Innovation Sprint Series: What we learned making an Amazon Echo game in 2 weeks

What do you get when you throw together an ambitious pitch, a team who has never worked together before, brand new technology, a plucky blue unicorn, and a tight two-week deadline?

Gary’s Great Escape! A prototype kids game for Amazon Echo Spot developed during CBC Digital Products’ Innovation Sprint — an initiative that freed staff from their regular duties to work with new people on new projects.

The Innovation Sprint was a two-week period dedicated to working on new and exciting projects. At the end of the Sprint, teams gathered in the atrium of the Toronto Broadcast Centre to showcase their projects.

Who’s Gary?

Gary the Unicorn is a popular CBC Kids character with a big fan base. He was a key player in CBC’s Olympic coverage for kids and will soon be featured in a new plush toy line. Essentially, Gary’s the man! So that’s why Emma Scratch, product owner of the CBC Digital Products Kids Team, pitched the idea to create a kids game featuring Gary for Amazon’s Echo Spot.

While working with smart speakers was new for Emma, CBC Digital Products has long been committed to exploring the possibilities of this emerging technology — compact devices with built-in voice assistants that provide interactive experiences through hands-free interactions. We worked proactively to develop content for Amazon Alexa before it became available in Canada and are also experimenting with Google Assistant and Siri as we patiently await Apple’s HomePod to be released in Canada.

Emma wanted to explore a more playful smart speaker opportunity with Gary’s Great Escape. I caught up with her to chat about what her team built during the Innovation Sprint. (In the coming weeks, I’ll also be talking with a few other teams about the products they created, so stay tuned!)

“Gary’s Great Escape” is the title of the escape room style prototype game developed during the Innovation Sprint. (Kevin Kimmett/CBC)

The Gary’s Great Escape team was made up of people with different skills, including an Agile Team Lead, a UX researcher, a product designer and two developers. None of them had experience working with smart speakers.

With little idea of where they wanted to take the game, they spent the first few days on content research. They conducted device and demographic research and looked at games on before settling on an auditory escape room game targeted at kids aged six to nine.

For inspiration, they took a tour of the Studio K set and then dug into the technical nitty gritty.

“I definitely recommend doing what our team did and making the ideation and formation process totally collaborative,” Emma said.

The Gary’s Great Escape team enjoying their tour of Studio K. (Het Patel/CBC)

‘Do you want to play Gary’s Great Escape?’

Because developers Jeff Martin and Sean Bennett had never worked with smart speakers before, figuring out the basics around coding these devices was a learning experience. To begin, they looked at Amazon’s development environment and watched Amazon tutorials. They explored ways to test the game and get it loaded onto an Amazon device. Then, they tried to find out if there was a backend API and a console to run it through.

With those successes logged, they managed to get code running on Amazon’s Web Services which interacted with the Alexa device console. They used Lambda and S3 (Amazon Web Services) to store their assets, MP3 files, and images. Once the code and the assets were on those two servers, it was a matter of getting Alexa to connect and respond when they applied commands.

At the end of the fourth day of the Innovation Sprint, they finally heard Alexa say, “Do you want to play Gary’s Great Escape?”

Cheers erupted as Alexa said those eight sweet words.

They had another big breakthrough on the second last day of the sprint when they discovered they could put the prototype on an actual Echo Spot and not just a computer. They weren’t sure if installing the game on the device would require extra work and were delighted to find that they simply had to log in with the Amazon developer account to execute the code. Voila — the skill was there!

A mockup of Gary’s Great Escape on an Echo Spot device. (Kevin Kimmett/CBC)

Technological challenges aside, a considerable hurdle for this team was making the game both fun and easy for children to follow. Due to time constraints, they also had to simplify their prototype by limiting the amount of clues and levels offered to the player.

Decision tree, mapping all potential game outcomes and clue options. (Maisha Zaman/CBC)

Initially, Emma thought they would only end up with a paper proof-of-concept, so she was thrilled to have developed a working prototype for demo day. In retrospect, Emma says she probably should’ve done a little research before the Innovation Sprint kicked off to help the team.

“I recommend taking some time to learn about the workflows involved around a platform, especially if you’ve never used it before — perhaps before you pitch!”

Overall, Emma said the experience was fantastic from start to finish and offered a valuable lesson on using design thinking to develop a valuable product. She loved working with new people and trying out a new technology.

She is hopeful Gary’s Great Escape will be used as a basic engine and template for other games in the future.

Next I’ll be chatting with Apps developer Viviane Chan about her Augmented Reality project.

See you again soon!

CBC Digital Labs

Telling stories about who we are, what we are doing, what we are learning, and how we are making decisions as we work to create the best possible experiences for Canadians in digital spaces.

Haley Coppins

Written by

CBC Digital Labs

Telling stories about who we are, what we are doing, what we are learning, and how we are making decisions as we work to create the best possible experiences for Canadians in digital spaces.