The VoiceFirst Roundtable - Episode 7
Host: Bradley Metrock (CEO, Score Publishing)
Guests: Jonathon Myers (CEO) and
Dave Grossman (Chief Creative Officer) of Earplay
Duration: 34 minutes, 45 seconds
Bradley Metrock: [00:00:09] Hi. And welcome back to the VoiceFirst Roundtable for August 29th, 2017. My name is Bradley Metrock, I'm CEO of a company called Score Publishing based in Nashville Tennessee. And our sponsor for today's podcast is VoiceXP, blazing the trail in voice technology. VoiceXP is taking the lead in developing Alexa Skills for some of the best brands in the world. With VoiceXP. All you have to do is say it to revolutionize your marketing strategy. Check out what these folks are doing at VoiceXP.com. So we're thrilled to be joined today by the folks at Earplay. We've got Jon Myers with us. Jon, say hello.
Jon Myers: [00:00:55] Hi. I'm happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
Bradley Metrock: [00:00:57] Yeah, thank you very much. And we've got Dave Grossman as well hailing from Seattle, where he will be speaking on a panel in just a bit. Thank you very much for making the time for us as well.
Dave Grossman: [00:01:07] Happy to be here. Hi.
Bradley Metrock: [00:01:08] What y'all are doing is really, really interesting and I want to get into it. Earplay is making games and interactive experiences for voice platforms, such as Alexa, and I'll let you guys talk about that. But first, we have both of you, and Jon, I'll start with you. Just share a little bit about your background and how you got to the point of being involved with Earplay.
Jon Myers: [00:01:37] Gotcha. Yeah, yeah. So originally I you know spent kind of my 20s doing theater. I got a graduate degree in communication and I was studying acting. I got into play-writing almost by accident because I had to take a course on writing as a result of being in an acting program. And I found out that I was really good at it and had an ear for dialogue. And I kept taking that forward. I got an MFA at BU, and then I needed to find a way to make a living after receiving an MFA. And after a lot of bouncing around and getting some words from my writing, it was clear that I could make a living in the games industry. And I always played games when I was younger. I actually played some games that Dave made, and to me, it was about a career path, rather than sort of living out some dream that I had in the past. And so I was very practical and very sort of freelance about it. And I gained some success in that. In adapting IPs in particular, I worked for a company called Zynga Boston. We did Indiana Jones Adventure World, and then I worked for Disruptor Beam and did Game of Thrones Ascent, another social game based on the Game of Thrones universe, and I found that I had a knack for not only sort of writing dialogue, but also looking at interactive conversational systems as a way of providing entertaining story, taking choose-your-own-adventure-style interactions and bringing them forward into today's sort of game systems, in particular in Game of Thrones. That worked well.
Jon Myers: And coming out of all those experiences, I had watched the managers, the CEOs of those companies, again Zynga Boston being Bill Hyatt, and then John Reed off in Disruptor Beam, and I also worked with actually Al Schwartz of Owlchemy Labs. They were the ones that were recently acquired by Google, one of the first VR startups to have a successful exit. And I just was observing them and thought, "Oh, I could form my own studio." And at the time, there was, well, there still is sort of an indie games movement, and it started out that way, and became very quickly a much more lucrative option because I was taking conversational systems, and Dave came along very shortly afterwards and turning them into sort of an interactive audio experience, which was very different than anything that was like screen based, or video based, and it sort of took off from there. We did a Kickstarter, and I can get into the Earplay stuff, but that's sort of how it converged. It started out playwrighting, moved into games, and then just sort of had the luck of getting involved in something that would take off a couple of years later.
Bradley Metrock: [00:04:17] Very cool. And Dave, as we were talking about before the podcast began, you had a number of years of experience with one of my favorite game companies, Telltale Games. Share with us a little bit about your experience and how you got to where you are with Earplay today.
Dave Grossman: [00:04:34] Well, I was a computer science kid. I also got into games kind of by accident, but have enjoyed my time making them, and made a long career out of it. I have been making interactive narratives of various kinds for basically my whole career. I made graphic adventures at Lucas Arts in the late 80s and early 90s, and then I did games for kids for a while, and interactive books, and that sort of thing. I was working freelance with a lot of different companies through the rest of the 90s....and like I said, I directed design and writing at Telltale for nine years, where we sort of refined some different versions of interactive narrative there. I met Jon at a industry conference. It was a game developer conference narrative summit in Austin, 2011. And we sort of hit it off, and kept touch after that. So then when he told me what he was up to with Earplay, that sounded like a good next thing for me to do. A good way to flex the muscles that I have already, and also develop new ones.
