A Game Designer's Guide to Glass
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
A Game Designer’s Guide to Glass
Personal opinions of Noah Falstein
“In his office he could have got the same data just as quickly, but here he would have to take out his pocket communications terminal, type in the question, and read the answer. Reedy and Bonner simply thought the question and got the answer piped into their heads without interrupting the conversation.” - Oath of Fealty, Niven and Pournelle, 1981
Google Glass is Science Fiction made real, and different enough from what previous hardware can do to have opened up a whole new world for developers. When I look at the landscape of what can be done with Glass, I flash back to my childhood in Chicago. On a Saturday morning in February, I would awake to a yard covered deeply in pristine snow, glittering in the sunlight, untouched and untrodden. Would I build a fort? A castle? A snowman? Would I make tunnels and ramparts, build snow cities to demolish with my Godzilla-sized boots, come up with something entirely new? Invite friends for a collaborative building session, or competitive snowball fight? Or... anything seemed possible, but I knew it would be great.
A Preliminary Report
This document is just the earliest version of what may become an ongoing exploration. I’m a game designer, not an engineer, and haven’t begun to explore what is possible with the device beyond the current software and a few logical extrapolations. I expect to team with others to delve into what can truly be done with Glass, but for now this serves as a first scouting report of this new landscape. Even at this early stage, it’s clear that many traditional assumptions of game developers (and likely app developers in general) may get them into a bit of trouble, that perhaps a little guidance may prevent. The document in its current form consists of a survey of the qualities of Glass regarding game design, some values and principles taken from the Glass team and expressed from a game design point of view, recommendations on how to proceed with initial ideas of games for Glass, and some ideas of areas that might be explored for game design.
The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (cue Ennio Morricone music...)
First, a short overview of the territory. There are lots of good features and qualities, both concrete and conceptual that will be useful for games with Glass. Many overlap what one can do with a cell phone, some are a subset of phone features, some are a superset, some entirely unique.
Hands-free display - We’ve never had a game platform that instantly available, sleeping by default but ready to play with on command, waiting transparently when not needed.
Side-channel visuals and sound - the video display and the bone-conduction sound are both intriguing as they allow users to get visual and audible information as a supplement to their senses, without taking them over entirely as they may when staring at a screen or using headphones.
Private info, visually and aurally - Glass can give you information for game play that others can’t intercept without you knowing it. With a poker game where each player has their cards visible on their cell phone, or a Scrabble equivalent with your letters visible to you, it’s still possible for others to see your screen without you knowing it as you look down at it - with Glass, they have to get literally “in your face” to be able to view your information, allowing strategic games with different information going to different players.
Multiple inputs - voice, touch, button and gesture (wink, head motions) give developers an interesting array of ways to interact - and bluetooth links to phones or even gamepads as controllers are possible.
Gesture novelty - in particular the kind of gestures possible with glass are quite new to most game developers’ experience, and as the introduction of the Wii and then Kinect showed, new gestures can particularly excite the interest of players and provide for novel and fun gameplay.
Hands-free operation - another potential game-changer (pun intended) but quite possibly even more important for non-game apps. There are SO many human activities that involve using both hands, or necessitate getting your hands so dirty or contaminated that you wouldn’t want to hold or even touch a device even if you could, that Glass may aid by providing instruction, enhancement, online connection and sharing, and so many other advantages. More on this later.
Shovelware resistant - any new game device or console has had a flood of old games repurposed onto it to provide some titles at launch. Glass won’t be immune to this, but the deep differences from standard game platforms (particularly the limitations mentioned in the next section) will make it unlikely for either old reliables or new trendy games to work well. This is encouraging insofar as it will reduce the number of ho-hum conversions.
The Wow factor - any new device excites some degree of enthusiasm from the public, and Glass has reached a height rarely seen before. There is a responsibility associated with this kind of excitement, and some associated drawbacks (see below), but it’s an amazing advantage in getting press or personal attention from others in proximity.
Of course, no platform is perfect for all types of games, and each has its weaknesses, as well as strengths. Glass was not created as an entertainment system, so this is not meant as a judgement on that basis, but it will be used for entertainment, and some features will dictate quite different functionality than many developers (to judge from personal experience) expect. Here are some of the most significant I have noted:
Limited Battery Time - game playing can eat up battery power faster than just about any other category of application, and to judge from the proposals I have heard so far from developers about what they’d like to do, this could be the single biggest impediment and may force a big shift in expectations over how entertainment apps will work on glass. Serendipitously, this may encourage them to adhere more closely to the published values - but more on that later.
