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Games: Fit for a wrist?

Michael McWhertor is a journalist with more than 17 years of experience covering video games, technology, movies, TV, and entertainment.

Build it, and they will port Tetris to it. Whether it's a cellphone, calculator or even a wristwatch, if a piece of hardware is remotely capable of possibly playing a game, it will find a game-maker.

Alexey Pajitnov's classic puzzle game is just one of many graphically simple games that have been recreated on the Pebble Smartwatch, a piece of hardware released earlier this year that brings custom watch faces and apps to the wristwatch thanks to its "e-paper" display.

The Pebble's earliest games show more ingenuity than originality. Most are simple adaptations of games like chess and hangman. Others are direct recreations of classic 8-bit video games: Pong, Space Invaders, Breakout and Tetris.

The watch is severely limited in its control input, resolution and memory, but the device has intriguing possibilities for games, its creators say, by complementing more traditional game experiences.

Following the release of the Pebble Smartwatch earlier this year, its creators released a software development kit that let enthusiasts create their own apps, watch faces and games. There was an initial flood of Pebble games as developers began tinkering with the smartwatch.

"It was just amazing to see Snake on the watch," said Asad Iqbal, growth hacker at Pebble. "At first it was just, like, 'Wow, somebody actually built this thing.'"

Iqbal noted that, at least early on, games for the watch have been some of the most popular apps installed by users, even if its gaming capabilities aren't its strength.

"People find that gaming on Pebble is fun, it's interesting, but it's also kind of limited," he said.

Huy Tran was one of the earliest developers to start exploring the Pebble Smartwatch's gaming capabilities. With the early version of the Pebble SDK, he created versions of chess and a clone of iOS puzzle game Drop7, as well as Droptype, "a match-four falling block puzzle game built around the limitations of the available Pebble controls of the first SDK."


All of Tran's games, he said, had to be rethought with the watch's limited control and display in mind.

"The Pebble is noticeably a black and white device, which changes the sort of visuals you would have in your game," he said. "I remember spending some time doing 1-pixel changes to get the right shape. And although it's possible to achieve shading with dithering, I opted to have well defined shapes that are easily recognizable because you want the player to be able to instantly grasp their situation.

"With the number of buttons available to you, you find yourself drastically rethinking the controls of your game, even sometimes at the cost of the original kind of gameplay you intended. But this is not necessarily a downside because sometimes cutting out gameplay will help you refine the main aspect of the game, which helps to give your game more of a focused or unified feeling."

Tran's game development on Pebble, Droptype in particular, ultimately proved beneficial. He went from working with Pebble's nascent SDK to fixing it, improving it and scoring a full-time job at the watchmaker.

He and Iqbal see possibilities for Pebble-based gaming experience that extend beyond the watch face itself.

"Any existing iOS or Android game could leverage Pebble," Iqbal said. He says turn-based games like Words With Friends or strategy games could implement notifications via Pebble to keep players engaged. In the future, Iqbal said, the watch could be used as a controller for mobile games or implemented in location-based gameplay, like scavenger hunts.

"Probably one of the most exciting gaming capabilities of the Pebble or similar devices is multiplayer," Tran said. "The Pebble when worn is the most accessible device and could drive many turn-based multiplayer games with greater ease than a phone. Taking out a phone once in awhile is simply a cumbersome experience by comparison."

Tran said the Pebble Smartwatch could also be exploited in gaming by using "bits of reality," data from accelerometers or GPS, for example.


"Although some mobile games already take advantage of your location, the fact that one must hold the phone and also look at it detracts one from playing the game in any location like in public," Tran said. "With the Pebble, you can feel engaged in such a game at any time by just glancing at your wrist. Maybe you've entered a location where you'd want to take a special action, such as a building that's actually a dungeon in a virtual reality, and you can press a few buttons on your Pebble to do so.

"And of course combining both aspects together could lead to more interesting interactions."

Iqbal said the company is seeing more interest from game developers in how their existing apps can work with Pebble for things like statistics, leaderboards and game notifications, rather than building discrete game experiences for the watch.

Phil Larsen, chief marketing officer at Fruit Ninja and Jetpack Joyride developer Halfbrick, says he's interested in the possibilities of smart watches, but says his company isn't currently working on anything directly.

"More than anything I'm curious about data on user behaviour," he told Polygon. "The idea of a smart watch is to have a convenient space for notifications and information, but that seems exactly like what a smartphone already does.
"There is the argument that a smart watch is on your wrist, hence that makes it more convenient. However, given that the average person already checks their smartphone over 150 times a day, I'm not sure that the watch notifications solve a problem. ... If the data there shows a real benefit to the smart watches and they begin to rise in popularity, we will definitely look at opportunities for games more."

Tim Harris, president of the studio behind iOS first-person shooter Midnight Star, is a Pebble watch owner and sees its quick accessibility as a plus. It's something that could help players "stay in the flow" of a game experience.


"Taking your phone out to look at a text or tweet or what-have-you is a conscious, time-consuming thing, but glancing at your watch is not," said Harris. "I'm consuming more information and am actually more in tune with people I follow on Twitter because of the Pebble."

His company's forthcoming game is full of notifications, thanks to its competitive asynchronous multiplayer challenges that can play out over days and a broad set of game achievements.

"I think the Pebble could take what's going on with gaming and SMS and take it to the next level," Harris said. "I already get alerts and such to my phone, but Pebble could allow for quick interactions through the watch for asynchronous gaming mechanics such as acceptance of challenges, giving quick orders to troops, or sending a sortie out to loot some treasure.

"Anything that would let the player maintain that quick contact with the game would add to the feeling that something is always going on in the game."

But Harris said he'd also like to see more dedicated games for the watch, even though the device's display is limited.

"I think the Pebble could take what's going on with gaming and SMS and take it to the next level."

"I'd like to see the Pebble improve graphically," he said. "Tamagotchi-style games, management-over-time games or fantasy (in the football sense, not the setting sense) could benefit from the immediacy of the Pebble, but having a quick 'look' at what's going on would require some visual upgrades that I have to assume Pebble is already hard at work on.

"I can see a ton of interesting bite-sized games letting me pop-in and out in a way that's even more convenient than the mobile games I already use for that."

Last month, Pebble announced the latest version of its SDK, version 2.0. The latest version of its developer software will add new APIs for the watch's accelerometer, data logging and persistent storage - all features that can be explored for games and game integration. The watch will also be fully iOS7 compatible, supporting Notification Center, which is a big step forward in Pebble's game integration strategy.

More important, however, is the launch of Pebble's appstore, coming in early 2014. The company's announcement is telling of its interest in encouraging play on the watch. The appstore's six main categories include Fitness, Notifications, Tools & Utilities and, of course, Games.

Whether developers — and not just hobbyists — will embrace Pebble as a platform for games, time will tell.