Voice Provides a More Immersive Gaming Experience

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Speech recognition made its debut in the gaming industry in the 1980s with the release of the first voice recognition-enabled game console in Halcyon. The platform was a flop, largely because the gaming industry was still in its infancy and the speech industry wasn’t much more mature.

Development stalled for about 20 years and resumed in the early 2000s with Nintendo’s release of Hey You, Pikachu! and Odama, a pinball game. The two games accepted a very limited number of preprogrammed voice commands. A few other games allowed voice commands, but they all had the same limitations.

Natural language crept into the gaming world a few years later with the release of North Side’s Bot Colony, a game in which players are forced to converse with robot characters to advance in the game. Players discover the story organically by querying characters about their environment and events they witnessed, guide robots through complex tasks, negotiate transactions with robots, and teach them new concepts.

Gamers today can use voice as a controller, interact with characters during game play, rally the troops before sending them into battle, communicate with other players in multiplayer and role-playing games, and so much more.

Roy Contreras, who was just named CEO of game studio Workinman Interactive after 15 years in senior leadership roles at Nickelodeon and Amazon, has overseen the launch of hundreds of games, interactive experiences, and promotional campaigns across multiple platforms, including mobile, voice, desktop, web, and social.

“When Workinman was founded in 2006, games were created in Flash, and virtual worlds were all the rage,” he says. “Now take a look at today’s landscape: We have emerging tech in [virtual and augmented reality], voice, cloud-based gaming, and [blockchain].”

In fact, speech today has become an inextricable part of gaming, an industry that raked in more than $145 billion worldwide in 2019. Of that amount, revenue from mobile gaming reached $65.6 billion. Both totals were expected to climb much higher in 2020 as people turned to gaming as a way to cope with COVID-19 lockdowns.

Speech is such an integral part of games that text-to-speech (TTS) technology provider ReadSpeaker now claims that demand for its TTS technology in gaming is rising as dramatically as it is in other sectors.

“Independent game producers are trying to carve out a piece of the gaming industry pie without breaking the bank as they compete with stalwarts like Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft,” wrote Nate Murray, a marketing director at ReadSpeaker, in a recent blog post. “TTS-generated character voices are a cost-effective way to provide the immersive experience gamers demand, and digital solutions are offsetting the costs and time associated with hiring top-notch voice talent or even Hollywood actors to voice game characters.”

For many developers, neural technologies are supplementing basic TTS to inject emotion, tone, inflection, laughter, and other paralinguistic sounds and expressions into character dialogues and narrations.

Other uses for TTS include prototyping, with companies choosing to use computer-generated voices for testing scripts before expensive voice talent comes on board to read the final dialogues and narrations.

TTS is also being used during player onboarding, providing audio game play instructions, story lines, tutorials, and in-game hints and suggestions, which had previously been presented in text and graphical formats.

While TTS is among the most widely used voice technology in gaming today, voice chat is also a feature that has gained prominence in the past few years.

The voice chat feature in games enables real-time chat between multiple players, which is especially important when gamers need to interact with each other to share tactics, warn about potential threats, set a plan of attack, or move in unison. Most in-game chat apps are built directly into the game, but some third-party voice chat applications, like Discord, Mumble, TeamSpeak, and Ventrilo, have also emerged.

Today’s games also have come to rely more heavily on voice controls, with players telling characters what to do. That requires complex speech recognition and natural language processing technologies.

As smart assistants, like Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri, become more mainstream, the gaming industry has moved much of its development efforts toward these platforms. Amazon, for example, has released a Skills Kit specifically for developers looking to create games for Alexa.

Voxion, a developer of phone-connected games for voice platforms that was recently acquired by Volley, has plenty of experience creating multiplayer products across voice, web, visual, and mobile devices, but some of its most recent work involved visual experiences on Amazon Alexa with the Mutter Nonsense and Speak Easy games.

“We firmly believe that voice will be the next big wave in content development,” said Matthew Gillen, CEO and cofounder of Voxion, in a statement.

Volley, likewise, builds voice-controlled entertainment experiences on smart devices such as Google Home, Amazon Alexa, and smartphones. The company’s titles include trivia games like Song Quiz and storytelling games like Yes Sire.

Some of the other companies developing games with Amazon’s Alexa Skill Kits include Hasbro, Nickelodeon, and Pokemon.

But using voice in gaming doesn’t come without its challenges. As game play moves from consoles to mobile and online platforms, the market expands globally and developers must accommodate the myriad languages, accents, dialects, and speaking styles of players around the world.

For that reason, game developers looking to include voice technologies first need to ask whether the game’s story line and player experience is appropriate for the technology, according to several speech technology vendors.

For some games, simple voice commands might be enough, while others might require more complex natural language capabilities.

“Conversational technologies promise a lot for the gaming industry. From voice-controlled games to in-game voice chat applications and smart assistants, conversational technologies have increasing use in gaming applications. That is why more gamers turn to voice-based games to enjoy an exceptional gaming experience,” wrote Hilal Bakanay, a senior marketing specialist at speech technology vendor Sestek, in a recent blog post.

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