The peal and crash of thunder. Echoing footsteps. The sounds of some creeping, sliding, unknowable horror.
Mind Keeper: The Lurking Fear drops players into the dread of a Lovecraftian mystery, having them explore the labyrinthine hallways of an expansive mansion and the sunken byways of the “Swamp of Storms” that surround it. The story of Marcus Morris, his wife, and two sons, unfolds in snippets of story delivered between your dangerous wanderings. It’s an evocative piece of first-person play delivered not on PC, console, or even smartphone, but instead created specifically to run on the postage stamp-sized screen of an Apple Watch.
Four years and five models after the release of the original Apple Watch, the games created for the device continue to improve, pushing the technology and what can be created on it to its limits. But despite its slow, steady improvements, game developers remain split on whether the Apple Watch is or will ever be a suitable platform for games.
The Apple Watch launched in 2015, and those early adopters could already play games on the device. Those first titles — like all apps running on the Apple Watch until the release of WatchOS 2 a year later — didn’t actually run on the watch. Instead, apps ran on the iPhone and essentially piped the information over to an extension on the watch, which showed the results. The process was slow and sometimes clunky, but that didn’t initially stop some developers from creating games.
Will Luton was one of those early developers. He and Paul Virapen set up a studio called WearGa, initially to create something for the Pebble smartwatch. The two created Pixel Miner on a budget of $5,000. The game was watch take on an idle clicker game — a title that essentially played itself with little input. Soon it became the most “loved” game on the Pebble Watch and fourth-most loved app overall.
“At one point, we calculated Pixel Miner being installed on 1-in-10 Pebble watches,” Luton said. “We were totally convinced that we understood what a game on a watch would play like and that they could be fun. When Apple announced the Apple Watch, we shifted our attention there. They invited us in to have early access to the first-gen watch in Cupertino, and we launched Cupcake Dungeon (an idle clicker) on day one.”
Cupcake Dungeon launched on day one of the Apple Watch and was featured on the Apple Watch App Store — then a part of the iPhone’s App Store.
“We got 300 downloads,” Luton said. “The store was so hidden.”
The download numbers were so bad it torpedoed the two’s efforts are raising venture capital money and essentially killed the studio. It also left Luton with a lasting impression that the Apple Watch is not a good place for app developers.
“I don’t think the paradigm of apps on the Apple Watch has ever taken off,” he said. “People either don’t know how or care how to put apps on their watch. It’s very different from a phone.”
Luton also noted he hasn’t really stayed up to speed on the updates to the watch.
What’s in store
While Apple released the Apple Watch’s capability to run native apps in 2016, perhaps the most significant update to hit the Apple Watch since its release is WatchOS 6, which in September finally brought the App Store to the Apple Watch. Now watch owners can use their watches to find native apps for the device.
Celine Pecheur and Dimitri Darsch, cofounders of Seele Games, both have high hopes for the store and the impact it could have on the watch app ecosystem.
“WatchOS 6 is a very big release for us,” the two said in an email. “While Apple Watch’s main function isn’t gaming (and probably never will be), it is a great device for experimentation and creativity.”
That’s what drew Abylight Studios to the Apple Watch.
Creative director “Miguel (Corchero), and I walked by an Apple Store and decided to buy a couple of Apple Watches to tinker with them,” said Eva Gaspar, the CEO of the studio.
“We’ve been looking at the Apple Watch for some time, thinking what we could do with it in terms of games,” Corchero added. “But it wasn’t until Apple’s keynote announcement about the launch of the independent App Store along with WatchOS 6 that we decided it was time to join the battle.”
The studio decided to create a game that would be a showcase of what could be done on the watch.
To studio faced a number of challenges in developing Mindkeeper: The Lurking Fear.
First, they had to create their own engine and tools. Then they struggled with bringing their vision of a touch-screen controlled dungeon crawler to the watch.
