The Next Surprise Billion Dollar Game Will Be On Alexa

I’m predicting by 2020 there will be a billion dollar game where the primary way to play is with your voice.

Right now Amazon Alexa and Google Home are simple utilities. The games on each of them are just toys – experiments to round out playing music and turning on smart lightbulbs. But each month signs are growing stronger that voice is becoming the next major growth platform. And as technology goes, games follow.

Platform adoption

There are two signs that voice is the next major games market. The first is platform adoption. Amazon is very secretive about revealing numbers for each of its products. So is Google. But the estimates are enormous.

The rate of adoption and future estimates for smart speaker devices are very similar to the growth of smart phones after Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007. By 2009, 62 million Americans owned smartphones, reaching a majority of Americans in 2014 – just 8 years after the iPhone’s introduction.

A Juniper report predicts that a majority of US households will have a voice activated smart speaker in their home by 2022 – the 7th year since Amazon Echo’s introduction in 2015. Forrester Research estimates there were 15 million households with smart speakers in 2017 and predicts 26 million by the end of 2018. Echo was the top selling product on Amazon for both the 2016 and 2017 holiday seasons.

The war for the smart home is raging, a fight both tech giants believe will deliver lucrative control of all sorts of devices over the next decade. This war is driving each of them to spend enormously to push their platforms: spending on manufacturing, advertising, subsidizing costs, and building a robust and useful platform that makes theirs the one to have. All of this lays the groundwork for a massive untapped install base for game developers to reach.

Revenue opportunity

The second sign is revenue opportunity. Serious game developers will only invest serious effort into a platform if there is a way to make substantial revenue. It took Apple 3 years to introduce in-app purchases, and another 3 years after that before mobile had their first pair of billion-dollar hits: Clash of Clans and Puzzle & Dragons.

Until recently the only way to make any money as an Alexa developer was from Amazon directly. Because of Amazon’s interest in having the best platform, they make cash payments to developers who make the most popular skills. Two years ago the market for these Amazon cash outs was less than $500,000. In 2018 it is expected to hit $50 million.

But Amazon-funded incentives will only go so far. The real floodgates opened in November 2017 when Amazon announced Voice First Purchases, allowing developers to charge money for premium content within Alexa skills. “Would you like to play the next chapter for $0.99?”

US Adoption of Smart Speaker Devices

Every Echo already has the user’s purchase credentials, making it easy to buy. Adding IAP to voice is the equivalent of when Apple introduced in-app purchases in the app store in 2009, rocketing us from the humble beginnings of Doodle Jump to the $46 billion mobile games market we have today.

If voice devices follow the same timeline, then we can make a few predictions:

  • 2018 will be the year that small indie game developers start to make serious money from Alexa
  • 2019 will see the rise of studios and a handful of big players entering the market
  • 2020 will see our first candidates for games that could hit $1 billion

What does a hit voice game look like?

So if the install base and the revenue opportunity is there, what type of game will this billion dollar surprise be? This is where we move further into speculation. I don’t know, but I’m willing to make a few guesses of how we’ll get there.

Emerging game platforms typically start as simple gimmicks, then move to simple games, and then only later do they become sophisticated businesses. With voice we are still in the early incubator days. The games on voice platforms now are rudimentary – classic text-based games remade for voice control:

  • Magic Door is an adventure game where players make choices to explore haunted forests, houses, and more. Choose-your-own-adventure games are popular
  • Jeopardy! gives players five trivia questions each day from the classic American game show. Similar trivia type games are numerous
  • Yes Sire is a classic governor game where players make choices to balance the desires of different constituents and stay on the throne
  • Party Foul is a party game using the Echo Buttons, where players try to guess how well they know each other

These are all fun little toys to play with. But none of them are made better by voice. One could argue they are slightly worse than their text-based ancestors, since they move slower than you could by reading.

For voice games to reach the next level, it must be the kind of game that truly only works with voice. Mobile phones work as a platform because they allow you to play on the go, in short spurts, at any time. So the hit games (in the west at least) were designed to take advantage of that. Candy Crush levels can be cleared in under a minute. Episode’s chapters can be finished in a few minutes. Clash Royale matches are over in 4 minutes tops. These hits were incubated in the mobile game environment and fit the platform’s advantages.

