The VoiceFirst Roundtable - Episode 9
Host: Bradley Metrock (CEO, Score Publishing)
Guest: Alex Fleetwood (CEO / Founder, Sensible Object)
Duration: 19 minutes, 16 seconds
YouTube (+ closed captioning)
Bradley Metrock: [00:00:11] Hi. And welcome back to The VoiceFirst Roundtable, Episode 9, for Tuesday, October 31, 2017.
Bradley Metrock: [00:00:22] My name is Bradley Metrock - I'm CEO of a company called Score Publishing, based here in Nashville, Tennessee.
Bradley Metrock: [00:00:28] Our sponsor for The VoiceFirst Roundtable 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. If you're not familiar with VoiceXP, do yourself a favor: go to the browser, pause the podcast, type in www.VoiceXP.com, and you'll be glad that you did.
Bradley Metrock: [00:00:59] Our guest today is Alex Fleetwood. Alex, say, "Hello!"
Alex Fleetwood: [00:01:03] Hey there - how are you doing?
Bradley Metrock: [00:01:05] I'm doing good, Alex. So Alex is CEO and founder of Sensible Object. So Alex, if you would just take a second and explain to us what Sensible Object is...
Alex Fleetwood: [00:01:18] So I'm the CEO of Sensible Object, and that's a game design company that fuses the best of tabletop and digital play. So we make experiences that you play with your family and friends, face to face, and they connect seamlessly with the digital devices in your home.
Bradley Metrock: [00:01:34] Very cool. Tell us a little bit about your background, and what led you to wanting to start a company that merged physical games with technology in the way that Sensible Object does.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:01:48] Sure. So I've been making games and interactive experiences for a pretty long time. I spent part of my early career at the UK broadcaster Channel 4, and this is the sort of mid-noughties when there was lots of exciting innovation happening around digital interactivity and how that kind of fused with linear entertainment. And a lot of that led me to working on and commissioning gaming projects, and that was really where I found my passion.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:02:16] So I started a company about 10 years ago - my first company - called Hide&Seek. It was an agency, and we made games and interactive experiences for clients like Warner Brothers, Nike, PlayStation, those kinds of guys. And made a lot of very interesting work and much of it was that this kind of meeting point between physical social play and digital gaming. And that's always been a real interest and passion of mine. And about three years ago, Toys to Life was really taking off, if you remember that kind of trend, for games and experiences like Skylanders, and we were looking at that as a team at Hide&Seek and also looking at the family. This is a new way to prototype and make connected experiences, you know. This was slightly before Alexa with technologies like Bluetooth and you can prototype quite easily with things like Arduino and 3D printing. We found that there was an opportunity for us to do something independently creative, but that targeted that same kind of space. So I founded Sensible Object and we've been working in that area about three years.
Bradley Metrock: [00:03:23] So I have to ask, before I get into anything else: from a philosophical standpoint, what makes a good game?
Alex Fleetwood: [00:03:31] Gosh, right, let's get straight into it, Bradley? I'm stroking my beard here.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:03:37] I would say there are as many answers to that as there are game designers but I would say an interesting choice is the way that a game can really connect. You know the fact that when we sit down to play together we suspend the rules of ordinary life and we embrace the arbitrary rules of the game.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:03:58] And that means we can kind of connect with one another and reinforce relationships and in different and interesting ways because we're playing together and play it and we learn about ourselves. We learn about each other. So I think that a good game gives us an opportunity to connect the people who we are closest to. And it does it in a way where the choices that we make and the actions that we perform are revealing. They're interesting, they tell us something about ourselves and each other.
Bradley Metrock: [00:04:28] That's a great answer. That's fascinating. I've always been a big gamer. I'm much less of a board gamer although I can hold my own at Catan. Have you ever played that?
Alex Fleetwood: [00:04:39] For sure.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:04:41] I mean it's the gateway drug to all kinds of experiences.
Bradley Metrock: [00:04:47] Well said. Yes it is and I've been a video gamer for my whole life. Unfortunately less time these days but still I love to find time to play with a young child. My wife and I have a five year old that's it's fun to enjoy stuff like that with him as well. It's definitely fascinating to ask someone in your position what makes a good game and I appreciate you contemplating that.