Jon Myers: [00:05:49] Yeah. And I remember that we'd been talking sort of back and forth. We'd always meet up at these conferences and chat. We had a similar sort of theory, or philosophy, on how good interactive narrative in a dramatic sense works. And I recall the very first time I even mentioned it. I was like, "Come be a part of Earplay." It wasn't even quite Earplay, it was still Reactive Studios, we hadn't shifted our brand into Earplay yet. And I said it kind of jokingly. It was almost like a, "Why don't you come be the creative leader of the company here?" That was actually really surprised that that worked out that way.
Dave Grossman: [00:06:25] Little did you know that I was already casting out my eyes for the next thing to do.
Bradley Metrock: [00:06:32] Very cool. And let's start with the business aspect. Because I want to talk games with y'all, and pick your brain a little bit about games in general, since I am a huge gamer and have been since a very early age, but let's start with the business side of things. I'm very, very intrigued to get your opinion on the state of monetization of Alexa, specifically, and voice platforms in general. Describe for me, Jon, your level of comfort with where my monetization is today for what Earplay is doing and where you hope to see it go short term.
Jon Myers: [00:07:17] Yeah. So it's funny. It's like I don't think of it so much in level of comfort as in as much as I do based on how early versus late as a market because, I'm very confident and I'm 100 percent certain that this is a market, and it's emerging, and it's happening. Based on the data that we have, the fact that we already made money off of Code Name Cygnus, which was an interactive radio drama that we put out in 2013, did a Kickstarter, and people wanted more of it, even back then when it was just kind of an obscure iOS thing. So I've seen the consumers react to what we create and even when Alexa came along, at first, it was everything was just sort of speech-to-text. We'd already been doing this interactive audio already with human voices. And so we were just kind of waiting for the opportunity for the system and the platform to kind of emerge that that would bring the audience that we knew wanted this. And so when I think of where we are and my comfort zone, it's like obviously I'm not as comfortable with the fact that it's still too early, but compared to where we were like a year and a half ago, and we were kind of mobile first, and we weren't sure what was going to happen with Alexa now.
Jon Myers: Fast-forward two years later, we've got tons and tons of people that are signing up and giving us great reviews and saying they want more. So in that sense, I'm very comfortable that you know we're a lot further along. But in the sense of monetization right this moment, obviously it's still early. But because we started early ourselves, we have developed our technology from the ground up we've built an entire back end that we started, again, mobile first, but we always had a distribution system, an idea of a publishing platform, where writers and designers could make this stuff, and it could be distributed out among all devices, and at the time, the idea of devices was mobile. We knew there was this feature where you talk to things that was coming. Again we did not know it was going to be Alexa. So as a result, and I'm sorry it's a little bit of a long-winded answer, but as a result we've kind of built our own processing, our own purchasing mechanisms into that platform. And so we've been waiting and watching and observing and spending a lot of time talking with Alexa and Google and these other emerging hardwares to find out when when that moment is going to be where we kind of have when this sort of a watershed moment. We're not waiting around. We've actually developed and we've set up some deals and I can't really talk a lot about that. But for us, it's just a matter of finding that right timing and selling it. And so I am very confident that people want this and it's something that people will pay for. But the mechanisms....and when we start to see like a really fast growing market....it remains to be seen. But I'm always looking at the holidays as sort of turning points to....you mentioned the short term thing....I would look towards these holidays there's a chance for a lot of people who are developing their own mechanisms for purchasing to kind of come out and say, "Hey, buy from us here, buy from us there!" Because, for example, Spotify doesn't require Alexa to know how to monetize and we kind of look at it that way too.
