Building games for voice platforms is somewhat harder than it seems. Concepts that seem simple and obvious, such as “voice-friendly,” have been known to flame out quickly when let loose in the real world.
It was something Max Child and James Wilsterman, former Harvard roommates and longtime friends, experienced firsthand when they tried to build a Spelling Bee game for Amazon‘s Alexa, which flopped spectacularly due to a technical limitation for which they didn’t full account: Alexa’s difficulty in identifying single letters. Alexa often confused “B,” “C,” “D” and “E,” and that made competitive spelling with her something of a bust.
A first-time failure would dissuade many potential programmers but, as former iOS programmers, the two friends had developed something of an “if at first you don’t succeed, try and try again” attitude that served them well when they transitioned into the wider world of programming for Alexa voice.
“When we were running the iOS business, we were always sort of hacking around on games and some stuff on the side for fun,” Child noted in an interview.
What Child and Wilsterman did become increasingly certain of, as they worked “hacking around on various gaming interfaces,” was that voice-connected ecosystems were the next big opportunity for developers who wanted to get creative. Around a year and a half ago, their voice-controlled games company Volley shifted its focus from iOS apps to voice applications full stop.
The Spelling Bee game failed, but its name-that-tune trivia game “Song Quiz” was a hit. And the hits just kept on coming with Volley rolling out about a dozen or so titles, all of which are designed around a different type of gaming experience. “Yes Sire,” for example, is a choose-your-own-adventure style storytelling game that is also a chart-topper. In just under a year, Volley has built an audience of about half a million active monthly users across its range of voice-gaming options — and that active base has, thus far in the firm’s short life, been growing by 50 to 70 percent per month.
The reasoning behind all that big growth? According to Child, they are offering up an experience via Voice that brings customers closer to people in real life.
“I think a live multiplayer experience with your family or people you’re good friends with, where you can have a fun time together in a room, is fairly unusual. I mean, I don’t know about you, but I don’t crowd around my iPhone and play games with my friends. And even with consoles, there are significant barriers in understanding how to play,” Child told TechCrunch.
Child added, “I think that Voice enables the live social experience in a way that anyone from five years old to 85 years old can pick up immediately. I think that’s really special. And I think we’re just at the beginning. I’m not going to say we’ve got it all figured out, but I think that’s powerful and unique to these platforms.”
Popularity is well and good, of course. But Volley is running a business — and one that is making money, according to its founders, largely thanks to Amazon’s developer rewards program, which doles out cash payments to top-performing skills. Though the firm has released no specific figures, it confirms that its monthly earnings for now are in the “high-five figure range.”
The startup hopes to expand its cash flow options by adding its own built-in monetization features, like subscriptions and in-app purchases for features that can extend or enhance game play. Yes, micro-transactions in games can work anywhere.
The firm has also started to bring in outside funding — Volley raised a $1 million in seed funding prior to joining Y Combinator’s Winter 2018 class of startups. The team is currently six people — and located in San Francisco — though Child confirms that they are exploring options for expansion in the coming year.