Apple Watch gaming: Devs talk early titles and the challenges of wearable fun
We’ve been bombarded by the images and ideas of the Apple Watch transforming the way we communicate and use apps in our daily lives, whether it’s receiving notifications on our wrists, paying for coffee, or interacting with loved ones. So much emphasis has been put on the Apple Watch as an essential part of our everyday routine, yet for many of us, there’s something we do all the time on our phones that has barely been shown in marketing materials: Play games.
Yes, games: Of course there will be games for the Apple Watch, and from our conversations with creators, developers are excited about the opportunity to develop for a wearable device. “Entertainment apps are important in addition to utilitarian ones, reminding users that the device is fun as well as functional,” says Mathieu Nouzareth, co-founder and CEO of FreshPlanet, which is bringing iOS puzzler BoxPop to Apple Watch.
Having a small screen strapped to players at all times offers new scenarios for portable gaming. But as with any new platform—notably one that isn’t yet available for purchase—there are also challenges, which range from designing for a different kind of device to actually getting hands on the hardware to test out ideas.
When the Apple Watch starts reaching buyers on Friday, it sounds like they’ll have a solid handful of games to choose from at first. And by and large, many of those games will be reconfigured versions of existing iPhone games, trimmed and tweaked to not only fit on a much smaller screen, but also to fit gameplay into more compact windows of time during the day.
It’s little surprise that existing games will be the biggest initial focus for Apple Watch developers—after all, smartwatches with crisp, color screens and ample processing power are still relatively new. While Google-powered Android Wear devices have been on the market for several months, games haven’t flourished. To many developers, the Apple Watch will be their first foray into wearable gaming—and without the Watch on the market, it’s surely tricky to dream up original ideas without that innate sense of how the device fits into (and affects) daily life.
One of the familiar games that’ll be there on April 24 is free-to-play smash Trivia Crack, which will be scaled down to work on the Watch, letting you choose answers to pop culture queries with ease. Another is Hatchi, which brings the Tamagotchi-inspired virtual pet simulator to your wrist—but in that case, it’s more of a companion app for the iOS game rather than a full-fledged experience. And word game Letterpad from NimbleBit (Tiny Tower) was originally conceived for iPhone, but it’ll release simultaneously for iOS devices and Apple Watch.
Rules! is one game that’s received some marketing love from Apple in the run-up to the Watch release. Not only did it pop up at the big event in March, but it was also the first iOS game to be updated with Watch support, and Apple recently offered free downloads via the Apple Store app. The charming iOS game—which tests your memory with increasingly complex sorting demands—now includes a “daily brain workout mini-game” for Apple Watch, says the Apple Store listing.
However, while those games might’ve started as iPhone experiences, original games designed solely for the Apple Watch are also coming at or around the launch date. Eyes Wide Games announced Watch This Homerun, a bite-sized baseball game that’ll eventually be followed by other sports titles from the same team. Robot 5 Studios has already beat it to the punch on one sport thanks to Football Twos, plus the team is working on Blackjack Mini and simple puzzler Berry Quest.
Runeblade seems like the most ambitious of the already-revealed originals—and that’s a relative descriptor, of course. Created by Everywear Games, which was established early this year to exclusively develop wearable experiences, it’s a fantasy role-playing game that you can play for five to 15 seconds per stretch. That’s right: An adventure meant to be played for seconds at a time, not minutes or hours.
In any case, whether creating a game from scratch or optimizing and reworking an existing one to fit a new device and style of play, making Apple Watch games before the device is actually available has proven to be a challenging endeavor.
With Runeblade, Everywear attempted to make the gameplay interactions feel “Twitter-sized,” says CEO Aki Järvilehto. “Right now, this is one of the most exciting game design challenges out there. Finding the right balance between simplicity, complexity, and depth has taken a lot of iterations and testing,” he admits.
The Finnish studio was founded by industry veterans from big developers like Rovio and Remedy, but the Apple Watch isn’t like a smartphone or console. “The most important challenge for us has been to completely change the mindset of how we typically play games,” Järvilehto adds. “When you’re aiming to create a fun experience on such a new platform like Apple Watch, it is critical to understand how people will actually be using these devices. The game has to fit in with people’s daily lives, and playing it needs to feel effortless.”
