How Real Will Wearable Games Be?

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Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly writes a regular column about all things video game for TechCrunch. He is a games industry consultant, freelance designer and the creator of leading design blog What Games Are. You can follow him on Twitter here.

I keep flip-flopping on smartwatches. Some days I think they’re the coming thing, the next big platform and so on. I imagine the use cases of constantly-on (especially for games) and it seems exciting. However on other days I remember that I have a Pebble, and while it’s neat in its way it does have some heavy limitations. After a brief flirtation I realized that I was barely wearing it or caring about its apps.

I find myself wondering whether all smartwatches will be similarly faddy, and yet find the root idea compelling. I’m not the only one. Game designer Will Luton thinks smartwatches could be bigger than mobile, for example. As he sees it they’re ideally placed for ambient and pervasive games, with the most obvious designs for them behaving similarly to the lite games of the early days of Facebook.

Is it a real space though, or is it just a passing thing? Is gameplay really coming to a wrist near you soon?

Pervasiveness

Mobile, tablets and phablets have all brought us closer to the screen than PCs ever could, and the number of applications that this has already enabled is insane. It’s almost impossible to imagine a time when we didn’t have communications, maps, email, trackers so on all in our pockets. The biggest plus-point for wearables over and above those devices is essentially even more pervasiveness. A mobile you still have to fish out of your pocket to check in, but a wearable is essentially always in view.

The push for more pervasiveness led to the eyeball and the wrist. The first is Google Glass, but it’s increasingly looking like a broken idea. This Daily Show skit nails why: Glass is simply too invasive. The wrist looks to be the better bet, and on it the smartwatch. It’s still in view, can ping you with vibrations or run apps like maps, yet doesn’t scare other people.

From a gaming standpoint this intuitively leads to Geocaching-style games. The general idea is that you’re notified of a game event and engage with it in a single tap, which in turns updates a global game for everyone. Maybe you check into a mobile or Web app later for a richer experience, but the smartwatch provides the in-the-moment play. So for example the smartwatch explorer earns points for traveling to certain places, tagging or leaving comments, or going on puzzle hunts.

Another gaming use is in fitness and activity-tracking. These are already very popular in the mobile space but they tend to rely on custom hardware (like the Up) or manual input. A smartwatch, on the other hand, potentially takes much of the input factor away and replaces it with passive sensors. It may sound a little corny, but a global diabetes game using a passive blood-sugar tracking built into a smartwatch might be just the thing to help save some lives.

The third use is in ambient communication. Say, for example, that your smartwatch encounters another in its locale. They could engage in a gamelike communication with each other (similar to Nintendo’s StreetPass), perhaps combating, trading or simply flirting/pinging one another.

Interface

The Pebble isn’t touch-enabled, but it seems fair to assume that most next-generation smartwatches will be. The screens should be big enough to interpret taps, swipes, pinches and maybe even drags. It seems unlikely that they’ll be able to display soft keyboards, but likely that they’ll handle voice at least passably well (for example most people expect Apple’s iWatch to connect to Siri). And again it’s fair to assume that they’ll support compass, tilt and other sensors.

At a basic level this offers a fair range of interaction. Such interactions really would have to be built with one hand in mind (because of course the user is wearing the watch on their other hand) but they wouldn’t be showstoppers. Another is that the smartwatch game would have even more thumb or finger-occluding issues than smartphones (where using your digit covers over a part of the screen) but again, that could be smartly handled.

The smartwatch will likely be poor as a platform for action gaming, even Flappy Bird, but you might see great versions of games like Threes working on it for instance, or other games that involve simple tapping or dragging. Roleplaying or caring games would work very well. Smartwatches are ideal for Tamagotchi-style interactions, for games that involve time elements and similar. One example idea (combining this and pervasiveness) is the evolving-egg style of game. You have a small creature on your watch that you feed and grow, perhaps solving puzzles as a part of that experience, and as it comes into contact with other creatures perhaps they swap some DNA and evolve.

