The games industry has spawned some truly innovative ways to play. From officially released machines like the Barcode Battler, which took store barcodes from everyday products and turned them into monsters and powerups, to getting Doom to run on just about anything, from a printer to a piano. This desire to create and play games seems ubiquitous and it’s certainly no surprise that it has made its way onto most modern devices.
Back in 2008, Apple’s App Store took the fringe market of mobile gaming and turned it into a global phenomenon, just as they had done with iTunes and the world of mp3s a mere seven years earlier. The cellular phone, something which none of us could have predicted as being anything more than a device with which to communicate, is now officially the largest gaming market on the planet, overtaking both console and PC. But the curiosity of game devs knows no limits and we’re now seeing a bevy of titles being released for smart speakers.
For those of you out of the loop, smart speakers are devices designed to sit in your home and respond to your voice. Commonly seen being asked questions on everything from sports scores to historical figures to what the weather is going to be like, these devices are heavily aimed at the young professional market. This generation, which grew up on console and portable gaming, is extremely fertile ground for developers who want to take advantage of an almost untapped vein of potential players.
The leader in this race is widely regarded as being the Amazon Echo, closely followed by the Google Home Device. The two are fairly similar, with both of them incorporating voice control and using a search engine (Bing for the Echo and Google for the Home Device). Most of the differences are minor, with the Echo having a larger library of features due to it being released almost two years before the Home Device. Of course, Google’s contender has the power of their mammoth search engine behind it. This includes its impressive translation features and the ability to interact with a Chromecast. It’s also worth noting that Apple have a horse in this race in the form of their HomePod. This device has a vastly superior set of speakers, boasting no less than seven tweeters, an extremely beefy subwoofer and a professional sound chip. As you can imagine, this is geared much more towards music enthusiasts and it is widely accepted that Siri can’t really compete with Alexa or the Google Assistant when it comes to the actual smarts in the smart speaker.
So far so techy, but what about the games? As you can probably imagine, most of them rely on a back and forth of voice input from the user and audio output from the device itself. This greatly limits the scope of what these games can do, but opens them up to deep narrative experiences. Given that these devices are designed for quick bursts of user interaction, this poses an interesting dilemma. How can developers hold a user’s attention with sound alone? Should they even attempt to do such a thing? The two games that came built into the Google Home at launch were a magic 8-ball and a quick-fire quiz game. Both of these can be completed in a matter of seconds or minutes respectively. But that hasn’t stopped developers from attempting more sophisticated projects.
One of the titles which caught my attention straight away was Six Swords. Currently available for the Google Home Device and Amazon Echo, it is a very faithful recreation of first edition Dungeons & Dragons in which you verbally control a party of adventurers in a high fantasy setting, with Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Assistant acting as the Dungeon Master. The narration and descriptions are a little dry and lack the emotion and expression of a human DM, but it is an impressive undertaking and a clear example of the kind of interactive narrative experiences that are possible on these devices. Given a little investment and the use of a talented voice actor, it’s easy to imagine spending hours huddled around the little speaker, questing all over the land and amassing loot.
Another highly rated game on the Amazon Echo is Yes Sire. In Yes Sire, the player takes the role of a medieval duke who is endlessly asked ‘yes or no’ questions about the day-to-day running of his fiefdom. The game keeps track of your answers, informing you of the often hilarious repercussions of your hasty decisions. Again, this kind of interactive storytelling is right at home on the Echo, enabling a talented writer with a bit of basic programming knowledge to craft deep experiences on an extremely low budget.
With 6.5 million smart speakers sold in 2016 and another 24.5 million predicted to make their way into homes in 2017, the potential for money-making is obvious. Furthermore, interactivity between smart speakers and smartphones, tablets, casting devices and computers means that we have barely begun to scratch the surface of what these devices are capable of. Amazon have even released the Echo Show, a kind of Echo/Kindle hybrid which combines the verbal capabilities of a smart speaker with the tactile features of a tablet. It’s not hard to imagine how this could really add some much-needed depth to these games. After all, videogames are traditionally a visual medium and the addition of a map screen and some character sheets could really make a game like Six Swords stand out.
So what does the future hold for smart speakers? Well, given that the devices aren’t really seen as gaming platforms by their creators, the vast majority of changes are aimed at improving general functionality. Google, for example, has added the ability to distinguish between multiple users and will eventually allow users to make phone calls. It’s easy to see how these features could support different forms of multiplayer, both online and on the couch. The Echo, on the other hand, continues to put a heavy focus on control of external devices. Their intention is to create smart homes, where everything from lights to room temperature can be controlled by the user’s voice. As a gamer, I have to wonder if there might be room in the future for gaming peripherals designed specifically for use with the Echo. Perhaps a Jedi-style blindfolded, sword fighting simulator or even interactivity with a VR headset in some kind of online, real time world. From where we’re currently stood, the possibilities for gaming on a smart speaker are all but endless and developers are increasingly looking to take the bull by the proverbial horns and unlock the capabilities of these enigmatic new devices.