Addictive gaming on the modern smartwatch

The face of my Apple Watch doesn't only display the time and day; it also has a three-line description of the weather, an activity tracker designed to look like a small icon of multicolored concentric circles, the picture of a drop of water reminding me to drink more liquids and the hilt of a tiny green sword centered in a perfect circle.

I tend to tap that sword icon a few times every day, musing over what it shows me, tinkering with settings, occasionally muttering to myself in annoyance or delight.

Each tap transforms my watch face into a tiny window into the world of Runeblade, a role-playing game developed by Everywhere Games only for the Apple Watch.

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Runeblade combat

Currently, that view is of a lush grassy field, vivid green trees in the distance under a cloud-streaked, deep blue sky. Always centered in that view, standing, floating, slithering on that picturesque scene, is something terrible waiting to kill me.

It might be a tormented boar, a bewitched rat, a malevolent ghoul, but the images are all dispatched the same way. With the tap of a button, my sword slashes out, delivering arcing blows on the creature until it dies in a shower of gold coins.

Slowly, the War Mage Priestess — hero of every game of Runeblade being played on every watch around the world — gains levels, crosses the imperiled world of the game and unlocks new powers and artifacts.

Eventually, the priestess retires, passing on the crystals she's earned to the next generation of hero. It's an oddly addictive experience, almost free of the elements most people would use to define something as a game at all.

Apart from deciding how to spend the wealth found in the carcasses the hero litters across the countryside, the player is left to watching the game unfold on its own.

Despite that, perhaps because of it, players and the game's developers have found Runeblade far more engaging than many expected it would be.

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Runeblade's War Mage Priestess

Jeff Bonifaci, who created a Wikia page for Runeblade to help explain its artefact and retirement system and explore its lore, says he plays the game in one-minute increments 20 to 30 times a day. What draws him to the game over and over again, he says, is the gameplay, replayability, the Reddit community and the responsiveness of the developers to the community.

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A Runeblade setting

"The game is simple, so doesn't require a lot of interaction at any given moment, and it continues to advance for you when you aren't playing, though not as quickly," he says. "Every generation, you upgrade your character and can advance more quickly or more efficiently on the next generation, so every generation is a new experience depending on how you invested your crystals from the previous generation. There is a good community on Reddit for the game with a lot of people willing to talk about the game that is linked to from within the iPhone app so it is easy to find."

While Bonifaci is a hardcore player of the game, he's not nearly as dedicated as some of Runeblade's top players.

"What we are seeing in terms of player engagement is unprecedented in games," says Aki Järvilehto, CEO of the studio. "The top 2 percent play the game more than 100 sessions [per] day. They're accessing the game every six minutes.

"We've never seen anything like this before. It underscores how different games have to be on the watch."

In part, that difference is fueled by how immediate watch games can be.

"The startup times alone for a game on a console or computer would make this impossible," Järvilehto says. "But with the watch, it's right there, right now and you can access it in seconds."

And it's not just Runeblade, which received a massive update last month. A number of watch game developers and people at Pebble and Google say they've found that a nearly manic level of engagement is typical of games built for the watch.

Super speed games

"What fascinates me on wearables is that it's always with you," says Shobeir Shobeiri, business developer at Pebble. "How do you leverage that with a game studio and a brand, and how do you connect to it on a day-to-day level and not just a game level? What are the dynamics you see with watches, wearables and games? How do you compare that with consoles?

"If you're a super avid gamer and play things like League of Legends or StarCraft, you probably play for hours. Then with mobile you might play for three to four minutes. With wearable, it's five seconds to 30 to 60 maximum."

Shobeiri calls them super speed games, quick little experiences that can instill your life with games.

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Shobeir Shobeiri

"Maybe you can do the next move on an RPG ... or check out your rewards and upgrades for a game," he says. "Because it's always on your wrist, it's the simplest way to connect to users."

Shobeiri joined Pebble shortly after the company raised a record $10 million for its first black and white smartwatch, but before the company launched its app store.

"Games were the first thing that popped into my head when I was talking to [Pebble founder Eric Migicovsky]," he says. "There are tons of gamers worldwide and I bet they would love to know real time what's happening in their game, like Clash of Clans."

Despite those conversations, Pebble didn't consider gaming an important part of its smartwatch prior to launch.

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Thomas Sarlandie

"People weren't thinking, ‘Is this going to be a gaming device?'" Shobeiri says. "No, this was a notification device."

