Games: Handlheld, to Presentation, to OUYA

At last night’s DC Droids event on second-screen apps, while answering a question about near-term users of Presentation, I had a very minor epiphany. An epiphanette, maybe, particularly since I have near-zero game development experience.

Roughly speaking, you can divide Android games for phones and tablets into two types: those where the touch events are mostly for virtual game pads, and those where the touch events go beyond such pads to interacting with more aspects of the screen.

Games going the virtual game pad route can be thought of as having two layers: the visual output (e.g., the view through the virtual windshield of the car, the view through the virtual helmet of the first-person shooter) and the control layer (the game pads and any other input buttons and such). For phones and tablets, the control layer can be thought of as floating atop the visual output, perhaps using translucency to allow bits of the visual layer to be seen past the controls, and handling the touch events delivered to those controls.

On a TV-centric game environment, like the OUYA, the control layer is replaced by an actual game controller, because the TV is not a touchscreen. Some game developers are probably holding off on the OUYA and kin, waiting for the market to grow to justify the investment of modifying the app to drop out the control layer and respond to controller button events and such. While the OUYA has generated a lot of buzz, and other Android console-style devices some buzz of their own, the whole market is rather unproven.

However, Presentation, in principle, offers a third approach. Like the OUYA, the visual output of the game goes on a larger screen, but like a normal phone/tablet game, the control layer is on the device’s touchscreen. Here, the “larger screen” is the TV, monitor, or projector accessed via HDMI, Miracast, etc.

Android 4.2 – the version of Android that added Presentation – is only on 1.6% of devices as of early March 2013. However, that still represents several million devices. And 4.2 is slated to roll out to a number of other devices, including many of the models in Samsung’s Galaxy line. In particular, The Galaxy S III and the Galaxy Note II should get it, and both of those models support “AllShare Cast”, which is Miracast under a Samsung brand name.

So, in the next few months, we should have a fair number of Android 4.2 devices, many of which could connect to an external display and support Presentation.

Hence, savvy game developers might start thinking more about how to cleanly separate the control layer from the visual output, using Presentation to split them onto separate screens. Once that has been accomplished, switching from the separated control layer to using input from game controllers, as with the OUYA, is hopefully an easier jump.

Again, I am not a game developer, and there are any number of potential bumps in the road that I am not seeing. But the combination of “second-screen” Android phones/tablets and the OUYA and other game consoles should provide “critical mass” to make investigating supporting them worth considering.

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