Bradley Metrock: [00:10:32] The holidays, I think, will be explosive, to put it mildly. Because you've got the Homepod coming in. You've got Amazon doing everything they can to sort of preempt that, and of course Google, and everybody else, so I think you're right. For Earplay, there's been a lot of conversations that people listen to this podcast are probably aware of, but some won't be, that you know Amazon has got exponential growth in the number of developers creating Skills, voice applications for their hardware and yet they have not allowed, thus far, developers to charge for those applications. And instead there is a monetization system in place, where, based on some algorithm that is not public that Amazon controls, they decide, within certain genres of Alexa Skills, games being one of them, that once you get a certain amount of usage, utility, however they measure that....engagement is the best word. They will reach into the black box and pull out a check for you every month. Have you been satisfied with that process or is there still is that anywhere close to being the main revenue stream for what you guys are doing, or you still are looking primarily toward monetizing other web or through apps, or other ways, as your main revenue.
Jon Myers: [00:11:59] We don't see it as a main revenue stream for what we're calling longer form or premium-based content for putting out what we do. With Earplay, we never thought we would monetize the basic Earplay demo and some of the little short free things that we put out there, and we're putting more of that out there as well. So to us, it's just an add-on, it's additional. So that's really nice. And I feel it's meant to be an incentive. I don't think it's meant to be a business-sustaining source of revenue for anyone. We have done very well, and I shouldn't complain because, it definitely covers our office rent, for example, and in the first two months that was available, we received over $10,000. So we are ranking in probably the top five every month or so. And it's been great. I think that you know compared to not having it I would much rather have that. But at the same time, I think it's a matter of valuing the content, and the reason I appreciate it most, is that it's kind of a public statement, in a ways, of saying that certain metrics....whatever they are, we don't know what they are. But that engagement or usage or popularity has a value in this world, right? And I think that that's the statement that, for us, when we're talking to investors and trying to actually build a business, it's a great kind of turning point, it's a great sign that it's heading in that direction that I was describing earlier. Again, it's getting there slower, but for us, you know what we're looking at for our own notions of monetization is, yes, we will be very happy to look into whatever purchasing mechanisms come up from the main voice services.
Jon Myers: But I think a lot of developers are going to do that work themselves on their own side of things, because what we are developing is web services to begin with. So in some ways, all of us developers that want to monetize have to have to do some work to be ready for whatever comes out of that. But in our sense, we are fortunate enough....the third co-founder and C-level employee at Earplay besides me and Dave is Bruno Batarello. He's our CTO. And he was a part of Where Incorporated as the branch manager of Croatia there, and his company was acquired by Ebay and PayPal. And so he's worked with these sort of high-end distributed architecture systems with security, and has developed purchasing front-ends before, so we have a bit of an advantage and a head start in that, because he's done this sort of thing before. So we we went to work with that, we just haven't quite rolled it all out, because we don't want to be so early that we're a little too early for our own good. But yeah, the way we look at it is that people want this content in there, they value it, and Amazon is valuing it. And so we're happy to kind of forego the free reward for certain high quality content pieces that we've created. And when we launch and release those, we will be asking people to pay a fee to have access to it, and then it would be registered on their Earplay account. So it's similar to what you've been seeing in most marketing storefronts or storefront markets.
Bradley Metrock: [00:15:16] Okay. That's great. So I definitely wanted to ask about that. Let's shift gears to some more fun stuff and talk about....I want to ask both of you, what is your favorite game of all time? Dave, you can go first.
Dave Grossman: [00:15:28] That's a terribly difficult question. I often trot out something called The Adventures of Sean 2, which is only a various moments my favorite game of all time, but I think it was a little known Hypercard Stack game from probably the late 80s. And so it's only playable now by preservationists. I actually keep an old Mac laptop under my desk so that I can fire it up every once in a while. And it was drawn using the actual Hypercard drawing tools. If you remember those child's crayon drawing but black and white. And what it does is, it focuses on all of the things that I thought were most important about adventure games at the time. It's got fun puzzles, and it's got a narrative that you get caught up in, and you can influence and cause crazy things to happen and play for a few hours and have fun. For me it's kind of the root of good gameplay experience. I'm going to go with that one.
