The spy who nudged me: How Bossa Studios made its first Apple Watch game

Surgeon Simulator devs have turned the Apple Watch into a Spy Watch
Bossa Studios' first Apple Watch game

Your Apple Watch gently taps you on the wrist. It's probably a reminder of a lunch meeting or the latest tweet in an argument you wished you hadn't started. But wait, the screen lights up. Your father's dead and now you're in charge of a one man spy agency.

Read this: The best Apple Watch apps, details revealed by developers

I'm playing one of the first Apple Watch games, Spy_Watch, designed for Apple's first smartwatch by British indie developer Bossa Studios, the team behind Surgeon Simulator and I Am Bread.

So of course I'm playing it on an iPhone. That's not Bossa's fault. We're still officially in 'pre-launch', so devs are restricted as to what they can show off and neither me nor COO Vince Farquharson were on a level with Pharrell Williams last time we checked.

Three second gaming

Spy_Watch in a nutshell is this: a series of messages, questions and instructions, between you and a fictional agent you are handling, which you view and interact with on the watch.

Call it interactive fiction, call it "background gaming" as Bossa does, it looks like a perfect fit for the Apple Watch.

"We want you to be sat in a meeting, glance at your Watch then tap and say 'strangle him!' and no-one would know."

"One of the things that is really exciting about the Watch is that it's new hardware," said Farquharson, "but it's not just new hardware. It's a new type of hardware which is used in new types of ways which are very, very different to previous hardware. So it's basically it's not a phone on your wrist. We thought - you use a watch every twenty minutes for three seconds, what's the game type that matches with that? And there isn't anything that exists."

The concept for Spy_Watch came out of one of Bossa's monthly Game Jams, also responsible for the starting point of the hilariously tricky I Am Bread which the studio brought out of beta on Steam this month. But some of the more hardcore gamers in the company took some persuading that a game which relied on creating the game world in your head was the right direction.

What's interesting is the way Spy_Watch could potentially fit into Apple Watch users' lives, an odd sort of augmented reality that requires imagination not overlaid displays. It's completely integrated into Apple's notifications system, adding to the fiction, and it can even run on top of another app or game. Essentially it interrupts your day just like emails, calls or tweets would.

"Listening to the narrative from Apple, and the way they were talking about it, you really get a feel for how they see the Watch is going to be used," said Farquharson. "It's through notifications, messaging, things that are quick interactions that work in a way that's immediate, personal and more intimate than it is on your phone.

"So we got this idea that maybe there's this game where you're talking to someone else, a bit of a messenger app. Imagine you're in a game which is like a messenger app but we create a fictional person somewhere else. Who would be cool for that other person? And very, very quickly we came up with this idea that it would be this agent and the Apple Watch could be your Spy Watch, that gadget you saw in a film and wanted."

Becoming Bond

As I play through the Spy_Watch tutorial and first mission (sped up for the sake of the demo), I'm already smiling. I make one safe decision from the multiple choices (on the Watch the question and options will be on one screen), instructing my agent to avoid a fight, and he gives me some sass in the form of a message saying 'Well that was boring."

That's the trademark Bossa Studios humour which anyone who has played Surgeon Simulator will be looking forward to. "Did he comment on it? He's a bugger isn't he?" said Farquharson as I played.

It's a damn classy interface too with neon blue maps, slick animations and nice touches such as location co-ordinates, fund levels, a safehouse homescreen and binocular icons. But with a screen this small, the aim was never to compete with 3D, console titles. No-one is going to be playing Spy_Watch as I am now, in concentrated five or ten minute bursts.

That means it's all about the story. Rob Mackenzie is a designer on the small team working on Spy_Watch at Bossa. "It's essentially a James Bond novel presented in notifications and Glances, to use Apple's language," he said.

"You immediately have that James Bond cold open of this analyst messaging you saying your father used to head up a spy agency and now he and everyone else is dead. There's no credits, all the action kicks off - obviously without the music and Daniel Craig.

"Then this rookie agent is running off, getting into scrapes and all the stuff that James Bond would be doing. It's all this glamorous meeting princesses and ambassadors, henchmen turning up and a Big Bad who is on the horizon somewhere, pulling the strings."

Just to be clear, in the 007 comparison, neither you nor the agent is Bond - you are essentially M and you're training the agent to become Bond, powering up in skills such as charm, stealth and combat. Each mission earns money and with the cash and the agent, your task is to rebuild the agency and find out what happened to your father. All while you're waiting in line for a coffee or checking the time for your next bus.

Reply, delete, karate chop

Spy_Watch could be copied by less inventive game devs but Bossa is getting in early, with that all-important name, the story, the styling and the launch. It's hoping to be available on the App Store for the Watch's official launch day of 24 April alongside ports of smartphone games.

Of course, interactive fiction, is nothing new. The likes of Telltale Games have perfected the art of this kind of storytelling/gaming in the past few years on smartphones and consoles with its episodic The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us and Game of Thrones titles.

"I'm more than happy for us to be put alongside Telltale Games," said Mackenzie. "In a way we do use that kind of propulsion as far as the narrative goes, absolutely. It's an interactive fiction where you can actually choose to an extent how interactive you want to be with it." The team at Bossa cite text based adventure games as inspirations, way back to one of the earliest examples of the genre, Zork, released in the late 70's. Mackenzie also namechecks Steve Jackson's series of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks - yes, books! - published in the 80s.

The difference between Spy_Watch and a Telltale Games episode or a retro gamebook is, fittingly for a smartwatch game, time. This game is played out in real time throughout your day - if you send your rookie agent to Paris, he won't be assassinating anyone for four hours until he reaches the embassy.

If you're super keen and respond straightaway to one interaction every twenty minutes, Bossa already has enough missions and story to keep you going for around a month. But not everyone is going to have the same level of interaction so the frequency of messages is dynamic.

"If you look at your Watch after three hours and it says - 'should I kill the guy?' the game knows that the plot has moved on," said Farquharson. "The agent will say - 'that was three hours ago, I'm doing something else now.

"We intelligently adapt how often you get these messages. So you definitely won't get any more than one every twenty minutes. But if you don't respond to the first one, we just won't send you any more. It automatically makes its own decisions but you just have to chance your arm that he'll make the decisions you want. But if you like interacting, it will always know that you've interacted and give you another one within a certain timeframe."

Made for Apple Watch

Now firmly on Wareable's list of must-downloads when the Apple Watch lands this week, Spy_Watch will be £1.49 when it's released - Bossa's COO is mock-offended when I ask if it's free or paid for. There's also no plans for any Android Wear games at this stage. This game is precisely and carefully built to use Apple's Taptic Engine, its notifications system, glances and quick responses.

The appeal of Spy_Watch boils down to adding micro moments of gaming joy to your day; delight and whimsy being something Apple and its third party developers have always excelled at. As Farquharson puts it, "We want you to be sat in a meeting, glance at your Watch then tap to say 'strangle him!' and no-one would know."

1 Comment

  • zxcvbnm21 says:

    boring....move along nothing to see here.

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