Watchers of Jeopardy!, America’s favorite TV game show, just can’t get enough of the show. For nearly 35 years, Jeopardy! has tested the trivia knowledge of contestants and viewers of all ages. It presents contestants first with answers (clues), then contestants frame their guesses in the form of a question. Home audiences have become so engaged in the TV game’s play, they often shout out the answers to their televisions.
Public fascination with Jeopardy! has led to a long line of off-the-air versions. These started with board games and card games, then electronic versions for game consoles and personal computers, and more recently mobile apps. In all these formats, though, one magical component was always missing. They lacked a way to let players answer out loud (in the form of a question, of course) and have that response validated.
Up until December of last year.
One year ago, on December 30, 2015, Sony Picture Television launched a new version for Amazon Echo users, Jeopardy! J6, built with the Alexa Skills Kit (ASK). On that day, Alexa became the new host of the first all-voice version of Jeopardy!
The genesis of Jeopardy! J6
Sony Television’s games division wanted a way to keep its Jeopardy! fan base growing and engaged, especially younger audiences. To do that, they created a new online version of the game, called Jeopardy! J6, or “J!6” for short.
The premise of J!6 is simple. In addition to the five clues presented for each quiz category on the show, the writers create a backup sixth clue. Most of these clues are never used on the show. With J!6, however, die-hard Jeopardy! fans can play those extra clues. And since the J!6 categories change along with those on the show, playing online feels like an authentic extension of the episode the player just watched.
Geremie Camara, head of the Games Group at Sony Pictures Television, says using high-caliber material from the show makes the J!6 experience authentic and engaging. However, many online quiz games present a multiple-choice list of possible guesses. Somehow, they never quite feel the same as the show…
Alexa gets an instant green-light
When Alexa came along, Camara said they’d found the missing piece —a way to present the studio’s high-quality material in an authentic, interactive experience.
The idea for the skill first came from an intern’s summer project. After Amazon shipped two Echo devices to Sony’s R&D group, a intern built a rapid prototype in two short weeks. Though it was full of hard-coded clues and questions, Camara said there was no doubt: they were onto something big.
“We were all blown away at how good the Echo and Alexa technology was,” says Camara, “but also at how good it felt for the brand. We worked very closely with Jeopardy!’s Supervising Producer Rocky Schmidt to ensure that the Echo experience would live up to the TV show’s high standards."
From concept to a quality production
Though an intern did the first pass, a senior engineer built Jeopardy J!6 skill from the ground up. It is written in Java and runs on AWS Lambda, which makes it simple to manage, scalable and very lightweight.
“We definitely had the support of the Amazon team whenever we needed it,” says Paul Joffe, head of product development in the games group. “But at the same time, we were doing things that most skills at the time weren’t doing.”
Alexa’s voice interactivity lets players speak their answers and be understood, giving J!6 the authentic feel of the original TV show. But building the skill presented some interesting challenges not encountered in previous Jeopardy! games.
To stay true to the show, Joffe needed a mechanism to deliver new content every day, just like the show. But Jeopardy’s producers didn’t want to use the typical “multiple-choice” format found in many trivia type games. It would have been easier to validate the answers, if the player had to only speak “one,” “two” or “three.” But it wouldn’t have been as authentic to the Jeopardy! experience.
“What we wanted to do is really allow people to play Jeopardy! the way it is designed on the TV show,” says Joffe. “The way they play it when sitting on their couch at home.”
A Jeopardy! player can phrase a question in any number of ways, and it’s still deemed correct. To allow that, the writers first had to come up with 10 to 12 different ways a player might respond to each clue. The skill then had to iterate over those possibilities to decide if the response is acceptable. Joffe says they had to build a system that allowed a generous amount of leeway, by answering:
· Is it the exact right answer?
· Is it close enough?
· Is it a homophone?
· How to handle dialects and accents?
Joffe says they also had to be creative with timers, since Jeopardy! clues require some thought. They didn’t want the skill to timeout or shutdown while the player dug deep into their memory. A gentle re-prompt, they found, could reset the timer, while still making the experience feel natural.
Through it all, “Amazon was always there,” says Joffe. “They gave us a lot of great feedback as we were developing and iterating on it prior to releasing. They even helped out with their own employees during alpha and beta testing phases.”
Keeping it fun, authentic and fresh
For Sony, the most important thing in creating the J!6 skill was to make it fun and authentic to the original Jeopardy! experience and brand. The J!6 skill does that, and not just in letting players interact using their voices. It’s also the small things that make J!6 feel natural. For example, if you just shout out an answer, Alexa—just like Alex Trebek—will ask you to restate it in the form of a question. That’s very authentic to Jeopardy!
Both Camara and Joffe agree that for a brand to succeed, you need to create an authentic, emotional experience, one that becomes a part of the users’—or viewers’—daily habits. Jeopardy! has done that for years. With Alexa, J!6 is doing the same, though in unexpected ways. Camara says they expected the skill’s analytics to show high usage first thing in the morning, while users have coffee and get ready for work.
“Instead, we see the biggest spikes right after the TV show airs in the evenings,” says Camara. “There's definitely a feeling of people having watched the show and wanting to somehow participate and play more.”
He also says a key to growing and retaining your skill’s audience is to keep the content fresh. Of course, J!6 categories and clues change daily, like the show. But Sony also works hard to keep the content relevant to what’s going on in the world. In December, for example, it’s using holiday-themed content and clues to keep the emotional connection with users fresh.
As for future developments using voice technology and Alexa, Camara says it’s at the top of his priority stack. “We’re not done yet. For our brands, we think we've stumbled onto something special. We intend to try to stay ahead of where voice and voice AI and all this great technology is going. We're not leaving it where it is by any stretch.”
To play Jeopardy J!6, just say “Alexa, enable Jeopardy!” then “Alexa, play Jeopardy!”
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