Augmented reality zombies, invisible Pokemon and the gaming of things


or Casio, video games killed the gaming watch. More specifically, it was the growing popularity of powerful, multi-game, portable handheld systems and home consoles.

"In the early 1980s, we saw the spread of handheld and portable game consoles as opposed to the stationary arcade games that [had been] popular in the early days," says Casio's Masuda. "In the late 1980s, a trend had further shifted to home console games. With devices available at that time, Casio found it technically difficult to provide similar functions and ease of use of home consoles in a watch size, such as switching between multiple games and letting users smoothly enjoy playing games."

When arcades were king, the only option was to play games a quarter at a time in that public setting. But watches offered a taste of that experience on your wrist. Despite helping to fuel an interest in portable handheld gaming, watches that played games simply couldn't compete.

Casio's other reason for ditching game watches was a new interest in making multifunctional watches for business, sports and outdoor uses.

"Casio's business strategy at the time was to assign multiple functions to a watch, and [games were] one of them," Masuda says. "In addition to games, we were developing a variety of watches equipped with [various] functions."

“the smartwatch era is just starting”

As those watches grew in popularity, Casio left the game watch behind. But in recent years the company, specifically the new Casio president Kazuhiro Kashio, has been closely watching the rise of the smartwatch.

Masuda believes that smartwatches have, at the very minimum, helped reignite an interest in watches in general, specifically in the sorts of tech watches for which Casio is known.

"At the moment, we think smartwatches are still within the range of gadgets, and they are yet to compete with high-fashion watches," Masuda says. "However, we think that all [this] attention to smartwatches is a tailwind for the watch industry after a long period of ‘who wears a watch anymore?' apathy.

"The smartwatch era is just starting, and people can expect a variety of proposals from smartphone manufacturers as well as from watch manufacturers in the days to come."

In fact, Casio plans to launch its own smartwatch at CES this coming January, he says. While Masuda declined to say if the watch would play games, he did say that if Casio decided to support gaming, it would want to do so in an innovative way.

oldmans2Samsung's Gear S2

"As a lifestyle of carrying around and enjoying games anytime has already become the norm with [the] popularity of game consoles and smartphones, Casio will not be creating a new market with the same approach," he says. "The current situation is very different from when we were making game watches.

"If we are to popularize playing games on smartwatches (and thus create a new market), then it is essential to clarify unique ways/scenes of enjoyment that only smartwatch games can offer, as well as further the evolution of infrastructure and devices to realize it."

In talking with manufacturers, programmers, developers and gamers involved in the game watch scene, it's obvious that this is just the beginning of a much bigger interest in smartwatches. And that stands to reason, Masuda says.

As technology continues to shrink and the hunger of instant feedback, online socialization and micro-entertainment continues to grow, the watch finds itself in an enviable position.

"Right now, playing games on watches is much less popular when you compare it to playing games on smartphones," Masuda says. "However, a watch is the most portable device as it is wearable, and if we can develop a game that takes advantage of this characteristic, and that it is not stressful to operate, then there is a good chance of making people like playing games on their watches."

Zombies, Run!

Finding that right game is key. As with the smartphone, it's most likely that a good watch game won't simply be a port of an existing experience.

Pixel Miner creator Luton believes that successful watch games will be incremental and deliver tiny sessions.

"The real winners will be the people who try stuff from the device point of view," he says. "Someone will have that breakout game."

Adrian Hon, CEO and founder of developer Six to Start, hopes his team's creative approach to game design can find a good fit on the Apple Watch.

Six to Start already made a big splash on smartphones in early 2012 with the release of Zombies, Run!, a game that tells a story as you jog and requires you to run faster when you hear you're being chased by zombies.

"As soon as the Apple Watch was announced, we knew wearables were going to be a big thing," Hon says.

In designing Zombies, Run!, Hon and his team decided they needed an iPhone game with no physical input and only an audio output.

"When you're running you don't want to be messing with your phone," he says. "It's also dangerous. With wearable games also, I think, there are some pretty strict restraints about what people are willing to do."

zombies run watch
Images from the Apple Watch add-on for Zombies, Run!

Initially, the team thought about adding a watch interface for Zombies, Run!.

"It could show your lives, your pace, items collected, live status of the zombies chasing you," he says. "That's fun and useful but it doesn't fundamentally change the gameplay."

But even laying on new ideas, like the ability to press a button to distract a zombie or select the path you want to take, wouldn't do that.

So while the team released the Zombies, Run! add-on interface, it also decided it wanted to create a brand-new game set in the same Zombies, Run! universe. This new game, though, would be built from the ground up for the watch.

Hon describes the game, codenamed Overwatch, as a tower defense title, but in real life.

"What that means is that you set up a number of turrets by running to real-world locations — not too far apart, maybe 20 to 50 meters," he says. "These turrets are automatic. Once you set them up, we spawn zombies in the area and they start to approach you."

To survive, players will need to run between the turret locations to resupply them with ammo, upgrade and repair them. So as you play the game, you're effectively running as fast as you can between those four real-world locations.

In this video of the Overwatch prototype, the green dot represents the player in the real world.

To fit the game into the Zombies, Run! universe, the team crafted a story that has the player acting as a member of a quasi-military overwatch team. The team does search and rescues by dropping a member into a hot zone to set up turrets so they can then evacuate people from local schools or hospitals.

