In what appears to be a first, Amazon’s Alexa will act as a guide for a board game called When in Rome, according to the startup Sensible Object. Due out in March 2018, When in Rome will be the first of six voice-augmented games Sensible Object plans to release next year. Each game in the series called Voice Originals will cost $24.99, CEO Alex Fleetwood told VentureBeat in a phone interview.
When in Rome serves up trivia questions from locals in 20 cities around the world.
“Alexa is the host of the experience,” Fleetwood said. “She keeps track of the score, she keeps track of the state of the game, she’s also the conduit for all of these interactions. So let’s say you fly to Tokyo. Alexa flies you to Tokyo, you move your physical game piece, and then you have an interaction with a local from Tokyo when you’re in that space.”
To keep trivia questions fresh and take advantage of a cloud-based gaming experience with Alexa, in the future When in Rome will ask users to share their own trivia questions.
News like Sensible Object’s games series or plans to integrate Alexa into the Play Impossible gameball experience will be announced onstage today at Demo Night, a ceremony at the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle to end the very first Alexa Accelerator for companies with voice-powered experiences.
Other participants include Novel Effect whose tech adds sound effects to stories in real time, and Tinitell, maker of a device for phone calls designed to be an alternative to cell phones for young kids.
Nine startups were chosen to participate in the inaugural class of the Alexa Accelerator, a 13-week program coordinated by Techstars and funded by Amazon’s $100 million Alexa Fund. First introduced in 2015, other Alexa Fund-sponsored initiatives include the Alexa Prize competition to create bots that can have a conversation for more than 20 minutes, and the Alexa Fund, and the Alexa Fund Fellowship to advance voice computing in education and research.
Alexa can already host a dozen games like Deal or No Deal if you say “Alexa, I want to play a game,” but Amazon has had a focus on bringing more third-party games to Alexa. As trivia like Jeopardy! become some of the most popular voice apps in the Alexa Skills Store, games from third-party developers are becoming a serious part of Amazon’s strategy in the AI assistant chat wars.
In March an unnamed source told The Information that CEO Jeff Bezos wants makers of the AI assistant to focus more on making games, and earlier this year, Amazon began to pay developers for the engagement their skills are able to generate; the more engaging, the more you get paid. That program was expanded to other categories in August.
“We’re a games company and we’re very excited about the way this network of [voice-first] devices creates a platform on which we can tap the chief, fundamental ways humans like to play. What we’ve been doing since the dawn of time is playing together socially and we’ve done that with analog objects like boards and cards and dice, and digital devices have given us this new immersive place to play together,” Fleetwood said.
Late last month, as part of the public debut of the second generation Amazon Echo and other devices, Amazon also rolled out the Alexa Button as well as the Gadgets SDK and API to encourage third-parties to make developers to make hardware like buttons for gaming experiences with Alexa.
The introduction of devices like Buttons into games with Alexa gives game makers the chance to serve up new experiences like buzzer beater rounds.
“The button is going to give you that one team wins, one team comes second, and you can calculate that down to the last millisecond so that’s really helpful and it shows that Alexa is about more than voice,” Fleetwood said.
Games also appear to be key to AI assistants’ appeal to younger audiences.
In August, Alexa skills for kids from brands like Sesame Street and SpongeBob SquarePants, became available for the first time.
Competitor Google Assistant can already act as a game show host or crystal ball reader if you ask, but it will soon be able to beatbox, read nursery rhymes, play musical chairs, and serve up about 50 experiences from brands like Disney.