Thomas Sarlandie, head of developer relations at Pebble, agrees.

"Initially when we brainstormed about what apps we wanted to see on Pebble, games didn't come up," Sarlandie says. "It was not critical to us.

"In general, the watch was sold on a few key concepts: notification, controlling music and a fitness app. That's what we put into the Kickstarter campaign. Honestly, I don't think we had a good idea of what apps would look like at the time."

When the Pebble watch initially shipped, it came with a few key applications pre-installed — none of which were games. Soon after, Pebble released a software kit that allowed people to design their own watch faces. This allowed Pebble owners to create a variety of faces for the Pebble watch, including some that displayed info from the phone, like weather or appointments. In February, 2014, just a few months after shipments of the watch began in earnest, the company opened an app store with more than 1,000 free third-party apps, including a number of games.

Mining for fun

Pebble's early games included ports of classics like Pong and Chess, but it wasn't long until the Pebble watch had its first genuine, original hit: Pixel Miner.

As with the Apple game Runeblade, Pixel Miner essentially plays itself. The screen fills with a pixelated view of a tiny miner digging his way across a screen filled with dirt. The miner, who will dig whether you are watching or not, earns money by discovering items in the earth. Players can then use the money to upgrade the miner's tools, making him more efficient.

"In two weeks Pixel Miner was the No. 1 game on Pebble — well over a year later and it still is," Shobeiri says.

While Pebble doesn't give out download numbers, Shobeiri says the game "compares well" to text messaging apps, stopwatches and calendars.

"That's what surprises me," he says.

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Pixel Miner concept art

As game designer Will Luton tells it, he designed Pixel Miner on sort of a lark.

"My friend Paul and I were at [the Game Developers Conference] and we had a friend who was working at Pebble," he says. "We were like, ‘Let's try this small thing, this Pebble.'"

Initially, Luton pitched a casino app to Pebble, but the watch already had one and company officials asked him to come up with something else.

"I was thinking about how this device is different than others," says Luton, whose full-time job is making mobile games. "It dawned on me that there is a trend: As the screen gets smaller and games become more portable, the sessions get shorter and more frequent and the immediacy shoots up.

"It was a completely new design challenge and that was exciting."

The game launched with about 30 days of content, but Luton soon discovered that people were burning through that content in less than 10 days.

"The thing we never expected was that [players] would keep the game open and running," he says. "They leave it running all day on their watch and they watch it. That wasn't the common expectation."

The game's popularity led Luton to write about Pixel Miner and "designing for addiction."

"Semantics aside, I designed Pixel Miner, like any of my games, to be addictive," he wrote. "I wanted to have players entranced not for any mean-spirited reason, but to prove that the games I make are effective in their job of having players want to continue to play them. Because games that don't hold players are failures, whilst games that have players returning are triumphs."

Of the people who downloaded Pixel Miner, 73 percent returned the next day to play, 59 percent were still playing a week later, and after a month — keeping in mind that most people "beat" the game in 10 days — nearly a third were still playing, or replaying the game. Player Ty Gadberry, who splits his time on his Pebble between Tetris and Pixel Miner, says he spends about 30 minutes a day checking on his miner.

"I picked up Pixel Miner pretty early on and was hooked on it from the beginning," he says. "It's an incredibly simple concept that I found very entertaining. For starters, the game continues to play out in real time as the day goes on, allowing you to rack up the currency to continually upgrade your miner, working faster and more efficiently. Pixel Miner also offers the option to allow user input (the constant pressing of the center button) to double the speed of your miner, so long as you proactively engage the input. This little feature is what keeps the game from just being a background application, since the simple, hands-on gesture is something that delivers a satisfying reward that you can do anywhere."

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Pixel Miner in action

Gadberry, who calls the game a "nice little retreat," says he's spent more than a few college lectures pressing that button. He's also on his second Pebble watch. "I had to replace it once, causing me to lose all of my game progress for Pixel Miner," he said. "But I was happy to restart."

People like Gadberry and their reactions to Pixel Miner are why Luton spends his free time working on the game. He can't make money off the title, at least not yet, so he mostly does the work for fun and as a sort of challenge.

"This is kind of a hobby for me," he says. "The big thing I get from it, it isn't financial. It's saying, ‘OK, we've cracked it.'"

In part, that's because Pebble's app store doesn't include the ability to sell paid apps. Which is something Sarlandie says could be changing in the future.

