Voice control and video games have had an erratic relationship over the years. While there have been prominent examples of attempts to connect the two - ranging from Nintendo oddity Hey You Pikachu to Ubisoft's voice-activated strategy game Tom Clancy's EndWar - the concept has never really taken off.
And yet there are developers who believe voice control to be the pathway to a whole new form of game design, ideas that go beyond the limitations of video games. One such studio is Sensible Object, which will release of travel trivia tabletop game When In Rome next month.
Last week, we reported the UK games start-up had raised $3.2 million in a funding round and this money will be used to further research and develop the discoveries made during the production of When In Rome, as well as scaling up its debut title Beasts of Balance: the Kickstarter-funded board game that connected to a companion mobile game, which evolved based on what happened with the tabletop components.
For When In Rome, the mobile companion has been dropped in favour of smart speakers - namely, Amazon's increasingly popular Alexa. The device acts as host and scorekeeper, with players either interacting solely with the speaker or expanding the experience with the associated board game.
Sensible Object founder and CEO Alex Fleetwood will be touching on his team's learnings from this project and discussing the potential for voice control in general when he speaks at next month's Develop:Brighton conference. We caught up with him ahead of his talk to find our why the start-up is dedicating so much of its funding and resources to the unproven grounds of voice-controlled entertainment.
"We believe technology shouldn't divide us," Fleetwood explains. "When we started working on Beasts of Balance in 2013 voice AI was still in its infancy - but by late 2016 when we were evaluating our roadmap it was clear that Alexa was a technology with both incredible adoption rates that fitted perfectly with our mission. Smart speakers are communal, ambient interfaces, they are accessible to anyone who can talk, and they don't fracture our attention with screens and notifications."
The studio has already learned a great deal from being part of the first ever Alexa Accelerator back in 2017, a program that really informed the final design for When In Rome. Of course, more traditional video games firms have experimented with Amazon's device, but the results have been varied.
Jagex, for example, created an audio quest based on its popular RuneScape MMO, while Bandai Namco launched the first in a series of educational Pac-Man Stories adventures for Alexa earlier this year. Even as recently as E3, Bethesda jokingly released Skyrim: Very Special Edition, but this more than anything typifies the industry's stance on Alexa: as a place for spin-offs and promotional projects.
This is why Fleetwood believes firms like Sensible Object are in prime position to define how interactive voice control can create new types of games: "We've been through this cycle often enough in the last 15 years to know that the games that thrive on a new platform often come from new entrants to the market with fewer received wisdoms about what 'good video games' are. I remember very clearly playing Flight Control on iPhone and having that head-explodes moment when the possibilities of touchscreen input became clear.
"The big game companies are doing marketing projects, not game projects, and that's fine with us - we'll keep plugging away at finding the play patterns that work best on this new medium. Let's not forget, this is a computer that you can talk to that you can buy for $50, that's cloud-connected, with a voice AI system which is improving leaps and bounds with every passing week. It's kind of cool enough on its own, we think."
The most appealing aspect of Alexa - and voice control in general - is the accessibility it affords. There is no physical skill requirement, no need to master the use of buttons and sticks as defined by the developer. Practically anyone can play, and it's this concept that fascinates the Sensible Object.
"Language as input is really, really interesting," Fleetwood explains. "Scribblenauts proved that you can make a mass-market game that uses language in very interesting ways. We've started simple with When In Rome - a trivia game - but we're looking beyond that for future titles.
"It's definitely true that this isn't a platform for video gamers who desire a particular kind of reflex challenge. We see this a a tool to promote more inclusive, social play patterns - games that bring you closer to the people you share your real lives with.
"One thing I can say about accessibility is that we can bring onboarding design over from digital to tabletop games. Right now, complexity and time-to-learn scale linearly with one another in tabletop. So if you want to play a really chewy, interesting, strategic game, you'd better be prepared for several hours of rule-reading and trial-by-error. Maybe even playing a whole game end to end that basically sucks in order to get into it.
"That's not a mass-market proposition. I think a big reason games like Monopoly are still so popular is that people all know the rules! None of that pain of learning something. Offloading a bunch of the book-keeping and rules management to an AI is a big advantage here."
Fleetwood will be discussing the prospects for voice-controlled experiences in his session 'Alexa, Let's Play: Creative Tools for Voice AI Development' on Thursday, July 12th. GamesIndustry.biz readers get a 10% discount on Develop:Brighton passes with the code: IDCQXO.
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