When developer Gal Shenar attended an Alexa Hackathon in 2016, he connected with the prospect of developing for voice in a personal and meaningful way.
“The event came at a time when everyone was spending so much time exclusively on screens. I saw the potential voice had in helping build more communal experiences, where people could interact with each other and engage with technology in a way that didn’t require them to be alone.”
Shenar developed a skill called Good Night to provide users with custom nightly messages before they went to bed. The skill gained traction quickly among an engaged user base. Shenar was able to generate revenue by adding in-skill purchase options. The early success, along with the communal nature of voice experiences, deepened Shenar’s commitment to developing for voice.
Shenar founded an Alexa skills development business, Stoked Skills. Today, he has hundreds of thousands of daily engaged users, and is helping shape the future of voice games.
Shenar was particularly intrigued at the prospect of developing open-world and sandbox games. These are games that allow players to freely explore without boundaries while developing their own solutions, such as in Minecraft or World of Warcraft.
“Creating open-world games using voice is different than building for a phone, computer, or console,” Shenar says. “It’s akin to reading a book: you really need to use your imagination to paint the picture, and there are more opportunities for people to play them as groups.”
Shenar found that voice provided an open template as well as an entirely new set of considerations for game design. What might seem like a basic task in a visual-first game—for instance, figuring out a riddle or picking up an object—might become more complex and give players a completely different experience with Alexa.
Shenar’s process for workshopping a game’s functionality takes cues from real-life movement and problem-solving. “Before building anything, I would just ask friends to pretend to be a player while I would pretend to be the device.”
This careful planning style led to one of his most popular skills, Escape the Room. The game challenges users to find their way out of a locked room using only the objects in front of them, puzzle-style clues, and their own outside-the-box thinking. On Escape the Room’s review page, players post images of the process by which they escaped on pen and paper and explain how they took on tasks both solo and in groups.
Shenar experimented with other formats in addition to open-world gaming. He converted a crossword puzzle to voice with his skill Puzzle of the Day. With audio clues and a built-in, interactive competition feature, players can work through puzzles and see where they rank among Puzzle of the Day users around the world.
When it came to figuring out new avenues for monetizing games like Puzzle of the Day, Shenar learned that a trial-and-error process—as well as keeping his eye on the broader trends in Alexa game development—ultimately helped him achieve a reliable revenue stream. As a small business owner, he also found that he had to wear multiple hats.
“To keep users interested in the long run, it took a lot more than just developing a good game. I became a marketer, a designer, oversaw analytics, and more,” says Shenar.
With a growing user base, he put his efforts into developing revenue streams that delivered sustained revenue.
“Early on, I used mostly one-time purchases but eventually shifted toward a subscription model for most games. I think it’s more effective because it gives people another reason to play, and it also helps me predict how much I might earn in a given month,” says Shenar.
Attracting new subscribers and keeping them engaged has been critical to Shenar’s success. Shenar turns to time-tested strategies to keep people engaged with his skills in a highly competitive marketplace. He recommends the following tips to developers looking to build skills with Alexa:
Include Reminders in your skill
The Alexa Reminders API is built into the Alexa developer console and it allows skill builders to pre-program a time to send users a reminder of their game progress or milestones. Shenar also used an achievement mechanic to give users clever nicknames when they reached a new ranking.
[Learn how to add Reminders to your skill]
Leaderboards keep users coming back to improve their results and compete for the top spot.
“In a timed game like Puzzle of the Day, leaderboards really kept players engaged day in and day out,” says Shenar.
[Get started with building a LEADERBOARD]
Provide relevant and personalized email updates
In Shenar’s experience, e-mail is still the best way to reach users off the device and remind them about skills progress and updates. He sent Puzzle of the Day players personalized reports and told them the percentile they placed in. Shenar noticed that people who signed up to receive email updates have significantly higher retention with skills.
Maintaining a positive customer experience also means testing and monitoring your skill regularly.
[Follow these best practices to monitor your live skill]
Shenar says that ultimately the secret to succeeding with voice is building a community.
“I was attracted to developing for voice because it allowed me to build experiences where people interacted with each other,” says Shenar. “That’s also the formula for success. Build experiences that build a sense of community, and you’ll find access to a world of engagement and revenue.”