Google Play doesn’t want your favorite iOS game, and other reasons why Android sucks for Indies
Ben's note: I dislike running stories from developers who want to remain anonymous, but this is from people who know what they're talking about, who I trust implicitly, and make arguments I've heard in many conversations at bars after hours at E3. These are issues that hurt Android gaming, and it's important to talk about them. These people know what they're talking about, they've been in the space for a good long while with a number of successes, and are about to drop some knowledge. Buckle up.
When an indie announces a new mobile game, it's a given that it's coming to iOS. Android is often an afterthought, if it's a thought at all. Given the huge share of the marketplace that Android seems to have, and the regular graphs touting the amount of money to be made, how come it appears so many Indies are still ignoring Android?
The truth is, right now, Android sucks for indies.
Not only that, but the only profitable marketplace on Android is Google Play, and as far as I can tell, Google proper doesn't care much about Google Play, and that lack of interest is shuffled down hill to developers.
While I'm sure there are pockets of indie success on the platform, the developers I talk to say Android is a frustrating and problematic place to release games. Especially dangerous is that at first, Android is arguably way more accessible to develop for than iOS; it's only after you've invested the time and pushed out your game that the real issues surface.
There are two big issues to deal with so I'm going to try to keep them separated. The first issue is like a Russian nesting doll, so bear with me while I unpack it.
Android has too many devices to support (over 4000 devices as of 2012.)
While you might think the problem here is that it's hard to build a game that runs on so many different resolutions and processors, thanks to tools like Corona and Unity this actually isn't the case.
The real problem is far more insidious. Cheap varied devices have brought smartphones to legions of users who wouldn't normally have them (either because of price, or interest), but the headless Android distribution scheme builds no infrastructure to teach these users how to actually use their devices, unlike Apple's Genius Bars. Not only that, but because of the variation in device displays, storage, and quality, it's hard for consumers to know if problems they encounter are with them, with the device, or with the software.
Beyond that, there are problems with the market itself, including longstanding bugs that tell users the software they just purchased isn't licensed to them.
This combination of many varied devices, uneducated users, and poor market construction leads to huge quantities of support emails, often far too many for small teams, including most indies, to handle.
From my personal experience I can say that it's roughly 10-50x more emails per download than on iOS, and I'm looking at paid downloads! For freemium apps, the numbers are far worse. The situation is entirely unmanageable. Every developer that I've talked to about this issue told me the same thing: “Ignore support requests.”
It's brutal to say, but you literally need to either employ a support staff, or ignore the requests. It's a problem I never imagined having until I started bringing games to Android.
Because so many developers ignore their users, Google Play's user-base has justifiably become pretty jaded. Unlike generally friendly iOS consumers, large swaths of Google Play consumers feel jerked around by developers who don't care about them.
As someone reading a games website, you are probably not one of these people, but in the mobile game world, the majority of sales go to less informed users, simply because there are so many of them.
With a jaded audience, app reviews suffer, revenue suffers, and community-building becomes incredibly difficult. One of the greatest tools for indies is being a human being, not a huge company, but on Android, with all the vitriol, being a human being doesn't count for much.
The next issue is that Google Play does not seem to care about indies. Unlike the last topic, Google Play isn't an onion. It's more like a mess of separate issues.
Insufficient PR and features
The Google Play store may have a harder-to-fool algorithm for ranking games than the iOS App Store, but that's about the only thing it has. iOS has a thriving ecosystem of review sites, magazines, and tons of podcasts. Android has very few sites for users to congregate around and a much more fragmented community.
This puts a lot more pressure on receiving a feature in the store than exists on iOS. Add that to relatively few games actually being featured on Google Play compared to iOS, and you have a problem for indies. If you don't get featured on Google Play where do you go to drum up support for your title? There aren't any good options right now.
The Android/iOS war
Because building up traction is so hard on Android, and the market showed up second, for a long time the Google Play App Store looked like a time capsule of the iOS store. Google Play was grateful to receive the ports it was getting, heavily promoting titles like Angry Birds and Super Hexagon, but those days are long gone.
Google Play isn't interested in getting ports anymore. Their developer relations team will tell you that they're really only interested in promoting titles that release on Android first, or simultaneously. Indies find themselves caught in a war between two giants, forced to choose a side.
This is especially problematic because Google is escalating a war with Apple that neither it, nor developers can afford to fight. Right now it's far better to be an Apple exclusive than an Android one.
Apple has a huge PR team that regularly showcases applications, dozens of high-traffic categories in their app store every week where old apps are re-featured, awards shows that people care about, well publicized keynotes that often display quality apps, a promotional program with Starbucks where apps are given away for free to huge difficult-to-reach audiences, anywhere from 15,000 - 250,000 redemptions, and a fleet of stores that also demo apps on in-store devices. Android has none of these benefits.
As an independent developer trying to choose sides, iOS is the obvious answer, there's enough risk in stepping out to make games on your own so if you have to choose one platform, it's going to be the one with the healthy and vibrant marketplace.
The abusive relationship between Google Play and indie developers
So with that choice made for nearly all indie developers, they're left to go to the Google Play folks with their title on iOS already, spending some of the profits and probably a half dozen months on an Android port.
Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to matter what level of success a game garners on iOS. Even indies with breakout hits that earned hundreds of thousands of dollars get the cold shoulder. It's hard to believe, but the games that users all over the internet are begging developers to port to Android are exactly the ones that Google Play doesn't want.
It can be difficult for indies to even find the right person to be talking to at Google amid a sea of disconnected reps. Even if they are able to find that person and fix all the necessary issues they'll often disappear when release time comes.
This even happens to people who have released hit games on Android previously. It doesn't seem to matter. It's all a wash. Apple reps on the other hand are attentive to concerns, and even if you don't get a banner feature, they'll likely give you a smaller 'New and Noteworthy' feature, or at the very least stay receptive and return emails.
Google Play representatives fade away into the ether once you've released your app (if they stick around till then), and because Google Play features only a few apps every week, there's often not enough room for all the apps that should be there. Ultimately, this feeds back into the PR problem.
With low communication from Google about features, and their policy to not feature apps that have just been released due to likely device compatibility issues, there is just no way to plan out a PR schedule, even if there were community sites to send PR to.
Releasing games is an intense ordeal for indie developers. It's easily the hardest part of the job. Release is the time where you take the baby that you've loved and cared for over its intense development cycle and bring it out into the world. You want to have the best delivery staff available, not an apathetic developer relations team. It's hard to go back to a platform after it's left such a bad impression during your most stressful time.
Android as a platform is fractured and broken, to the detriment of users, developers, everyone.
And that sucks!
As Indies we want to get our games out to as many people as possible. We don't want to be caught in platform wars, we don't want to be ignoring and enraging customers/users/friends who want to enjoy our work, and least of all, we don't want to be caught wandering blind into new marketplaces because developer relations teams failed to communicate to us about the pitfalls of bringing our successful franchises to their platform.
There are a lot of problems with Android as a platform. Some of them may be endemic and entirely un-solvable, but at the very least they could be eased by a great developer relations team.
Great marketplaces aren't created by trying to control your developers through draconian feature requirements, they're born from supporting your developers, in whatever ways you can.
Maybe it's time that Google Play fought for us, instead of against us.