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Instant Apps are Google’s latest play to woo game developers to its services

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On Android, you can play some games with just a link; no install necessary

GDC starts this week in San Francisco, and Google is looking to burnish its reputation among game developers with a handful of new announcements. The most newsworthy is “Google Play Instant,” which allows game demos to be played on Android devices simply by clicking a link, rather than fully installing the game. It’s also pointing to improvements in its game ad ecosystem and a new way to set up multiplayer game servers.

The goal of Google’s announcements, so far as I can tell, isn’t to beat back the conventional wisdom that iOS is a more powerful platform for gaming than Android. Google, of course, doesn’t agree with that characterization, noting that it offers the “vast majority of top mobile games” along with a slew of tools to developers to improve their games’ performance on Android.

When Sameer Samat, VP of product management for Android and Google Play, talks to developers, he says that “the number one thing on their list is distribution.” Instant Apps will make distribution easier. But a better way to think about Google’s announcements today is scale. Google operates differently from other companies in the gaming ecosystem simply because it’s so big. It has to.

Even if you’re just looking at Android, that scale is massive. Over a billion people in 190 countries have used Google Play. In games, even minor features like preregistering for a game (launched in 2015) has been used by over 200 million users. Google notes that the number of Android users who have installed a game in the past year has doubled, with much of that growth coming from emerging markets.

Google wants to give game developers some of the tools it’s developed to help deal with all those users. And so we have today’s news: apps that download like webpages, ads that are easier to buy and sell, and a server infrastructure that works across the world.

Google Play Instant

Instant Apps are an amalgamation of how the web works and how regular apps work. They can be run by simply tapping the “try now” button inside the Google Play Store instead of waiting for a full installation. There’s a brief downloading process, then the app just runs. They’re like webpages because you can link to them. Also, if you back out of the app, it just goes away instead of leaving an icon sitting in your app drawer — just like a tab in your browser. They’re unlike the web because they only work on a single platform: Android with Google Services.

The news today is a little bit of an expansion of Instant Apps and a little bit of a rebranding. Here’s the expansion part: they now work with more games. You can go into the Google Play Store right now and try it if you have an Android phone running at least Lollipop. Google has a page where it’s featuring the few games that support the try now button already. It also recently redesigned the Google Play Games app, and “Instant Gameplay” will be a new section in that app as well.

The reason to go to all that effort is because users bail when they have to wait for a loading bar. Jonathan Karmel, product manager for Google Play Instant, cites one game that has been using Google Play Instant and has seen “25 percent more clicks on store listing pages and more than 30 percent of users install the game from the instant experience.”

To make Instant Apps more compatible with games, Google needed to update some APIs so they’d work better for that context — including working better with OpenGL. Google is working with both Unity and Cocos to provide IDE support for Instant Apps later this year. The program is still in a closed beta for now, but it’s meant to open up to a broader set of developers later this year.

The instant app demo for ‘Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire’ has less than a minute of gameplay.

Mostly, though, Google has been encouraging game developers to reduce file sizes, so that the Instant App version of a game is less than 10 megabytes. Sometimes that adds up to a demo of a game that you can play for a few minutes, but in other cases, the instant app demo of some of these games is less than 30 seconds of gameplay.

Here’s the rebranding part: “Google Play Instant.” The new name makes it clear that Instant Apps only work on phones that support Google Play services. That’s important: a full-on app may have more permissions on your phone than a plain old webpage. So limiting Instant Apps to games that have been vetted by Google provides some peace of mind. (Google notes that it is “exploring” ways that Instant Apps could work in China someday.) The team is also exploring providing game developers with deep links so that an Instant App link could send you to a particular part of a game.

Ads and Infrastructure

At GDC, Google will talk to game developers about services it offers, some of which are not just limited to Android.

On the ad front, Google recently announced a bunch of features for game developers — both those that want to advertise their games and those that want to make money off ads inside their games. None of these features are likely to make users feel much better about how the video game ecosystem — particularly on Android — makes money. But there’s no getting around the fact that advertising is how most games on Android generate revenue, so Google is doing what it can to optimize the whole system.

The Google Play Store will be rolling out video ads (they will not autoplay, thank god), but more importantly it has been working to hone the “Universal App Campaign” platform. The company is using machine learning to target potential customers. So if you like card games, you might be more likely to see an ad for another card game. Beyond that, Google can also use machine learning to put that ad on the most effective platform. Google says that UAC can automate where a given ad might appear — e.g., in Google search, on YouTube, inside another app, or in the Play Store.

Inside games, Google’s system for advertising is called “AdMob,” and it’s doing a ton of stuff to improve how much it can make for game developers. It’s introducing Open Bidding so that “networks can bid to serve ads in your app simultaneously in a single unified auction.” It‘s also pushing the idea of “Rewarded Ads” more, which is the concept of getting a little bonus in your game by watching an ad or playing an in-game demo. Now games can offer you a choice of two different video ads.

Is all this advertising unsavory (at best) for users? Yep. Is it likely that the game app ecosystem is going to be moving back to a world where people just pay a full and fair price up front anytime soon? Nope.

Last but not least (but certainly most nerdy), Google recently announced a new technology for game developers called “Agones.” It’s an open-source project for hosting game servers for multiplayer gaming. If you’re a developer who’s into scalable server solutions, there is a raft of buzzwords to dig into here. Optimized (but not restricted to) the Google Cloud Platform, Agones is based on Kubernetes, the hottest thing in containerized applications since... wait you’re not even reading this anymore, are you?

Anyway, the point is that Google believes that Agones (“Greek for ‘contest,’”) will make it radically easier for game developers to set up and then scale their multiplayer games. For developers, it is meant to simplify the hassle of setting up servers and maintaining them. For users, a system based on Agones should reduce the time it takes to get into a game server.

This is all very much an oversimplification, so you can read more here. In the meantime, Google is actively developing the project and has been working with Ubisoft on it.

Google will be out in force at GDC to tout the benefits of all of the above, and it’s likely we’ll hear more from the company about Instant Apps, ads, and Kubernetes at the Google I/O conference this May.

Disclosure: my wife works for the Oculus VR store. My full ethics statement is here.