What are the equivalent unique attributes for voice games? The market has yet to figure it out, and finding it will require a lot of experimentation. Maybe it’s the fact that they can be played while you’re occupied doing something else with your hands. Maybe it’s the ability to play sounds and music over home speakers. Maybe it’s interfacing with smart home devices. Maybe it’s using voice to talk to artificial intelligence and machine learning systems. Or more likely it’s something I haven’t thought of. We don’t know.

The increased opportunity for revenue will drive more and more experimentation needed to figure the winning model out. This will be small indie game developers first throwing all kinds of weird ideas at voice, the kinds of ideas that aren’t really commercially viable, but they are fun. Eventually one of them is going to tap into something special and we’ll have on our hands the first hit Alexa game that makes a nice chunk of change for its developer.

From there it’s only a matter of time before veteran industry game makers take notice and enter the fray. By adding depth both in terms of gameplay and monetization the market will grow, sowing the seeds for a true breakout hit.

It’s worth mentioning that this may evolve across a range of voice devices. As of today Amazon has the original Echo, the Dot, the Show, the Spot, and Echo Buttons. Google has their original Home and the Home Mini, but also their entire Android mobile phone base with Google Assistant. Amazon being ahead in the smart home race may prove to be critical. Then again, Google being able to tie in Home and Assistant with mobile phones may be as well. We’ll have to see.

But…these games won’t work!

There are a lot of objections to voice become a major games platform. Here are some that I hear frequently:

  • “Voice is lower fidelity than a screen – you’ll never have as much control.”
  • “No one wants to talk when they’re in public or on the bus. People play games silently.”
  • “There’s nothing you can do with your voice that couldn’t be done better with a screen.”

These may all be valid. But to me these all sound like evaluating a new paradigm of games by the rules of our current environment. New platforms create totally new ways of thinking, of playing, and of entertaining. We don’t yet understand the possibility space of voice very well at all.

These objections sound similar to others said in the past that were eventually proven wrong:

  • “No one would pay money for a flash game on Facebook.” (FarmVille)
  • “Mobile screens and touch controls are too small to do any intense strategy.” (Clash of Clans, Clash Royale)
  • “No one would get up on their couch and walk outside to play a game. People like to play sitting down on their phones.” (Pokemon GO)

It will take time to understand how voice games are and are not like today’s current games. But there is enough new stuff to experiment with that I think it’s short sighted to say it can’t work.

What could go wrong?

A voice games market isn’t inevitable. Games always ride on top of technology and are, to some extent, subject to the whims of the companies that own that technology. Amazon and Google’s main strategy is to control the smart home. My prediction of a robust voice games market may end up being wrong if Amazon or Google decide that big budget games are irrelevant to their goal. This wouldn’t be unlike how Facebook essentially strangled their own games platform because it began to conflict with the platform strategy as a whole.

For the voice games market to mature, Google and Amazon need to discover that better  games on their platform drives demand for the platform itself. The incentives of the main strategy need to line up with better games. They may not. Apple and Google built the App Store and Google Play into what they are today because consumers will buy the devices with the best software. If one of them had the top games and the other did not, it would be a huge disadvantage.

If the giants do find that better games drive hardware adoption, then you can expect to see both companies doubling down on the genre. If they open up their huge install base generously to developers and make discoverability and conversion easy, then the market will start to grow quickly. But if they keep their users locked down and inaccessible, then the platform will fail to grow hit games.

A Loquacious Future 

It’s easy to forget that for most of human history voice was the natural way of interacting with the world. Machines and buttons and screens have been the norm only for the past half century. As machines get smarter and start listening more, new ways of interacting will become more natural. Game makers have always prided themselves on making the world into a playground, even as it changes. Voice will be no different.

How Pokemon GO Creates Systemic Crowds

The first weekend Pokemon Go was released, I headed downtown to play and find some hot spots. I was amazed to meet over 40 people (pictured) at the same location, all playing Pokemon Go. None of the people in this photo know one another, but we were all there because of the lures attracting lots of pokemon.

If you’ve played the game you know that finding these crowds are smile-inducing surprises. It’s fun to suddenly be among a crowd of strangers who are all doing the same activity you are doing. You inevitably end up talking, swapping tips, and making friends. When the lures are up everyone disperses. It is a truly unusual and unique gaming experience.