Bradley Metrock: [00:05:13] Let's talk about Beasts of Balance. So Beasts of Balance was a very successful Kickstarter project that you did. Talk to us a little bit about putting that game together and how that sort of led you to where you are and where you have been with the TechStars Alexa Accelerator.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:05:33] Sure. So Beasts of Balance was Sensible Object's first game. We started working on it in autumn 2015 and we're on our first Kickstarter campaign early 2016 and shipped again back at the end of last year and Beasts of Balance is a stacking game that comes to life. So the gamers who are listening can think of it as a bit like Jenga meets Pokémon.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:06:00] So you have this real world play experience where you're stacking these interesting and colorful objects in a tower and that tower sits on some custom sensing hardware. That means every time you add an object to the tower it essentially has a magic power that affects a world which plays out on a connected digital screen that's either a smartphone or tablet on and now also a smart TV. So if you added a bear the world on your tower then a bear will appear in your world and then you might add some other animals and you cross and migrate all of them in different ways using different pieces. And the challenge is you have to keep both your tower and the ecosystem in the world that you created in balance, the animals you create need caring for and nurturing. And the pieces are very odd shapes and quite hard to balance and stack together. And when the tower as it inevitably will do falls over there in the world you've created kind of explodes.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:06:53] You have to build it up. And that's a game that we really kind of launched the company off of the backers. And so crowdfunding is a great way to begin there. And now we've been working pretty intensely over this year to get back into retail. So I'm excited to say that the game is now in Apple stores around the world.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:07:17] So one of just a handful of products that connects digital and physical play that Apple featured and we're in a bunch of other retailers not least Amazon of course. I'm about to launch a Fire TV compatible app for the game. So if you have a Fire TV station one of the new ones you'll be able to enjoy the experience on the big screen.
Bradley Metrock: [00:07:37] So your game is in Apple stores across the United States.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:07:41] It is. It is. We're very excited and proud about that.
Bradley Metrock: [00:07:46] That's awesome. That's awesome. Yes I enjoy hating on Apple for all sorts of things they don't do correctly. But this is not one of them. Good job Apple. Very good. And I will have to go buy it. I have not bought the game yet. I need to. I will go to the Apple store here in Nashville.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:08:01] Well be sure to speak loudly about how awesome it looks like when you're picking it up.
Bradley Metrock: [00:08:08] I will. I will. I'm shameless like that. Yeah. Fantastic. So let's talk about voice originals to share with us what you're trying to do with voice originals. Share with us a bit about When in Rome. Talk to us about the whole deal.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:08:23] A big philosophy for our company is face to face not face to screen. You know we love video games, we love digital play, we love anything that's immersive and networked and fun. But we know that sometimes the games that are compelling for us as individuals take us away from the people we're closest to. And I think you kind of alluded to this like as a parent I don't really play console games anymore because I'm not going to bust out a kind of shoot-him-up when I've got my 7 and 4 year old around. It's just kind of not an inclusive experience. I sometimes say Call of Duty is the worst TV show ever made. And for other people to watch people shooting you in the head is just not so fun. So how do we make inclusive play experiences that are really enjoyable for everybody and with these face-to-face play experiences we're actually connecting as a family or as friends. But then we don't throw away the digital, so Beasts of Balance is one expression of that. Now Alexa as a technology has been around for roughly the same amount of time that Sensible Object has been around and I've always been really inspired by the way that Alexa creates much more face-to-face social interaction. I don't need to pull out a screen to distract myself in order to do certain things. I can just ask Alexa and get it done that.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:09:41] And so I've always thought it would be a great comfort of technology to integrate into a tabletop game experience. Amazon created something called the Alexa Fund which is a corporate investment fund. And then the Alexa Fund ran something this summer called the Alexa Accelerator powered by TechStars. So that was a three month accelerator program by nine companies, received some investment, and got access to a bunch of internal teams. Amazon asked that they be working on Alexa, like what retail or marketing to help them and us develop new product concepts that do innovative and exciting things with the Alexa platform and what we did is we created a whole range of games called Voice of Originals. So Voice of Originals is going to be a series of $25 games coming out next year. Each game will be a simple analog boxed game and it will have a companion Alexa Skill. Alexa will teach you how to play the game. The host of the experience should keep track of the rules in the school and then she will also be the conduit for rich audio that will make the experience more immersive and exciting. So that might be a dynamic soundtrack or voice acting or in the case of first prototype, When in Rome, it's the voices of local residents of 20 cities around the world that we recorded on location in most places. So When in Rome is a travel trivia game. Players fly Air Alexa around the world map game board and when they visit a city they meet one of these locals. They interact with them and then that local challenges them to answer questions or do other other challenges in order to earn explorer points.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:11:25] So it's a kind of...we think of it as a - Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego 2.0 - somebody recently kind of, that was their whole take on it...
Bradley Metrock: [00:11:36] I was always really awful at Carmen Sandiego.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:11:39] And I think it's it certainly we're working on a question set where you can be good at listening and good at guessing and still have a shot at getting the questions right.
Bradley Metrock: [00:11:50] There's hope for me is what you're saying.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:11:53] There is there is. We will make sure you have a good time.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:11:57] And it's really exciting merging the Alexa voice services.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:12:02] So this is what you can do with a tabletop experience because we're really drawing back into radio and audio drama and all of these kind of pre-screen formats. They're very evocative. They help us build an imaginative world of the game. And actually that's kind of what a board game does as well. When you take your time you sort of look at the pieces and board in this fantasy world and we can now augment that with audio and the kind of rich experience which we deliver to the speaker. So yeah it's a fun combination ....When in Rome is the first game and we plan to bring out a number of games for reworkings and guest designers and guest voice talent. I will be announcing them over the coming months.
