Why game developers must wait for the coming wearable computing breakthrough

Galaxy Gear Candy Crush

On Christmas, game website Polygon released a feature that painted a picture of how wearable technology could be implemented in gaming. Given the fact that CES 2014 is slated to keep wearables front-and-center at all times, it makes sense: game developers are always chasing after a new platform, so why not create a game or gaming companion that users can keep on their body?

That’s all well and good, but hear me out: just because a game can operate on wearable technology doesn’t mean it should. If developers intend on using their same strategies for mobile on a smart watch or smart glasses, I don’t want anything to do with it.

First, treating wearable glasses or watches as just another screen — a ripe place to port already-existing smartphone games — isn’t going to capture the mind of any but the staunchest of loyal fans.

Angry Birds motoactv

The truth is, the wearable experience as it stands is a poor one for gaming: limited control and small screen size make it unsuitable for traditional gameplay. Tapping away on Tetris on a Galaxy Gear will be more difficult than doing so on a handheld or mobile device — and the lack of sophisticated controls could lead to an experience that feels less like the future and more like an inane Tiger Electronics watch from the ’80s. For wearable glasses, a traditional gaming experience could fare even worse, taking people out of the real world and putting games literally right in front of their faces.

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In addition, the Polygon article explores the idea of wearable technology as a peripheral companion to smartphones — an extension of the game that can be used for “quick moves.” For example, sending along a quick move during an asynchronous game of Words With Friends or similar, alert-based game. While there is good intent in using wearable technology for what it does best now — giving alerts — I would hardly call swiping a few moves on Google Glass a fulfilling gameplay experience.

Furthermore, in this example, wearables will always defer to the smartphone controlling the real meat of the action. There isn’t any value to using wearable technology as an extension of a game if there is always a better experience to be had on another, equally accessible platform.

The fact is that limited display and features means that wearables are not suited to the way that developers create mobile games today. And, as it stands now, games on wearable devices have proven to be no more than proof-of-concept apps that show that the device can do it — not necessarily the right kind of immersive play experience.

But that’s not to say that wearables are a lost-cause in the game world. I do think that we will have an opportunity to make smart watches and glasses great tools for games, but it’s on the onus of developers in both hardware and software to create a new, interactive experience that plays to the devices’ strengths.

Google Glass earbud

The biggest place that wearables can make an impact is in the world of augmented reality gameplay. Rather than keeping an experience on the device, or in the phone, AR games are grounded in the real world.

For example, imagine that a pair of smart glasses had enough motion tracking technology built in to recognize cups on a table. With a few eye movements and clicks, those cups can become objects in a virtual shooting gallery. Or, glasses and watches can work in concert with each other, encouraging users to bump fists with fellow players in the game or tap all of the objects in a room that are blue. We’re already seeing inklings of AR games in mobile technology, specifically with Niantic Labs’ Ingress, but wearables could open up the space in a new and interesting way. But the technology isn’t quite there yet, and so we must be patient.

All in all, whether or not gaming becomes a popular activity on wearable devices isn’t up to the users, but the developers. It will take a lot of brain power to come up with a game experience that is as novel as the hardware itself, but it is possible. But, if the environment gets lazy and relies on old tricks, then no thanks — I’ll pass.

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