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November 01, 2018Marysia Chance
After 25 years in IT, Drew Cosgrove felt he needed to get back to coding, the love of which had drawn him to technology in the first place. When Amazon introduced Echo in the UK, the senior IT architect knew he’d found just the opportunity he needed to sharpen his skills — and build a rewarding new career as a voice developer.
“The more I worked in management, the further away I got from what I really loved to do,” says Cosgrove. “I began looking for a way to get back to my technical roots, and that’s when Alexa appeared.”
Cosgrove has done far more than revive his coding skills; he’s left the corporate world to work for himself as an Alexa skills developer. In under two years, he has published 30 engaging game skills for Alexa in several languages, attracting over 65,000 active monthly users. As the winner of multiple prizes in the UK’s monthly Alexa contest, Cosgrove says building skills for Alexa has changed his life.
“I didn’t start out looking for a new career with Alexa. But the opportunities in voice are absolutely fantastic,” says Cosgrove. “With incentives like Alexa Developer Rewards, I’ve been able to keep building and improving my skills. I wouldn’t be able to do this without it.”
Determined to build his first Alexa skill quickly, Cosgrove took inspiration from a simple game his sister played with her children. In Animal Letters, kids take turns guessing animal names from one letter of the alphabet.
“It was a simple, competitive game, but surprisingly one that even cynical teenagers could get into,” says Cosgrove. “I saw the opportunity to tap into that competitive spirit in my first skill, and it really took off.”
Since Animal Letters’ roaring success, Cosgrove has built a number of games based on other multiple-choice programs. There are more variants on Animal Letters, including Harry Potter Letters and Eighties Letters, and there are a number of variations on Feel the Pressure, another of Cosgrove’s popular games. These games and others consistently earn Alexa Developer Rewards.
As for building these engaging games, Cosgrove starts with quiz skill templates, rather than starting from scratch, then he customizes them to meet the requirements of a particular game design. Besides using AWS Lambda, Amazon DynamoDB, and S3, Cosgrove uses Amazon Polly to generate a variety of voices for his skills and Audacity to create interesting sound effects. He also uses Amazon CloudFront for caching spoken information to keep the audio flowing smoothly.
Cosgrove has discovered, however, that building a skill is just the beginning. His real focus is building long-term relationship with his users, and he offers these three tips to help other developers do the same.
Cosgrove is adamant that “if you don’t like the skill, chances are no one else will either.” In other words, build skills that you personally enjoy. Building something you’re passionate about makes testing it more enjoyable and, in the end, ensures the experience is more engaging and complete.
Cosgrove also likes to add unexpected humorous twists to the conversation. For example, if you win at Animal Letters, Alexa says, “You’re the world’s greatest zoologist.” He’s also inserted funny come-backs for fictional animal answers, such as a “Gruffalo,” which he found customers often give when they’re unsure of the real answer. And don’t be surprised if Alexa suddenly screams or burps while you play Feel The Pressure.
“After all, gameplay is all about fun,” Cosgrove says. “If you think the experience you build is fun, your customers are more likely to enjoy it too.”
Cosgrove constantly updates his game skills to keep the customer experiences fresh and enjoyable.
“One big piece of advice I can give developers is to not walk away from improving the skills you’ve already developed,” says Cosgrove. “Users expect more and more, so once you publish, it’s up to you to keep updating it—making it better.”
For example, Cosgrove has invested in more realistic sound effects for Animal Letters, as well as expanded scoring opportunities to keep the competition level high. Also, he’s added more animals to his databased based on some of the “incorrect” animal guesses. His original database naturally reflected his Edinburgh roots, but by paying attention to customer engagement, he’s made the skill fresher, more accessible, and more enjoyable to customers around the world.
As a final tip, Cosgrove asks developers to respect the very personal aspect of interacting with Alexa in their skills. After all, customers talk to Alexa as a real person, and your skill should take that into account.
“If Alexa just says an answer is ‘wrong,’ that can feel rude,” says Cosgrove. “Something as simple as changing that response to ‘Sorry, but that answer is not on my list,’ takes the sting out of losing the game.”
Cosgrove checks his database often and finds responses that reflect real human-to human expression. He’s discovered that customers vocally react with humor, dismay, or even anger if Alexa isn’t speaking as a real person would. So, he works to make the dialog as polite and friendly as possible, and when politeness is mixed with a little humor, his users are delighted.
As to the future, Cosgrove is looking at other areas outside of games skills to add to his portfolio. Most recently, he built a new game for the Alexa Skills Challenge: Games.
After 25 years in corporate IT, Cosgrove now finds inspiration and income building games skills for Alexa that anyone can play and enjoy—all while reinventing his coding skills, building a strong following, and having a lot of fun along the way.
“The thing I like most is that there are people who find enjoyment playing my games,” says Cosgrove. “I’m back to doing development, and with Alexa Developer Rewards, I feel confident I can build a sustainable business doing something I love to do.”