Bradley Metrock: [00:12:49] That's fascinating. I appreciate you sharing that and I'm looking forward to playing it. That sounds really good. It's fascinating to me. All these companies that are sort of like nibbling around the same core pursuit which is enhancing gaming and enhancing storytelling really is the bottom line in using technology like Alexa. You know companies like Earplay, companies like your TechStars colleagues, that novel effect. Of course, different companies are pursuing this and it is the future. This is where it's at. And I applaud you for what you're doing. I think it's fascinating and it has every appearance like it will be successful. Let me ask you two more things. So it appears like all of the companies that participated in the Alexa TechStars Accelerator not only benefited greatly in terms of their momentum coming out of the program, but it looks like they enjoyed it as well. Would you characterize that as your experience?
Alex Fleetwood: [00:13:53] Oh for sure. It was a very intense experience but an absolute blast. It's really a privilege to get a front row seat to a company like Amazon doing what they're doing with Alexa right now. And obviously you'll understand that I can't speak to too much of the detail of that but just to witness what it looks like when an organization of Amazon's scale and vision and is moving at the speed it's moving. It's a tremendously exciting experience and I think you know it is a rare company, because they act like a startup. They think like a startup. They do deals like a startup and yet they're one of the most valuable companies in the world. It's a very exciting and dynamic environment to be in. I think we all get a lot out of the Accelerator as a group of companies working together. So you know we have a company like Aspinity. We're making a chip that can go into a battery powered voice device and you've got a company like Botnik who is doing amazing things with human machine creativity.... and all of these companies have inspired each other. We all learn a lot from one another. And I think that was another big benefit from the Accelerator.
Bradley Metrock: [00:15:04] That's great. And it's very encouraging to hear that Amazon has managed that program as well as they have because it just keeps the trajectory of VoiceFirst technology moving at the accelerated rate it's moving. This helps the whole ecosystem that something like that exists and it's done so well.
Bradley Metrock: [00:15:22] So that's great to really hear you say and confirm. My last question for you, it's not really so much a question as a request. You've got to please use the Echo Buttons in one of your games.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:15:38] Yeah. I'm glad you brought those up. You know Bradley I would say that even more than the buttons, the really exciting thing that Amazon announced as part of its big package of new Echo devices and different updates is something called the Gadget API. So the Gadget API....there's not a lot of detail publicly available yet. There's a page up on the Amazon developer portal but what it looks like to us is that third parties will be able to create custom hardware that connects over Bluetooth to the sort of ecosystem of Alexa devices in your home. And Buttons are a kind of reference example of that. So the Button obviously does not give you voice inputs to Alexa but a Button press that goes over Bluetooth to the device. And that is incredibly exciting for us as game developers because actually the kind of future that points to, in my view, is not just a voice-in voice-out but anything-in and anything-out if you like. So voice is a component of a network of connected devices now. So you might have a tablet, a smart TV, a smart speaker, and some custom hardware.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:16:57] Maybe you know you got some secret information. Let's say for example, I don't know, maybe it's a spy game and you will spy on each other. So you've got some secret mission info on your personal phone so that only you can see that there's some shared mission info on a smart TV and then you're communicating through the speaker on three or five TVs. However to give instructions to the agents that are undertaking the mission in the field. So you've now got this kind of fun. You know you can have a social experience, you can all be talking to each other, you can also be talking to Alexa through the AI. But then you got a rich media experience with multiple screens sharing different information at the same time and that stuff I think he knows is certainly where we want to head. We designed Voice Originals to be....what we talk about internally is kind of winning the early stages of the market. We want to get some great things out of the market. We want to lead the way in making VoiceFirst gaming a great experience and then further down the track we imagine these kind of more ambitious games and experiences that really fuse video games and social play together.
Bradley Metrock: [00:18:03] Absolutely. Yeah couldn't agree more. And the things that you can tie the Echo Show or screen....having a screen involved is another part of that open door to creating those type of next level experiences. Alex what you guys are doing is phenomenal. Let me close by asking you for someone who's listened to this episode of The VoiceFirst Roundtable who wants to get a hold of you or the team at Sensible Object. What's the best way to do that?
Alex Fleetwood: [00:18:32] You can visit us www.SensibleObject.com. If anyone wants to email me directly, that's totally fine. I'm Alex@SensibleObject.com. Or you can reach me on all the usual social media channels.
Bradley Metrock: [00:18:46] Very cool. Alex thank you very much for setting this time aside and sharing your insight. I greatly appreciate it.
Alex Fleetwood: [00:18:53] Well thanks for having me Bradley, anytime.
Bradley Metrock: [00:18:54] For The VoiceFirst Roundtable, thank you for listening. And until next time.