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GDC: Google Gets Gaming

As it pitches the Web as a platform, Google is seeking allies among game makers.

Google and games have an awkward past. Google's highest profile foray into gaming, the short-lived virtual world Lively, was shut down less than six months after it launched.

And yet Google is courting game makers with more vigor than ever. Its presence at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco, Calif., this week is conspicuous, certainly more so than it has been in the past.

On Wednesday, Google's show of force at GDC made a bit more sense: Google announced the Google Game Developer Center, an online resource specifically designed to promote Google-related game technology and infrastructure.

This includes Chrome, WebGL, Google Web Toolkit, Native Client, HTML5, App Engine, Google TV, and Android, as well as monetization services like Google Checkout and AdMob. It even includes technology not immediately associated with games, like Google's SketchUp design program, which has apparently become quite popular among game level designers.

Why games, particularly Web-based games? The simple answer is that what's good for the Web is good for Google.

And game developers are good for the Web. Ian Ni-Lewis, developer advocate for games at Google, says that game developers are typically the earliest adopters of new technology and they're also instrumental in shaping technical specifications because they push the technology the hardest.

"One example is we created a bunch of graphics and media technologies that worked out really well for some of the things we expected to use them for in HTML5," said Ni-Lewis in an interview at GDC. "But when game developers started using them, they basically came back to us and said, 'Hey, we love Canvas. We love WebGL. But we don't really love your audio tag.'"

The result, says Ni-Lewis, was a recognition that the proposed Web audio specification and Google's implementation of it needed further work. And that, he says, is going to lead to improved media technologies that are relevant outside of the gaming world.

But really, the gaming world is relevant to everyone using computer and mobile technology. Since the advent of the personal computer industry in the 1980s, on through the mobile era, the most successful platforms have had strong support for game makers. That's not to say game makers make or break a platform, but they do play an important role in sustaining platform momentum and technical advancement.

In the years when Windows thrived and the Mac languished, Windows offered the superior gaming experience. Even today, Mac OS X gaming remains an afterthought for most game developers.

Apple's longstanding ambivalence about gaming changed with the rise of the iPhone and iOS. Presently, it's game makers that play the largest role in sustaining the desirability of iOS devices.The majority of iOS apps fall into either the game or entertainment category. And so not only is Google wooing game developers, but other companies are as well.

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