With Rules!, the team at TheCodingMonkeys ultimately settled on having the daily challenge span a smaller grid on the Apple Watch. “It’s kind of surprising how much complexity you can fit into a 2x2 playing field, so scaling that down from 4x4 [on iPhone] was a winning solution,” says CEO Martin Pittenauer. “Of course, most of the development was trying out ideas and looking at what works and what doesn’t. Game development for Apple Watch is still quite the undiscovered country, after all.”
The wearable nature of the Apple Watch brings some very specific considerations with game design. As Järvilehto’s social media comparison hints, it’s unlikely that players will want to have their wrists raised for long periods of time—so short play sessions are essential. Pittenauer also suggests that an ideal Watch game should let players stop at any moment and pick back up later, which might not work for many genres in their traditional forms.
And the tiny screen means that there’s no room for in-game excess or interface design: Games must be boiled down to their essential elements, no more and no less. For Letterpad, that meant axing extraneous interactions and focusing on the word-building gameplay. “You don’t want to be navigating menus on the watch, unless that is the main functionality of your app,” says David Marsh, co-founder and chief pixelization officer at NimbleBit. “The goal was for the Watch to basically be a mirror of the game state on the phone, so that you could solve just a word or two when inspiration strikes.”
It’s also the reason why the initial games are largely graphic-lite affairs, most of which seem to require only simple taps for interactions and don’t require a ton of focus or concentration. No doubt, some enterprising souls will work out ways to bring high-impact experiences like racing games and first-person shooters to the Apple Watch, if only to prove the case. But it seems like the most ideal games will indeed be simple in design, flexible in demands, and bite-sized in nature.
Ready for launch
Some developers have had access to the Apple Watch to test out their ideas and see their games up and running on the devices, but not everyone. That’s been one of the biggest challenges for early Watch app creators, which is surely part of the reason why we haven’t seen a huge flood of launch games announced.
Hatchi had already been released on the Pebble, but Portable Pixels was concerned about making a fully-fledged game for a device they’d never played with. “We were cautious about trying to do anything particularly ambitious without ever having used the Apple Watch, and not having one to test with,” says owner and developer Greg Plumbly, noting that they plan to add more features once they have hardware. Developing for a software simulator only goes so far, after all, as you can’t tell how fast actual communication between the iPhone and Apple Watch will be.
Monkube encountered its own struggles with developing its Watch game, BlastBall Duo. The game is adapted from BlastBall Max on iPhone—itself a conversion of a board game—and the studio has had to rely on Internet research to pick up design cues. “It’s not easy, I can tell you that,” says CEO and creative director, Sven Van de Perre. “We have to check online videos and analyze Apple presentations to get a feel for the way Apple does menus, user interface movement speed, and so on.”
As such, Monkube decided to skip the April 24 launch date and take extra time to make sure the game is working right on the Watch itself before shipping. However, since Belgium won’t get the Watch this week, Van de Perre has to tap into some international assistance to make that happen. “Luckily, my parents live in France and I can pre-order three watches through them,” he admits. “We hope to have a little time to tweak our game, have it be perfect right out of the gate, and still be well within the launch window.”
But even with the myriad headaches and frustrations that come with making a game for a brand new platform, the developers we spoke with seem excited for the chance to launch an early Apple Watch game. For FreshPlanet, the task of designing for a small screen was a puzzle akin to those seen in BoxPop, and it provided a welcome shift from the norm. “We like to think of this challenge as an asset: Restrictions force us to think in new patterns, making way for innovation,” explains Nouzareth.
“This April marks the beginning of smartwatch gaming, and we’re very enthusiastic about being on board right out of the gate,” asserts Järvilehto. “It has been tremendously fun to develop Runeblade. There’s this feeling of excitement amongst the team that’s a little hard to convey. That sensation that we are doing something new and fresh, that we’re doing the work of early pioneers and creating something completely new, constantly pushes us forward.”
Finally seeing months of potentially uncertain work pay off in a matter of days will surely be a great reward for some—at least for team behind Rules! “The project kept going and grew into something we really love and are passionate about,” asserts Pittenauer. “By now, we can’t wait to see the game running on our wrists.”