Graham McAllister explores the potential gaming applications of Apple’s latest device
It’s not often a new gaming platform comes along. I don’t mean an iteration of an existing one, like a next-generation console update, but rather, a completely new way of experiencing games. The Apple Watch has been with us for just over two weeks, and although smartwatches from other manufacturers have been available for a while, none have made any real impact. But this is Apple, and they’ve been clever to position their offering differently, this is not just a functional device which makes accessing information easier, it’s also presented as a desirable fashion accessory. Such an approach will help address the perception that smartwatches are only for tech-savvy early adopters, Apple is clearly saying that’s not the case at all, they’re for everyone. But is it for gamers? Well, it depends on what you mean by gaming. Is it a device to play games on in the traditional sense? Most likely not. Could it be a way to create deeper engagement with games that users are already playing on their other devices? Almost certainly. But to understand how the Apple Watch can increase a player’s engagement with a game, we first need to explore the watch from an interaction design perspective.
In its Human Interface Guidelines (HIG) documentation, Apple states that developing for the Apple Watch’s reduced form factor requires careful user experience considerations. It’s making it very clear that to deliver the best possible experience, you need to understand what’s most important for the user and design with that clearly in mind. This is not a device you port to, it’s a device you design for. Being a wearable, the physical design of the Apple Watch is dictated by the human form, and although it supports touch interactions, the small screen size makes both presenting information and selecting options difficult. To help solve these issues, Apple has had to design new interaction methods and re-emphasize existing ones.
New Dog, New Tricks
To help ensure that the user’s fingers are kept away from the display, scrolling through items is achieved by the Digital Crown. This is a physical wheel on the side of the watch, and is both easy and pleasurable to use. The Digital Crown can also be pressed, however this does not select the currently highlighted item as you might expect, instead this acts much like the Home button on an iPhone taking the user to an overview of their apps. Except it gets much more confusing. For example, it’s possible to also double press (double tap) on the Digital Crown and this is supposed to let you switch easily between the last two used apps. This does indeed work, however a further single press could either take you to the home screen (as expected), or on some occasions, to the watch face. The reason for the inconsistency is unclear, and could lead to frustration and confusion.
Another new interaction is Force Touch (a strong press), which allows the user to bring up a context sensitive menu, typically configuration options relevant to what’s being displayed. This seems indeed useful, however there’s no visible way for the user to know when a Force Touch option is available, so although great features and options may be just one menu away, because that menu is in the hidden z plane rather than the visible x-y plane (the 2D UI), for many users they will simply go undiscovered. So although both these new interaction methods try to address some of the problems of the small form factor, they also introduce inconsistency and visibility issues, which break even the most basic usability principles. These can be solved however, Apple maybe just needs another iteration on its design principles.
Apple has also made one seemingly small, but significant, improvement in the way that its voice recognition software, Siri, works. On the iPhone and iPad Siri can only be activated by voice when plugged into a power source. This is not the case with the Apple Watch, and simply saying ‘Hey Siri’, activates the voice recognition mode making it easy to launch apps or ask questions using natural language. This works surprisingly well, and anecdotal evidence suggests that this is the primary form of interaction for many Apple Watch owners, when not in public of course.
But what about when you want to keep interactions private? Making use of other available modalities the Apple Watch uses haptic feedback, allowing the wearer to receive a tap on the wrist whenever a notification arrives. To help make sure that users don’t get overloaded with messages, in their human interface guidelines Apple refers to notifications as ‘high-value information’, so these should only be messages that the user really wants to read, they will be paid attention to and not dismissed.
So far we’ve shown that users can access information by interacting with the app itself, or for high-value and timely information, the watch can present the user with a notification. But there is one more way in which users can access information, and it’s for their favourite content. For apps which the user cares most about and needs frequent access to, they can add a summary screen which gives an overview of key information related to the app. Apple calls these Glances, and are activated with a simple swipe-up from the bottom of the watch display.
What Apple has done then, is to create two ways in which users can be driven to an app – notifications and Glances. With notifications it’s the app notifying the user, and with Glances it’s the user choosing to request a summary of one of their favourite apps. Either way, the desired outcome is that the information is of sufficient value to drive engagement with the associated app.
So what is the potential here for games? Many developers would like their game to become part of the player’s daily life, integrated into their lifestyle, habitual even, how can the Apple Watch help with this? Research has found that acting on habits typically fall into one of five categories – location, time, emotional state, other people (who else is around), and what were you just doing. The capabilities of the Apple Watch means that it can provide to developers an improved understanding of these potential habitual cues, meaning notifications can be delivered with an increased likelihood of driving engagement with your app. Although data relating to most of these cues could have been known previously with an iPhone, the emotional state category is certainly new to the Apple Watch. Although the built-in heart rate sensor is presumably primarily intended for activity and fitness purposes, research suggests that using a combination of heart rate, voice, and position, a user’s emotional state can be inferred. All of which the Apple Watch is capable of.
It’s not just about creating deeper engagement with games though, it’s also about creating new genres of games entirely. For example, there have been games in the past which measure the player’s physiological state with the objective being that the player who is most ‘relaxed’ wins. Such games typically used proprietary technology however, so it’ll be interesting to see what creative ideas designers come up with using what is likely to become commonplace technology. Yes, the smartwatch market at the moment is relatively small, but it’s predicted to grow incredibly quickly with predictions being that there will be around 350 million sold by 2018 (for comparison there are around 700 million iPhones sold to date).
Apple have introduced a smartwatch which can be thought of as a personal assistant for the game which lives on your other devices. It will inform you of high-value notifications, allow you to quickly glance at a summary of the status of your favourite games, and as it’s on your wrist, you’re not likely to miss out on messages that you care about, from games or from friends.
At first sight then, the Apple Watch may not seem like much of a gaming device, but it could be the key to creating not only deeper engagement with games, but also a new breed entirely of more personal games. Small wins are the key to big changes.