“Once we started testing the device, we realized that the screen was too small for lots of interaction, so we concentrated on the crown as a central element of gameplay,” Corchero said.
The team settled on automating the character’s movement through the first-person viewed world. Interactions were also all automated. The player, then, was left to control the direction of movement in real time by turning the watch’s crown. The end result delivers a sort of anxiety to the game, where you are always moving forward and are forced to quickly decide in which direction you want to head. To grab a key, activate a switch, or pick up an item, you just maneuver over to it.
Fortunately, Abylight’s history of development prepared them for the task.
“Abylight Studios has a history of over 15 years,” Gaspar said. “We actually started doing games for machines way smaller and limited than the Apple Watch: phones with nothing smart about them.”
The result is a game so impressive that, the developers say, some people think the trailers and videos of it are faked.
Space to succeed
John Passfield‘s arcade-inspired games for the Apple Watch are increasingly impressive.
Passfield got his start soon after the watch’s launch, creating a word game that used four on-screen buttons to play. Snappy Word was available at launch, and it continues to sell well. More recently, Passfield has been working on creating games inspired by classic arcade titles. Kepler Attack is an homage to Gyruss, Star Warp is inspired by Galaxian. And Asteroids Commando is a clever riff on Asteroids for the Apple Watch.
While Passfield says he’s making enough money off the apps for him to stay focused on game development for the watch, he too hopes that the new Apple Watch App Store will help with discoverability.
“I think the developers who hung in are starting to see some success, and I believe the developer ecosystem will only improve going forward and make watch development a viable business,” he said.
Despite early success on the Apple Watch with games, Mars Jokela doesn’t see that happening. Jokela was the lead game designer on 3 Minute Games‘ Poll Party and Lifeline. Both were fully playable on the watch, but it “Lifeline” became a breakout hit, with millions of downloads and many sequels produced, he said.
But Jokela believes the Apple Watch ecosystem still hasn’t grown enough to support development.
“I love the watch. So much,” he said. “At launch, I was extremely excited to see what it could do and what awesome apps I’d be putting on it and using every day. But over time, I found that I use it to view and respond to notifications, to track workouts, and for Apple Pay. I personally haven’t found any third-party apps to be particularly sticky, and after not too long, I’ve found its role in my life is to streamline the things it’s good at, not to add more complexity. I think most other users probably feel similarly.
“I think Watch integration can be a value-add for software where it’s a good fit, but I expect that the third-party ecosystem is not thriving on watch alone. I think if I were creating something just for watch today, even if it were a perfect fit, there would be enormous marketing barriers to get over. I honestly wouldn’t even try.”
Games are everywhere
While the Apple Watch has lost some early game developers, there are those — like Passfield, Seele Games, and Abylight Studios — who think things are just starting to blow up on the device.
“People play games. Always. Everywhere. With everything,” said Gaspar. “We are proving that the Watch is a perfectly suited platform too.”
“Yeah, for sure,” Corchero added. “Have you tried the latest games on mobile? Once you start the game, it needs an update; then it needs Internet, then daily rewards, then reminders, then diamonds and discounts, then video ads … Oh, boy. … When you are waiting for the bus, and you have two minutes, and you just want to play, you want to play now. Just bring up your wrist, click on the latest Abylight game on your Apple Watch, and you are there, direct, short, on the experience, at the moment. No distraction or unnecessary layers of complexity.
“I totally believe that the Apple Watch have their own spot as a game platform, and I also believe that we have seen nothing yet … the years to come are going to be awesome in terms of creation for the platform.”
In his own way, Passfield echoed that sentiment.
“If you want to make the big bucks or create a wide variety of experiences, then stick to PC, mobile, or console,” he said when asked if the Apple Watch makes sense as a platform for games. “But for fun, simple games that are quick to play, I think it works well. There are tens of millions of Watches out there, and I figure there are other folks like me who would love to play a quick game on their wrist anytime and anywhere.”