GameCentral goes hands-on with the first proper Apple Watch game, from the creators of I Am Bread – but what exactly is ‘background gaming’?
Smartphones, particularly the iPhone, are now the dominant video games format in the world, and by a considerable margin. A lot of core gamers aren’t too happy about that, but it’s hard to say where it all started – with no commonly accepted killer app that set the whole thing in motion. But Surgeon Simulator and I Am Bread maker Bossa are hoping that Spy_Watch will be exactly that for Apple Watch.
There are already a few games that have been announced for smartwatches, including social AR game Ingress on Android Wear and Shantae developer WayForward’s Watch Quest. The latter at least is a ‘proper’ game, but it only works in conjunction with a smartphone and it’s likely that most game-related apps for smartwatches will be companion apps rather than standalone games in themselves. But Spy_Watch aims to be different.
‘The first iPhone games were just games put on an iPhone, and then the first games that were truly iPhone games, they immediately performed so much better because they used the platform that they had – don’t try to force something else on it,’ Bossa co-founder Imre Jele told us.
‘With new hardware you have to think, “What would be the right thing to marry to that platform?” And the answer almost always is, “Not whatever exists on another platform”, adds COO Vince Farquharson.
The idea behind Spy_Watch is very simple: you’re part of a recently stripped down, and therefore virtually penniless, spy agency and you have to direct your agents in the field and advise them what to do and where to go. In other words you’re playing as ‘M’ and bossing around James Bond.
Spying is an obvious subject matter for a smartwatch game – given it’s just the sort of gimmick Bond himself would be using – but the clever thing is that Spy_Watch is a cross between a choose your own adventure game and an ARG. As Bossa immediately realised, playing a traditional game on a smartwatch is both pointless and nearly impossible. So instead they’ve tried to make it seem as if the agent you’re talking to is actually real and not just part of the game.
Although you can load up the app and play the game using its own high-tech looking interface the best way to play it is to have it simply message you as if the agent was a real person. Updates appear alongside all your regular notifications, except instead of your girlfriend reminding you to pick up some milk it’s a super spy asking whether he should bribe a guard or beat him up.
‘How do you use a phone? Well, you take it once an hour, or whatever it is, and you say, “I’m gonna play a game” and you’ll typically play for five or 10 minutes and the games are built around that. But if you take that and put that onto a watch that’s absolutely wrong’, says Farquharson.
‘You never sit and look at your watch for five minutes, you just don’t. So a normal kind of game just wouldn’t work. So instead you look at your watch every 15 or 20 minutes for two or three seconds and then that’s it. That’s how you use watches. But there isn’t actually any game type that works like that, so we had to invent it.’
There’s an almost Tamagotchi style quality to the idea, as although the updates aren’t frequent (the game takes place in real-time, so if you send the Agent to Istanbul you have to wait till he gets there) they can occur at any time. So Bossa are secretly hoping for lots of PR-generating stories about business meetings being interrupted because someone needs to help break into the Armenian Embassy.
We did get to play the game itself, albeit it on an iPhone rather than an actual watch. It won’t surprise you to learn that Apple are being incredibly restrictive about who gets an Apple Watch before launch and even when we visited last week Bossa didn’t have one – or at least weren’t allowed to admit they had one. In fact there were a lot of wry looks and raised eyebrows when we suggested that Apple must be a somewhat demanding partner to work with…
You get the basic gist of the game on the phone though, since it works almost like an old text adventure – with a short 10 minute intro that describes the situation in some detail and then throws a few starter questions at you. They’re all binary choices and you can’t kill your agent, but instead have to live with the consequences of your choices; as well as the considerably less money a bad one will bring in for the agency.
Once the tutorial is over the game settles down to just sending you the odd message and question now and then, and even as we sit there in the office there’s a tingle of excitement as the phone gets a new message and a new decision has to be taken.
There is a proper game structure to what’s going on though, with a levelling up system that allows you to play procedurally-generated missions in order to earn money for training. This in turn helps you level up, which unlocks more of the story missions. Bossa estimate they have several months worth of content already, although if the game’s a success it’s obviously very easy to add more. As well as experiment with other genres of storytelling.
‘We do everything to make it not feel like a game’, says Farquharson. ‘You’re wearing an actual spy watch that you’ve been given by a spy agency to communicate with real spies. And that’s basically the premise of the game.’
‘You know companies like to invent new terms, because then suddenly you are the best in that genre! Well, with this one we call it “background gaming”’, says Jele.
‘Because it’s so different in the pacing and so different in the way you interact. Even casual gaming, you’ve decided to set some time aside to play a game. So it’s very different from that, with a game universe existing and happening parallel to yours. You don’t decide to play the game, it asks you’.