EA Breaks into Voice with an Alexa Skill for The Sims

June Lee Dec 05, 2019
Inspiration Game Skills Spotlight Design

In an exciting move for the gaming world, Electronic Arts, a global leader in digital interactive entertainment, is investing in voice technology. Maxis, creator of the its popular life simulation franchise The Sims within EA, has published 3 Alexa skills to date: The Sims, The Sims Stories, and Maxis Podcast. Producer, Dana Peterson and Technical Director, Manu Sharma at Maxis recently shared why they decided to enter the voice space, and provided tips for other developers interested in building the next wave of voice games. You can view the video version of the interview as well.

Growing Up in a Voice-First World

It wasn’t long ago—only 2015, in fact— that having a voice-activated device in your home was a rarity. Today, however, with more than 100 million Alexa-enabled devices sold to date, and over 100,000 Alexa skills available, voice is becoming commonplace and, even expected. The Sims developers recognized this significant trend and wanted to take advantage of it.

“My child’s first words were, in this order: Mama, Alexa, and Papa,” says Sharma. “She’s growing up in a voice-first world. It’s natural for her to use voice for entertainment or answers, even without learning how to do it. She’s only two and a half years old and thinks everything that lights up blue is an Alexa device.”

The Importance of Investing in Voice

To Peterson and Sharma, voice technology is the logical next step in video gaming. With the next generation of players growing up around the technology, voice control is an intuitive addition to games. Voice also provides a more immersive experience than traditional console games, allowing the player to continue the story through the Alexa-enabled devices.

“It’s nice to have a platform that's with the player wherever they go,” says Peterson. “Players aren’t always in front of their PC or their console. With Alexa, we have the opportunity to stay in touch with players anywhere they are.”

Voice offers The Sims developers the ability to design unique experiences. Enriching features, like culture and accessibility, can be included in the game design, to help players overcome any perceived limitations they have—such as age or technical knowledge—and simply enjoy the experience.

The Addition of Voice Leads to a New Design Strategy

The Sims allows players to create a world to their specifications, create characters and their personalities, create houses and then play out stories as they like. With the Alexa skill for The Sims, the Maxis team of developers were able to bring the franchise into the voice space and differentiate the design strategy from the video game.

When designing the game, they wanted to make sure to include features that long-time players would appreciate as well as content that new players could easily engage with. This approach helps them to tap into a fast-growing audience of Alexa users that might not have played The Sims yet, while still delighting long-time players of the game.

“One of our top priorities was to offer richer experiences in shorter game sessions,” says Peterson. “When people play The Sims 4, the newest game in the franchise, sessions might last a couple of hours or longer, depending how invested they are. With the Alexa s­kills, players can spend 5 minutes to half an hour and still have a really rich session.”

What to Consider When Translating a Video Game to a Voice Game

The Sims video game relies heavily on its visual user interface, which presented a challenge when building Alexa skills. Developers at Maxis had to understand the user experience and translate it to work in a voice setting and rethink the game’s commands for Alexa. Initially, they expected players to use short, one-word commands with the skill. However, they soon discovered in tests that users prefer to interact with Alexa as if they’re speaking with another person—so they updated she’s a person, and updated the responses Alexa listens for to reflect what users actually say.

Another learning was how many choices they could offer players in the voice skill. Although the PC game with its static visual interface is rich with options, they discovered in the voice space, too many options made it difficult for players to remember their choices. They narrowed the options presented to players and provided more direction.

Tips for Voice Game Developers

The Maxis team is excited for the future of voice games and shared these tips for developing great Alexa game skills.

1. Get feedback early

“It’s critical to get feedback early in the process during skill development,” says Peterson and Sharma. Investing too much time upfront before getting feedback can lead to building something other than what was intended. But asking for feedback and altering the design based on the responses can lead to a skill that’s much better than the initial plan.

2. Have a clear vision

“When developing for Alexa, you must have a clear vision on what the user experience will be,” says Sharma. “We started simple and concentrated on engaging the players and we have big ideas where we want to go next”.

3. Use the Amazon developer tools

As complex as voice technology can be, both Peterson and Sharma agree that developing skills for Alexa is surprisingly easy, due to the tools that Amazon has built for developers.

“Using Skill Flow Builder, I was able to implement the vast majority of our story all on my own with the tools. And I don't have a programming background at all,” says Peterson. “That’s meaningful especially for smaller teams without engineering support, or people without the programming background who want to experiment.”

Take the Leap of Faith and Start Building Games for Voice

 “Voice development is surprisingly easy. If you’re still on the fence about getting started in voice development, just take the leap of faith,” says Sharma.

Join the growing community of Alexa developers and start building voice games today. Watch the video below and learn about building voice games for Alexa.