By Nancy Nicolaisen
Netbooks are a great opportunity for game developers and consumers alike. Light, easily portable, inexpensive, and relatively powerful, these platforms offer attractive bonuses. Most particularly, in a time when each day brings more dour news about consumer economics, netbooks are a bright spot. Published statistics for 2009 have netbook shipments increasing at between 79% and 103%, depending on whose accounting methods you like best. In 2009, 80% of these devices were powered by the Intel® Atom™ processor. For game developers who have desktop content running on Intel®-based platforms, these statistics amount to some really good news: Deploy current desktop game offerings to the netbook with a few savvy tweaks, and capture the attention of a huge new audience with a low-cost, low-risk porting effort.
A typical Intel Atom processor powered netbook offers users a reasonably large screen, a touchpad and a something better than an 87% sized keyboard. Most have two or more USB ports, but are optimized to access content by download rather than through the use of storage media. At the same time, they are light weight, inexpensive, and hold a charge for a significantly longer time than either a laptop or a phone when used unconnected. In short, netbooks are perfectly suited to personal entertainment applications. Think cloud content consumers, single player arcade or action games, and mobile networked multi person entertainment and games.
This is a rapidly evolving market space that offers game developers unique new opportunities: Imagine the play experiences you can design by leveraging mobility; dynamically constructed teams; and location aware, ongoing game play over long duration. These little devices also create and refresh the market for older arcade style games, because these tend to be easily interruptible and rely on simple graphics-- both characteristics that fit well with the properties of netbook hardware and usage patterns. In many cases, developers will be able to get their games and content into this space fairly rapidly.
Here are five tips for making the hop to a vibrant, growing entertainment marketplace:
Tip 1: Don't Overlook an Opportunity to Reintroduce Legacy Inventory
Bringing your game to market as early as possible is key in this niche market, and this article focuses on tips to help get your current titles up and running on netbooks as rapidly as possible. However, that's not the only opportunity netbooks offer game and entertainment content developers. These highly mobile little devices are very nearly as powerful today as state-of-the-art desktop computers were a relatively short time ago. This means that with very little updating, earlier game versions may enjoy a profitable second life on netbook class devices. Simple, older, arcade-style games port beautifully to netbooks. Here's why:
- They require little modification in terms of graphics.
- Netbook users tend toward intermittent usage patterns, so short-duration, arcade-style play nicely fits the needs, preferences, and usage patterns of the audience.
- Netbook versions of earlier games have an extremely low barrier to entry and low cost of sales because expenditures associated with development, documentation, and marketing have already been retired. Most of each revenue dollar is profit, making it easy to compete on price in this space.
- Perhaps best of all, arcade-type games are easy to internationalize, which dramatically broadens the potential audience. European and Asian consumers have enthusiastically embraced netbooks.
Tip 2: Join the Intel® Atom™ Developer Program
Intel is providing game developers with a wealth of knowledge, development tools, and content-promotion opportunities. Taking advantage of these resources will help you get your game onto the platform and into the market more quickly. By joining the Intel® Atom™ Developer Program, you get access to a turnkey marketing channel: the Intel AppUp® center. The Intel AppUp® center provides these tools and supports:
- A digital distribution center for applications that target netbooks
- A validation process to ensure that applications play well on netbooks
- A software development kit (SDK) to connect your game with the Intel AppUp® center
- The opportunity to sell games or game components on the Intel AppUp® center, where developers receive up to 70% of the revenue
And here's a really good thing: Membership in the Intel® Atom™ Developer Program is available at no cost for the first year.
Tip 3: For Newer Generations of Games, Start by Evaluating Visuals
Successfully moving from a big screen to a small one requires that you address three issues.
Think in Terms of Visual Impacts Related to Screen Size and Device Mobility. To deliver a satisfying play experience, users have to be able to see the entire field of play on the screen without scrolling. For most games, this means that you'll have some work to do on the visuals. It's probably safest and most conservative to assume that you'll be targeting a 10-inch screen. Remember that it may be necessary to reserve some of this screen real estate for controls and user interaction features.
Smaller screen sizes mean that you have to streamline your storytelling and that you'll want to reduce the complexity, size, and subtlety of graphics. Not only do you have to get the action in a smaller physical space, but you'll be working within a couple of other important visual constraints. Netbooks are designed for casual use--on the go and unconnected. In practice, this means outdoors, in waiting areas, in parked cars, and so forth. What all of these locations have in common is the probability that users will be in less-than-optimum ambient lighting conditions. When reworking visuals for a netbook port, these things will make for a better user experience in conditions of glare and poor lighting.
