The first Apple Watch game makers are carving a new path.
Games are shrinking. But gaming market isn’t — games helped Apple’s App Store sales reach a record-breaking $15 billion in 2014. If developers figure out how to squeeze games down for the tiny 2-inch screen of the new Apple Watch, they could have a solid foothold in the emerging wearable games sector. And with analysts predicting up to 40 million Apple Watches sold in 2015, this could be a good space to be in.
But Apple did little to pave the way for game makers when it announced its Apple Watch in March. The company focused on health and fitness applications for its wearable, never mentioning gaming in its March press conference. Developers still don’t have access to the device’s full feature set and development tools. As of now, Apple’s preview page only has two games.
Apple Watch launch
It’s still early, and Apple is providing little assistance, but game makers are taking the initiative already. Mobile gaming is expected to reach $30 billion in 2015. If wearable gaming is going in the same direction, developers won’t want to miss out.
Patrick Walker, an analyst at research company EEDAR, says that as consumers begin interacting with wearable technology, gaming will become a bigger part of the conversation. He tells GamesBeat that Apple Watch could follow iPhone’s history, moving from utility use toward gaming eventually.
“Initially, the market for Apple Watch games will be modest because of the limitations of the platform in terms of screen size and input methods,” Walker says. “Most consumers will ask themselves, ‘Why would I play this experience on my watch instead of my smartphone?’
“However, history has shown that there are typically unforeseen ways in which consumers engage with new Apple technology, and new ways of interacting with the technology create new gaming possibilities. Breakout success of gaming on the Apple Watch will depend on integrating games into these new ways of interacting with wearable technology.”
Some developers are hoping to pioneer wearable game development and others are simply excited about experimentation with a new device. But making the first Apple Watch games hasn’t been easy for any of them.
Tied down and held back
At launch, all games are tethered to the iPhone, with the watch serving only as a screen interface for applications running on the smartphone. Third-party developers aren’t yet able to create standalone native Watch applications. This essentially makes the Watch a thin client.
Beyond this, developers do not have access to the Apple Watch’s Digital Crown’s full feature set, and many of its other advanced features of the Watch, such as the Taptic Engine and the heartbeat sensor, are not yet available to developers. Apple could permit native app access to developers soon, but for now all apps including games will essentially be extensions of iPhone apps.
But even when full access to the device and its tools opens up, Jim Ying VP of games publishing at messaging service Tango says that it’ll take creative minds to go beyond this.
“Most iPhone game developers see the Apple Watch as being a second-screen experience because their starting location is in the smart phone space,” Ying told GamesBeat in an interview. “They look at their existing, successful business model and see how the watch can improve that. There are also challenges to standalone games like screen size and battery life. It will take creative minds for that standalone experience to come to fruition.”
The watch itself presents its own challenges when it comes to app and game development. Developers say that animations aren’t as easy to implement on Watch as they are on smartphones. They must use old-fashioned image sequences to show animations on Apple Watch, just like a paper flip-book. Smooth animations require more images for these sequences, which hogs precious space.
A new mindset
Just as the iPhone and iPad required a different mindset for game making, the Apple Watch will need its own approach. Bossa Studios chief operating officer Vince Farquharson, creator of upcoming launch title Spy_Watch, says that shoehorning iPhone-style games on the Watch is the wrong approach — “I think it’s a sin,” Farquharson tells GamesBeat.
“Nine out of 10 ideas are wrong for the watch. All the traditional ideas you can come up are just wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. It takes too long to interact with it, the screen is too small to show that, or it’s going to drain the battery. You have to be quite smart about it. You’ve got to look at the features and limitations and figure out a way to do something that is complementary to the device.
“You don’t try to work at how you get a game on another platform — that’s just the wrong way of thinking about it. You look at what is unique — what is cool, and that is your start point. That’s a much more interesting way to go about it.”
Spy_Watch is an interactive role-playing story reminiscent of old text adventures, where players will take up the role of a spy. Bossa Studios’ workaround was to use the Watch’s built-in notification systems as a way to convey the story. Farquharson called the Watch’s initial limitations “exciting” and said that it helped fuel experimentation within the studio. The wearable also has some good points, he noted.
“It does things that others aren’t quite as good at,” Farquharson said. “It’s the best fast-notification device that exists, so we worked at how we could use that for a game rather than fight against the tide all the time, trying to fit a traditional experience onto that device that didn’t exist when those experiences were designed.”