Personal - as a device you wear on your face, and as a relatively delicate and expensive one at that, Glass, more than many other devices, will be tough to share. Even the thought of passing it onto another person, who may be sweaty, have a wider head or nose than you, or have an illness or questionable hygiene may prompt hesitation. So although early Glass apps in particular may prompt others to want to share, in the spectrum of shareability Glass may ultimately prove to be closer to a hairbrush than to a smartphone.
Small Screen - the Glass screen is small, the resolution is more reminiscent of some older game systems than recent ones, and the wide range of viewing circumstances possible for a head-mounted display all will significantly affect the choices of application style.
Limited Touch - the range of touch variations available on the side of the glass unit is much more limited than what one can do on a phone screen. Conventions in the current OS also are likely to set expectations on what kind of touch variations mean, and violating those expectations will cause confusion.
Potentially Intrusive Inputs - being with someone using voice recognition on Glass or touching the side of their head or nodding repeatedly can quickly begin to resemble the Saturday Night Live satire of Glass and intrude on others. Some believe this is just a matter of changing conventions, but input conventions for entertainment on glass will need to be particularly discreet to ensure first impressions are positive.
Finally, there are a few issues that have already become associated with glass in the media that merit addressing, in particular for a game design guideline document like this, as games have a specific advantage in improving them:
Visual appearance - the jury is still out on the visual styling of Glass. But it is clear that some people find it odd. It seems likely this will abate over time, but there are many unfortunate associations with asymmetrical eyewear and villains in fiction at least, from Pirates to Bond Villains to Star Trek’s Borg, that may cause the association to persist.
Privacy issues - this is a particularly sensitive point among the minority who seem concerned about Glass. Developers will be wise to tread carefully here and not provide cause for concern.
The Dignity factor - Glass is at its best when interactions are natural, speaking normally or taking a photograph of something you’re already looking at. There are some potentially fun game concepts that would however run counter to this natural approach that should be avoided. For example imagine a “Red Baron” game where you control a plane by tilting your head to bank, climb, and dive, trying to chase and line up with an enemy in the screen, at which point you say “rat-a-tat-tat” to fire machine guns. Could be fun, but wouldn’t be the kind of thing you’d want to do on a commuter train. In a similar way, you could play a version of Angry Birds by tossing your head to emulate the slingshot, but it wouldn’t be pretty. Furthermore, it would run counter to the values that are the next focus of this document.
The developer docs for Glass cite three main values, Humanity, Immediacy (Now), and Simplicity. The very concept of having overarching values to guide development is a great principle to follow, it gives the titles available on a platform a sense of consistency and a common accessibility without locking developers into rigid rules to follow. And these three values are well chosen both to make application development more practical, and to counteract or compensate for potential weaknesses even as they build on Glass’s strengths. It is helpful to consider them one at a time.
Humanity, the focus on human interaction, helps counteract the potential negative associations with cyborgs or machines. This device is designed to help us communicate, to bond with other people, and is built to stay out of the way of direct interaction. The strength here is to use Glass to help people connect with each other through voice, through messages, through sharing images and videos, all while staying out of your direct line of sight and letting you look people in the eyes.
Immediacy, the focus on the present, can keep us from zoning out. The online docs say “Now” and the association with Google Now is of course intentional and useful. Google Now lends itself well to the abilities of Glass, and has some game possibilities described later. But in addition, it also works to deal with the naysayers who fear that Glass is yet another technological distraction - if it is used to literally stay present, be in the moment, it will be an anti-distraction, a way to help the mind return to what is happening currently.
Simplicity is the most important value of all. Throughout the history of video games, many of the most successful games of all time have enjoyed interfaces and core gameplay that is extremely simple - consider Space Invaders, Pac Man, Tetris, and modern cases like Farmville, Angry Birds, and Match 3 games (Bejeweled, Candy Crush Saga). This is an excellent value to shoot for in any case - in my experience it’s the single most important value in game design in general - but is particularly useful in dealing with some of the unique qualities of Glass. It is appropriate that Einstein himself said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” An excellent guideline for Glassware developers and game designers everywhere.
Four other principles come from the developer documents:
Design for Glass - Don’t pull in concepts from other media, devices and assume they’ll work (more on this below).
Don’t Get in the Way - Be there for the user when they want it, out of the way when they don’t. The presentation cited the use of audio cues to say there is information (e.g. email) available instead of just popping a visual up. We’re much better at ignoring sounds we know aren’t important than images that suddenly appear in front of us, and scientific studies have shown we are more than twice as responsive to movement in our peripheral vision (presumably because that’s where predators would first be seen).
