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In-app purchases will lead to explosion in Android gaming

by Phil Hornshaw

Android 3.0 Honeycomb for mobile tablets was on the docket for Google’s (GOOG) keynote event this week, but its two smaller announcements -- one for a web-based version of the Android Market and another for software that will allow developers to facilitate in-app purchases -- are what will really change the Android landscape.

Both changes are going to have the big effect of making it easier for developers to make money with Android apps, and that’s going to mean more apps. Discovery of new apps by users has been one of the drawbacks of the Android platform thus far; people don’t always know what’s available, and trying to find out about new apps to download isn’t extremely easy from the Market app found on Android devices. The web store, which sends downloads users buy straight to their devices without the need of wires to sync them, will make finding and buying apps a lot easier.

That’s good news for all Android users. The other announcement, about the addition of in-app purchases in the spring, should be especially good news to gamers because it’s going to mean an explosion of Android games and new content in existing games.

A demonstration of the Android in-app purchase system at work was made during the show using Disney (DIS) Mobile’s popular iOS rhythm game, Tap Tap Revenge 4. The demo marked the first time the game has appeared on the platform, and the reason it’s taken this long for TTR4 to show up on Android is very likely the lack of in-app purchases.

On Apple’s (AAPL) iOS devices, TTR4 is free. A rhythm game that has users tapping along to music, Tap Tap comes with a few songs for free and generally offers a free song every week. It makes its money, however, by selling songs using in-app purchases, either alone or in track packs. There’s a huge content library available for the game that users can search through from within TTR4, and making the purchases downloads the songs straight into the game.

Android’s new in-app purchases already are making Tap Tap Revenge available to a host of new players. But there are lots of other “freemium” games -- games that are downloadable for free, but offer in-app purchases of different content withing the game once you’re playing -- that will probably start showing up in the Android marketplace now that their developers can use the freemium model unhindered.

One big player in freemium is Zynga, the maker of Facebook powerhouses CityVille, FarmVille and Mafia Wars, which is readying another game for Android that might herald the start of the company porting its iPhone and Facebook library to Google’s platform.

According to All Things Digital, Zynga is primed to release Words With Friends, a Scrabble-like online multiplayer game, on Android later this month. The iPhone edition of Words With Friends already has a community of 10 million players and the Android version will share all the same features, and even allow players to compete against the iPhone users. That means when Words With Friends hits Android -- for free, no less, in an ad-supported version -- it’ll already have a massive community to entice even more players to join in.

Expect more of the same. The freemium model is often pretty profitable for developers, the ability to push new ways of monetizing games on Android is going to draw a lot more to the table. And if developers follow Zynga’s lead and find innovative ways to interact with existing communities on other platforms, gamers will have a lot of opponents to look forward to as well as a lot of games in which to challenge them.