Google Glass Leads Video-Game Makers to Test Wearables

Developer Shawn Hardin, showing off his company’s video-game creation, slings pies, tomatoes and other bits of food at opponents linked online around the world.

Yet rather than using an iPhone, laptop or game console to play his company’s “Global Food Fight,” Hardin dons Google Glass and launches each new salvo with a nod of his head.

Wearable technologies including Google Glass, Oculus Rift headsets, smartwatches and smartbands mark a fresh challenge for the $93 billion video-game industry. While the public tends to focus on the consoles wars among Microsoft Corp., Sony Corp. and Nintendo Co., insiders at the annual Game Developers Conference in San Francisco this week are striving to develop titles for a new generation of disruptive products.

“These new devices demand a different type of design and technology,” said Hardin, chief executive officer of Menlo Park, California-based Mind Pirate. Mobile gaming is seeing “unprecedented change,” he said.

The devices present the industry with new calculations to weigh: how to create new games or adapt existing ones for products that don’t use a touchscreen or controller for most play. While developers are eager to produce titles that go from console to tablets, smartphones and wearables, the new technology could pose a heavy learning curve for consumers.

Mind Pirate created the free “Global Food Fight” to promote Callisto, a product that helps developers use touchscreens, global positioning, accelerometers, gyroscopes and other sensors to build games that work on iPads, smartphones and wearable gear.

Engaging Games

By bobbing their heads up and down or side to side, players using Google Glass can hurl food or erect defenses such as nut-throwing squirrels, lawn gnomes and crazy kamikaze canaries. A gamer using an Apple Inc. iPhone can duel with someone wearing the Google Inc. eyewear.

Sony, maker of the PlayStation 4, announced its own virtual-reality headset, following the development of Oculus Rift’s Kickstarter-backed headset for immersive gaming.

The prototype for Sony’s product, called Project Morpheus for now, was demonstrated at a session called “Driving the Future of Innovation at Sony Computer Entertainment.” The HD device will work with Sony’s Move controller and support multiplayer games, company officials said yesterday.

Catching Whales

Sony plans to demonstrate several games at the show to attract the interest of developers. The company gave no timetable for retail sale or price, though it would require the purchase of a $90 Sony camera.

With all devices, a big challenge is to make games engaging enough for so-called whales, the 2 percent to 5 percent of players who spend money on a title. Those loyal fans don’t care if a game costs $10,000 to develop or $10 million.

“How do you connect with the right audience? That’s the No. 1 question on everyone’s mind these days,” said David Helgason, CEO of San Francisco-based Unity Technologies, which offers a video-game engine and tools that let developers create titles and publish on consoles and mobile devices, including Google Glass.

To stand out, developers are moving beyond touchscreens and conventional handheld controllers. They’re experimenting with new ways to play and attempting to keep users involved longer by letting them start playing on a mobile device and then shift the action to consoles and big screens at home.

At this week’s conference, panels such as “Jiro Dreams of Game Design” and “The Entry-level Dilemma: Mistakes of the Past” are meant to help developers understand and use new technologies “such as realistic physics, facial expressions and lighting techniques,” according to the organizers.

Mobile App

While cross-platform software kits from Mind Pirate and Unity Technologies level the playing field for smaller developers who want to take on big publishers, brand recognition and innovation are still crucial, said Chris Early, vice president of digital publishing at Ubisoft Entertainment SA.

With the latest “Assassin’s Creed,” Ubisoft, based in Montreuil, France, created a free mobile application that lets players send pirate ships on trade missions to earn currency that can be used back in the main $60 console game.

“It extends the hours of the day where people are allowed to engage in the game,” Early said in an interview. “Whenever and wherever you are, we want you to be able to interact with and play your favorite franchise.”

Unity Technologies is tackling the engagement dilemma in a different way. The company recently agreed to purchase closely held Applifier, which lets gamers record and post snippets of their play on Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. websites.

Scattered Players

“It’s a discovery mechanism that people didn’t have before,” said Jussi Laakkonen, Applifier’s CEO. “The challenge for today’s developers doesn’t end with releasing awesome games. They also need to attract and retain legions of true fans.”

The emergence of the new game platforms coincides with renewed interest in consoles, sparked by Sony’s new PlayStation 4 and Microsoft Corp.’s Xbox One. Last month, U.S. retailers sold more than 500,000 of the new players, according to researcher NPD Group Inc., with Tokyo-based Sony holding a lead over Microsoft, based in Redmond, Washington.

The early success of those machines suggests mobile gamers who once bought extra chips for Zynga Inc.’s poker title or added features on “Candy Crush Saga” may be directing spending toward conventional consoles, according to Tony Wible, an analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott LLC in Philadelphia.

Fragmenting Mobile

That could make the mobile games industry even more difficult to navigate as it fragments further from tablets and smartphones and to wearable glasses and smartbands.

King Digital Entertainment Plc, the maker of “Candy Crush,” reported its average monthly unique players declined to

12.2 million in the three months to December from 13 million in the third quarter, according to a prospectus for the company’s planned initial public offering.

Wible surveyed 500 gamers and found that about 73 percent expect to spend less over the next year on mobile titles that have a paid component, according to a March 12 research note.

“If this is true, the loss of bigger spenders would disproportionately hurt revenue,” Wible said.

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