“As humans, speaking to one another is one of the most innate and effortless things we do and is a near-universal ability,” says James Wilsterman, Co-Founder and CTO of Volley, a San Francisco-based company that develops many of the most popular voice-controlled Alexa games. “As game developers, we were attracted by the power of voice to create inclusive, communal entertainment experiences for families that can bridge generations. You can play and enjoy our games if you are 5-years-old or 90-years-old.”
Wilsterman and his Co-Founder, Max Child, began developing games for mobile platforms in 2013. They are self-taught programmers. One of the first games they built was a competitive triva game that people could play via text messages.
“Texting is something everyone does each day, and it seemed logical to build games using that interface,” says Wilsterman. “However, what we found in reality is that people don't necessarily love the actual experience of texting. They do it because it's a necessary way to communicate with their friends. But when you think about it, it still takes a bit of time and effort to tap out each message.”
Voice didn’t present those same barriers. When Wilsterman and Child got their first Amazon Echo, they saw that interacting with Alexa was much more frictionless and effortless.
Developing for voice
From a developer perspective, Wilsterman says, getting into voice was — and continues to be — quite painless. Even as a 2-person team, Volley’s Co-Founders were able to use their backend knowledge and self-taught programming skills to build, maintain, and scale skills easily on AWS Lambda.
With Alexa’s powerful – and constantly improving – developer tools and SDK, Wilsterman and Child could focus on user interaction design and building great core game experiences. Volley has made many of the most popular games on Alexa, including Song Quiz (users have to guess the song title and artist from a short audio snippet), Yes Sire (a medieval role-playing game), and Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? (users get to answer elementary school-level questions based on the popular television show).
Wilsterman and Child weren’t especially focused on monetization when they first started building Alexa games.
“We continued building for voice because we were seeing a lot of engagement, and users were clearly enjoying our products and our games,” Wilsterman says. Once the engagement and the Volley user base began to achieve meaningful scale, Volley began to incorporate in-skill purchasing and monetization as a core part of their game designs.
Instead of putting exisiting features behind a paywall, they focused on driving monetization by expanding the entertainment value they could provide to users. Monthly subscriptions allowed Volley to provide users with meaningful upgrades. For example, Song Quiz subscribers were granted access to thousands of additional songs, exclusive genre playlists, plus brand new subscriber-only themed playlists each month.
To increase the number of paid subscribers, Volley conducted extensive A/B testing to determine the optimal wording and length of their upsell marketing pitches. They also offered free trials so that customers were able to see the value of upgrading prior to going all in on a paid subscription.
Adding a visual component
To increase engagement and paid subscriptions, Volley is also leveraging Alexa Web API for Games, which enables them to incorporate animations, 3D graphics, and on-screen instructions into their games, in addition to giving them more control over audio output and Alexa microphone behavior.
Wilsterman says, “The Alexa Web API is such a familiar way to build frontends for games that most web developers are able to get onboarded easily. If you know how to build React or HTML5 experiences or websites, building with the Alexa Web API is very straightforward.”
According to Wilsterman, Alexa Web API for Games provides Alexa game developers with four concrete advantages:
The visuals in Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? help create an immersive experience for users. The questions are written on a chalkboard, the answers are written in children’s notebooks, and every little detail is representative of the actual game show — it all adds up to users feeling like they are an actual contestant on the show.
Alexa presentation language (APL) has components to build visual experiences, but the Web API can take them to the next level. Volley’s The Price Is Right includes a mini-game called Plinko where users can drop a virtual coin and watch it bounce around various pegs until it lands on a random point value. Volley added this visual- and audio-rich animated feature by leveraging HTML5 frameworks and Alexa Web API.
The immersive classroom theme of Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader? or the animated Pinko mini-game from The Price Is Right add up to a consistent brand experience. Visual elements together with voice create a familiar context for users across Volley games. In Song Quiz, users on Echo Show smart displays can now watch a visual animation that provide an indication of where each song snippet ends. “When players win, they also see confetti scatter all over the screen, which adds to the fun and the joy of the experience,” says Wilsterman.
With Alexa Web API, Volley has been seeing increased user engagement and longer session lengths. This engagement translates directly into increased monetization. However, Wislterman is most energized by the implications for creating and delivering communal entertainment experiences – the same prospect that drew him to start building Alexa games in the first place.
“I imagine that it's a family game night, with everyone coming together to play a few voice games and have some effortless fun,” says Wilsterman. “I love picturing how people are actually together in that moment. Instead of disappearing into their smartphone screens, everyone is invested and focused on each other and on the game. This is what building for voice helps you do. It helps you create a world where people find joy, together.”
Find more resources to build games on the Alexa Game Skills website.