Whenever there is technological advancement, new gameplay systems appear that create precedents for future games. When The Legend Of Zelda shipped as the first Nintendo cartridge with a battery pack, it created new standards around the idea of Save Files. When Zynga’s FarmVille took off in 2009, social networks were flooded with requests for hammers and nails to build their items, a design now standardized across hundreds of games.

Pokemon Go is no different. As the most successful GPS-enabled game ever made, new system designs are driving new types of behavior that no other game has been capable of.

One of the most interesting of these systems is the game’s ability to create systemic crowds. These come from a game design that encourages two or more people appearing at a physical location at the same time.

So how do these systemic crowds work? What is driving this behavior? And how could the same system be applied to other games in the future?

Trump: Political Shapeshifter (Game Jam Game)

This past weekend was Ludum Dare, an indie game competition where you make a game around a certain theme in 48 hours. The theme was “Shapeshift”, and many of the entries were really impressive. My personal favorites by other developers were Down the Well and  Tito’s Revenge.

I made an entry around Donald Trump, the current frontrunner for the U.S. Republican candidacy. It’s a parody game where you attempt to mimic the “shapeshifting” Trump has been doing in his persona and personality. I’m personally not a supporter of Donald Trump, but this story has been interesting to me.

If you’re interested, you can play the made-in-48-hours version here, or the updated, slightly more polished version here.

Announcing Buried: An Interactive Story

AppStore-3-640-1135-4in-TitleHi everyone! We’re proud to announce Buried today, an interactive dark fiction. The game will launch on the App Store and Google Play in January 2016. Follow along at

Buried is a playable, interactive story told through gorgeous photos, a haunting soundscape and text. Players take on the role of Roger Hastings, a logger working in the forests of Kentucky with his crew. When he awakens to find his friends missing and no memory of what’s happened, he begins searching, uncovering something that should have stayed hidden.

Buried features branching and alternate storylines based on choices the player makes: how to approach danger, who to trust, and who lives or dies.

We’ve been working with Barry Napier, Buried’s main writer, has had his work appear in more than 40 online and print publications. He is the creator of several popular fiction series including The Bleeding Room, the Everything Theory series, The Hollows and The Masks of Our Fathers.

More info coming soon!

Defining Sky Garden’s Art Style


How do you discover a game’s art style?

For the Flash prototype of Sky Garden I did all the art myself. I did an OK job I’d say, but far from what anyone would expect from a commercial product. So one of the first orders of business was to figure out what our new art style would be. This involves a lot of things all coming together including color palette, shapes we use, rules for how things feel. Is the game “rigid” or “soft”? “Friendly” or “confident”? These were all things that needed to get figured out.

I decided the best way to tackle all of these questions at once was to do a screenshot – just a single piece of concept art that has lots of different elements together, that looks like a full playable screenshot from the game, that results in the final art style. After that’s done then the individual assets can be cut up and put into a programmed first version.

Here was the screenshot from the original flash game I picked. I picked this one specifically because it has so many different elements for us to figure out: trees, seeds, lava, water, ice, background, everything. I didn’t want us to miss something (lava blocks for example) and then find it’s difficult to fit it in later because the style doesn’t match.


From there I started reaching out to different artists and having them work on concepts based on the screenshot. I’ll share a lot of the favorites that didn’t make it in future posts. For this post I’ll walk through some of the decisions that got us to our final art style.

Here’s one of the early concepts from the talented Agung Wulandana that grabbed my attention:


Agung’s swirls on the trees are what I think made me fall in love with this. It’s fun, it’s very creative looking, and it’s playful without being too kiddy. Since the game is meant to appeal to puzzle lovers (mostly adults) then these were important.

The sunset was also really appealing, but after discussing it with my wife (she is a fantastic “second opinion”) then we decided it actually was too jarring and pulled attention away from the game board.

So that let us to this next version:


We switched to night time because we thought that it would help calm the scene down (it is meant to be a soothing game) and also bring focus more to the game board. This was a success. The curved earth, however, looked too childish and toy like to me. I wanted the game to look inviting, but not like it was for kids.

