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FunBITS: The Gaming Potential of the Apple Watch

After receiving my Apple Watch, I decided to check out some of the games available for it to see if any were worth writing about. Unfortunately, I didn’t find any. I won’t name names, since it’s early and most developers couldn’t even test on actual hardware, so that wouldn’t be fair. But those I’ve tried were too simplistic, too tiring to play on the wrist, or just didn’t work right.

Despite that, I think there could be a bright future for gaming with the Apple Watch. But for that future to come about, two things need to happen: developers need to figure out just what the Apple Watch is, and Apple needs to give developers the capabilities to unlock its full potential.

What Is the Apple Watch? — When the iPad was first announced, there was endless debate about whether it was designed for content consumption or content creation. Of course, it could do either, both, or neither, with the specifics depending what any given user wants to accomplish.

The Apple Watch is a different beast entirely. It’s impossible to create any sort of substantial content with it. Yes, you can dictate brief messages and draw temporary pictures, but even composing a tweet could result in unfortunate mistakes. Some developers are trying to enable content creation on the Apple Watch, and some might even succeed a bit, but it’s hard to imagine such apps being more than novelties, even if Morse code makes a comeback.

The Apple Watch isn’t really a content consumption device, either. Sure, you can technically read long email messages and even articles on it, but it’s like scrolling a postage stamp. Better developers seem to acknowledge this. For example, the New York Times app doesn’t bother displaying articles on the watch, but brief summaries instead. Instapaper has an Apple Watch app, but its only function is to control spoken articles on the iPhone. I wouldn’t call it a successful experiment, but I’ll give the Instapaper team an “A” for thinking outside the box.

Rather, the Apple Watch is a glance device. The combination of tiny text and an awkward arm position make it impractical for anything except brief hits of information. It’s ideal for answering quick questions. “What time is it?” “Where’s my iPhone?” “What does my boss want now?” and “What are the latest headlines?” are all simple questions that the Apple Watch can answer easily.

When you consider the Apple Watch primarily as a question-answering device, its limited options for inputting content become less frustrating. Voice as the primary input makes sense, because what better way to ask a question?

But the Apple Watch offers another sort of input: your body. The watch tracks not just your location in the world, but how much your body moves.

Overall, the Apple Watch is largely passive. It quietly tracks your movement and heart rate in the background, displaying only quick snippets of information when activated. In many ways, it truly is more jewelry than technology. And like any piece of jewelry, the Apple Watch is an accessory. Yes, it has a processor, but apart from those sensors, it’s more like a smart terminal that relays information from its companion iPhone.

Now that we understand just what the Apple Watch is, we can paint a better picture of what it could do.

The Apple Watch’s Place in Gaming — As an accessory with a tiny screen and limited input, it’s hard to see the Apple Watch as a great gaming device on its own. Games that require more thought than action, like chess, might work, but those will be exceptions to the rule.

Where the Apple Watch could shine is by being a peripheral, both as a second screen and an additional input device.

Secondary screens have a long history in gaming. The under-appreciated Sega Dreamcast used something called a Visual Memory Unit (VMU), which served as memory card, second display, and portable game console. The VMU offered health and ammo counts in shooting games, allowed you to select plays covertly in football games, and let you raise mini-pets that could alter gameplay, among other functions. It was a concept years ahead of its time.

A few years after the Dreamcast’s untimely demise, Nintendo released the ever-popular Nintendo DS portable game console, which featured two displays, one of which was a touchscreen. Developers have found lots of uses for the two displays, such as continually displaying maps and using the touchscreen as an additional control surface. The Nintendo DS has been such a hit that it has existed in one form or another for over a decade, with no sign of going away. (The New Nintendo 3DS was released in late 2014, with large 3D touchscreens, an additional control stick, extra trigger buttons, NFC, and other goodies.)

Secondary screens have long proven their value to gamers, making them a prime use case for the Apple Watch. Some iOS games are already experimenting with this, but not yet in any compelling way.

What the Apple Watch can offer that makes it different from any other second screen is immersion. It’s one thing to have a second screen on the controller, but another to be wearing one. Imagine playing a shooting game, with no UI elements on the screen, but instead being able to view your ammo count, health, maps, and other data by glancing at your watch.

For other ideas, look back to the old Dreamcast VMU. A multiplayer sports game could let you covertly pick plays from your wrist, hiding your selection from an opposing player in the room. As for virtual pets, that’s already been done: the makers of Battle Camp have added a virtual pet watch app that lets you raise a monster to battle with in the main game.