Pixel power

Despite the high levels of engagement players have with their smartwatch games and the long, narrow history games have on watches, wrist gaming remains a relatively small, budding piece of the mammoth game industry.

And perhaps because of that, and the built-in technological restrictions of a small screen, low power consumption and little memory, game development on watches results in a mix of interesting creations.

Pebble's Pokedex Challenge has players capturing Pokémon as they appear on their watch faces throughout the day. FitCat is a game that blends the pet care aspect of the '90s Tamagotchi craze with exercising while wearing your Pebble watch. Strike Force is a top-down jet shooter game that has you flying your fighter by tilting your wrist and firing by pressing a button. When players are ranked in the top 100 they get a notification every time someone tries to beat their score.

Many of the Apple Watch games focus on extending an iPhone experience by reminding you to get back to your phone. But there are some other standout stand-alone games like Runeblade. Lifeline and Lifeline 2 are both text adventures delivered to the face of your watch. The Martian: Bring Him Home uses the text adventure approach to create a game that feels as if you're communicating and trying to help save the stranded astronaut from the novel and movie The Martian.

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Galaxia

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Dragon Laser

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Chrono Guardian

"I think it's just the very beginning of trying to figure out what's going to work on wearables, just like it took a while to figure out games on smartphones," says Sarlandie. "I think the retro side of gaming on a watch is definitely something that appeals to a lot of people. Playing on a screen that's not far from the original Game Boy is kind of cool to me.

"There's also a practical aspect, as with mobile games. A lot of people play on their phone because they have it on their subway ride. I play 2048 on my watch because it's something I can do when I don't want to get out my phone. If I'm waiting in line, I just don't want to take my phone out of my pocket. I think it's just different types of situations."

While both Apple and Pebble maintain strict control over the devices that work with their unique operating systems, Google took a different approach. In early 2014, Google announced an Android-based platform for smartwatches. Android Wear, like Android, is open to any manufacturer willing to support its standards.

Games remain popular for the many different smartwatches that support Android Wear, but Google doesn't seem to value that category as much as Pebble.

"I wouldn't say [gaming] is one of the top [categories], but it's the most interesting," says Jeff Chang, product manager of Android Wear at Google. "Message, health and fitness apps are probably the top categories."

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Wear Video Poker

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Oh My Gravity

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Guns 'n' Glory Heroes

And even those categories aren't really selling points for Android Wear devices, he says.
"I don't think any particular app or category has to be that impactful," Chang says. "The strength of Android is that we allow as much flexibility as possible when designing apps.

"If you're a developer and want to make a game and want to control all of the pixels on the screen, the touch events and make it any size you want, you can do that. Developers can also access all of the hardware sensors, the barometer, heart rate sensors, haptic vibration motors, GPS — anything is possible to create a new experience."

That openness means that the 14 or so watches that run on the operating system support an eclectic mix of games, perhaps the largest of any of the modern smartwatches.

There are games that let you play tennis by going through the motions of playing tennis. There's a basic first-person shooter that uses motion controls to aim. There are also plenty of mass appeal ports for games like Space Invaders, Breakout and Flappy Bird.

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The Martian

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Ingress

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2048

"I would say it's still early days for games on wearables," Chang says. "Our stance has been from the beginning that if we open up the operating system and give developers the maximum amount of control, then we will see interesting games.

"The fact that we have almost 5,000 apps created for Android Wear is a testament to our hardware development support."

Pebble remains one of the few smartwatch creators willing to talk about hard numbers on watch sales. Earlier this year, the company announced it had sold more than 1 million of its devices. Shobeiri estimates that there are certainly less than 10 million smartwatches out on people's wrists.

Smartwatches, and in turn gaming on those watches, remains a nascent market. That makes the notion that something so relatively small could already spawn a Pixel Miner or a Runeblade even more surprising, Shobeiri says.

But he has a theory about why these games seem to be finding strong audiences so effortlessly.
"On a high level, gaming on wearables has shown to be an addictive thing," he says. "Watch games cut through the noise and the bullshit.

"Once there are more watches out there — my gut says 40 to 60 million watches but 100 million is a no-brainer — this will hit a tipping point and I can see these games going mainstream. It will be so mainstream that these games will become a vertical of games that people play. I can see that happening in five to 10 years."

Next: We go wrist-on with some of the best smartwatches out there.