Many people are eagerly anticipating the arrival of the Apple Watch, but few share Aki Järvilehto's glee at just how annoying it will be. The game designer feels certain that the tiny screen and novel interface will make it a drag to play wrist-based versions of the world’s most popular smartphone apps. “Games like Angry Birds or Clash of Clans aren’t going to be more fun on such a small screen,” he says. “The games are going to have to be built from scratch.”
Enter Everywear Games, the studio Järvilehto launched last month and staffed with veterans of well-known mobile-gaming companies such as Rovio and Remedy. When pre-orders for the Apple Watch begin flowing on Friday, his team will be one of a few focusing solely on games for the wrist. It seems a safe assumption that there will inevitably be games for the Apple Watch—even if no one is sure yet what a brilliant watch game will look like. The initial list of Apple Watch apps includes some puzzle games, and mobile app companies are also working to create versions of existing titles for the wrist. Such moves are bound to fail, says Ariel Vardi, the chief executive of Little Labs, another newly-minted smartwatch development studio, "due to the nature of the platform, the limited size of its screen and touch input, but also the inherent differences in user behaviors."
Both Little Labs and Everywear plan to have titles ready for the Apple Watch's launch on April 24. Everywear plans to release four smartwatch games in the Apple Watch's first year. The company has one big advantage over the competition: Järvilehto has been working directly with Apple, although he declines to give any details about the process. The studio's first title, Runeblade, is a fantasy role-playing game involving gods of yore who awaken and return to the world in corrupted form. The watch-wearing player assumes the role of High Priestess of the War Mages, battling against ancient evil at arms length while standing in line at Starbucks.
Mobile gaming was tailored toward people with short attention spans; smartwatch gaming takes that concession to a new extreme. Each fight in Runeblade lasts from five to 15 seconds. In other ways, though, the experience isn't unusual. You acquire spells, weapons, and new powers with each small victory, moving on to progressively more difficult battles. The game will be free to play, and impatient players can take out their smartphones to purchase upgrades for their characters—a setup that mirrors the dominant business model in mobile gaming. There's no way to spend money in the game directly through the watch, at least for now.
Järvilehto wants to build smartwatch games mostly because its uncharted territory. “As a developer,” he says, “it’s hard to imagine what would be more exciting than that.” But the interest in wearables also reflects an increasing negativity among developers about fighting the crowds to stand out in the iOS and Google Play stores. It’s a classic example of a place getting so popular that no one goes there anymore.
Games continue to dominate the market for mobile apps, drawing an increasing proportion of consumer app expenditures. In the fourth quarter of 2014, over 80 percent of consumer spending in the Apple and Google app stores went to games, according to a report published by IDC and App Annie. Revenue from gaming in the iOS store rose over 30 percent in the last year—and in the Google Play store, that figure jumped by more than 75 percent.
Yet many developers are pessimistic about the chances of building profitable businesses on smartphone games. The sheer amount of games in the app stores necessitates ever-rising marketing budgets to get noticed. The companies already on top have access to huge audiences and seem increasingly untouchable, says Petteri Koponen, a partner at the Finnish investment firm Lifeline Ventures. This isn’t a bad thing for Koponen, whose firm was the first investor in Supercell, the maker of blockbuster mobile game Clash of Clans. Then again, it’s why Lifeline stopped investing in mobile gaming companies years ago. But when Everywear came to the firm with the idea to focus solely on smartwatches, Lifeline decided to invest.
Koponen believes that the companies to succeed in smartwatch gaming will be those who aren’t weighted down with the baggage of existing smartphone game businesses. “Eventually, there will be hundreds of smartwatch and wearable games companies, but that’s not the situation at the moment,” he says. “It’s a new frontier. It’s also more exciting for an investor to invest in a pioneer in the space.”
Being a pioneer seems exciting, sure, but there were many people who headed west, only to die in their covered wagons. That could happen to early adopters if the Apple Watch fails to catch on. The watch is Apple's biggest bet on a new product in years, and it’s too early to tell whether it will support a new form of digital gaming.
Being first also comes with disadvantages. Apple isn’t giving developers access to the full functionality of its watches, so early games can’t incorporate motion detectors, haptic engines, or the dial on the side of the devices. The only things gamers will be able to do, essentially, is tap the screen.
Stephen Griffin, chief executive officer of Eyes Wide Games, tries his best to paint these limitations as an advantage. His studio, whose credits include only games for Web browsers, is now concentrating solely on a series of sports games for smartwatches. The studio’s first will be a baseball game called Watch This Homerun!!, in which players spend 10-to-15-second spurts trying to hit a certain number of home runs by tapping away on their wrists.
Great art, says Griffin, is often created by people working with harsh restrictions. The key for smartwatch gaming is to make something that ties many tiny experiences together into something that feels convincing as an ongoing game. “It’s going to lead to very deep games that are played in these very quick sessions,” he says.
At least, that’s how he imagines smartwatch games would work. Griffin has never even touched an Apple Watch. Instead, he has been working with a simulator that runs on a computer. Watch This Homerun!! will be available when Apple Watches first go on sale at retail locations. Once he gets his hands on one, Griffin will get a chance to play the game on a watch for the first time.