The annual Game Developers Conference is happening this week, and Google is celebrating by bringing its “Instant apps” feature to games on the Play Store. You’ll be able to instantly try a very small number of Android games before installing them, via a “Try Now” button listed in the Play Store. This is the same “Instant Apps” technology that has been around for apps, but now Google is launching it for games, too, as “Google Play Instant.“
The idea behind the program is that installing an app is a big barrier to entry to users, and removing this barrier will result in more people trying more apps and games. An “Instant Apps” program is something Google has been experimenting with for some time. In 2015, the company launched its first swing at such a project, called “Streaming Apps.” This feature would run an Android app on Google’s servers, stream a live video feed to the user, and stream clicks back to the Google server.
In 2016, Streaming Apps was scrapped and replaced with today’s “Instant Apps” technology. Instant Apps streams the actual app code to a device and runs it in an ephemeral sandbox. For instant apps to work, developers need to modularize apps using the Android SDK, which can help break the app down into 10MB chunks that can easily be streamed to the user. The result is an app or game that can start up instantly, but the small size often means you are limited to certain features. It’s usually enough to try out the app or game, and if users venture outside the features of the instant version of the app, an install box will pop up, allowing them to easily get the full version.
For now it’s a closed beta only available to certain developers, and a special page for the feature shows a whopping six games. There are some heavy hitters here, like Clash Royale, Words with Friends, and Final Fantasy XV: A New Empire. The small app size works better here for some games than others. You can play a brief two-game tutorial for Clash Royale, which is enough to know what the gameplay is like. For something small like Solitaire, you can play a whole game in instant mode. Bigger games like Final Fantasy only let you fight a single monster in a blank hallway, which seems to have little to do with the primary city-building gameplay.
Google has demoed interesting future ideas like challenging a friend to a race in a game he or she doesn’t own. You could send a link over IM, and an instant app could launch for your opponent without requiring a lengthy download time. Similarly, you could play a round of Words with Friends with someone who doesn’t have the app installed.
Instant apps required changes to the Java-based Android SDK, but now with a games version, Google is juggling changes to the NDK and game engines like Unity. While Instant Apps is open to any developer, the game version is still in closed beta. Google says it will open the feature “more broadly” later this year. Google has a sign-up page for interested developers.