Jon Myers: [00:16:47] Wow, that's a tough one. I kind of have to separate between sort of what I would call a classic gaming and more contemporary. Classic being like I grew up on Nitendo, and Metroid was kind of the pinnacle of of the most awesome not only platformer, but the little bit of innovator's feel to it. I really liked Metroid. It just seemed so vast when I was young. The unlocking system there was pretty cool, but again that's what I would call more of like an earlier classic or primitive sort of design. What I love that's contemporary would be the Mass Effect series. I thought it's just a really, really well done role-playing game experience that's very character heavy, and part- based mechanics where you can go and recruit people and bring them along. And it took the role-playing games and the entire Bioware model. That's the company that created it. They were acquired by EA. They had taken what was sit down tabletop mechanics and turned them into kind of a third person shooter that you can roam around and still have sort of decisions that were very meaty and narrative and story-based and so I really, really liked that. I thought that was kind of the best thing that Bioware has put out, that Mass Effect series.
Bradley Metrock: [00:18:08] They blew it with Andromeda, though.
Jon Myers: [00:18:11] I haven't played it. I'm so busy now that I'm kind of not a good gamer anymore. But I've heard that as well. But I think it was it was outsourced. I don't think it was actually Bioware themselves that created it. There was a sister studio I believe.
Bradley Metrock: [00:18:27] We all have much less time to game. I was talking to David about that before we started. And when you look at the....I've been looking forward to that coming out, and you look on Metacritic and it said 80 or 78 or something and you're used to Mass Effect being in the 90s, you're like "OK, the precious free time that's available will not be deployed on that." And then you read that they're not doing DLC for it. It's disappointing. But yeah Mass Effect is phenomenal. Those are very interesting answers that you all provided. One reason I'm fascinated by your company is just my own personal experience of just sort of being captivated by the storytelling of video games, and really my my first experience....I played some PC games back in the 80s, one of the very first I played was called Battletech The Crescent Hawks Inception. Do either of you all know what that is?
Dave Grossman: [00:19:22] No.
Jon Myers: [00:19:25] I'm stumped on this one. I'll have to Google this.
Bradley Metrock: [00:19:29] It was a PC game. And I wouldn't know what year. I think I played it probably in 86, 87 and it had a lot of text, and that's probably why my parents let me play it, because they knew I had to read. And it of interesting in it. It was pretty much an RPG type of thing, and then I got into real time strategy games with Dune 2 which came out and then Warcraft of course. But the first real experience I had where I saw the power of storytelling was with Final Fantasy II and III on Super Nintendo. I was just blown away by that. And then over the years, games that have pushed the envelope in that realm, Telltale has been one of ones the pushing storytelling and creating experiences that are all centered around a narrative, rather than all centered around graphics or all centered around gameplay. That's huge. One of my favorite Telltale games, by the way, I think is probably after you might have left, Dave, but it was called The Wolf Among Us. I loved that.
Dave Grossman: [00:20:40] That was that was kind of my last hurrah there, actually. It was that game. I did direct one of the episodes, and wrote the story for that season with a couple of other guys.
Bradley Metrock: [00:20:51] I absolutely love it.
Dave Grossman: [00:20:52] Thank you.
Bradley Metrock: [00:20:53] Yeah, thank you for that. And of course, besides The Walking Dead, the one that really stands out to me is Heavy Rain, just in terms of games that have evolved, that sort of push the envelope forward, if you all have ever played that. I'm sure you know what it is, but I mean that, to me, that was a seminal moment, that game have y'all played that?
Dave Grossman: [00:21:12] We definitely all played that at Telltale, trying to mine it for whatever we could. I definitely thought that while some of the mechanics were sort of more difficult than they should be, I remember walking around required more than one thing to do with your hands, you had to push two different buttons or something. But certainly, narratively, it was really good in terms of keeping the pacing going and just kind of dropping you into the story and letting you do stuff.
Bradley Metrock: [00:21:43] Sure. That's the way I felt about it, and now we're about to be in an age where, with all these different things....I mean what you guys are doing with voice....audio-based games can be just as immersive, if not more, than anything else. And of course, we have VR coming out, we've got all sorts of stuff. It's probably the best time for gaming that there's ever been. But this is a good transition to ask you both....and Dave, I'll start with you on this. When you are looking at a game....what makes a great game experience, and let's limit it to the audio-only realm. How do you produce that type of experience? What goes into that? Share some of that with us.
