When Alexa launched in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2016, Drew Cosgrove was intrigued by the possibilities of creating the next generation of computing experiences. Cosgrove started programming in the 1980s when personal computers were becoming accessible, and developers were creating games for home users.
"For many developers, their fantasy job is to create games," says Cosgrove. "Traditional gaming usually requires the collective effort of many developers to build a single game. However, that's different with Alexa skills, where it's still possible for one person to do everything."
Cosgrove started building his first skill, Animal Letters, while working full-time. The skill allowed customers to interact with Alexa and take turns guessing the names of animals. Cosgrove released the skill in December 2016, about one month after Alexa was first available in his region.
"There was a lot of buzz about Alexa skills," says Cosgrove. "I knew I could use my technical knowledge to do something that was fun, new, and accessible."
Investing in Alexa
As Animal Letters rose in popularity, Cosgrove was inspired to develop even more games in his spare time. He had a simple tenet while choosing the types of games he wanted to build – he focused on building games that he wanted to play.
"If you don't enjoy the game, other people likely won't enjoy it either," says Cosgrove. Cosgrove also drew inspiration for games by looking at games that were resonating with players in other mediums before looking at how he could take that experience to the next level with voice.
For example, one of Cosgrove's most popular games is a quiz called Feel the Pressure. The game is traditionally played with multiple-choice options. Cosgrove made the skill harder and more fun for players by requiring them to say the answers in response to questions rather than choosing from multiple choices.
About 18 months after releasing his first skill, Cosgrove left his IT consultancy job to focus on building Alexa skills full-time. He now has around 30 Alexa skills and is continually updating them. As Alexa technology gets more sophisticated with options like Alexa Presentation Language (APL) to add visuals on devices with screens, Cosgrove continues to update the skills and continually enhance the user experience.
Monetizing Alexa Skills
After leaving his job to focus on skills development, Cosgrove got hyper-focused on monetization. He turned to In-Skill Purchasing (ISP) to monetize his skills. ISP lets you sell premium content, such as game features and interactive stories in custom skills. Customers pay for such premium content by using the payment options associated with their Amazon account.
Using ISP, Cosgrove has found that he can support himself solely by developing Alexa skills.
"I spend hundreds and hundreds of hours working on a game until it's ready to release," says Cosgrove. "I'll work on the game every day, including weekends, so I need to have a robust income stream to invest all this time building skills. Because of ISP, I can do that and be independent."
Cosgrove offers four tips to developers looking to build a meaningful revenue stream with ISP.
Tip #1: Get started and refine your premium content and pricing
Cosgrove encourages other developers to get started with ISP and test their premium content offers and related pricing.
He gives the example of his first ISP offer, which gave customers the option to omit snarky responses from the host of "Feel the Pressure." He found that there wasn't much interest in that toggle. He then focused on developing other experiences, such as the ability to preview games and challenge the computer, which were more popular with customers. Through continual improvement, using customer feedback and intuition, developers can improve their skills. "By trying new things, adding to your skill, and making even small improvements, you will increase the quality of your premium content over time," says Cosgrove. "The higher the quality of your premium content, the more likely customers are going to pay for it."
Cosgrove recommends testing when it comes to setting the ISP price. He recommends researching other mobile game pricing and encourages developers not to set prices too low because customers often associate a low price with low quality.
He says that customers will work with developers as they test their way to the right price point.
"When customers invest in a game with their money, I've seen that they also invest their time and offer suggestions," says Cosgrove. "The quality of feedback I've received has improved after I started charging for a game."
Tip #2: Offer customers a flavor of the premium experience for free
Cosgrove ensures that he offers his customers the opportunity to experience the premium content he provides for "Feel the Pressure" for free first. Customers can play a certain number of games for free – however, after the free trial, they must subscribe to continue playing. In other skills, Cosgrove offers ISP for access to additional features or content. In every case, Cosgrove keeps the ISP messaging clear and concise so users understand what a subscription entails and that it's easy to cancel.
In the latest iteration of his popular skill, "The Daily Question," Cosgrove offers non-subscribers a free sample of the High Roller Expansion Pack indicating that they'll get two extra questions and double money. At the end of the game, they are told their rank on the global leaderboard. Now that the consumer has had an opportunity to experience the premium experience, Alexa tells them she hopes they agree that 'The Daily Question' is even better with the High Roller Expansion Pack and then offers an upsell. Offering this upsell after letting customers experience the premium content has resulted in 6X the number of daily subscriptions during the period of this experiment. It also reduces the need for customers to enroll in a free trial and go straight to a paying subscription.
Tip #3: Maximize value to grow and retain your paying subscriber base
Cosgrove found that he can add more value when there are multiple ways for players to enjoy the game. For example, with "Feel the Pressure," users can play alone, against multiple users in the same room, or against the computer. Cosgrove also added more questions, different categories, a leaderboard, and graphics for screens. Because of the volume and quality of these added features, customers didn't balk when asked to subscribe to the skill.
Tip #4: Double down on multi-modal experiences
Another monetization opportunity for Cosgrove is using APL to create an immersive, multimodal experience. For example, Cosgrove added APL to his Daily Question skill, using visuals alongside audio to make the game more compelling. “Everything on Alexa has to be voice first, but it’s so much better if you can add visuals,” says Cosgrove.
“Everything is amplified.” APL also works well on Fire TV, which opens up another channel for players. With APL, Cosgrove developed an experience for Feel the Pressure, where multiple players can see the questions, scores, and visuals on a screen, making it a more social game. “Making the game multimodal adds value,” says Cosgrove. “And every time you add value to your game, there’s a higher chance that people will pay for it.”
Alexa grows in popularity every year – today there are over 100 million Alexa-enabled devices with customers around the world. The always growing customer base enables Cosgrove to make a living by feeding his passion for building games.
“Voice technology is becoming more stable, and it’s a great chance for developers to gain an audience,” says Cosgrove. “It’s amazing just how prevalent Alexa devices are all over the world. My second most popular skill is in Mexico, and I support it from my home in Edinburgh, which is quite magical.”
Get started with ISP by reviewing the technical documentation.