Voice-Based Games

Expectations for user and developer interest

Nic Lopez
Nic Lopez
Jul 10, 2017 · 7 min read

We are familiar with the macro… Voice-based platforms are becoming increasingly prevalent with notable incumbents including Amazon (Alexa), Google (Assistant/Home), Microsoft (Cortana), and Apple (Siri). The combination of advancements in voice recognition / transcription and natural language processing has enabled voice-based platforms to increasingly recognize and understand the intent of user commands. These advancements are primarily responsible for the emergence of voice as a newly plausible and useful platform.

The largest hurdle for voice-based platforms is that the open interface ultimately over-promises its versatility to users. While this pain point might hamper adoption in the short-term, I still expect to see voice-based platforms thrive in the 1) medium-term for narrower use cases and 2) long-term as we see a growing convergence between what users think they can do and what voice platforms can actually do — a function of natural language processing improvements and the development of higher quality, more interconnected voice applications/devices.

With each new platform emergence comes new applications to populate the default categories. For voice, the most populated categories include News, Education, Lifestyle, Weather, and Games. The unique potential of voice-based games became clearer to me as a result of the following observations:

  • Current Lack of (Game) Development Incentives
  • Surfacing Voice-Based Game Interest
  • Game Revenue Share Dominance

Current Lack of (Game) Development Incentives

Although nascent, voice-based platform stores are approving new skills/apps at an exponential rate with Amazon leading the pack at roughly 14,000 skills. Of these, “Games, Trivia, & Accessories” represent 21%, the largest category. While this game share is characteristic of any platform store, it is important to note that legitimate game developers have yet to really invest in voice-based games.

A simple skim through the Games, Trivia, & Accessories category will quickly reveal a lower quality offering created mostly by individuals. This is likely a function of lack of monetization options for developers. Since voice is a new and threateningly simple interface for gameplay, developers that are [mobile, video-game console, PC, or VR]-first will need more monetary incentive to entertain voice as a new initiative. Only recently did Amazon launch a new program to compensate developers for top-performing skills on its store. Regardless, this selective, opaque payment system is certainly not convincing enough for legitimate developers to start creating higher quality, voice-based games. Monetization options that might draw serious attention from developers would require Amazon to allow either…

  1. Paid skills that charge users for enabling a developer’s skill, an obvious economic-incentive that the Alexa developer community has long-critiqued Amazon for not making available from the get-go. The community refers to this as the “snow cone dilemma,” joking that it is easier to make money selling snow cones than it is developing Alexa skills.
  2. Advertising, beyond the Amazon-specified exceptions (streaming music, radio, and news briefing apps) that currently allow for ads. Despite no formal enforcement mechanism, Amazon’s no-advertising policy for Alexa bans the use of ads in both skills (via audio) and home cards (via text), graphical cards that describe or enhance one’s voice interactions in Alexa’s companion mobile app.

The case for barring ads from the Alexa experience seems justified given Amazon’s interest in fostering consumer adoption for an early-stage platform that is especially sensitive to ad-invasion, given the nakedness of the interface. For this reason, paid skills look like the best near-term monetization lever for Amazon to pull, after which games are likely to see an influx of talent from other mobile, game console, PC, VR-first game developers.

It is important to highlight the lack of incentives currently in place because it illustrates the roadblock stopping higher-quality skill development. So, until Amazon pulls one or many monetization levers, we can expect development, especially within the Games, Trivia, & Accessories category, to remain sub-par.

Surfacing Voice-Based Game Interest

Upon the installment of better economic incentives, I expect to see an influx of [Insert platform here]-first game developers venturing into and excelling in reinventing game experiences suitable for voice-based platforms. Despite this talent drought, Alexa’s first-generation of voice-based games still appear to be driving lots of engagement for the platform. In a recent effort to promote game development by offering new developer tools, Amazon acknowledged the potential of voice-based games.

