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CES: Android, other platforms see a big gaming boost

by Phil Hornshaw

It’s good news for gamers coming out of the Consumer Electronics Show 2011 in Las Vegas this week -- but only if you’re gaming on an Android device.

During its press show yesterday at the convention, Verizon (VZ) showed off some of the things gamers using the company’s Google (GOOG) Android OS-driven devices will be capable of doing its 4G LTE network, but what it boils down to is this: mobile online multiplayer gaming, from anywhere, without the need for Wi-Fi. At least in theory.

Verizon is working on hammering 4G out all over the country -- by 2013, it intends to have the network up from sea to shining sea -- and by 2011 the expansion will have hit something like 175 markets. The company says that network will be 10- to 20-times faster than 3G, enabling cool things like Skype-to-Skype video calls to any device and head-to-head competition on games.

To that end, Verizon had a quick video demo from Electronic Arts Mobile (ERTS) showing off a new Android version of its popular Rock Band title, which allowed for four players to attack songs cooperatively in the musician simulator game, which each device representing a different instrument. It was a lot like the Rock Band experience on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, except the players didn’t have to be in the same room, or even the same state.

LG makes a smartphone smart enough to compete with PC gamers

Even better news than playing with other mobile users over 4G, though, is playing a game on a phone against players on consoles and PCs. LG (066570.KS) has said you can do that with its new “superphone,” the Optimus 2X, and let players use the new handset to hack away at others using PlayStation 3s and PCs on Dungeon Defenders from Trendy Entertainment.

That’s something of an amazing development. Cross-platform multiplayer largely doesn’t happen -- not between Xbox and PlayStation, not between consoles and PCs, not between Android and iPhone. Just getting cross-platform support from a developer is awesome; getting it between a phone and a computer is phenomenal.

We’re also seeing a push for game makers to skip over the middle ground of going through consoles or devices and bring their entertainment straight to connected TVs. Panasonic’s (PC) new line of TVs cuts out iOS and Android (not to mention consoles and PCs altogether) by including an app marketplace of its own -- and that marketplace will at least include Gameloft games, the mobile developer announced at CES Thursday.

Gameloft’s move to support connected TVs carries a lot of its popular games, most notably N.O.V.A.: Near Orbital Vanguard Alliance and UNO. Many of the games have only appeared on iOS up to now -- so we’ll be seeing formerly small-scale touchscreen games blown up on HDTVs, available for download. It’s going to be interesting to see what kind of experience Gameloft and Panasonic change the experience for the new format.

Awkward silence when anyone mentions iOS

For all the cool gaming announcements, there has been very little noise throughout the conference about games on iOS devices. Microsoft (MSFT) even took the CES opportunity to show off more games that will be compatible, if not connecting directly like the Optimus, with its games on Xbox 360’s online Xbox Live service: but what developers have not been doing is showing new games or advances they have planned for Apple (AAPL) devices.

What gives, exactly? Sure, Apple likes to do its big announcements in its own backyard, but it’s almost a little strange not to see anything from designers. It’s also a little disappointing.

From a gaming standpoint, though, one wonders if the announcements coming out of CES are indicative of developers looking elsewhere than Apple to be able to do cool new things. You probably just couldn’t do cross-platform multiplayer on the iPhone because of the physical limits of the hardware. Apple TV, the company’s connected television set top box, includes iTunes support but not much in terms of storage memory, so downloading games just isn’t included (or maybe even considered).

Step it up, Apple

Apple’s Mac App Store did hit the scene Thursday, and while it touted almost 1,000 apps, not a lot has been made about the potential for gaming on the platform -- even though, surprise surprise, its top-seller after a ton of downloads on day one was Angry Birds.

Gaming on iOS devices has been absolutely huge for Apple in the last two years, but CES has shown that on that front, other companies -- specifically, companies running Android devices -- are coming out not just swinging, but sporting rocket launchers. They’re making big strides in all corners of the market, not just the mobile-friendly casual gaming sector.

Apple needs to keep up if it wants to keep the unexpected boon it’s gotten from iPhone and iPad gaming, and that’s going to require the company to step up, make some deals, and think about how its machine is changing the gaming industry. If it doesn’t, iPhone could quickly become a footnote in the history of how Android changed everything.