Talking heads: RuneScape comes to Alexa

Katharine  Byrne
Echo

We’ve seen plenty of surprise partnerships in the games industry over the years. Valve teamed up with phone maker HTC to create Vive, for example, and even the once staunchest of platform rivals, Nintendo and Sega, are now working side by side – except during the Olympics, of course. 

But Jagex bringing RuneScape to Amazon’s voice-based Alexa engine? Now that’s something we didn’t see coming.  

“We are always interested in exploring new tech, and bringing RuneScape to new audiences,” RuneScape’s design director Mark Ogilvie tells MCV. “Since storytelling is such a core part of RuneScape, the promise of exploring its narrative on a completely different medium was too exciting to ignore.”

In case you’re unfamiliar with Alexa, it’s essentially Amazon’s answer to voice assistants like Siri, Cortana and Google Now and is currently found in Amazon’s range of Echo smart home devices. Soon, however, you’ll be able to interact with Alexa and its library of apps (known as ‘skills’) from a host of third party platforms such as your car, fridge and even your light switch, making it a tempting prospect for games companies looking for a new, highly-engaged user base. 

“There are millions of Alexa-enabled devices out there,” says Amazon’s director of the Alexa Skills Kit Rob Pulciani, “and we recognised its gaming potential fairly early on.

“Initially, trivia skills were very popular, such as Jeopardy and The Magic Door, but when you have what we call a ‘headless device’ with no screen, you have a hard time imagining what games might look like. We’re so used to thinking about ‘screen-first’ titles, that’s why you need those lighthouse experiences to point the way for other groups. It’s exciting, and now that I’ve seen RuneScape, I think there’s high potential.”

FINDING YOUR VOICE

In terms of getting the game onto Alexa-enabled devices, all users have to do is download the free RuneScape Quests: One Piercing Note skill and ask Alexa to play it. However, when there are over 9,000 skills currently available, Amazon will need to address discoverability concerns if more games companies start publishing titles there.

“We relaunched the skills portion of the Alexa app last year, so it’s much easier to navigate now,” says Pulciani (left). “You can also use Amazon’s retail website to look through skills, and you can ask Alexa to recommend new ones. That’s important to us.

"It’s one thing using your phone to browse through apps, but with Alexa, you also want to discover things with your voice. Right now, it takes into account what’s popular and review ratings, but ultimately we want to make sure the most relevant skills are put in front of customers.”

For Jagex, its main marketing concern is getting Alexa into the hands of its existing user base: “We’re working closely with Amazon to market to their own customers, and we’re also running competitions with our own players to win Alexa-enabled devices,” Ogilvie says (below).

“We’re also reaching out to tech publications about a platform that many wouldn’t have seen as a device for gaming, and I think it’s quite interesting to visually impaired gamers, too. So I’d certainly like to explore that angle in the future.”

Marketing an Alexa game, then, is very much a joint effort, but the key question remaining is how companies will make money from it. For unlike other platforms, all skills are currently free to download and none of them use traditional advertising.

“Right now, monetising happens off of Alexa, mainly through account linking,” says Pulciani. “We don’t monetise skills specifically, but we recognise that’s something that developers have asked us about.”

Fortunately for Jagex, it didn’t actually plan to monetise One Piercing Note, simply due to the experimental nature of the project: “It was a really quick project for us and we never had any intention to make money from it,” he says. “It felt like a project to expand our own skills and dip a toe into a completely new platform.”

Instead, Amazon seems to be leaving it up to developers to decide how to monetise their games, with Pulciani suggesting that companies could potentially lead their users back to their main products through the skill itself. 

Indeed, Ogilvie says that One Piercing Note already exists as a quest you can play in the main RuneScape game on PC, which is mentioned in the Alexa experience when players save their progress. He also believes that giving developers the freedom to determine their own monetising structure will be beneficial in the long run.

“Since storytelling is such a core part of RuneScape, the promise of exploring its narrative on a completely different medium was too exciting to ignore.”

- Mark Ogilvie, Jagex

“I think [leaving the decision to developers] is wise,” says Ogilvie. “There are so many different approaches to monetising games. Having the platform dictate how things should make money, rather than the developers who understand their product and audience, is dangerous.

“We’d originally intended to give out free membership to the ‘proper’ game after players completed the Alexa quest, or even earn some unique in-game items, but sadly we had to cut that due to some technical issues on both sides. I believe if we developed more on the platform, we’d definitely plan ahead for it.”

Meanwhile, Pulciani’s main priority at the moment is creating the best-possible user experience for Alexa’s customers. Monetising structures will come later.

“We absolutely want to help developers create successful businesses around Alexa, but the first thing we’re doing is nailing the customer experience,” he says. “We have a roadmap over the next 12 months that we feel good about, but there’s nothing to share right now.”

That’s not to say Pulciani’s team isn’t in constant contact with developers, though, and Ogilvie seems confident that a solution will eventually be found: 

“After some early meetings I’m sure the Amazon tech guys we met left with ideas to explore for the future,” he says. “Hopefully the same will happen when it comes to monetisation, working with the skill developers to work out what systems work best for them, be it embedded ads, paid skills, subscription models, affiliate percentages or in-skill purchases.”

HITTING THE RIGHT NOTE

Despite its experimental origins, One Piercing Note has already been a success for Jagex. “[The reception] has been great,” says Ogilvie. “The majority of reviews have been incredibly positive. Our own players have been vocal about what this might mean for the future of RuneScape stories, and I think Alexa customers are over the moon to see more top quality skills on offer.”

Where Alexa games will go in the future, however, is still up for debate. “The appetite’s there,” says Ogilvie. “I’d love to be able to explore new RuneScape stories on the device, particularly those that can support the huge narrative directions we’re exploring in the main game. 

“I’m also excited about seeing just how far we can push Alexa. Leveraging its voice recognition and AI potential to have her react to the player’s imagination, just like a table-top RPG dungeon-master would, is really fascinating to us and I’d love to work on something like that.”

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Tags: jagex , runescape , feature

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