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Smartwatch game wars start right now – but can a 10-second game really work?

Published Mar 18th, 2015 1:33PM EDT

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A new Finnish mobile game company called Everywear has made a radical decision: It will only develop games for wearable devices. This leap seems gutsy, almost foolhardy… but the people backing the company are bound to give skeptics a pause. The lead investors in a newly announced €500,000 seed round are Lifeline and Sunstone, two institutions closely linked to the massive Nordic success stories of Supercell and Minecraft.

FROM EARLIER: Meet Neptune, the smartwatch that wants to redefine computing

Supercell is a particularly interesting reference, because Clash of Clans is a game that in many ways reflected the mobile gaming shift from smartphones to tablets. Smartphone downloads still tower over tablet downloads, but the debut of Clash of Clans in the autumn of 2012 marked the point when game design started being dictated by tablet form factor.

The lavish touch displays of iPads opened up the game world, enabling relatively deep, strategic gameplay of inventory management titles like Clash of Clans. Many consumers now anchor their play with tablet time and use smartphone versions of the game to keep track of events and make management decisions every now and then.

It was the Finnish app vendor Rovio that created the iconic smartphone gem Angry Birds back in 2009, when most vendors were still experimenting with the mobile game format. Rovio’s big appeal lay in its strongly drawn, relatively crude characters that solved hundreds of puzzles where difficulty level kept rising at a leisurely pace.

This bite-sized gameplay with a huge number of mini-levels turned out to be a winning formula in 2010 through 2012, which was the mobile app industry period that Rovio dominated. Then in 2012, the ground shifted and Supercell’s epic war strategy game with its tribal freemium approach triumphed in 2013-2014.

Could the third era of mobile gaming now be at hand and will a Finnish vendor once again lead the world intellectually into a new period of innovation?

In an interview, Everywear founder Aki Järvilehto made a provocative claim: Games on smartwatches must be played mostly in 10-second sessions. There can be periods of “consolidating” gameplay every now and then, but most play sessions must be tiny to accommodate how people use watch-like devices.

Much of the gameplay should be “idle gaming” where progression rolls on even when you are not actively involved with the game. This is a far cry from the focused, extended gameplay that is the norm for most tablet games. But signs of idle gaming and some short sessions already exist in games as different as Rage of Bahamut and Hay DayIn many card games, strategy games and resource management games in general, the player can derive satisfaction from checking in and performing a simple task or two at various times of day.

Listening to Järvilehto talk about super sparse game sessions is somewhat surprising considering he launched the PC version of Remedy’s visually sumptuous Alan Wake a few years ago. But as massive as that title was, it was fundamentally about breaking conventions of console/PC gaming. In a sense this rebel streak was a premonition of the weirdness of focusing solely on watch games.

“Never tell me the odds!” says Aki Järvilehto. “Games have always been about betting on something new or trying something creative which has never been done before. That’s why we have burnt the boats behind us and are going all in on smartwatches.”

But can the Han Solo/Odysseus of Nordic gaming shift the bulk of gameplay to 10 second sessions? Does this require a fundamental rethink of every aspect of game design, from graphics to character design to monetization strategies to battle mechanics? It’s a fascinating question.

Could it be a question that can only be answered by dedicated game companies betting everything on smartwatch games, with no safety net and old routines to fall back on? Obviously, the short span of sessions means that complexity has to be grafted into games via some other way than manipulating multiple characters or roaming around vast sets.

I have received glimpses of Everywear’s first titles and some of the artwork looks surprisingly voluptuous. Every pixel counts, which used to be the charm of the ’80s game design that is now clearly riding a wave of nostalgia in iPhone charts. Could the smartwatch be a platform that fosters and empowers the throwback game design movement, currently championed by faux vintage titles like Crossy Road and Goblin Sword?

Obviously, many game developers are working on smartwatch features that complement main gameplay that’s happening on larger mobile devices. Is that conservative route the prudent approach or will it just shackle the new genre into conventions it cannot really fully support?

The dazzling Nordic success of companies like King, Rovio, Supercell, Kiloo, Toca Boca and Mojang (now part of Microsoft) was defined by the ability of these companies to do daring projects that defied conventional wisdom, not any single genre or game design philosophy. These companies racked up billions of downloads and hundreds of millions of monthly users by having the guts to focus obsessively on hair-cutting simulations with no scoring systems or virtual worlds with oddly rudimentary graphics.

One of the biggest gambles of the decidedly oddball Scandinavian mobile game history is now taking shape in Helsinki, which has turned into a hive of experimental, sometimes outre indie houses like Tree Men Games and Two Men and a Dog. As California focuses obsessively on social media apps, the creative center of the mobile gaming world has shifted to the Stockholm-Helsinki axis.

After launching mobile game company SpringToys tragically early in 2000, Tero Kuittinen spent eight years doing equity research at firms including Alliance Capital and Opstock. He is currently an analyst and VP of North American sales at mobile diagnostics and expense management Alekstra, and has contributed to, Forbes and Business 2.0 Magazine in addition to BGR.