Avoid the Unexpected - I’ve heard this amended to “unexpected negatives” as a pleasant surprise can be desirable, and from a game design standpoint that fits in well with basic rules like “don’t penalize the player”. Randomness and surprise in games, and entertainment in general, is like a spice - in moderation it enhances the experience and makes the banal exciting, but in excess, even a little too much can ruin it utterly. And that’s for entertainment where we occasionally want a plot twist or change of pace. Practical utilities and apps should be particularly careful not to spring things on the user.
“Just because you can do something on Glass, and it’s cool, doesn’t mean you should do it” - Timothy Jordan, Glass developer advocate
There are many ways to cater to the advantages of Glass, while downplaying or finessing its constraints. In order to succeed, Glass developers will have to find the sweet spot - likely, more than one - for what the device lets us do that is more difficult - or better yet, impossible - on other devices. Here are a few ideas about how Glass, either alone or in conjunction with other devices, may blaze some trails into exciting new territory. But do be careful, some of these concepts may prove to be less promising than they seem, while others, as yet unsuspected, may prove to be the apps that make Glass take off big time.
Face to Face
Glass is a futuristic, science fiction device. But when it comes to games, it may be a return to the pre-computer era. Before computers, nearly all games were played directly between people, where the people were in the same room, sharing eye contact and talking to each other (think board games or card games). Glass, by positioning the screen out of the direct line of view, makes that kind of play possible and can in fact be even LESS intrusive than a board or hand of cards, emphasizing only the interpersonal interaction (examples in some of the game ideas below). People played games this way for at least tens of thousands of years before computers came along - it’s going to feel natural to people and perhaps surprise them with how human it is, if we only stay out of the way.
There are many interesting applications for Glass that can make use of the features of the display always being present without having to be held, and the hands-free operation with head gestures or voice control. Consider Glass for applications that instruct or inform the user while they are doing things like cooking, fixing a car, climbing a rock face, operating on a patient, making clay pots, digging up fossils, tying a fishing fly, carving wood, kneading bread dough, washing a dog, and so on. Tablets or phones or computer screens can do these things too - but if you’ve ever tried doing something messy like breadmaking with a recipe on a touch screen, or had to keep craning your head to look at a screen while your oily hands were deep in a car’s guts, you know how this is not optimum. Many of these examples cited are more educational than game-oriented, but as Marshall McLuhan said, “Anyone who makes a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.”
Do it in the Dark
Glass can be used in total darkness - and you don’t have to worry about wondering where it is, or if using it will bother others (assuming they’re not looking right at the small image you can see from a 3rd person point of view). This will enable some interesting applications that were never possible without being intrusive, for example one that combines the Simplicity and Humanity values is using Glass to read to a child in bed as they go to sleep. Sure, you could do this with a tablet, or even a book and a flashlight - but the child will see the light and be distracted. Glass lets you read a book while maintaining darkness, and even holding your child’s hand. It would also be a great medium for subtitles (or perhaps more accurately, supertitles), synchronized to a movie so that people could watch a film together with subtitles in a dozen different languages, while those who know the language it was filmed in don’t have the distraction of any subtitles at all. Or (on the pure entertainment side) they could provide IMDB-style tips, director’s commentary, or MST3K style satire just to those who want it. Other dark-specific ideas below.
Sometimes games have succeeded by turning their apparent weaknesses into strengths. Early text adventures advertised how the graphics from your imagination were the best. With the constraints and concerns listed above, we may be able to see opportunities. For example the “Personal” factor and privacy concerns become less relevant when you are sharing with a loved one - more intimate and even romantic applications for Glass can mean that sharing one with a close friend or a lover can be seen as a sign of trust. Similarly, the small screen size and limited battery capacity dictate quite simple and short experiences, which in turn mean significantly lower development costs than typical games. Many of the potential drawbacks listed above can in this way become benefits. Some more examples of this below.
First to Market Advantage
With any really new technological step forward, there are always some simple concepts that can mean a huge advantage for the first person (or company) to implement them. The same constraints that will make production cheaper will enhance the chance of a “little guy” being the first to come up with Glass’s equivalent of Flight Control (a very early iPhone game that was hugely successful as it made good use of a touchscreen).
As mentioned above, it is typical for a new platform to have old hit titles from other platforms shoveled onto it indiscriminately. Glass isn’t immune to this, but it is in many ways so radically different than what has gone before that shovelware simple won’t work or will have severe limitations. I’ll pick on a single app here, the “Battleship” game implemented with Glass that is technically impressive perhaps, but significantly less satisfying and more cumbersome than the same game played with a pencil and paper. Even popular mobile phone games that on the surface might be great ways to pass the time while waiting at the doctor’s office will prove to be problematic because of the screen size, limited touch capabilities, or battery life. So it may be tempting to just port your phone game - but consider everything mentioned to this point and tread carefully!
