Across the world customers (and intrigued passers-by) are right now trying on the Apple Watch, picking their favourite straps and making pre-orders. Quite soon, a healthy number of them are likely to be receiving their very own units. They’ll configure the health features, send some messages, download Twitter. And then, if theres one thing you can be sure of, they’ll try to download some games.
The concept of playable games on a 38mm or 42mm device might seem bizarre. It’s certainly difficult to see how a screen that small could deliver anything approaching the quality of the best iOS games and in truth — at least at first — it may prove that the Apple Watch’s battery and processor are too weak to sustain the category.
But that doesn’t mean developers aren’t getting ready to try. And at least one has unveiled a design for a full(ish) scale RPG that looks like it will give you a reason to prod your shiny new Watch when it arrives in April (or August).
Runeblade is described by Everywear Games as “the first Fantasy Adventure on a smartwatch”, and offers almost everything you recognise from traditional RPGs — monsters, spells, magical artefacts and stats — all contained on your tiny Apple Watch. Players take on the role of High Priestess of the War Mages, and fights corrupted ancient gods and their minions for profit, sport and glory. On their wrist.
Developers Everywear Games say that the title is designed to function in tiny, manageable bursts — battles lasting less than 15 seconds, updates appearing as “Glances”. But it is also clearly a genuine game, not a gimmick or Watch-based notifications system for a bigger title that actually lives on your phone.
“In terms of game design we’ve done something very different with Runeblade,” Everywear Games founder Aki Järvilehto tells WIRED.co.uk. “We’ve radically simplified the game play experience and are targeting for a 5-15 second game play session for average user. The experience build from this “twitter-sized” entertainment over time. Playing games on a smartwatch is a very different experience from tablets of phones. We wanted people to feel like it’s something effortless, fun and integrates well into your daily routines.”
What’s more, the game will be free to download in April, and updates look set to come swiftly boosting the game with new levels and enemies. Oh, and then there’s the report from Bloomberg that Everywear Games has been working directly with Apple on the title. (That’s usually a good sign.)
It’s not just Runeblade. Several other games have also been announced for the Apple Watch, including Watch This Homerun!! by Eyes Wide Games, word game Letterpad and a selection of simple titles by Robot 5 Studios including a Blackjack game. Apple has also highlighted BoxPop — another straightforward puzzle game — on its own Watch preview website, the only game among dozens of apps to get a pre-launch nod.
For Everwear Games, designing smart watch apps is — for now — about keeping it simple.
“It’s a combination of simplicity, depth and complexity. With watches our attention span is even faster. So these games have to be easy to pick-up and play. But overtime they do need to deliver depth of the experience,” he said. “There must be strategic and tactical choices and the player will have to be able to find his or her own game play style and rhythm. Eventually I believe that smartwatch games will also become social experiences, but that’s something which will happen in the longer term.”
You can see why Järvilehto and others would want to try and get in early with a smart watch title. According to Bloomberg more than 80 percent of iOS and Google Play app store revenue went to games in the last quarter of 2014, up significantly over the same period last year. And for small studios smart watches are a new land to conquer, with a selection of apps still small enough at launch to virtually guarantee their games will at least be seen — something on which iOS and Android game smartphone game developers can’t rely upon any more.
The downsides for developers are also pretty obvious. The Apple Watch is to some extent an unknown quantity, and while the massive promotional budget and interest in the hardware will make an impact, there is again no guarantee. Apple is also restricting access for developers to many of the core APIs inside its Watch, meaning that (for now) game developers will not have access to features like GPS, the Digital Crown or the “haptic” feedback engine which drives the subtleties of the Watch’s notifications system.
Some developers — including Stephen Griffin, CEO of Eyes Wide Games — don’t even have access to Watches before they go on sale, meaning they can’t actually play their games on the hardware until it’s already too late.
And, of course, there will sooner or later be another Apple Watch to develop for. But that’s not a problem for right now, Järvilehto says.
“Right now we are super excited about Apple Watch and what is happening this spring,” Järvilehto says. In many ways April 2015 marks the beginning of smartwatch gaming. We are 100 percent focused on shipping Runeblade on the platform and delivering a roadmap of updates and new features.”