Robot 5 is a new studio created specifically for the sole purpose of creating Apple Watch games, and it has three prepared for launch, including a match-3 puzzle game and a football game. It plans to release 10 games by mid-year for the Watch. The studio’s Peter Chen admits that it has been a lot of work to get these going.
“Part of the challenge and limitation is time,” Chen told GamesBeat. “Adding the kinds of complex scenes that are in our games is very challenging and time-consuming. For example, changing the color of a football in an iPhone game might take a few minutes by changing a few lines of code. In an Apple Watch game, this change might take several hours depending on how many times the football is used in different scenes.
“The biggest challenge is the complexity of the animations. iPhone games can have animations that are infinitely complex, with full control of each pixel and also of objects movements across the screen. Apple Watch games don’t have this kind of control over pixels and objects, so we have to mimic this kind of behavior.”
Some developers have mentioned responsiveness for third-party Watch apps, a side effect of the client-type connection to the iPhone. This means that fast-paced action games may not be a good fit right now.
“There does seem to be a delay from when you tap a button in a third-party to when the button action takes place,” said Chen. “Apple will likely optimize this issue on launch or shortly after. But there will always be some kind of delay when tapping buttons in third-party apps because the button tap goes from the Apple Watch over Bluetooth to the iPhone, and then back from the iPhone over Bluetooth to the Apple Watch.”
Aki Järvilehto, the CEO of Everywear Games and developer of upcoming Watch fantasy role-playing game Runeblade, says that a change in mindset is a bigger obstacle than any technical limitation.
“The form factor itself is certainly very different, and there are a number of parameters that you’ll have to operate within that we simply have to learn through trial and error,” Järvilehto told GamesBeat in an interview. “From the development point of view, the biggest change is without a doubt a change in the mindset. Smartwatch games will have to integrate into our lives smoothly. They need to feel effortless and fun to play. And that’s a radical change and a completely new question to answer: How do you deliver fun in 5-15 seconds? How do you deliver a gameplay experience that evolved over days, weeks and months?”
Keep it short and simple
Even as these first games debut on Apple Watch, developers are already conscious of gameplay session times. More than one developer told GamesBeat that its goal was sessions of 15 seconds or less for this first launch batch. But this is less about technical limitations and more about player comfort and enjoyment.
Eyes Wide Games, developer behind launch title Watch This Homerun, said it became clear early on that holding your arm up to your face wasn’t going to work and that this consideration actually helped open up a new style of gameplay.
“Early in development, we built a physical mockup to wear throughout our day to get a feel for being able to play whenever we lifted our arm,” CEO Stephen Griffin said. “Based on that experience two things became clear: It wasn’t comfortable to hold your arm up continuously for long periods of time and secondly, it really felt more natural to lift up your arm spend a short amount of time looking at it then put it down much like you do with a normal watch.
“Our conclusions were later confirmed when we heard rumors that Apple suggested a 10 second goal for Apple Watch apps at developer labs. While it was shorter than we originally planned, it freed us to drop several assumptions about what we had to put into the game.”
What his team wound up with, he said, is a new style of game.
Griffin says that this short kind of game would have been impractical on a mobile phone due to the time it takes to pull it out, unlock it, start the app, and run the game. It could be that these shorter experiences could build up to equal more play time in the long run, he says.
“They are definitely abbreviated experiences by necessity; however, we see them more as concentrated experiences that link with each other to form a larger play experience. Instead of one 5 minute experience, you have twenty 15 second experiences. More interestingly, we think that these 15 second experiences will better fit into a player’s busy day than 3 to 5 minute mobile experiences and will actually lead to more playing rather than less.”
Griffin believes that the ease of accessibility of the Apple Watch could have it replacing mobile games eventually.
“In terms of number of play sessions and total playtime, I think that Apple Watch games will replace phone games for everyone who has one, much like casual mobile games replaced casual desktop games. It’s about where people are spending their time.”
Too small to be set free
Even with the bigger of the two Apple Watch screen sizes (the device comes in 38mm and 42mm sizes), screen real estate is at a premium for both gaming and monetization. Game makers tied to more prevalent models of monetization such as ad-supported free games will have to rely on the smartphone’s screen for advertisements. As of now, iAd is not supported on the Apple Watch.
For now, outside the clever use of in-app purchases, Apple Watch games will need premium pricing to make money. For example, a launch game by Playscreen, Blackjack Anywhere, is $2, with no in-app purchases or time limits attached. It’s just like the old days.