We also tried doing a bit more separate space between the blocks, which was a good experiment but a mistake I think. We also went heavy on the swirls – I guess I got too enamored with them! I like to think that the best artists understand subtlety, while amateurs are always “in your face”. So we decided to scale back on the swirls in the next version.

Another thing that we wanted to fix was the neon green grass. This worked better in the hyper-saturated original image, but it made it, again, look too kiddy and cartoony.

Finally I realized something else: we needed to pitch the camera up. The view on this screenshot would make the blocks hard to tap, since on a 2D screen they wouldn’t have much surface area. In order to fix this, we decided we needed to tilt the blocks up like this:



That let us to version #3:


This was pretty close, it was all starting to come together. Here we made some final tweaks that really brought it home.

First, we had the idea of adding animals – a penguin and a bird. These are so fun in the final piece of concept art that I think we’ll have to add them as a gameplay feature.

Additionally we played around with changing the other blocks. Because tapping an ice block will turn it into a grass block, it made sense to have dirt underneath instead of a solid block of ice. Also we came up with the idea of doing sand at the bottom of the water blocks, like you were looking at an aquarium. This really gives it a fresh feel, different from Minecraft or other block type games.

Which brings us to our final piece:


And now we have our art style!


If you liked this post, then you can see more pieces of Sky Garden concept art by joining our Newsletter!

You’ll also get a Desktop Version of the Sky Garden Prototype and a Video Walkthrough of the game.

Sign up for our Newsletter below to see the art and get the game!

How MegaMan Resembles Real Life


Though it’s been out for a while, I only recently downloaded Capcom’s Mega Man 9, an anomaly among other recent game releases. It is the latest offering in the classic Mega Man series, whose heyday was in the late 80s and early 90s.

But while other sequels of cherished franchises do everything in their power to take advantage of the newest technology available, going places that the old games weren’t capable of going to, Mega Man 9 does the opposite.

Instead of targeting a new generation of players, Capcom sought now adult players of the old games by painstakingly emulating every graphical restriction, sound channel limit, and level design choice as it would have occurred on the original Nintendo Entertainment System, and the result is an entirely new game that appears as though it belongs in the 1980s.

The magic of the title, therefore, is not what is new and fresh, but rather a walk down memory lane for those of us who struggled alongside Mega Man during a more innocent time in our lives.

Fans of the Mega Man series, including myself, have felt bright smiles appear on our faces as the game transports us back to our childhood. Capcom did everything it could to make sure that the game was a faithful sequel, so that if you could go back in time and release it amidst the other Mega Man games, no one would notice anything strange.

But there is something fascinating about a game company releasing a title made for a different time; it provides a snapshot of how games as a form of entertainment have changed through the last 20 years.

Obviously, changes in graphics and sound technology have come about, and these are readily identifiable. Latent changes and trends in our industry, however, lie revealed in the design choices of the game.

Mega Man 9 is a kind of time capsule, a blast from the past, and in playing it, you can’t help but feel that even beyond the large pixels, bleeps, and bloops, the game layout and design itself result in a gameplay experience that is almost extinct.

Unreasonably Difficult And The Risk Of Time

When picking up Mega Man 9, most players notice something almost immediately — the game is unreasonably difficult.

The feeling that many players and reviewers have expressed, that the game is too hard, comes from the lens of our current industry. As interactive entertainment grew and expanded, our industry has become a place where games are targeted at the mass market, tuned for a perfect challenge ramp, and sculpted to provide the most entertaining experience possible.

Mega Man 9 refrains from this philosophy; the game is notoriously unforgiving. Each stage consists of only two save points, a mid point and right before the boss. Thus, if you happen to die when you are 49 percent of the way through the stage, which is a 10 minute experience at minimum, then you are yanked all the way back to the beginning of the level.

This is unheard of among games nowadays. No developer with sales in mind would punish Mega Man so ruthlessly, as players would simply decide the game wasn’t worth their time, turn off the system, and go on with their lives.

To entice the players of today — who are short on time and have even shorter attention spans — positive feedback and progress must be much more frequently communicated than once every few hours.

Recently, after successfully jumping and shooting my way through one of the stages over the course of a full 60 minutes, I arrived at the boss, the final enemy. On my way to his room, I managed to lose all of my extra lives, and so as I fought him, I knew that it was all on the line.

