Four months before the release of the Apple Watch, we were speaking to the wonderful people at Glu Mobile & The Hobby about the coming future of smartwatch gaming. We’ve learned, over the years, there’s a lot of room for innovation in the gaming world and innovation is usually driven by new hardware. New hardware should be understood as new ways of controlling and experiencing games. This is how this industry evolves: every time new hardware paradigms emerge, new types of games take shape. We were all excited, and a bit wary of what was ahead; we were talking about developing for a smartwatch we’d never seen or worn, and a device that wasn’t quite like anything other before it.
We had envisioned “Little Leader” as a casual role-playing game that captures the fascination of a society with dictator figures. This premium experience was inspired by “Mafia Wars”-like games with a layer of over-the-top storytelling driven by a captivating dialogue system.
But more important was the fact that we were looking to build a game that is device-centric, focused on the Apple Watch model of interaction. And this was a big thing for us as we were stepping into unknown territory.
The quest for Innovation implies failing:
At launch, many developers, ourselves included, trusted Apple’s suggestions that players would want quick-hit experiences that last only seconds at a time. In many ways they were right, it’s not comfortable to hold your arm up for lengthy sessions. You might as well grab your iPhone for a richer, fuller experience. However, there’s a very thin line between comfort and engagement. We quickly learned that short shorter interactions meant more interactions and ended up embracing the slogan “10 seconds every 10 minutes”. We were doing this purely based on intuition, since there were literally no games out at that time to confirm whether this worked or not.
One of the big drawbacks of the Apple Watch, at launch, was the lack of native apps: we were building a game for a device that had yet to be figured out. The lack of native support hurt apps of all sorts with lengthy wait times and delayed feedback, but it especially affected games. This limitation curtailed interactivity and forced developers to essentially do less with less.
The device itself was marketed with a plethora of amazing features like Tracking User Behavior and Health Data, Location Services and Gesture Based Navigation, so our concept revolved around that. We decided to build a game that would use all of these. Our initial concept implied heavy usage of location services and well-placed events, based on user behavior. Luckily enough, we got access to the Watch SDKs while in preproduction. We soon learned that we had access to none of these features. The SDK of the Apple Watch, at that point, was built in a series of modules that did not interact with each other. The Health Module was independent of the Games module and so on.
This meant that we ended up with an experience that was purely revolving around storytelling and resource management. Having said that, we were lucky to learn this in early development. On one hand (no pun intended), it meant we lost a lot of the game experience that we were originally planning for. On the other, we could focus on something that we knew was in reach — a high quality, polished, narrative experience full of irreverent humor and quirky moments.
The quest for innovation implies knowing yourself:
And knowing yourself implies knowing what you are good at. Here, at Amber, we know that we are masters of making polished products and working with quirky tech. So, we decided to play to our strengths and build more than a game.
The Quest Editor, pictured below, is the tool that allowed to build the game, something that any game development company should have.
We also knew that we had the opportunity to take art in a direction where Amber had not been before: minimalism. Paula Rusu, a popular Romanian artist, was on our radar for a while. We approached her for a collaboration and we were happy to find out that she was also interested in making games for a while now. Her over the top style fitted our story like a glove.
Last but not least, we had to admit the fact that the Apple Watch is, as far as we can tell, not a gaming device, despite claims to contrary.
Here’s what we’ve learned:
– The low market penetration of the Watch means that game developers only have access to a very small niche.
– Using the Watch in public, repeatedly, especially for games, creates social discomfort.
– Playing games on the Watch means pushing the throttle on battery consumption and that’s not great news.
– It makes sense to have companion apps for games on the iPhone but not games for the Watch.
– Sooner than later, the constant game notifications will become annoying.
All of the above lead us to believe that the watch is not a device for gaming … unless you’re building a tamagotchi game. 😉
Last, but not least, I’d like to share with you the funny portraits we’ve made for the “Little Leader” team (devs, partners and support functions in the wider studio):