EEDAR analyst Patrick Walker says there isn’t enough screen real estate for effective banner advertisements on the watch, though it could work with short interstitial advertisements. Until watch monetization is figured out, watch games will have to be sold at a set price unless they use the phone screen.
“There will be a challenge in monetizing games that are designed based on the paradigms and learnings from previous platforms, which depend on a larger screen to engage players and deliver advertisements,” Walker said. “Monetization will need to be figured out after game developers learn what consumer gaming experience truly fits with a wearable platform. Initially, many games on the platform will be premium because of the challenge of implementing an IAP or ad-based revenue model onto a device with such a small screen.”
Digi-Capital Managing Director Tim Merel says that there is potential for both paid and free apps for Apple Watch, though the small screen will require new approaches to advertising. It could be that native advertising could become even more important than it is today. Merel also notes that the potential for an increase of sessions per day for games could be an interesting opportunity for game makers.
“Digi-Capital’s analysis shows that sessions per day are critical for mobile games, with up to 35 times difference on that factor between top 1 percent and top 5 percent grossing apps,” Merel told GamesBeat. “As Apple Watch is intended to be used even more frequently than iPhones during the course of the day, that offers an intriguing opportunity for developers. Taking advantage of that opportunity might require new approaches because of the small form factor.”
Don’t worry about the battery
Apple quotes an 18-hour battery life for the wearable, and that’s when it’s paired with an iPhone and checked regularly throughout the day. That number only figures in 45 minutes of app use. It’s hard to know if games will have more or less of an impact. Users and experts are concerned that the battery life may be the Watch’s greatest weakness.
Despite these other concerns, it seems that developers of Apple Watch games aren’t worried about its battery life. Eyes Wide Games tells GamesBeat that it is “confident that battery life won’t be a problem.”
Robot 5’s Peter Chen says that if gameplay matches that of apps — 15 seconds or less at a time — the battery situation should be fine.
“We can expect that Apple Watch users will use their apps for about 15 seconds or less at a time,” Chen said. “Holding up your arm and wrist for minutes at a time simply doesn’t make sense. Usage for games will be no different.”
Connectivity is also a concern for battery life. With WatchKit games and applications using an invisible wireless link to send data between the Watch and iPhone, another layer of continual drain is added on the already limited battery capacity. But with the iPhone doing the heavy lifting in terms of processing, the Watch should be fine, says Chen.
“Since these sessions for both apps and games are so short, coupled with the processing happening on the iPhone, I expect playing games will affect the battery in a very similar way that using apps will affect the battery — they’ll both sip the battery throughout the day.”
Always in iPhone’s shadow
Apple’s announcement of its Watch focused solely on applications for fitness and health, with no mention of games. IHS Technology analyst Jack Kent says that Watch’s small screen will limit interactivity and that developers are going to have to be really creative to put games on it.
“Since the days of feature phones and into smartphones and tablets, games have been the dominant mobile media category – and device makers including Apple have often turned to games developers to show of new hardware features. It is different with smartwatches,” says Kent. “At launch, most app development is focused on health and fitness services, communications, and notifications. There is a role for games on smartwatches, but is likely to be limited to niche location-based titles and very casual games. Games won’t be the main selling point for smartwatches.”
Digi-Capital’s Merel notes that while the install base could be large, it will always be a subset of the iPhone install base. For this reason alone, the Apple Watch won’t supplant mobile devices for gaming.
Even in the shadow of the iPhone, it could be that convenience is what has the Apple Watch gaining favor with gamers. Many developers GamesBeat spoke with felt that the wearable could increase retention and engagement — two elements that challenge mobile developers — through ease of access.
“There are countless instances throughout the day where a quick distraction would be fun but too inconvenient, like going home on a crowded subway or waiting for a meeting at work to start. We can imagine someone playing Blackjack Mini 10 times a day for 10 seconds at a time, and potentially playing a different, more immersive iPhone game once at night on the couch for 10 minutes,” Robot 5’s Chen says.
Eyes Wide Games’ Griffin thinks that the Apple Watch could one day be as big as smartphone gaming is today. It needs good experiences to do so.
“As long as the games are good, gaming on the Apple Watch will revolutionize gaming for everyone who has the Apple Watch. They will play much less, if at all, on their phone,” he said. “Just like casual gaming moved from the desktop to the mobile phone, casual gaming will once again move to where users spend their time.”