While the screen size likely prevents smartwatch games from ever being immersive, ultra-casual, connected, lighthearted gaming fare could definitely find a new home on it. That’s where smartwatch’s strength likely lies.

The Big Buts

Yet there are problems. A big one, for example, is that notifications are actually pretty annoying. While the mobile phone has brought notifications into our lives in a big way, they are a constant source of grump for many of us, and smartwatches threaten to make that grump even worse. I can only speak for myself but when I used my Pebble a lot I thought it was very cool to be pinged like this for about a day. Then less so, then annoying, then irritating as hell. Then I gave up trying to tailor them and turned them off wholesale.

And that means I essentially turned off its pervasiveness and reduced it to a much dumber watch, which I then tired of. It’s a vicious circle to be sure, but the problem is that developers often abuse notifications, sending them out with very little personal or relevant pretext and essentially turning them into advertisements. Even relatively innocent uses of that kind of technology start to become a drag, especially for power users. It’s bad enough for many users that their phone buzzes and pings when notifications come in, but on the wrist?

Then there’s the straightforward concerns with power. Size imposes a large technical constraint on what can be packed into smartwatches, but at the same time nobody wants a watch that covers their forearm like a Leela-style Futurama communicator. They want small, sleek and stylish – that is if they want watches at all. So with only so much room to play with, it’s impractical to create a smartwatch too capable. Most of the watch’s innards will be battery. Communications will likely be restricted to Bluetooth, WiFi and NFC. Sensors will have to be extremely miniaturized, and then there’s the electronics to support the screen.

That leads to my biggest concern: the dependency on mobile. Currently smartwatches do not really seem to be being thought of as stand-alone platforms, but rather as adjuncts to phones. They are essentially a secondary display to a primary core, not so much a platform in their own right as a peripheral to another.

There are good reasons why, yet the fact that smartwatches are peripheral devices massively cuts down the likely size of their market as they grow to be regarded as peripheral accessories. Nice-to-have for the pres-existing device, a luxury’s luxury, but not serious. That in turn means that smartwatches face critical mass issues. Without it pervasiveness is seriously cut down.

StreetPass is an example of a pervasive technology that works but doesn’t. It detects when another 3DS is in the same vicinity and conducts a minor gaming interaction between them, but the problem is that the frequency of that meeting happening is low. It needs scale and without it is nothing. The exact same problem applied to location-based gaming, which is why FourSquare ground to a halt, and also to smartwatches.

I’m fearful that even if smartwatches do get their start that they will already be balkanized. Imagine, if you will, a scenario where many people have smartwatches from mobile manufacturers, but they’re not interoperable. Even with Android Wear powering them, imagine you still need to get the Samsung watch to work with the Samsung phone, the Amazon watch to work with Amazon phone, the Windows watch to work with the Windows phone. Smartwatch then becomes a recipe for a set of sub-platforms, in effect feature watches rather than smartwatches. Developers then see no reason to offer them major support, resulting in lowest-common-denominator apps.

Conclusion

So you see why I’m flip flopping. It feels, to me at least, like there is a space there and some kinds of game that would well fill that space. Not everything would work on a two-inch screen, but then again not everything has to. The strength of any successful platform is rarely about being all things to all people, but rather leveraging its uniqueness in ways that make peoples’ lives better.

Yet at the same time the smartwatch as we understand it today seems too tied down, too belittled, for it to truly flourish. It feels much like the palmtop sector of yore, where lots of mini-solutions tried to find their way but couldn’t, and ultimately the idea took a decade longer to bear fruit than it should have. So far all the versions of the smartwatch that I’ve seen have that feel, and it’s not strong enough to be considered “next” yet.

All eyes are no doubt turning to Apple to see what the company will do. Will it define smartwatch for real much as it did smartphone, or will it go the accessory road? As goes Apple, so go the rest of us.