For about 30 seconds or so, the fight raged on; I was doing my best to recognize his pattern and avoid his attacks while sneaking in a few shots of my own. It seemed like a normal gaming experience until I noticed something odd — my heart was pounding almost right out of my chest. My hands were shaking, my palms were sweaty, and I had even stifled my breath.

Why was this happening? Why was I, an adult far removed from my childhood world, so nervous and invested in this game? The reason was that if I was unsuccessful in the battle, if this robot master defeated Mega Man, then I was going to have to replay the entire stage all over again.

An entire hour of play, try after try after try, would be flushed down the drain. Unless I came away with a victory, I might as well have not played the game at all, it seemed. But if I did win, then I was victorious! All of my work would be rewarded, and I would not have to replay the stage. It would be done, completed, defeated by Mega Man.

With such high stakes, the battle was as epic as ever. Even though I was only watching tiny pixels dance around on my television, I was as emotional as when my high school tennis team was playing in the district finals.

Within another 30 seconds, I fired a final shot, and the boss was defeated. I let out a yell as a wave of triumph washed over me, and I slumped back into my futon, a silly grin plastered on my face.

What struck me was that this was a collection of sensations that I hadn’t felt since I was a child, a realization which made me think how much games have changed. By being bold enough to make a game of such intensity, the developers of Mega Man 9 tapped into an emotional reservoir that allowed for such memorable gameplay.

Since a loss in the game held the real life consequence of requiring me to play through the stage again, our goals became one. Mega Man’s potential death carried with it not just a fictional weight, but a real cost to my personal life, and thus a victory carried with it a true emotional reward. It was a temporary marriage of the world of Mega Man and reality.

However, this level of challenge comes with a price. Because the learning curve is so steep, those who aren’t willing to risk the time, perhaps the many who don’t have a childhood attachment to Mega Man, miss out on the experience.

By choosing to make the game so difficult, the developers rewarded a few but alienated many. This is the reason that Mega Man 9 stands in such stark contrast to the games of today.

Emotional investment or not, what matters to a for-profit game company is the number of SKUs a title has sold, and most players simply will not survive without more frequent sips of positive feedback and some signs marked “well done”.

A Lesson In Persistence

Mega Man 9’s difficulty and subsequent capability for emotional investment brings with it another broader life lesson. At the time of this article’s writing, I’ve beaten about six of the eight robot masters, over the course of a month.

In half-hour increments, I suspect I’ve invested about six or seven hours into the game. But today, when I went to go load my game, I glanced at the “playtime elapsed” statistic, and was puzzled. Instead of six or seven hours, the clock read only 55 minutes, just under an hour.

At first, I was perplexed by this, since I had surely played the game much more than that. But I quickly understood what was going on. This playtime statistic didn’t represent all of the times I’d played the game, it only represented the time accumulated after I saved the game. And unless I had completed a stage, there was no reason to save the game.

All of those hours I had spent playing a stage three quarters of the way through before quitting were not recorded. As far as the game was concerned, I had made no progress.

Since the game is incredibly hard, you may play the game for hours before you receive the positive feedback of completing a stage. So what’s happening during all of those hours?

If the game thought it only took me an hour to run through six stages, what was going on during the other five hours I had spent getting 90 percent of the way through each stage before colliding with a spike? Were they simply a waste of time? If I played through to a robot master and was defeated, was my struggle for naught?

The answer to this question depends on the outlook of the player and how they choose to assess the “Game Over” screen. Stanford Professor Carol Dweck researched the mindsets of children and adults alike for decades, and her studies resulted in a dichotomy of two distinct worldviews.

The first and more common is the Fixed Mentality, the belief that one’s skills and lot in life are constant and unchanging. People who subscribe to this mentality are more likely to give up in the face of adversity (or in the case of Mega Man, the inability to complete a stage). They see their efforts that end in Mega Man’s death as fruitless, and become frustrated by the game.

The second mindset is Growth Mentality, which is when a person believes that their skills are constantly improving as a result of their actions. When they see a challenge, they persist, because they believe that through effort, they will eventually master it. When they are presented with the “Game Over” screen, they don’t see a waste of time, instead they reflect on the learning experience that their previous playthrough has given them.

“Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want,” goes the old adage. In Mega Man 9, the player obviously wants to clear the stage. However, if the player goes through the stage and then dies right before completing it, the Growth Mindset dictates that they have not truly wasted their time. They learned a great deal on their journey, and this knowledge will serve them better next time.

They learned that it takes three shots to defeat the springy robots. They learned that there are spikes coming up at the next screen, and they better move left if they want to survive. They learned that it’s best to run full speed through the deluge of bullets instead of trying to tiptoe.

All of this information, gained through painful trial and error, is valuable. While some players may view death as a failure, others will watch Mega Man explode into a million bits and say, “Well, that’s okay. I know not to do that next time.”

Thus, almost every time the player dies, they are actually making progress. Their reflexes are getting faster, they’re learning and memorizing the stage, and they’re finding the best route through it.

Internal vs. External Feedback

The difference between Mega Man 9 and other games today is the pacing of the positive feedback that the game imparts on the player, and this pacing decision affects where the feedback originates from. If you listen to the death sound effect that plays every time Mega Man runs out of health, the game is communicating that the player failed.

And indeed, according to the bits and bytes stored on the hard drive, the player made no progress. Other present day games would not dare be so ruthless. They would encourage the player, either by stamping that they played the game that day at all (as in Brain Age), charting their progress against themselves instead of the game (Wii Sports), or allowing them to save more often, breaking their triumphs into smaller increments (the Half Life series).

But interestingly, the difficulty of Mega Man 9 demands that the player keep track of their progress themselves.

In order for a player to be successful at any challenge that gives little positive feedback, one of two items is required. The first is readily available to many children but not many adults — the luxury of time.

When players enjoyed the old Mega Man games, the fact that they were so difficult was not a problem, because we could wake up, play the game until school, come home from school, and play until bedtime. Day in and day out, we knew the game would be beaten eventually.

However, when an abundance of time is not available, then another attribute must be present for a person to be successful and enjoy the journey — player driven feedback, which is born out of a player’s Growth Mindset.

People of all ages become frustrated when they sense they are making no progress. But if they believe that progress is being made internally, that they are learning from their failures, then they encourage themselves to continue pressing on.

After playing the game, I came to develop this outlook towards it, and it made the game very enjoyable to me, even though I am not one who enjoys difficult games in my adult life. I would often go over to other friends’ homes and notice that they also downloaded Mega Man 9, which I would pick up and play.

It didn’t matter that my save file wasn’t on their console, because the experience I was gaining wasn’t stored on their hard disk, it was stored within me. As I learned to navigate Galaxy Man’s stage on my friend’s Xbox, I didn’t view it as a loss that I couldn’t save my progress, because the next time I picked up the game on my Wii, that experience would show through, as I would go even further than before.

When I played through Splash Woman’s stage before going to sleep, only to die right at the end and be presented with a “Game Over” screen, I wasn’t discouraged, because I knew that the next time I played her stage I would likely win. By believing that I was making progress within myself, despite the absence of positive feedback from the game, my eventual victory was assured.

The Difficulty Curve Of Life

The difficulty curves in real life are more similar to Mega Man 9 than today’s games, and to be successful, they also require internal positive feedback. In reality, achievement is not recognized until a massive performance has been completed.

Students don’t receive points for memorizing a single vocabulary word; they only receive a grade that assesses their familiarity with a collection of 100 words. Tennis players don’t hear a pleasant “Nice shot!” after they hit a good forehand at tennis practice, they only are congratulated after winning an entire match. Employees don’t receive a smiley face sticker every time they contribute to their project; they only receive a single pat on the back from their yearly performance evaluations.

In the same way, players of Mega Man 9 aren’t rewarded along the way, but only after completing an entire stage, the result of hours of struggle. To reach that accomplishment, the positive feedback must be generated by the player, not the environment.

Of course, being successful in Mega Man 9 does not necessarily translate to success in life. But the lessons from the game design of years past sing the same tune. The lack of well tuned positive feedback in a game environment evokes a different play experience with different requirements for success.

Learning to create positive feedback and encouragement from yourself, and deciding to view every failure as a learning opportunity applies to both Dr. Wily’s fortress as well as one’s real life career.

It may take me until New Years, but I’m coming for you, Wily!