Ms. Tech; AMazon

Humans and Technology

Alexa is powering new games where you control the action with your voice

Games played with voice commands are catching on, and now Amazon is betting on the nascent industry.

Jul 25, 2019

Imagine you’re on a voyage in deep space when you’re suddenly awakened from a cryo-slumber to discover your ship is under siege from ... something. Still partly in stasis, you have only one chance to save yourself and your crew. You need to steer the ship to safety—with only your voice.

That’s the concept behind Vortex, a game from voice-first Portuguese studio Doppio, released earlier this year. The company is set to release another game on Amazon this fall.

And if Amazon has its way, there will be plenty more where that came from. At the annual Voice Summit this week, Dave Isbitski, Amazon’s “chief evangelist” for Alexa and Echo, announced that the company had invested in Skill Flow Builder, a tool designed to help creators of voice-fueled games map out stories. 

Isbitski said in an email that voice-powered gaming was a natural next step for Alexa, where games have emerged as some of the most popular applications; he cited a 160% increase in games over the past year. Since 2018, Isbitski said, billions of commands have asked Alexa to play games.

Venturing into voice-first gaming might seem odd for a company that acquired Twitch, the wildly popular platform for streaming and watching mostly conventional video games. But Isbitski said voice games were a natural next step.

“It can help make gaming more communal,” he said. “Everyone can be in a room playing through a voice experience together, whether it’s an escape room or a dungeon.”

Isbitski said in his keynote at the Voice Summit that the Skill Flow tool marks a turning point in the industry’s thinking about the role of voice assistants in people’s lives. It’s no longer enough for them to be just a sterile weather forecaster, an infallible dictionary of obscure words, or a disinterested voice flipping through your Spotify library—Alexa and its voice tech cousins are being designed to engage, emote, and hold meaningful conversations with their audience.

Pretzel Labs, a voice-first gaming startup, is embracing that idea. The company has released several games for Alexa, Google Home, and other voice-powered assistants, the most popular of which is Kids Court, in which players (often siblings) “settle a case” between themselves with the help of Alexa, which is seen as a neutral entity. Adva Levin, Pretzel Labs’s founder and CEO, said kids understand that the voice technology is not human, which works in its favor.  Parents can be frustrated or tired or not have all the facts and patience to settle a dispute, but according to Levin, Alexa is “rational—not biased, not distracted.” 

Levin says that she was inspired to create Pretzel Labs after acquiring an Alexa and noticing how children interacted with it.

“It was magical to see how they fell in love with this,” she said. “They started talking and laughing.” She realized that Alexa offered a new medium, one that complements video games but requires more creativity and imagination than screen-based games.

“The attention span and concentration required to hold a conversation is significantly different than what it takes to use a tablet,” she said.

Christopher Barnes, cofounder of Doppio, said that voice-first games are simply more appealing to a wider audience than traditional video games.

“We have seen that people who wouldn’t consider themselves gamers, and who wouldn’t even bother trying a traditional video game before, are much more willing to try a voice game on their smart speaker or phone,” Barnes said. “This speaks to a unique ability of this new voice platform to help us reach different groups of players that we wouldn’t have on mobile, console, or PC games.”

As the head of a small company in a nascent corner of the gaming industry, Levin insists she isn’t nervous about Amazon’s newly stated interest in voice-powered games. “I think competition is good for raising the bar and making more quality experiences,” she said. “[We’re] mostly really excited to see how the platforms evolve and what new things we can use to create better experiences for our users.”