vice president of advertising Susan Wojcicki also weighed in, stating that the AdMob mobile ad platform is now recording 150 million requests per month from Android and Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iOS devices, a figure that's increased 50 percent over the past four months.

Gaming remains the engine driving the mobile app economy: Mobile ad network Millennial Media credits games for generating 37 percent of its March 2011 app revenue. Moreover, almost 40 percent of all consumer app sessions are now dedicated to gaming according to mobile app analytics provider Flurry, which reported last week that game sales across the iOS and Android operating systems generated revenues in excess of $800 million in 2010 and now represent 8 percent of the U.S. multi-platform gaming market. A year ago, Flurry indicated that iOS games yielded $500 million in revenues, translating to 5 percent of the U.S. gaming market; the firm credits 2010 growth in part to surging consumer interest in Android smartphones as well as the introduction of Apple's iPad tablet, but adds that iPhone titles still generated the majority of mobile game revenues last year.

It stands to reason that Android will play a significantly larger role in U.S. gaming revenues once Flurry compiles its 2011 mobile game metrics sometime next spring--after all, a year ago at this time, Android Market was still two months away from its 1 billionth download. But some high-profile game developers continue to steer clear of Android, favoring the financial security and fragmentation-free safety of iOS. In a recent interview with NowGamer, John Carmack--the id Software co-founder whose programming work on titles like Doom and Quake essentially revolutionized the first-person shooter genre--maintains there is no money in Android, at least in comparison to iOS.

"At the last Quakecon I took a show-of-hands poll, and it was interesting to see how almost as many people there had an Android device as an iOS device," Carmack says. "But when I asked how many people had spent 20 bucks on a game in the Android store, there was a big difference... It's hard to make a rational business decision to say I want to take resources from something else and put them on this. We did actually hire a person to be our Android guy, but it looks like he's going to get stuck on iOS development!"

But other game developers are finally turning their focus to Android. Gameview Studios, the startup behind the popular aquarium game Tap Fish--which boasts more than 10 million downloads on iOS--launched an Android version of the title on April 1, quickly topping Android Market's free casual games chart. Gameview vice president of social games John Hwang credits the recent introduction of Android Market in-app billing functionality as the primary catalyst behind the firm's decision to expand Tap Fish to Android devices. "We started development late last year when Google started getting serious about in-app purchases--prior to that, we weren't sure if an app would monetize on Android like it does on iOS," Hwang tells FierceDeveloper. "Google in-apps is going to be a huge game-changer, but it's going to take some time. Google doesn't have credit cards on file like iTunes, and Android 2.3 is in something like less than 1 percent of phones. But there's real demand for virtual currencies and goods, and when users start updating their phones, Google in-apps will be there."

And once consumers come around to the new possibilities of Android gaming, developers will follow suit, Hwang says. He estimates that the quality and quantity of Android games will experience a dramatic upswing between the next 90 and 180 days. "A lot of developers pushed their Android plans out because they continued to see more opportunity with iOS, but developers follow where the money is, and now that there's a way to make money from Android games, that compels developers to make better games," Hwang says. "We're at an inflection point where developers want to have a beachhead on Android. Developers have been waiting a long time to see mass adoption of Android app downloads, and Google is finally getting there." -Jason