We can look to other games for inspiration. The Metal Gear series is known for having much of the story play out over radio conversations — why couldn’t those transmissions take place on your Apple Watch? A trademark of the post-apocalyptic Fallout series is the wrist-based Pip-Boy computers that display information and let you alter settings — a gameplay element that practically begs to be literally put on you wrist.

With voice being the primary Apple Watch input, voice-based commands would be a helpful and immersive addition to games. What if I could use my watch to radio for an air strike in a shooter, or shout commands to computer-controlled teammates? Or even communicate with real-life teammates?

The Apple Watch has other inputs that could be useful for gaming, especially the motion sensors used for fitness tracking. We’ve explored motion-control games on the iPhone before (see “FunBITS: Motion Control Games on Your iPhone,” 26 July 2013), but there is inherent danger in wildly swinging your iPhone around, especially if your palms are sweaty. The Apple Watch neatly solves this problem by being securely strapped to your wrist.

The Apple Watch has another sensor that I think could have some interesting gaming possibilities: the heart rate sensor. What if a game could adjust the game’s difficulty based on your heart rate? It could scale back the difficulty when your pulse is elevated, and dial it back up when it senses that you’re too relaxed. A common problem in online gaming is player rage — what if a game could shut off voice chat when things get too stressful, both to keep your stress level down and to prevent others from hearing a profane tirade?

The Taptic Engine also provides some interesting gameplay possibilities. How about a game where you have to rescue a hostage, and the hostage’s heartbeat is regularly sent to you? Or a game with monsters that attach themselves to your wrist, and you have to shake them off? The possibilities are endless.

While the Apple Watch may not be a great gaming device on its own, it has the potential to take gaming immersion to the next level. Apple just has to give developers the tools to do so. And Apple has to be willing to let developers have real-time access to data; as it stands now, sensor data is sent from the Apple Watch to the iPhone in chunks, which would make gaming applications difficult. Granted, this would hurt battery life, but gaming is seldom power-efficient.

If You Build It… — The problem with most of these futuristic fantasies is that they are currently impossible, for two reasons: the Apple Watch can connect only to the iPhone, and developer capabilities are extremely limited.

The iPhone limitation is, in part, due to Bluetooth accessories’ stubborn insistence on being paired to only one device at a time. But if anyone could find a way around that, it’s Apple, and it would make the Watch much more interesting. (Some Logitech keyboards can pair to multiple computers, but switching between them requires manually selecting the device from the keyboard.)

The Apple Watch can and will interact with iPhone games, but that’s not where its capabilities will shine. To see what it can do for gaming, the Apple Watch needs to be able to connect to Macs and consoles. If the next Apple TV were to include gaming functionality, it would be a great match too.

But before we get to that point, Apple has to open up the Apple Watch so developers can exploit its true potential. As Michael Cohen wrote in “First Apple Watch Apps Will Only Skim the Surface,” (20 November 2014), there are only three things a WatchKit app can provide: glances, notifications, and modal dialogs (which is what an Apple Watch app’s interface consists of now). Developers do not currently have access to the Apple Watch’s sensors, though Apple has confirmed that is about to change.

Apple’s initial limitations make sense. These limitations keep apps simple, so users aren’t overwhelmed, so WatchKit apps remain relatively easy to develop, and they reduce privacy and security concerns. Plus, they keep overambitious apps from draining the battery. And I’m willing to bet that they made it easier to ship the Apple Watch on time.

I haven’t been particularly impressed with my Apple Watch, and it wasn’t until I started writing this article that I figured out why. The Apple Watch has huge potential, but so far, it only serves as a glorified remote control for my iPhone, running the modern equivalent of minuscule HyperCard apps. Since my iPhone is always with me, having a remote control for something that’s a few seconds away in my pocket isn’t a big win. (For many women, like TidBITS editor in chief Tonya Engst, carrying the iPhone is more problematic, due to the lack of pockets in many outfits, which makes the remote control aspect of the Apple Watch far more attractive.)

Of course, the original iPhone was also severely limited, almost laughably so. I remember quipping that there were things my modest pre-paid Motorola RAZR could do that Apple’s $600 phone couldn’t. But then history happened: the iPhone evolved rapidly, and now it is comfortably ensconced at the center of my digital existence.

If the technical stars align, the Apple Watch could end up taking a similar evolutionary path. Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference is fast approaching, and I hope it gives some clues about where we’ll see the watch going in the future.

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