Dave Grossman: [00:22:26] Well, I think the core of it is giving the player something fun to do while they're talking. And for us, that is....it's a kind of a narrative question, meaning people are going to make different kinds of voice games, but we're very much after a kind of a role-playing experience, not in the sort of RPG sense of the word, but in the more childlike sense where....when you're a kid you play games like House and Cops and Robbers, where you're just sort of running around with your friends and you're making up stories as you go. And I think what we're after, is trying to inject some of that into audio dramas, so that you get wrapped up in the story and you really feel like you're playing a part and the way that we do and make it compelling, is mostly about engineering these frequent moments of choice for the audience, so that every 30 or 60 seconds, you're called upon to participate in some way. And we always try and make it a choice or a question where you have more than one good answer. If you have no answers, then it's not fun because you either don't know what to say, or you don't care what to say. If you only have one answer, then you sort of feel like, "OK, let's move on." But if you've got two good answers, that's when you really get wrapped up in the experience, because you have to think, "Oh gosh, which way do I want this to go? Which thing do I do?" And you start to imagine the possibilities of the experience. And that's when I think we got you, and we're giving you something good.
Jon Myers: [00:24:12] And to piggyback on that, I think that when you're talking about choice, and the type of role-playing....to me it's a little bit more about dramatic action, or a dramatic sequence of events, or an arc of experience, than it is necessarily a mechanical system....the system is sort of there and we almost want the mechanical system to fall to the background, like what we did with Codename Cygnus, we had some like RPG-style variables, where we were tracking....at least in the earliest version that we put out there that was on mobile, we were tracking whether you were athletic versus clever, whether you handled things physically or with your brain. And bold versus secretive. What kind of secret agent were you? Are you the person that just kind of announces your presence, or do you like to go incognito, and we were tracking this and serving it up and inside the app. And part of that was just by virtue of the fact that we had a very limited vocabulary, and we had to associate your voice command choices with actions, and so now, luckily we put out a new version of Codename Cygnus: Reactivated, actually it's coming out Thursday. It will be the four year anniversary of the release of that on mobile, and it's a new version that we're rolling out on Alexa and Google.
Jon Myers: But what we found was that the actual numbers, again like I said, drifted to the background of the experience. We thought that there would be a lot of engagement about people caring about stats, but they just wanted more stories, and they wanted to kind of just play it over again, and hear the different pathways, and hear the different voices, and experience the different emotions and levels of success and failure as they move through. And again, that isn't success and failure in the sort of typical video game sense of like, "Oh you die and you start over." More in the sense of consequences, like you accomplished the goal, but did you make this character or that character happy? Things like that. And so it's interesting when we when we say, is this a game or not? I think there is some truth to that, but we've always had a little trouble sort of categorizing ourselves, and we ultimately just follow the method that Dave described, like what do you do? What's your action? What are you saying? And how are you participating? But when it comes to marketing when we put ourselves out there it's like, well, we fall under the category of games. But there were times in the early App Store days of our stuff, that were like....we tried putting ourselves under a sort of a category of just basic entertainment, or are we an audio book that's interactive, or are we an interactive drama? It's really tough, and eventually, we just quit trying to categorize ourselves. But yeah, I always thought that was kind of an interesting aspect of what we do, is that sometimes the more game-y we try to make the experience, the less entertaining it would actually be. And that doesn't mean that that's the truth for the way everybody wants to design these things. It's just sort of more like how Earplay operates.
Bradley Metrock: [00:27:08] Well sure, and I think that you see that in video games in general. You know, stuff like....just pick a game, like Batman: Arkham Asylum. Like that whole series. Stuff like that. Mass Effect is another good example, where modern game making has come to include collecting all this stuff. And there's always....that's just one mechanic that you're referring to that I'm sort of referring to. But there's all these different things that really have nothing to do with having fun. And I think that what you guys are doing, and why it's so unique, is that you have the opportunity to move away from that. And that's what I hear you say.
