Google has officially unveiled its Nexus One Android Phone, and while it's certainly an attractive device, does it have what it takes to be a portable gaming platform?
The Nexus One is the first handset designed entirely by Google, and to some, particularly those with mobile service providers other than AT&T, it might seem like Google's answer to the iPhone. In some ways it is. It has the touch screen. It has an accelerometer. It's got the slim profile and the low weight. It can run a wide variety of applications, from office software to a Google Maps-powered GPS. It's an attractive package, but is it attractive to a gamer?
In my eyes at least, not so much.
While the Nexus One does have a faster processor and a larger, higher resolution screen than the iPhone 3GS, there are several shortcomings that will likely keep it from achieving even a fraction of the success the iPhone has had in the gaming sector.
First off, there's the operating system. The Nexus One runs version 2.1 of Google's Android operating system, an upgraded version of 2.0, making its debut on the new device. When Android-enabled phones were first introduced, several major players in the mobile gaming market took notice. Namco quickly got Pac-Man up and running, and Activision followed suit with Guitar Hero.
Things were looking up, but then in November of last year, mobile-gaming giant Gameloft significantly cut their support for the platform, with the company's finance director Alexandre de Rochefort saying that "It is not as neatly done as on the iPhone. Google has not been very good to entice customers to actually buy products. On Android nobody is making significant revenue."
A quick look at the sort of games available on the Android Market currently shows simple titles that would be perfectly at home on 2-3 year-old mobile phones. Mind you they're much prettier and probably run smoother, but overall the current selection is weak.
Gaming doesn't seem to be as strong focus for Google on the operating system or the Nexus One itself. Scouring the internets for information on the phone's announcement today I didn't see any specific mention of the phone as a gaming machine, so while the system is certainly more than powerful enough to handle some advanced portable titles, poor support for gaming in the past might have already poisoned the waters for many developers.
Then there is the question of controls. With no keyboard and only a tiny trackball serving as a physical controller, the Nexus One relies on its touch screen as a primary user interface. So does the iPhone, of course, but the iPhone has a multitouch capable screen, while the Nexus One lacks this functionality. This means that some of the more complex iPhone games that rely on a combination of virtual on-screen controls wouldn't work on the phone.
One could argue that the Nintendo DS touch screen is single input as well, but the DS has a directional pad plus shoulder and face buttons to accent the touching.
Update: While Google's included apps don't handle multitouch, the OS and presumably the hardware as well should support it. When asked by Engadget whether future software updates for the phone would include multitouch support, Android boss Any Rubin said "we'll consider it."
That's not to say the trackball doesn't have potential. I could seem some interesting gaming experiences controlled via a combination of trackball and accelerometer. It just doesn't seem to me as if that tiny ball would provide the responsiveness needed for more advanced games.
Finally there's the question of memory. The Nexus One ships with 512MB of Flash memory, much of which will be taken up by the operating system and included applications. That doesn't leave much room for games, and while the memory can be expanded with a Micro SD card of up to 32GB, that additional storage will mainly benefit those using the device to play movies or listen to music, as security concerns prohibit launching and storing purchased applications on the memory card.
When I first saw the Nexus One, I have to admit I drooled a little, but after looking into the facts behind the device, I think I can resist. I used my job as a member of the gaming press to justify the purchase of an iPhone last year. It just doesn't look like I'd be able to use the same justification with the Nexus One.