Out of all the things Google announced at its I/O developer conference this week, Google Play Game Services is the one new product I started using right away.
Think of it as the Google equivalent of Xbox Live. For games that support it, the service lets you earn achievements, find and host multiplayer games and compete in online leaderboards. It also supports cloud saves, so you can continue your game across multiple devices–not just on Android, but on iOS and web-based games as well.
As someone who owns multiple Android and iOS devices, that last part is crucial. In the past, I’ve avoided playing lengthier games on my phones, because I didn’t want to bother re-doing everything on my tablets.
So far, I’ve tried Google Play Game services on my HTC One and my Nexus 7. Cloud saving works as well as it should. Some games, such as Beach Buggy Blitz, will detect an online save and ask to replace your local device’s data. Others, such as Riptide GP, replace your local progress automatically. When you unlock an achievement, a slick notification bar pops in, providing a little addictive kick.
I also tried a few rounds of Riptide 2 multiplayer at a Google I/O demo booth. This is also pretty straightforward. You can either join a quick match, and get paired with anyone in the world, or invite specific friends to play with you. Google Play Game Services supports both real-time and asynchronous multiplayer.
So far, I’m satisfied with the service. If game developers do nothing but support cloud saves, it’ll be a useful addition to the Android platform.
I wonder, though, how many normal users will take advantage of the service, for several reasons.
First of all, the name “Google Play Game Services” is targeted at developers. To players, the service is branded as “Google+,” the name of Google’s own social network. Games that support the service present a Google+ logo on their title screens, but it’s not obvious what this logo does. The average player might assume that tapping the logo is similar to signing into Facebook. The benefits of achievements, leaderboards and cloud saves could be easily overlooked.
Google+, for that matter, isn’t a wildly popular network, at least for mainstream users. So again, unless you either know what Google+ integration provides, or are already an active user on the network, there’s not a lot of motivation to check it out.
And if you do decide to investigate, the sign-in process veers into creepy territory. On the sign-in page, the default option is to share your entire friends list with the game publisher, and to make all your in-game activity public. You can change these settings, but only by opting out every time you sign into a new game. It’s not immediately clear what happens to the information you share; the sign-in page only says your data is governed by the privacy policies of Google and the game publisher. The granular control over privacy settings is appreciated, but the lack of consistent settings across games may scare people away.
Finally, for players that are interested in the service, there’s no way to find a list of games that support it. The Google Play Store doesn’t have a section for supported games, and the name of the service is so generic that you’d have a hard time searching with keywords.
It’s early days for Google Play Game Services, and it’s hardly doomed. But if players don’t take advantage, developers may not bother incorporating the service into their games, and that makes me worried. This is too useful of a gaming service to suffer from unclear marketing and privacy issues.