Jon Myers: [00:27:51] Yeah, yeah, a little bit. I think it's more just about....you imagine yourself in a role and what you're perceiving as a series of choices and actions, and to go back to Mass Effect, they had this interesting mechanic in it, and it worked to an extent, but it was the Paragon-Renegade dichotomy, that was initially like the dark to the light, like in Star Wars, right? You've got the force and the dark side. And so it's the kind of thing that....it's interesting because it gives you a base of understanding of what's going on in the system. You're choosing between the dark and the light. But after that, really, you just make your choice one way or the other, and keep trying to be that person, or at least you're aware that every choice, there is this thing going on in the background where you're being evaluated. So it helps to add to the experience, but I don't think it is something that people really paid a lot of attention to. They're like, "Oh, I did a Renegade play through." or "I did a Paragon play through." So it doesn't affect the decision making in quite the same mechanical way, but because it's there in your head, and you're thinking about how every decision you can make is on the path toward either good or bad. It has a profound effect on the narrative experience, and I think that's what we're always looking for, what are those little touches that make you feel like you're in a mechanical system, that just makes the story more robust?
Bradley Metrock: [00:29:18] My final question for both of y'all that I want to ask and get both of your opinions on....for college students, graduate school students listening to this. People sitting in a cubicle somewhere doing something they hate, and want to get into gaming, and are listening to this, and see the rise of voice technology, see the rise of audio based entertainment, and think they may have a passion for it or be interested in it as a career. What are the underlying skills that folks who are interested in your field should be learning in order to add value to some organization like Earplay, or be able to have a career.
Jon Myers: [00:29:56] From my perspective, dramatic writing is important. Understanding, having an ear for dialogue, being able to write the way that people speak. And also, I would say take courses in linguistics and language theory, because I think that's a huge part....right now we're at this stage where developing language models, developing voice UI and voice UX. It still feels like a very objective thing, and it's presented in sort of a science as a way of you know developing these mechanical systems. But really, there's an art to it. And I think that's what we do well with. We develop these these language models that can hold a lot of different utterances. It's based on how we design the prompts. It's based on how we choose which words we're listening for, which words we're asking them, and how they relate phonetically to each other. And so that is a tip I would give. Just study how language works, like English, and how it breaks down into its parts, and how people speak it.
Dave Grossman: [00:30:57] I will add computer science. I think you should learn a little computer science, even if that's not the role that you're going to play. It's helpful for any kind of game, just to kind of understand how things might work under the hood, and what the dynamics are of an interactive system. There's no better way to learn that than to try a little programming yourself. I found that virtually every class I ever took, and everything I ever did with my buddies outside of school, has been applied in some way over the course of my career in games. Like everything just somehow applies. The one thing that I regret is not taking enough history classes. Had I realized at the time that history is just a whole bunch of really good stories that people are telling over and over, I might have thought of it as more useful to my past. But all kinds of things are applicable. I think learning about music is really helpful just for developing a sense of timing for things, which is important, and is especially important in audio games. And also, outside of just the stuff that you're doing in school, I think it's ever more important to noodle around and make your own stuff, which is currently not that hard for doing audio games. There are systems out there where you can just put together something simple in your garage, get a little experience with it, and have something to show off when you then go out and try and hook up with other people who are doing it professionally, and kind of make a career for yourself. Having a good demo reel is key.
Jon Myers: [00:32:36] Yeah, and actually to piggyback off that a little bit, I think that if you're in college, or you're just getting out, and you're wanting to get involved in this, it's a really nice time where there are a lot of resources out there that are available, and there are some communities, especially when it comes to creating Alexa Skills. Like a Slack group and things like that, where if you're motivated and you have the base skills that can get you through creating something, just making it yourself is the best thing you can possibly do. Just go out and just get it done. Just make something happen. That's what a lot of people even outside of voice tell those who want to get in the games industry, you should just make a game. Get a game out and make it. There's an indie community out there in just about every major city that will support and help and give you feedback on these things, and I think that something similar is happening in the sort of Alexa and Google Assistant eco-spheres, where there's there's sort of a community of people who like tinkering and thinking about these things, and so I think that the price of admission is just to get rolling and start making something
Bradley Metrock: [00:33:46] Excellent. I greatly appreciate both of your time today, and your generosity and sharing your expertise and your experience. For folks who have listened to this who want to follow up with y'all and reach out to Earplay, what's the best way to do that?
Jon Myers: [00:34:04] You can go to www.earplay.com. You can also e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to reach out and have any questions.
Bradley Metrock: [00:34:14] Awesome. Jon and Dave, thank you both very very much for your time today. I greatly appreciate it. For August 29 2017 the VoiceFirst Roundtable. Thank you for listening. And until next time.