Alexa, let’s play! Voice Games for Amazon Alexa
About Voice Games and the power of words.
The gaming landscape is constantly evolving. Decades ago, all it took was the press of a few buttons to move a single dot or figure through a world of pixels. But gaming has become more complex. Today, games require users to be skillful and to have good coordination. A single button is hardly enough. VR headsets even enable us to fully emerge into the gaming worlds and experience them on a new level. But what if, in the future, we could control games simply by using our voice? With their cloud-based voice service Alexa, Amazon is looking to become a pioneer in this field. With Alexa, users can experience interactive voice adventures and game shows such as Jeopardy directly in their living room. This way, we can play together with our friends and family members instead of just shouting answers at the TV. In this article, we take a look at the beginnings of voice games and examine how Amazons Alexa is shaping this field.
Speech as part of the game
The idea to include the element of speech in games is not a new one. For Nintendo 64, Nintendo published a game called “Hey, You Pikachu!” in 1998, in which players had to raise a wild Pikachu. What made it special was that it was possible to speak to Pikachu using a microphone. The Pokémon was able to understand more than 200 spoken words and to follow commands. At the time, Voice Recognition Unit (VRU), which was specifically developed for this kind of gaming, only supported two games. The second one was called “Densha de Go! 64”. Players took on the role of a train driver and announced the next station to the passengers using a microphone. While “Hey, You Pikachu!” was published in both Japan and the US, “Densha de Go! 64” was exclusively available to Japanese players.
Only one year later, SEGA presented a game which used speech as an integral element. At a time when, thanks to “Tamagotchi” toys, virtual pets were the latest craze, SEGA published “Seaman” (1999) for their Dreamcast console. In this game, players were responsible for a hybrid creature of a fish and a human. The developer, Yoot Saito, placed his own face on a fish body and created the legendary Seaman. Similar to “Tamagotchi”, players had to feed Seaman, keep him company, and they were even able to speak to him. The Dreamcast had an integrated system clock so that the game was played in real time. Therefore, users had to visit their Seaman every day to keep him alive. In this way, the players experienced Seaman going through several life cycles until he finally reached a frog state. Seaman was able to recall details about his owner and asked them questions like: “Do you have a girlfriend / boyfriend?” and “Are you living together?”. If the answer was “Yes”, he referred to it a couple of days later by asking about the partner’s wellbeing. In addition, Seaman’s human face clearly showed his current mood. If he was happy, he swam around in his pool smiling and dancing. When he was in a bad mood, he ignored the player or muttered petulant comments.
In subsequent years, developers and publishers kept coming back to the idea of voice-controlled games. Ubisoft’s strategy game “Tom Clancy’s EndWar” could even be fully controlled by speech. The player had to speak predefined commands into the microphone to maneuver troops across the battlefield. Bioware’s action role-playing game “Mass Effect 3” let Xbox 360 players issue voice commands to the AI-controlled characters using Microsoft Kinect. Whereas Activision’s “Destiny 2”, Ubisoft’s “Assassin´s Creed: Odyssey” and Bethesda’s “Skyrim” count on voice-based extensions via Alexa Skills, thus offering the players a new gaming experience.
For example, Sony used the Alexa Skill “Der Fall Rachel” to develop an interactive audiobook adventure for German customers, accompanying their brand-own PS4-exclusive game “Detroit: Become Human”. Another option is to extend the original game mechanics of traditional video games such as in “Destiny 2”, by using Alexa and voice control. Amazon Alexa encourages more and more game developers to cautiously approach the genre of voice gaming and to discover new ways to engage players. In addition, voice-based games offer an opportunity to reach a new audience that previously had difficulties with controlling conventional games. However, this presents developers with new challenges as content for voice-based surfaces also needs to be optimized for listening.
Earn money with Alexa Skills
More and more third-party companies are developing voice games for Alexa available in the Amazon Skill Store. Alexa Skills are comparable to apps for your smartphone and they are expanding Alexa’s portfolio of skills. The individual skills are available in a lot of different categories (e.g. games) and can be started and controlled using voice. Here are some examples: “Alexa, start Lemonade stand” to open a business simulation in which Alexa players use voice commands to manage a refreshment stand, making important decisions every day. The command “Alexa, open Der Eiserne Falke” (The Iron Falcon) starts a German interactive story in which the player takes on the role of the soldier Sardak who experiences unexpected adventures while trying to save the Rivaan kingdom from impending doom.
Amazon offers several opportunities for developers to make money creating skills, for example through the “Alexa Developer Rewards” program. This program rewards developers who manage to reach a particularly large number of users.
Monetization through premium content
Another way of making money with Alexa Skills is to deploy digital premium content that users can buy. Developers can decide whether they want to offer premium content, and if so, how much it should cost (premium content may not exceed a price of 99.99 EUR). Similar to app stores of other providers, Amazon is using a commission system and receives 30 percent of the sales. The following purchase options for skills are currently supported:
One-time purchases: Through a one-time payment, the user gains access to premium content for the entire lifetime of the skill.
Subscriptions: The user can access premium content for a specified period of time. An example for such a subscription model is Handy Finder. The user can have this skill call their phone to find it more easily in case it gets lost. A limited amount of calls for a given phone number is free of charge. If the user buys a subscription, they can register several numbers and request an unlimited amount of calls.
Consumables: The user buys access to specific premium content for one-time use. An example for this concept is the skill Burger Imperium (Burger Empire). The aim of the game is to make your burger stand become an empire. For faster success, users can develop new burger creations in the research center. In order to do this, they need gold bars which can be purchased in different packages. There are packages with 10, 25 or 50 gold bars available for the price of 0.99, 1.99 or 3.50 EUR.
Amazon is providing assistance to developers and those who want to start developing. Most guides are currently available in English only. However, Amazon also created a German guide for interested developers and content creators. The Alexa Skills Kit additionally provides a large collection of self-service APIs, tools, documentation and code samples for prospective skill developers which facilitate programming significantly.
A transparent system and user feedback allows developers to always be up-to-date on their published Alexa Skills. The Amazon Developer portal shows all the details about the skills in a convenient overview. The section “Alexa Skills Kit” also lists all skills that have already been published or that are currently being developed. Clicking the link for metrics unveils the following information: user numbers, sessions, utterances and intents. This data can also be viewed for a specific period (e.g. within the last 30 days or within a user-defined time range) or an aggregation period (e.g. hourly, weekly).
Alexa, let’s play! Voice Games for Amazon Alexa