Zai Ortiz is no stranger to creating unique visual magic with technology. He’s worked on popular films such as Iron Man, Tron, iRobot, and Mission Impossible. Today, Ortiz and business partner Nolan Bushnell (of Atari fame) are co-founders of Virsix Games and are creating a new kind of magical experience.
Ortiz was looking to work at the intersection of entertainment, technology, and gaming. He got his opportunity to do that by creating St. Noire, the first truly immersive voice-based murder mystery board game and Alexa skill. First released in July 2019, the game’s sales and customer response have been positive from day one.
“Transitioning from film to voice has brought about a new perspective,” says Ortiz. “I see tremendous opportunity with voice as a whole new medium not only to create, but to bring games to life for other people to enjoy.”
Ortiz sees both challenges and creative opportunities in voice. He’s excited about the potential for voice to create entertainment in new ways. With over 100 million Alexa devices already sold—and with more and more households owning multiple devices—the need for engaging content is undeniable.
While many developers create skills for the creative experience itself, others want to expand it into a true business opportunity. Ortiz feels that monetization and business opportunities will continue to grow as more people adopt voice technology, use devices, and engage with skills.
“The beauty of voice is it’s becoming more natural to use it,” says Ortiz. “As more people get used to voice-based games and entertainment, it’s becoming second nature. It’ll soon be everywhere, with a wide variety of applications, and as natural as everyone carrying their phone.”
Developed in-house at Virsix Games, St. Noire is one of the first truly immersive Alexa-based board game launches where Alexa does more than just roll the dice for a player or act as the game’s banker and keep track of money. St. Noire uses Alexa to power the game’s background sounds and voice performances, featuring 12 different characters and over 2,500 lines of dialogue. The skill uses Alexa Presentation Language (APL) to present the visual aspects, and incorporates accompanying audio to enhance the player experience.
St. Noire calls on players to use their detective skills and cooperate to solve a mystery and find a killer. Players use the game board, suspect cards and weapon tokens to help physically create the setting and interact with the St. Noire skill to question suspects and examine locations, all while background noises complete the scene. Designed for one or more players, games last 20 to 30 minutes. With multiple storylines, locations, and endings, players will experience a new mystery each time they play.
The idea for St. Noire originated when Ortiz and Virsix Games co-founder Bushnell were talking about voice technology and realized they both had Alexa-enabled devices in nearly all of their rooms. As they started thinking about voice technology and the possibility of physical product companions, they realized there was an opportunity to create an Alexa-mediated board game.
Ortiz and his team started developing St. Noire to gauge the potential with customers. Giving themselves a six-month deadline, they created the storyline, narrative, voice skill, and physical board game, and used professional actors and artists to ensure a high production value. The intent was to design and ship the physical game—the board, cards, and tokens—while updating the voice skill on the fly.
“It’s the next level of board games,” says Ortiz. “With the companion skill you can hear the rain, someone’s footsteps, or a door opening. You hear all the actors’ voices. It’s like having a theater in your house. We know how our customers are interacting with it and can introduce new product elements based on what they are saying, like adding a famous actor as the voice of the detective.”
Through developing St. Noire, Ortiz learned a lot about what it takes to develop a successful game skill for voice.
“Dive in, just tinker with it, mess with it, break it, and see what you can make,” says Ortiz. “Just play with it and then decide how you’ll proceed.”
Virsix Games currently has five or six games in the pipeline, including developing an educational children’s game. It plans to continue developing cinematic games for the home, as well as more casual games like St. Noire.
Though he’s not releasing the exact details of what he’s working on, Ortiz is excited about the possibilities for voice content, both in games and other sectors. Coming from the film industry, Ortiz naturally sees opportunities for crossover between voice games and TV, or a gamified visual component where the viewer can interact with a character and “direct” where the scene goes.
“We’re in stealth mode so I can’t reveal many ideas,” says Ortiz. “What I can tell you is that we’re taking a look at visuals. How about your TV? How can we combine that with voice? What we’re working on is going to blow everyone’s mind.”