"In one way, it's a real tower defense game; in another it's a stamina, health and fitness test," Hon says. "We thought this could be a really cool way to get people to do intense interval training exercise."

The game is designed to be glanceable and played with headphones on.

"You will hear the different turrets firing, hear the audio notifications that turret three is empty, four is being resupplied," he says. "There will also be graphics during the whole thing."

The team hopes to release the game, which will take place in the U.S. rather than in the U.K. (where Zombies, Run! is set), in time for the new year.

Another reality

While Hon and his team specialize in creating innovative games designed around motion, he says he's not yet entirely convinced that traditional games will find any major level of success on the watch just yet.

"I don't think we will be playing Clash of Clans or Monument Valley on our watch," he says. "It's a tiny screen. It's tiring.

"That doesn't mean we won't see different kinds of games that will become successful. I'd love to see what's possible with augmented reality in the wider world of wearables. I just don't think games will be as significant. Games have been so successful on the iPhone and I don't see how that could happen on the watch."

John Hanke, CEO of Niantic Labs, says he doesn't see the smartwatch as a good platform for breakout, stand-alone gaming hits, either. Niantic is the company behind augmented reality Android game Ingress and the upcoming Pokémon Go.

Hanke thinks the current state of this sort of watch is a better fit for augmenting existing games rather than completely hosting them.

"If you're trying to pack the whole game into a device, that's back to the old LED games I played when I was younger," Hanke says. "But if they're connected to the network for a bigger experience, you can have this immersive experience."

That's the approach Niantic took to bring Ingress to Android Wear watches.

"The game takes place in the real world; it just so happens that you interface through whatever device you're using, a phone or a watch," he says. "All of the fun of the game doesn't have to be encapsulated on the tiny screen of a watch; that's just the input and output mechanism.

"The fun of Ingress and Pokémon Go is not totally confined to what happens on the screen. A lot of it is the experience of being out, walking and seeing things, and interacting with other people."

In Ingress, now an Android and iOS game, players capture portals by visiting certain real-world locations. Once captured, those portals form a fence that help a team capture chunks of land.


In Pokémon Go, due out for iOS and Android devices in 2016, players capture, battle, train and trade Pokémon who appear in the real world as you're out walking. The game will also work with a Bluetooth-enabled device called the Pokémon Go Plus, to notify players when a Pokémon is nearby. Hanke says the team decided to use a stand-alone device rather than a smartwatch because a more affordable stand-alone device has a greater potential to be used by more people.

"The notification aspect of it is very important," he says. "That ability to reach out and touch people, it helps pull people back into the game."

While Hanke sees the potential of smartwatches, he thinks they're not quite ready to go mainstream yet.

"I'd say we're still kind of waiting for a killer device," he says. "I think people are getting closer, both Apple and other manufacturers will get to something super useful and adopted, but I'm not sure we're there yet."

But Hanke remains a big fan of the idea of the smartwatch and what the right one could eventually do for gaming.

"Output devices that fit your lifestyle, with great game design and then connecting that to location and smartphone, I think you can make some amazing experiences," he says. "I think it could open a whole new palette for people to design games with, and thank God. I think we've seen enough first-person shooters. I think, in some sense, the industry is stuck on a few paradigms. I think adding physical active elements that require you to be out with other people ... those are elements that designers have access to with these devices and are new in a lot of ways. I think that could spur a whole new renaissance."

Venture capitalists, always looking for the next big thing, sense possibility in the smartwatch. At least two new studios dedicated to making games for watches have received VC funding.
Little Labs, which opened in the summer of 2014, made an early name for itself by creating Android Wear apps. In the spring of 2014, the studio received $3 million in funding.

The studio initially released a slot machine game for the Apple Watch called Slots Time! and most recently created The Martian: Bring Him Home.

Along with other developers, Little Labs co-founder Ariel Vardi says the chief challenge the team faces in making watch games is forgetting what it already knows.

"The main challenge, in my mind, is to forget about everything we know about what I'd call traditional ‘mobile' gaming and really dig deep on what makes the watch a unique device with its own unique new sets of user behaviors," he says. "It's a completely new territory, there are no rules or best practices yet, and everything has to be invented — and that's what makes it so exciting to us.

"Smartwatches are one of the first hardware examples supporting what I consider a paradigm shift in the way people experience their digital lives, which is becoming more and more immersive, and progressively driven by services you interact with, rather than apps you actively launch and ‘stare at.'"

“we're just scratching the surface of what's possible”

Pebble's Shobeiri sees a bright future for the smartwatch, one that will help expand the definition of gaming and fit neatly into an emerging tech-fueled lifestyle.

"I can see more peer-to-peer, real-life gaming coming to wearables," he says. "Health and fitness games will continue to grow. I can see wearables connecting people to role-playing [games] on a real-life level.

"It would be real-life gamification."

Android Wear's Jeff Chang also sees this as just the beginning for the smartwatch.

"I've been impressed by the creativity of what developers have built with Android Wear's app platform so far, but today we're just scratching the surface of what's possible, and I expect the most exciting apps and games are yet to come. The capabilities of hardware sensors and connectivity in smartwatches — plus their interactions with other devices around us — will continue to grow in the coming years, and I'm really excited about the types of experiences we'll create together." Babykayak

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