Does Android Need Its Own Version of Game Center?

[Editor’s note: Charles Hudson is a co-author on our Inside Virtual Goods series of industry reports, a co-founder of Android game developer Bionic Panda Games and a partner at SoftTech VC. Hudson also used to work at Google on new business development. This was originally posted on his personal blog here and you can follow Charles on Twitter here.]

In all of the announcements about Apple’s iOS 5, the one that caught my attention was the continued progress that Apple has been making with Game Center. They now claim over 67 million registered players for the Game Center service and it continues to expand to include a wider range of game types. I’ve been thinking about whether Android needs a platform-level Game Center type of offering.

Just a few thoughts:

The “gaming graph” on Android is very fragmented, with lot of gaming graphs and player networks competing for developer attention. There are a handful of “gaming graphs”, or networks of game players that span multiple developers / publishers and have some level of social connectivity. Some of the leaders are OpenFeint, Mobage (from ng:moco / DeNA), Papaya Mobile, Heyzap, and others. Each of the solutions above has its pros and cons, but they’re not interoperable – they are individual networks with varying degrees of scale. As a developer, choosing which of these to integrate can be challenging. And there is always the option of simply building something for your own use.

Without a platform-wide offering from Google, the individual providers will have to continue to battle it out for domination. Hopefully, eventually one (or possibly two) will win and everyone will use that service for social connectivity. But until then, I think things will be messy.

A centralized place where game developers could publish game activity and where consumers could see what the people they care about are playing could help address the “discovery” problem on Android. In a previous blog post, I shared my thoughts on the discovery problem – you can read it here if you’re interested. Despite Facebook’s recent announcement around HTML5 games, I continue to believe that people who like games are more interested in playing games with other game players, regardless of whether they’re friends on some existing social network. People want to connect around games and game content. So having a centralized place where gamers can share what they’re playing, find new games to play, and connect with others interested in games should help everyone in the ecosystem.

In fact, most of the folks who are providing third-party social graphs can make the claim that their networks and offerings, at scale, will deliver exactly what’s described above. With enough players and usage, they can deliver on the value proposition above. But unless one of the existing players gets near complete penetration, it will pale in comparison to what could be achieved by having a platform-wide solution.

Two last questions I’ve been thinking about when considering whether Google could really drive this:

1. Would Google’s many Android partners support and help distribute the system? As we’ve seen in a few cases, not all of Google’s partners are on board with every feature or decision they make around Android. Amazon is going to do there own thing with the Kindle Fire, handset partners are adding their own UI elements to standard Android, and carriers are experimenting with their own app stores for distribution. Even if Google could create an awesome product here, I wonder if their partners across the ecosystem would embrace and support it.

2. Relative to all of the things Google wants to do with Android, where does this rank in terms of opportunities? There are a lot of things that Google has already shared about the future of Android. And there are likely tons of things that are under consideration but have not yet launched. Building a Game Center tool is valuable to one specific set of developers with a specific set of needs.