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Playing with Wearables: A Journey in Ultra-Small Game Design

With the introduction of smartwatches in the market and the upcoming Apple Watch, we were excited to explore how this new medium could impact gaming and entertainment. What better way to explore than dive right in and make a game?

Scott Moakes, Blogger

February 4, 2015

7 Min Read

Originally posted on the Ludomade blog

The future of wearables demands new interaction standards due to the specific limitations and peculiarities of this new platform. With the introduction of smartwatches in the market and the upcoming Apple Watch, we were excited to explore how this new medium could impact gaming and entertainment. What better way to explore than dive right in and make a game?

Get The Concept Right

If the player is going to be wearing the watch while they play, they need to be able to operate the game with their one free hand and to be able to play comfortably. A first person shooter with multiple inputs just won’t work on a watch. The game concept has to reflect both the medium and player experience (and we think wearable play sessions will prove to be shorter and more erratic than the standards of mobile).

We talked about the idea of a single-control elevator game, where the player has to stop an elevator on the correct floor to let people out. After several iterations, we took the concept deeper – literally – and Mineshaft was born. In Mineshaft you control the brakes of a dynamite-packed mining elevator searching for lost treasure. The aim is to stop the elevator at just the right time to drop the dynamite and blow a deeper mineshaft to explore. The concept felt right for the watch.


  • Think about how it’s going to feel playing a game that’s strapped to your wrist: holding your arm up in strange ways gets tiresome quickly, so keep play sessions short.

  • Minimize the player inputs – simplify everything.

Touchy Feely

Usability conventions on mobile dictates that players make input decisions by pressing on-screen buttons. The issue with using buttons is that since the physical size of the screen is so small, in order to make the button large enough for the user to target, a significant amount of screen real estate would be needed for the interface. Additionally, the player could be wearing the watch on their left hand and playing with their right or vice versa. This poses a question: which side should the buttons be located? Choose the wrong side and the user will be reaching across the game’s view to interact - covering up even more of the game.

We solved for this by simplifying the UI and having the game input fire from anywhere on the screen. This leaves it up to the player to decide what’s comfortable for them, allowing them to work out the best place to tap without covering up the gameplay based on their individual setup.


  • On a 280x280 screen, space fills up really quick, so consider as few on-screen buttons as possible.

  • When buttons are necessary, think about their placement based on which wrist the watch is on. You don’t want players to cover everything up whenever they need to jump.

Mineshaft Gameplay

So Much To See, So Little Space

Working with such a small screen, the graphical style needs to be clear and legible. Although we’d initially said that we didn’t want to go down an 8-bit route, it turned out that after a lot of art exploration, 8-bit worked perfectly for the platform. The hard edges meant that the all artwork was well defined, even on 280x280 screens. 

We experimented with adding and removing levels of complexity to the graphical style. When we tested them out on the watch, it became obvious that there was sweet spot that we needed to achieve to make the graphics legible while still keeping the right feel for the game. The last image shows the final outcome.


  • Texture-packed realism isn’t going to work on such a small screen. Choose a graphical style and color palette that maximizes definition at this size.

Circular Reasoning

When working with smartwatches, both circular and square screens need to be considered. This means either having the UI react to the watch shape, or keeping UI out of the corners.

Another challenge is communicating relevant information to the player without cluttering the screen. In Mineshaft, the player needs to know how far down the mineshaft they are and the fuse time remaining in the dynamite. Traditional UI options yielded results that were either difficult to read, or made the screen too busy. The solution was to go for minimalist, in-world indicators that give the relevant information and nothing more.

The default method of closing an app on Android Wear is swiping to the right. With most game concepts, this functionality will often cause the app to close at times when the player is simply trying to play the game. In order to fix this, disable the swipe to close function. However, disabling this requires the inclusion of an alternate way to close the app.


  • Consider square and circle screens when designing UI, keep those buttons out of the corners.

  • Minimize the amount of UI needed - the small screen gets cluttered quickly.

  • You must remove the default “swipe right to close app” function.

Hear No Evil

Unfortunately, there’s no audio on most smartwatches. Therefore, any game audio has to be purely for aesthetics and not compulsory. In Mineshaft, this doesn’t cause any problems since the audio is an optional enhancement to the experience. This is something to consider when making more complex experiences for the watch.


  • There’s no audio on most watches so use audio as an accessory.

Distribution and Support (or lack thereof)

To distribute an Android Wear app, you essentially create a mobile app with the watch app packaged in. The user downloads the mobile app and the watch version automatically installs to any connected smartwatch. So, as long as you can build to Android, you can build and distribute to Android Wear. This meant that we were able to use Unity for development of Mineshaft, building 2 versions, one for mobile and one for watch, both packaged together and downloaded as one.

Discovery of Android Wear apps is currently a major challenge. There’s an Android Wear section of the Google Play store hidden under ‘categories’, however, it only displays featured Android Wear apps. There’s no chart list or any of the other usual discovery tools you find for normal mobile apps. Hopefully when Apple releases their watch, they’ll create a standard that’s more useful for developers and players alike.


  • Package the watch app with a mobile app for distribution.

  • App store discovery for Android Wear apps is terrible, so you will have to leverage all other channels to drive people to the store.

Wrap Up

The smartwatches we tested proved to be more like powerful little wrist computers than watches. How you use that power to create something relevant to the medium is the really interesting part. Some constraints were annoying, but working within them forced us to make atypical decisions that produced a more unique product perfect for the wearable play experience.

Check out the final result on Android Wear, Android and iOS.

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