Exciting Voice Gaming Experiences with Amazon Alexa

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Originally published at onix-systems.com.

Speech recognition technology becomes increasingly effective and facilitates the expansion of voice user interfaces (VUI) on our mobile phones, in our homes, working environments, and vehicles. Amazon Alexa, a cloud-based voice assistant, is one of the leaders of this expansion. She is habitually helping run home appliances already, from thermostats to security systems, in millions of smart homes. Thousands of popular and less-known Alexa skills are further simplifying and improving our lives. Alexa plays our favorite music, reads news to us, keeps us organized, assists Prime members with shopping, and much more. And last, but not least, we can also play games on Alexa.

Back in 2017, 30% of consumers were reportedly buying Amazon Echo or Google Home primarily for the sake of games and entertainment. Currently, a wide selection of games is one of the most popular categories on Amazon’s Alexa skills store. In mid-2019, the chief evangelist for Alexa, Dave Isbitski, cited a 160% increase in games over the previous year, which translates into billions of commands to play a game.

The game is on for entrepreneurs too! Here are a few Amazon Alexa games to give you an idea of what is possible with the platform.

Examples of Games on Alexa Skills Store

Let’s start with the simplest ones for kids. Pikachu Talk lets millions of fans listen to the adorable Pokemon days on end. ‘Alexa, ask Pikachu to talk,’ — and the smart speaker will be answering questions, singing ‘Happy Birthday to You,’ or telling funny stories in his voice. If you want to get the kids moving, open Silly Things. Alexa will be prompting them to perform various actions, such as to act like a zombie or pretend they’re standing on hot lava. All reviewers agree that it’s fun for all, from toddlers to grandparents.

Voice-driven stories and activities help keep children engaged while educating them. LEGO Duplo Stories was one of the first games on Alexa to combine physical activity with interactive storytelling. It was basically an audiobook for 2–5-year-olds that accompanied the eponymous product. The kids would listen to Alexa narrating a chosen story while building the LEGO structures.

Interactive storytelling works for adults as well. Escape the Room is a popular verbal adventure game in the ‘decision tree’ format. However, it’s serious now: players should find their way, in relative order of difficulty, out of a jail cell, an office, a car, or a garage. They have to search the imaginary spaces, pick up items, and solve puzzles to escape from the trap.

Magic Door lets you choose your own adventure too: explore the forest, sea, garden, or castle. After the starting choice, each decision made by the players sends them down different paths. They will encounter mysterious creatures, obtain magical objects, solve riddles, and more.

Unfortunately, even the compelling background sounds can’t make up for Alexa’s monotone voice in this relatively simple app. A top-notch Alexa adventure game calls for professional voice actors. HBO surely thought so when creating the acclaimed Westworld: The Maze. This ‘quiz-meets-radio drama’ Alexa game helped promote the show’s Season 2. The Maze transported players into the fantasy amusement park that they could navigate using their voice. Throughout the 400 potential choices across 60 storylines, with 32 ways to die, players could interact with the voice talents of 36 actors. Westworld’s original audio library was utilized to tailor sounds for each of the 11,000 lines of script.

As a result, The Maze players engaged with the brand for an estimated average of 14 minutes. Within days after release, the audio game garnered 1.2 million press impressions.

Alexa is good not only at promoting brands and enriching products. The service can also be a part of a product. For example, UK-based company Sensible Objects sells board games where Alexa acts as the Game Master. One called When in Rome includes a map and little plastic airplanes so that players can ‘fly’ around the world. Alexa reads the instructions, runs the game, and keeps track of the points which the players earn for answering questions about each locale. The game has 20+ hours of interactive dialogue and remembers the questions already asked by Alexa, enabling her to ask a new one every time. No wonder it became a 2019 Toy of the Year finalist!

Sometimes, after long hours of driving, you wish something fun, interactive, and stimulating could keep you awake. And what about traffic jams, especially with kids impatient and rowdy in the backseat? Alexa Auto can make it all fun with games like True or False?, Jeopardy!, or Twenty Questions. For example, the latter has Animal, Vegetable, Mineral, and Music categories now. Think of anything and have Alexa try to figure it out in 20 questions or less. Song Quiz will test your knowledge of popular music from the past 60 years. Alexa plays a snippet of a tune, and you need to guess either the artist or song title, or both to earn bonus points. To have more fun, you can challenge friends and family in live competitions. If you’re alone, Song Quiz will pit you against someone else across the country.

Like any gamified experience, such games offer a fun and natural way of learning. It’s easy to envision how they will supplement school and university courses and corporate training, with Alexa enabling users to test their knowledge, get quick references, track their learning progress, and more.

The games are sure to proliferate also because Alexa skill development is accessible for people of all technical skill levels or even ages. For example, the creators of Silly Things intended to expose their 7- and 9-year-old sons to programming through this project.

The Making of Amazon Alexa Games

Amazon nurtures the development of Alexa skills, including voice gaming experiences, through various accelerator programs. First and foremost, Alexa Skills Kit (ASK) provides self-service APIs, tools, documentation, and samples for various scenarios for Alexa, enabling third-party developers to create their own Alexa apps.

Although ASK has a special gaming section, building a game is similar to any other skill development. Currently, two approaches are available. Newbies can start building their own, albeit simple, audio game right away using Amazon Skill Blueprints. They can choose a suitable skill template among dozens in the ‘Fun & Games,’ ‘Learning & Knowledge,’ or ‘Storyteller’ categories. Each comes with pre-filled content, such as responses and narration, which creators can customize. Step-by-step tutorials will help develop their unique Alexa app quickly and easily without any coding.

