Over the smartwatch's brief history as a gaming platform, there's not yet been the essential killer app.
There have been a handful of unquestionably enticing, interesting games released, and a bounty of creations apparently derivative of iconic titles from other platforms. But nothing has yet arrived that thrusts the smartwatch flag into the ground, declaring the hardware a gaming essential.
The problem is a question. What kind of game suits a smartwatch? It's a dilemma that the team at London outfit Bossa Studios have been wrangling with, and they think they have the answer in Spy Watch, released today for the App Store as the Apple Watch launch looms.
"When you look at a hardware or a platform when you're designing a game, you've really got to think about what's good about that platform," explains Bossa's COO Vince Farquharsonon. "You have to know why what your are doing is on that platform specifically, and not somewhere else."
So Farquharsonon and his colleagues started to consider what would make a game ideally suited to the Apple Watch. They decided to take a design lead from the way people use watches, believing their creation should be conceived to be played for three or fours seconds every twenty minutes. Immediately, they had presented themselves with quite a challenge.
A new genre
"We realised there aren't games that you play like that," confirms Farquharsonon. "We then realised we had to really create a new genre, that we can then map a game to that works well on the device. We started to think about a game that could be played every 20 minutes for a few seconds. Not a lot springs to mind at first, so we looked at what Apple were doing with the Apple Watch; where they see the potential."
The Apple Watch, of course, is a device centred around – beyond time – quick interactions, communication and notifications. It is a particularly personal device, and specialises in delivering content in fast, fleeting moments, linking wearers with both apps and other people.
"We started to look at what kind of game could leverage those strengths," explains Farquharsonon. "We came up with the idea of communicating with someone – a fictional character – that is somewhere else. We started to think about how you could be asked questions by that person, how you could make decisions for them, and ultimately steer them. And that's really our game."
The team started to work on the mechanics of the idea, striving to craft a title that exists within a messaging system. But they needed a theme, and one that would compliment the idea of communicating through a watch. Suddenly, it all became clear. Evoking an image of the iconic comic strip detective Dick Tracey, Farquharsonon explains how the game Spy Watch suddenly came together.
"Relatively quickly we realised it would be so cool if we could make the Apple Watch offer that kind of 'gadgety' spy watch," he says. "We got the idea straight away, and it really seemed to resonate with the team."
And so it is that Spy Watch was born. And in it's own way, Bossa's creation revisits some of the most traditional gaming forms. Spy Watch is, after all, a piece of interactive fiction; a new model for the text adventure, delivered throughout the day as notifications in your watch, that appear in the same way new emails, social media alerts and text messages do.
And it is in part a live action role playing game too, albeit a solitary one. Simply put, the user, Apple Watch strapped to their wrist, plays a person wearing a cutting-edge smartwatch. They are the game character, with a real-world prop for interaction.
Come in Kitt
The gameplay itself sees you make decisions for an agent out in the field. Messages come in asking for guidance. Should the agent use charm of stealth to pass security? How should they enter a building? What destination should they head to, to complete a mission? Spy Watch provides the player with their own agent plaything, and delivers a world of subterfuge and espionage through ordinary notifications. It's an engaging idea, and one that can be experienced almost entirely without going into the Spy Watch app itself, which presents a simulated UI for the titular gadget, allowing players to peruse mission progress and the like.
"We've created what we've started calling a 'background game'," offers Farquharsonon. "Rather than being a game you put aside time to play, we hope it's a game that will integrate into your life, in a way that is totally different to normal games. Basically, it interacts with you at logical time-points, and you can very quickly give it responses and carry on with your life."
Indeed, Spy Watch can even be played while in another game, as long as notifications are available.
The team also resisted doing too much guided by traditional games. They avoided 3D, and let their visual design be guided by concepts in smartwatch app design rather than strive to ape mobile game design.
The results are truly interesting, and a brief trial play – via an iPhone – pointed to an experience a great deal more engaging than most real-world notifications.
"We've ended up in a place where what we've done here – a game played in notifications – seems obvious in hindsight. Hopefully that means it's a good idea," concludes Farquharsonon. "We wanted to make something that is unambiguously better because it is on the Apple Watch, and I think we’ve managed that."