Crop Big-screen Images Mercilessly. If a visual element doesn't advance the story line of the game or cue users that they should respond in a particular way, give it the old heave-ho. Backgrounds that are meant to establish mood or provide aesthetic appeal won't work well in a netbook game for a variety of reasons, so reduce or eliminate layers that have no interactive or storytelling function. When positioning controls or game elements, don't hard-code their screen coordinates; instead, position them relative to the center or edges of the visible playing field, as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2. Use relative positioning for controls and play elements to ensure that they will be visible and accessible regardless of the actual screen dimensions.
Scaling down image sizes is relatively easy to do and yields benefits other than just making the game more enjoyable in poor lighting conditions. Doing so can also help achieve better power performance by reducing the game's overall footprint. One technique that you can invariably eliminate for small screen compositions is the use of wide-angle shots. The overall size and resolution of most netbook screens doesn't support these images well enough to make them an advantage to the play experience. There is a point beyond which the content would suffer, so if you dynamically scale graphics, set a minimum screen size (see Figure 2).
Figure 3. Scale graphics, but enforce a minimum screen size to preserve the quality of the play experience.
Focus Tightly on the Action or Interaction. Keep the essence of the play experience in the center of the screen, limit visual composition to a small number of objects, and keep depictions of characters as simple as possible. If images are cropped very closely to frame the subject, you'll fill the frame and make animation and action lively, even in very small formats. Keeping all of the play action centered as much as possible reduces the player's tendency to compare the netbook gaming experience unfavorably with the desktop version.
Avoid techniques and visual cues that will remind users that they're playing the game in an abbreviated space. For example, to move the story along or bring in different characters, cut between shots instead of panning. Steer clear of suggesting to users that they are "missing out" on something that is happening outside their visible field of play. Keep play action away from the sides of the display as much as possible, and cut away from a scene or character rather than having things disappear off screen margins. Display only the control elements that users need to play the game; use hover controls or floating pop-ups for support or informational content, as shown in Figure 3.
Figure 4. Limit the display of controls and game elements to the minimum set a player actually needs.
Tip 4: Netbook Users Rely on the Keyboard and Touch Pad to Interact
Even though most netbooks have one or more USB ports, dedicated game controller devices are unlikely to be the rule for the netbook gaming audience. Remember, a large share of your potential audience will be people who play opportunistically: people in airports and coffee shops, soccer moms waiting for practice to end, kids in the back seat on a family road trip. Assume that most netbook gamers will use either the keyboard or the touch pad to control play.
Many touch pads will react like the Apple* iPhone*, iPad*, or iPod Touch* in that they are double-tap or two finger friendly. Players with an Apple* iPhone*, iPad*, or iPod Touch* background will be comfortable with scaling and moving items and photos by spreading or pinching their fingers.
Not every netbook has a great touch pad, though, and a lot of people will find using the keyboard for complicated actions a little too retro, so consider the use of screen-based icons and hover controls. Easily learned, self-documenting visual controls are probably the best approach both for the user experience and to make the game play well across a variety of vendor devices (see Figure 5).
Figure 5. Icons can replace a lot of textual cues and make play intuitive on a small screen.
Tip 5: Make "Gaming on the Go" a Strength and a Selling Point
Most netbook gamers play on the run in locations where they can't control ambient lighting or sound levels and have limited time, intermittent connectivity, and little access to wall power. These can sound like limitations, but what if they are simply the rules of a new style of play? This isn't just looking of the bright side. In two years, it's entirely likely that fewer people will want to play games where they are stuck indoors in one spot, tethered to the wall socket and home wireless network. Make mobility and flexibility advantages of the game experience, and at the same time you'll make your game leaner, faster, and more fun.
For example, use social media sites to keep scores and rankings, reducing the need for gamers to be connected full time but also building your game's community and fan base. Structure games to be played, paused, and resumed with no loss of standing or points. Set up scoring regimes where players can accumulate points over a specified time period. Make multi-player connected games tolerant of loss of connection and interrupted play.
With a relatively uncomplicated porting effort, a lot of desktop games and entertainment content can be smoothly and rapidly ported to Intel® Atom™ processor-powered netbooks-particularly legacy and arcade-style games. Intel has some great tools to help you get games up and running rapidly and, better still, offers a ready marketing channel: the Intel AppUp® Center. The Intel AppUp® Center provides a seamless marketing, download, and payment facility so that developers don't have to do the hard work of maintaining their own sales presence and payment-collection infrastructure. Developers can reap up to 70% of the revenue.
About the Author
Nancy Nicolaisen is the author of numerous books on software engineering techniques. She specializes in the design and development of solutions for small mobile and embedded systems. Her involvement with the game industry dates back to 1981, when she worked at gaming pioneer Imagic, developer of Demon Attackand other classics.