Specific Sample Concepts
In addition to the concepts mentioned above, here are more ideas presented in order to illustrate the guidelines suggested, not to constrain developers. Many of these concepts are just fragments, pieces of games or apps that could be adapted and extended into full products.
As mentioned above, Glass is great for telling a story in the dark - and in addition to reading cheerful bedtime stories to a sleepy child, telling scary stories around the embers of a fire, or in total darkness could be a fun alternative, and of course quick and inexpensive to implement.
This is a style of game http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mafia_(party_game) involves a group of people playing together. Glass could introduce interesting variants, with a single player using Glass to moderate (given a special role, or special “magic” abilities like seeing a glow in the direction (simple left/right based on players sitting in a circle) of the nearest Werewolf.
A popular but limited type of roleplaying game is the “Host Your Own Murder Mystery Party” genre http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_mystery_game . With Glass-equipped participants, this genre could break out into the mainstream by giving each participant secret information about their character or others, synchronizing “reveal” events, and providing realtime tips on how to stay in character and what to say. Or similarly, if one character is “possessed by a spirit” that can move around to the others and inform them they must now do what they see in the Glass display until the spirit releases them, you could have a very fun but spooky “who is possessed now?” game.
A whole series of theater games become possible when two people have Glass. Consider the comedy trope of a dialog that consists entirely of descriptions of lines:
Drill Sergeant: "Enthusiastic call to pointless task"
Private: "Resigned, but polite compliance, veiled sarcasm"
Drill Sergeant: "Criticism of attitude - suggestion of dire consequences"
Private: "Loud, eager agreement - and muttered insult"
Level 1 - each person reads this line as it appears in their screen, giving it their best inflection and feeling. Good party game and others waiting to play can vote on who gives the best performance.
Level 2 - each person has to improvise a line to fit the description, e.g the Drill Sergeant first says “All right soldier, let’s see you do clean the latrine with your toothbrush”. To which the Private responds, “Yes sir, you’re the military expert!” Infinitely replayable, requires a bit more imagination and acting skill.
In either case there can be dozens of dialogs with hundreds of pre-programmed variations, crafted by writers to maximize fun and humor (which was not the case in this example!). Many variants ala “Whose Line is it Anyway?” or other improv games, with Glass acting as the moderator, and every session different. Done well, this could be a new implementation of the gameplay present in popular games from “Apples to Apples” to “Charades” to “Cards Against Humanity”.
The Stars in your Eyes
Planetarium shows can be a bit dull and pedantic. But the stars, and the stories behind constellations, the planets visible on a given night, the curious history of how they were discovered, or named - that can be fascinating. Imagine a Glass app where you began by lining up a crosshairs with the center of the moon or some other celestial body - the brightest star, Venus, it could change depending on the circumstances - and tap to align. The Pitch and Yaw sensing would work well with Astronomy’s RA and declination measurements. Then as you turn your head, Glass provides an ongoing show and narration, telling you stories of the night sky and ancient Greek legends, showing little animations of the constellations to help you see the shapes, pointing out that the ISS is going overhead, follow the arrow, no, look up a bit… there! Fun on your own, but you also become an instant expert to go out at night with your friends and tell them what Glass is whispering in your ear. Some cell phones do similar things now - but only at the expense of ruining your night vision and distracting others around you, something Glass can avoid. And with the special telescopic version available in 2015, you can… oh, that’s another story.
Other Side of the World
Similarly to the previous concept, what if you (ala Google Goggles) could let glass direct you to turn your head and see an icon for your Grandmother in Manitoba when you were looking in her direction, or let you face Mecca, or Jerusalem, or Graceland! Could also just be a way of helping make you feel more connected as you do a video chat or phone call.
Here and Now
Making use of the Google Now capabilities and direct links to news items, the player with Glass makes a series of statements, and other players have to vote on whether they are true or not. The twist is, sometimes the Glass player sees information to repeat, like “there are 3 Italian restaurants within half a mile of your position” or “Jennifer Aniston was just caught coming out of a Beverly Hills hotel with Brad Pitt”. Sometimes it will just say, “Make something up”. Varies of course based on where you are playing, what is happening that day, or even that hour.
Glass is an amazing device, with a lot of potential for truly new forms of games and other entertainment, as well as some excellent learning apps. With a few precautions to avoid the potential shoals, there are some wonderful Blue Oceans out there to explore!