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A Tabletop Gamer's Look At Pebble

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I’m a hopeless early adopter. Around a year ago I backed the Pebble watch. As a backer, I got it for $100, and it’s now available to everyone for $150. It’s essentially an extra screen and input device for your iOS or Android device that also happens to tell the time. There are reviews all over the place so I’m going to give a quick overview of general thoughts and then try to look at this thing as a tabletop gamer (and game designer).

The main things you’ll use the Pebble for (if you’re like me): controlling your Rdio on your phone, getting notifications, telling time, striking up conversations with nerds, declining calls from unknown numbers.

Of those, the easiest to explain is the clock: you can have the Pebble display the time in a number of formats or even write your own watchface with an SDK.

Controlling Rdio (or any other audio app) requires some interaction, which is actually where the Pebble shines for me. When you select the Music app on the Pebble the time is reduced to a tiny banner at the top of the screen and the body is taken over with information about the current track. You can pause/play, skip forward, or skip back using the Pebble’s chunky physical buttons. This is actually (unexpectedly) one of my favorite features. I’ve been trying out a lot of music and stations on Rdio and waking up my iPhone to bring up on-screen controls is a pain. Having a physical button is delightfully retro and far more usable. It’s especially good for desk listening—when someone needs my attention it’s much quicker to pause with the Pebble than the on-screen iPhone controls (even the lock screen or multitasking music controls).

The notification story is where things get a little more complex and I have to talk about my config: I’m on a jailbroken iPhone 5. Because I’m jailbroken I can install a little applet that pushes any notifications I want1 to the Pebble. If I didn’t have that I’d only receive phone, message, and mail notifications which would be far less useful.

Of the notifications, only phone calls provide any kind of action to be taken on the Pebble: you can decline or accept the call using the aforementioned wonderful buttons. Declining is the only one of these options that’s really practical, but I decline far more calls than I accept, so I’m happy with it.

This call wraps around to the Pebble’s make-or-break issue: how much the phone will support the Pebble. Pebble itself is getting regular software updates that are painful and fix problems/add features at a wonderful rate. The problem is, unless Pebble can do more to interact with notifications on the stock OS, it’s profoundly limited. Pebble’s killer feature is in the hands of the phone OS.

If I could clear a notification from the Pebble, or easily select which notifications go to the Pebble and how they are handled, with a stock OS, Pebble could be a killer. As-is it’s more of a power user toy.

In an ideal world, Pebble would retain more notifications (currently you can only see the most recent) and where appropriate those notifications would have actions associated with them—like archiving an email or dismissing a social network update. A lot of that is in the hands of the phone OS, not Pebble.

That’s Pebble in a nutshell, so what about using it as a gamer? Particularly a tabletop gamer?

It’s easy to dream of apps (which will be available for Pebble at a future date) that help with tabletop games, but the possibilities are fairly limited by the screen and input options. You won’t be viewing an entire character sheet on it. Rolling dice is surely possible, but might actually be slower than pulling out the phone the Pebble is paired with. More limited functions, like a Magic life counter or army-lock-in device for Avalon Hill Dune, might be a good fit but are hardly a justification for a $150 device. They might not even be as good as lower tech methods. An initiative tracker is another easy target, with a paired phone app, but it’s hard to imagine it being as quick and flexible as notecards or paper.

In general phone (and tablet) tools for tabletop games have been slow to take off (with the exception of entirely-digital ports of boardgames) and I don’t think the Pebble changes in that.

The opportunities for gaming in a broader sense are a little better. The idea of making LARP tools for Pebble or digitizing con metagames like Assassins have some potential, but the Pebble is only really an enhancer here. It’s certainly cooler and less intrusive to, say, get a LARP update to your wrist or find out you’ve been ‘killed’ on your watch, but it requires a rock-solid phone implementation that doesn’t exist yet.

There’s potential here, but the phone’s base app has to be there to support it, which hasn’t happened yet. Even if it does, to the best of my knowledge the hardcore tabletop gamer/Pebble owner crossover market is one person at this point, so it’ll be a while before this becomes a real option.

I do think that Pebble has an awesome niche for tabletop gamers though. It’s actually the same general killer feature of the form factor as a whole: getting information with less obstruction.

The question of devices at a gaming table come up often. Especially troublesome to some people is the interuption factor of, say, a player pulling out their phone in the middle of a D&D fight.2 Checking a watch is much less of an interruption than pulling out a phone, and less likely to lead to a complete change of attention. My experience so far with gaming has been I can keep up with what’s happening on my phone with a simple look at my rest instead of pulling a device out of my pocket (or leaving it on the table) which is pretty slick. It makes the constant interruptions of digital life feel less like interruptions.

That’s where I think the Pebble can actually be particularly useful to tabletop gamers, as it lets you stay more involved at the table.

Of course just turning off your phone does that too. The Pebble isn’t an essential device by any means, but it’s a nice little addition.

When my Pebble’s battery died one afternoon3 I found going back to using the on-screen music controls and not seeing new information on my wrist quite a letdown. That was when I realized I felt like my $100 was well-spent: my digital life felt a little more clumsy without it.

  1. Okay, not any notification. The notification has to be set to display on the phone’s home screen. I don’t think this distinction will matter to much of anyone. 

  2. I actually think this isn’t as big a deal as some make it out to be. The average gaming session is longer than the average movie and when I’m not in a theater I check my phone in the middle of most movies. Demanding that everyone at the table stays entirely involved for hours is unreasonable to begin with. Let the focus flow. 

  3. The battery is estimated at 7 days. I got 5. The new firmware released today is supposed to improve iOS-paired battery life. Even 5 days is acceptable to me—the only reason it died was because I wanted to push it as far as I could. 

Sage LaTorra is a game designer and engineering manager at Google. You may know him from Dungeon World.

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