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Watch Out: Mobile Gaming Might Get Even Crazier if Apple Watch Succeeds

If the iPhone was a boon for casual gaming, then gaming on the Apple Watch might be called hyper-casual.

Bonnie Cha

In 2008, Apple accidentally became one of the most important gaming companies in the world.

The introduction of the iPhone’s App Store lowered longstanding barriers for software developers and turned little-known startups like Rovio and Supercell — or, at least, their games Angry Birds and Clash of Clans — into household names. Smartphone and tablet gaming reached $21 billion in sales worldwide in 2014, according to SuperData Research, and in the 2014 holiday quarter, games were responsible for three-quarters of all iOS app spending, according to App Annie.

Now Apple is going to try to convince its fans to buy smartwatches — a category where Pebble and Google have already planted flags — with the launch of the Apple Watch later this month. Third-party developers are somewhat constrained in what Apple Watch functionality they can use for now, but there will be games available for the device at launch.

After talking to several of the developers making games for early adopters, I’m struck by just how different the talk about Apple Watch gaming is versus Cupertino’s other devices.

If the iPhone was a boon for casual gaming — short pick-up-and-play experiences that could be spaced out over a day rather than experienced in one sit-down session — then gaming on Apple Watch might be called hyper-casual. One developer told me his company was targeting 10 to 30 seconds of playtime, max. Another said that was too much and was instead gunning for five to 15 seconds.

“It’s not very comfortable looking at your wrist for a long time,” said MobilityWare VP Robert Jackson. “The mobile game market is about filling your day with quick gameplay sessions. The watch is an even more extreme version of that.”

MobilityWare plans to bring several games to the device, starting with an Apple Watch-optimized update to its popular Solitaire app. Jackson said the watch version treats a single game of solitaire as something to be completed over the course of a day; players who want to play more than one hand are then encouraged to do so on their iPhones.

There are really two categories for potential Apple Watch gaming applications.

One is a game like Solitaire that will offer a self-contained experience on the watch face. The other is a game that still happens primarily on the phone, but uses the watch as a second screen for game-related notifications.

Kim Kardashian: Hollywood publisher Glu Mobile is more interested in the latter use case, CEO Niccolo De Masi said in an interview with Re/code. Although the company has not yet committed to releasing any games for the device, De Masi said it has a team that experiments with new potential platforms, the Apple Watch among them.

“If you look at what happens to the human attention as you miniaturize something, there does come a point where it’s harder to focus,” he said. “I think accessories are very powerful extenders of game experiences. They can increase retention and engagement. They can probably increase monetization, particularly for games with a socio-competitive angle.”

In other words: Someone has overtaken you on the A-list in Kim Kardashian. Quick, pull out your phone and do something about it!

That said, De Masi added that he considers watch gaming to be “an early adopter phenomenon” that wouldn’t go mainstream for two or three more Moore’s Law cycles, with accompanying price drops.

Although Glu may not yet be ready to commit to an Apple Watch game, Seriously CEO Andrew Stalbow said his company is planning to offer a similar-sounding complementary experience for its mobile puzzle game Best Fiends.

“You take our lead character Temper on a journey during the day on the watch,” Stalbow said. “After you win resources on the watch, you can move him back into the iPhone game at night to level up the characters. We think about it as play at a glance.”

Of course, for some developers the coming of yet another gaming platform may not be totally welcome. All entertainment is ultimately competing for the same share of your time, and getting a quick fix of fun on your wrist could translate to less time looking at the grid of apps on your phone, or tablet, and so on.

However, Jackson said the experiences are different enough that the Apple Watch won’t directly undercut other gaming options.

“I think this is similar to the original debate of mobile versus console,” Jackson said. “Just as the console is a full, rich experience, and nothing we do will replace that, I don’t see it as replacing mobile phones. All these things cascade on top of each other.”

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