The second approach requires programming skills but allows for the creation of unique and sophisticated Alexa games. Only in this case, you would be able not only to publish your games on the Alexa Skills Store but also expect to generate revenue.

Basically, after planning and designing your future voice gaming experience, you would have to design a VUI mapping out how users will interact with your game on Alexa. Next, you would set up the new skill in the developer console, choosing the custom model. The trickiest part is to build the interaction model of the game. It should include:

  1. intents, i.e. players’ requests the skill should handle;
  2. sample utterances mapped to the intents, i.e. the words and phrases players might say while interacting with Alexa;
  3. a dialog model that identifies information the skill requires and the prompts which Alexa can use to collect and confirm that information during interactions with the players.

The development of narrative-driven games requires significant creativity and imagination. To aid the creators, Amazon introduced Skill Flow Builder (SFB) in 2019. The tool which complements ASK SDK empowers them to build Alexa story-based games, including interactive fiction, branching narratives, and role-playing games, faster and easier. The solution separates content creation from skill coding. There is an editor desktop application for designers and writers and a VSCode extension for programmers. SFB structures the narrative as a series of connected scenes. Content creators can quickly write stories, visualize and navigate them through the built-in story-tree, create prototypes and modify the content, finding the desired balance between storytelling, gaming, and education. Without any coding, they can add visuals and sound effects, implement game logic, assign off-the-shelf voices to characters, and add background sounds and images. Their tools share a source file format with the programmers’ tools, so they can quickly and easily hand off the resulting SFB files to the programmers or the texts for professional narration or localization. A built-in simulator allows the teams to preview, demo, and test the content quickly.

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The interaction model components can be created using either the developer console or the Skill Management API or the ASK Command Line Interface.

The next task is to create a service that can accept requests from the Alexa service and send back responses. For the quickest start, an AWS Lambda function is created to host the service for the game, coding in Node.js, Java, Python, C#, or Go. Alternatively, a web service can be created, using any programming language, to host the skill with a cloud provider. Once the new skill has been linked with an endpoint, e.g., the Lambda ARN, it is ready to be tested. Before publishing your app on the Alexa Skills Store, you will need to submit it for certification.

Amazon Alexa in the Context of Voice Gaming Evolution

Amazon Alexa games already include a range of interactive adventures, family entertainment, quiz shows, board, and TV games that can reach players through 100+ million Alexa-enabled devices. The growth of Alexa games is perfectly in tune with the advance of artificial intelligence (AI) and new voice-first experiences in the gaming industry. Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple’s Siri, Microsoft Cortana, and other systems that collect, process, and recognize speech data may be marking the beginning of mainstream speech recognition. If major game developers partnered with leading voice-tech systems, it would likely become widespread in the games of the future.

Alexa is not the only one allowing you to start games with a voice command. Virtual reality leader Oculus introduced a voice-controlled search feature in 2017. Oculus Voice lets users interact with the Oculus Home menu system by voice. Instead of scrolling through dozens of apps page by page, they could navigate the menu, search, and launch apps almost instantly. Such VUI integration may be a natural next step in enhancing more user experiences.

The champions of voice control in video games intend to immerse players further into gameplay, minimize the learning curve, and make games more accessible for visually or physically impaired persons. Microsoft introduced a voice-controlled Kinect integration to Mass Effect 3 back in 2012. A simple voice command would make the player’s character choose a weapon or activate a skill, as well as make their squadmates follow the orders they yelled, as though in the middle of the action.

Without pauses for accessing the menu screen, a game becomes more realistic and immersive. Still, aside from a few successful applications, VUIs have hardly impacted video games so far, with developers favoring the classic combinations of joystick/button and keyboard/mouse. However, since speech is the most natural user interface for humans, voice control may upstage touch control as the go-to UI sooner or later. Moreover, video games might merge with AI-powered voice assistants one of these days.

Voice-controlled apps need not necessarily utilize very complicated speech technologies. Chicken Scream is a mobile game that doesn’t understand or interpret words. A player controls the game character, a cute chicken, only by their voice. Their silence keeps the chicken still, speech or singing will move it forward, and it will jump for its life when players yell or sing louder. The chicken’s perilous and often tragic journey becomes hilarious thanks to the player’s vocal exercises.

The removal of actual speech recognition also eliminates any language limitations, making the game accessible to users of all ages around the world.

More voice-powered games are being developed with a good reason. They have the potential to reach audiences that would be unreachable through console or PC. People who wouldn’t try a traditional video game may be more willing to try a game on their smart speaker or smartphone.

Alexa’s venturing into voice gaming is more than justified. She is in her element there, having been designed for conversations. The examples cited in this post show that Alexa can act as a friendly companion, capable opponent, versatile and impartial host, and educator on-demand for adults and kids. Her utility extends well beyond living-rooms and parties.

Successful fun and educational voice games can generate significant income for creators and sponsors. Moreover, Alexa can turn various brands’ content into interactive experiences that would raise brand awareness and drive consumer engagement. As it happened with mobile apps before, companies might be actively investing in games for Alexa soon.

Onix proudly counts Alexa skill development among one of its specializations. If you are interested in creating a game or another type of skill for Alexa, please contact us!

Many thanks to Ivan Sagal of Onix’ IoT Development department for assistance in writing this post.

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Onix-Systems provides IT services in website, mobile app and emerging technologies software development. Check our blog -> https://onix-systems.com/blog

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