“Customers love to play voice-based games on Alexa-enabled devices. 20% of our top skills are games, including Jeopardy!, Animal Game, and more. And, in July 2016, Alexa customers engaged in over 300K game sessions in the top five game skills alone…. Now we’ve made it easier for you to reach customers on millions of Alexa-enabled devices with your game content using the Alexa Skills Kit.”

While the Games, Trivia, & Accessories category is flush with options, it seems that Amazon attributes this engagement to a handful of popular games. They even highlight “The Wayne Investigation,” an interactive mystery game to solve who killed Bruce Wayne’s (Batman) parents, one of the highest rated games on the Alexa Skills Store.

Interactive mystery game (Source)

This sort of interactive storytelling is a game sub-category that Amazon seems to be particularly constructive on. Although unmentioned, similarly popular examples that fall into this game sub-category include “Earplay” and “The Magic Door.” Despite slightly lower ratings than “The Wayne Investigation,” each have significantly more reviews.

Interactive audio stories (Source)
Interactive adventure games (Source)

The common theme across these games is that each immerses the user in a self-navigated storyline, a feature gamers are accustomed to in other formats but which only has just begun to surface in voice gameplay.

For this sub-category, I believe there is opportunity for game developers but also media/entertainment publishers to repurpose their established franchises for voice gameplay. Imagine simple voice commands directing a Pokemon (Nintendo) battle or navigating through a storyline of various Star Wars (Lucasfilm) subplots. Game developers will have to distill games down to less involved, lesser input interfaces while media and entertainment publishers will have to create new interfaces that allow users license and optionality in content storylines. The resulting form-factor might be a middle ground between less interactive gaming and more interactive media/entertainment content.

While I am similarly constructive on interactive storytelling as Amazon seems to be, I certainly expect to see other game sub-categories succeed, trivia (or “gamified education”) for example. However, I believe the best and most obvious opportunities are in interactive storytelling, a turnkey area for game developers and media/entertainment publishers to leverage pre-existing franchises and repurpose them for a relatively low-cost format, voice.

Game Revenue Share Dominance

If history serves as any indicator, new platform stores will be overly populated with games. Of those games, there will only be a handful of winners. To name a few, mobile might be… Words with Friends, Angry Birds, Candy Crush, and Temple Run. Or PC might be… World of Warcraft, League of Legends, Minecraft, and Sims. VR is to be determined.

Winners such as these are historically responsible for a significant portion of game revenue, which is also historically responsible for a significant portion of app store revenue. For example, in 2016, games generated 75% and 90% of all app store revenue on the iOS app store and Google Play, respectively. That might be reassuring for prospective voice-based game developers but the more important question is…

How can they be sure that there will be similar interest in games for voice-based platforms?

Aforementioned topics (below) serve as helpful data points:

  • The majority share (21%) of games on Amazon’s Alexa Skills Store
  • The expected increase in game quality after Amazon allows monetization
  • Amazon’s recent acknowledgement of high game interest / engagement
  • Amazon’s recent investment in developer tools to promote game creation

But the most convincing data point is a recent consumer survey conducted by VoiceLabs, a voice-first analytics provider, saying that 29% of users assign “Games and Entertainment” as the primary value-add of their voiced-based assistants. Also, note that some portion of “Play Music & Books” is arguably eligible to be categorized under the interactive storytelling format.

VoiceLabs consumer survey — December 2016 (Source)

These data points combined with historical accounts of dominant game revenue share point to games as an expected, leading revenue generator for voice-based platforms, especially in a post-monetization era when serious developer interest catches on.

Summary

It is early days for voice-based games and serious development has yet to even reach full-stride. However, I believe that my aforementioned observations (below) will translate to reasonably expected outcomes (also below) characterized by strong user and developer interest in voice-based games.

  • Current Lack of (Game) Development IncentivesHigh-quality, game-specific developers will begin to show interest once Amazon allows them to monetize
  • Surfacing Voice-Based Game InterestEarly game engagement will continue to increase as new and novel voice-based game formats (specifically interactive storytelling) are innovated by high-value proposition game developers and media/entertainment publishers
  • Game Revenue Share DominanceGame revenue-generation will be no different from other new platform stores which should further attract game developer interest

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