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One thing was crystal clear during today’s mobile games panel at GamesBeat@GDC: Mobile is the next competitive frontier in the game industry. The big battle between PCs and Macs is fading into the background, replaced by a new (even more hostile) face-off between Android and the iPhone OS.

This transition, expedited by the launch of the iPad on Apple’s iPhone OS, has massive implications for mobile game developers. The panelists, hailing from popular game makers like Ngmoco and Tapulous, as well as mobile ad network Admob and the Android team at Google, agreed that this storm is brewing, but it shouldn’t necessarily change developers’ goals.

With most mobile games being free-to-play and relying on advertising for revenue, the goal should always be to capture market share and bring on as many users for as long as possible, period. And the strategy to do this is still the same, regardless of which platform a game is designed for. Game discovery depends on virality — namely, the ability for existing users to share games with their friends through a bevy of channels (Twitter, email, Facebook, SMS, etc.). To grow, you simply have to make this as easy as possible.

The difference between platforms starts to matter when you look at how Apple and Android are responding to these strategies. Android has left its system wide open, allowing third-party developers to build in all kinds of sharing tools and opportunities with very few restrictions, according to Eric Chu, group manager for the Android platform.

“If you’re playing a game and reach a high score, you can access email, IM, etc. and it will publish in multiple locations that you hit a high score and say others should check it out,” Chu explained. “There is a lot of facility within the platform today to do these things.”

Apple, on the other hand, has restricted this kind of activity, making it more difficult for players to link their mobile games to their social graphs. In fact, the company has been roundly criticized for making it hard to discover new, relevant apps that users will like — based on past downloads, friend favorites, or other factors.

“We need a seamless social graph on the iPhone — it’s a prerequisite for solving the discovery issue,” said Neil Young, CEO of Ngmoco. “You want people to discover things because their friends are already doing it. We need to find mechanisms where, if I’m playing something I like, I can easily recommend it to my friends.” He encourages more operating system support for social graphs, but who knows when Apple will comply?

Distribution models based on social interactions will be critical in competing with web-based gaming giants like Zynga, Young said. Monetization and distribution, both, have to be core to the design of the games themselves, and tap into social impulses.

“Build things that help users build a social graph that is relevant to the gameplay,” he suggested.

Bart Decrem, CEO of Tapulous, echoed this position.

“It’s not so much about the device — the broader significance is that we’re in the middle of a secular shift,” he said. “The new operating systems are the iPhone OS and Android. That’s where the eyeballs are shifting.”

Aunkur Arya, a speaker from mobile ad firm AdMob, said that 2010 will likely be the real year of mobile gaming, but Decrem said that this year will be a big one for Apple’s iPad, which launches on April 3.

Read all our coverage from GamesBeat@GDC.


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