Games are a remarkably agile medium - they can squeeze in anywhere. Whenever a new digital platform emerges, whether its a tablet, augmented reality headset or smart home security system, games are never far behind.
Humans, like most animals, are natural players. With the gradual, lumbering rise of the smartwatch, however, games have so far played a limited role.
The stores on the Pebble and Android Wear devices are mostly filled with fitness and convenience applications, which is sensible considering the form factor of these things: they’re small, they’re attached to you and they have accelerometers to track movement. Hence, dozens of gamified jogging apps.
There are more games that don’t require running, of course, but so far they have been mostly restricted to simple ports of classics like Tetris, Pac-Man and Tamagotchi.
According to Will Luton, designer of Pixel Miner, one of the most successful Pebble games so far, these are the wrong approaches: “Integrating heart rate and pedometers obtrusively into game loops or attempting to shrink down smartphone titles onto a smaller device may get some traction early on as players explore the device and it’s capabilities, but they won’t be sustainable.”
Love it or hate it, when Apple enters a market, it brings with it an earthquake of hype and an accompanying tsunami of fresh developer interest. So how could things change with smartwatch games in the near future?
Blipvert gaming Perhaps the future of smartwatch gaming is all about reducing the smartphone “snack-sized” approach even further.
“The correct approach is to consider how the device is used and build from there,” says Luton. “Smart watches are high frequency, short session devices which have low precision controls. This means that interfaces have to be very simple, such as one touch or menu-based systems. If smartphone games are designed to be played while waiting for a coffee, smartwatch games should be designed to be played in an elevator ride.”
There are historical precedences here. Nintendo’s old Game & Watch titles - and indeed that whole generation of simple LCD games, from Grandstand’s Caveman to Mattel’s Dungeons and Dragons - were based around simple and amusing interactions, where form was as important as experience.
Casio made basic LCD game watches, as did Nelsonic, with its cute Zelda title. Smart watches could bring this back. Furthermore, the idea of five-second game collections, popularised in the Bishi Bashi and Warioware titles, could prosper on a platform where more demanding experiences can’t jostle them out of the way.
A virtue of simplicity It could be that the limiting form factor and interface capabilities of smartwatches will be enough to spark new and unusual ideas.
“One thing that game developers like is new modes of interaction and control,” says developer and researcher Michael Cook. “GDC ran their annual alt.ctrl workshop recently that’s all about new ways to interact with games. Apple’s already emphasising these minimalistic ways of communicating through the watch, like doodling on the screen, tapping another person’s wrist remotely, and so on.
“The small screen and simple interactions also remind me of what Robin Baumgarten is doing in his game design experiments. Baumgarten’s latest creation is Line Wobbler , a game that you played on a single line of flashing lights. Designing games for really small platforms like a single dimension or a screen as small as a watch is a really cool challenge.”
Another idea is that smartwatch games could evolve into quick-session social experiences, allowing friends who meet up in the street, to quickly and seamlessly swap data.
“I do actually think there are some great possibilities for ‘persistent games’- games that you are playing all the time, alone or with friends,” says developer Bennett Foddy. “For these games, the watch makes it possible to check in on your progress whenever you have an idle nanosecond, without starting an app or pulling out your phone. These might be games that are played by tapping the phone at certain times, or by being at certain locations: the depth won’t come from the software itself but from the way that it fits in with your everyday life.”
This is already a feature of the Nintendo 3DS console. Its Street Pass app automatically collects simple details from other 3DS-owning passers-by, then lets you check out their messages and profiles when you have time.
Street Pass also contains a number of mini-games that can only be competed through connection with other users. This could actually be used in a more complex way.
“Developers will have to get better at placing more of the experience in the mind and less of it on screen,” says game developer Moo Yoo, who worked at Moshi Monsters creator Mind Candy until going independent. “I imagine a huge demand for highly interlinked social games and dynamically generated social narratives. You can take the example of a game like Farmville which gave context and a real-world meaning to gifting a virtual animal. A smartwatch game could be a system of proposals, acceptances, and rejections - either in a dating sim or a game of diplomacy.”
Full contact gaming Smartphones have accelerometers so they sense movements, and they have wi-fi connectivity to allow multiplayer connection. Add these to a device that you can’t accidentally drop or throw across the room, and you have interesting possibilities for physical group-based games.
“I love making digital games involving running around,” says experimental smartphone and tablet game designer Alistair Aitcheson, responsible for the likes of Greedy Bankers and Tap Happy Sabotage .
“The smartphone is physically attached to your body, so it’s perfect for tag-style games involving slapping each other’s wrists.” This sounds crazy, but it’s actually the basis of the excellent indie title Johann Sebastian Joust , a multiplayer contact game that uses PlayStation Move motion controllers: participants have to try to jog or bash the controllers of their rivals, which removes them from the game.
The winner is the player who survives the longest without being tagged. It’s enormous fun, but difficult for most people to experience, because most people don’t have eight PlayStation Move controllers; and with a smartphone version, they risk getting their handset belted across the room. But a smartwatch version would work brilliantly.
“I’ve also always wanted to do something involving hidden information - where players see different things on their personal displays,” says Aitcheson, envisioning a sort of Murder in the Dark experience where players are fed different information about their roles in the game.
“Delivering this through a phone can feel cumbersome and it slows the pace and focus of play. But with a watch, players can absorb new details just by glancing at their wrists, and can continue running around without having had to stop and think.”
The second (or third?) screen Another obvious use for the smartwatch will be as a second or even third screen for a console, PC or tablet title - either imparting personal information to the player while participating in the main game, or allowing them to take an element of that game with them wherever they go.
“We have already seen a trend for games that connect out of the main screen, into the real world,” says Tomas Rawlings of Auroch Digital , which has just launched its board game adaptation, Chainsaw Warrior.
“Skylanders and Disney’s Infinity are good examples of this, and this device offers potentials here. Also with persistent games - either online like Travian or MMOs like EVE Online - I can see lots of uses for getting information about events within the game world, always being accessible to the player.
“One area I’m interested is in how this might be used for board games. This form has been undergoing a renaissance in recent years as crowdfunding has connected players with creators. You can see the tentative steps in this area with games like One Night Ultimate Werewolf, which uses a companion app to assist the gameflow. Linking that app to a player and their movements adds lots of possibilities; think Cluedo played around the house or Hide and Seek 2.0...”
Meanwhile, coder and web developer Adrian Smith sees the smartwatch fulfilling the role that science fiction movies always used it for; as an intimate extension to a wider computer network.
“The most unique innovations will be augmentation, as a smartwatch is in essence an augmentation device,” he says. “For example, the player’s heart rate could changes the behaviour of an intelligent enemy in a larger PC horror game. Or the smartwatch could be a secondary screen or interface, for example the onscreen watch used in the N64 game Goldeneye could have been an actual watch.
“In Alien Isolation, the watch could vibrate when the alien is detected on the scanner, or in a Halo title, you could have Cortana on your wrist, available to talk to throughout the game. There is also a hard to define emotional connection with smartwatches, which makes the platform ideal for personification.”
Smartwatch games, then, may well have an interesting future beyond glorified fitness apps with points systems; it just requires developers to get to grips with the form factor and truly embrace its limitations and peculiarities. Perhaps the hype that will soon surround Apple’s entry to the market will be the boost those developers need.