SAN FRANCISCO — If you’ve used Amazon’s voice assistant before, you know that there are tons of useful Alexa skills for everyday tasks and cashing in on obscure cultural references. But when it comes to gaming, Alexa hasn’t quite hit its stride yet.
At GDC 2019, I spoke with Paul Cutsinger, head of voice design education, who outlined three ways that Alexa could benefit gamers.
Interestingly, Cutsinger’s suggestions are not far-flung theoretical ideas; every single one is available right now, although sometimes in a limited form.
1. Alexa and a single player
One of the simplest gaming experiences on Alexa is what Cutsinger calls “you and Alexa playing together.” In theory, this means a one-player game with Alexa as the mediator, although in practice, Cutsinger said that multiple people like to join the fun.
The easiest example was Alexa’s Jeopardy! skill. If you’re familiar with the popular quiz show on TV, then you know how it works on Alexa. Your Amazon device delivers clues, complete with Alex Trebek’s voice and real music and sound effects from the show. Then, you answer in the form of a question, and Alexa will let you know if you’re correct. The game even syncs up with clues from the most recent episode of the show, which can make Jeopardy! on Alexa feel more immersive the same game on, say, Xbox.
Trivia games are the most common example of single-player Alexa experiences, but Cutsinger also highlighted narrative “choose-your-own-adventure” style games. These can be low-investment projects to help startup studios or narrative designers without much programming experience get off the ground. His personal favorite was a game called Yes Sire, which casts you as the monarch of a realm, making decisions to keep its military and economy balanced.
2. Companion apps for traditional games
Last year at GDC, I covered how Alexa can streamline common tasks in Destiny 2. That functionality is still alive and well, letting players view their objectives, manage their inventories and find co-op partners on the fly, all with a few simple voice commands. Call of Duty, The Division, The Sims and a handful of other popular series offer Alexa tie-ins, and it’s not hard to imagine how other games could benefit from intuitive voice commands.
While companion apps may be the most appealing Alexa skill for traditional gamers, Cutsinger did not seem to think that this would be Alexa’s big break into mainstream gaming. The companion apps are useful and instantly comprehensible, but they’re purely for convenience rather than introducing brand-new experiences.
3. Integration with real-world games
By far, Alexa’s most interesting gaming functionality lies in its ability to combine real-world and digital components. My coworker Monica Chin reviewed the thoroughly decent Alexa board game When In Rome, which combines a physical game setup with Alexa giving instructions and dispensing trivia.
On the GDC show floor, Amazon showed off the next big Alexa board game, called St. Noire. This dark, stylish murder mystery requires players to navigate a physical board while conferring with Alexa for clues and deductions. Since Alexa has access to multiple clues, scenarios and endings, you can replay St. Noire dozens of times without solving the same mystery.
Cutsinger also pointed out how the Amazon Echo Buttons provide a dead-simple physical input for games that might be daunting with complex controllers. Trivia and party games are the most obvious functionality, but he described developers using them as touch sensors and running around convention floors, having impromptu “swordfights.”
One potentially exciting application for Alexa would be in tabletop role-playing games, although Cutsinger admitted that no one has quite figured out how to integrate Alexa seamlessly yet.
“Is Alexa a Dungeon Master?” Cutsinger asked. “A player character? A bad guy? Maybe a bard.” He suggested that if someone wanted to design an Alexa skill that let the assistant manage the party’s backstory and quest log, possibly in song, that could be a boon for weekly RPG groups.
Three modes of interaction
Just as Alexa has three potential gameplay applications, it also has three ways to interact with users. If developers master these three methods and figure out a way to implement them in-game, it could help create better gaming skills for Alexa.
The first is “User Initiative,” which is the most common way people interact with Alexa. If you ask Alexa to tell you the time, or set up Bluetooth pairing, or play a piece of music, you’re telling it what to do. It’s the simplest to activate, and the simplest to program.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s “System Initiative,” which is when Alexa takes control of the activity and directs users how to respond. This is the case with games like When In Rome and St. Noire. If users don’t follow Alexa’s instructions, it won’t understand how to respond appropriately.
The most complicated of the three is “Mixed Initiative,” which means that sometimes users will direct Alexa, and sometimes Alexa will direct users. The good news is that this is the most promising format for novel Alexa integrations in gaming; the bad news is that, for obvious reasons, it’s extremely hard to program.
The next big thing
Even supposing that Mixed Initiative skills will give Alexa an opportunity to present a unique gaming experience, Cutsinger is not exactly sure what that experience will look like. “Alexa needs a [Fruit Ninja] or an Angry Birds, a breakout app like that,” he said, citing the titles that took mobile gaming from a curiosity into a sensation.
“Now is a great time to get started,” he added. “There are 80,000 Alexa skills … not that many.” The number may sound daunting, but bear in mind that both the iOS and Android app stores have more than 2 million apps apiece.
Will Alexa’s first big hit be a narrative title from an up-and-coming screenwriter? An Echo Button-based party game? An interactive board game? Personally, I believe it will be something entirely novel — something that only the Alexa platform can deliver. And whoever figures out what it is first could become a very influential person in the field of voice assistants.
Be sure to check out our GDC 2019 hub page for all of the latest gaming news and hands-on impressions straight out of San Francisco.
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Marshall Honorof is a senior editor for Tom's Guide, overseeing the site's coverage of gaming hardware and software. He comes from a science writing background, having studied paleomammalogy, biological anthropology, and the history of science and technology. After hours, you can find him practicing taekwondo or doing deep dives on classic sci-fi.