This guy founded Atari and Chuck E. Cheese. Now he’s making Alexa games
‘Alexa, turn my shoes on.’
A genial old fellow on stage at the Alexa Conference in Chattanooga, Tennessee smiles as the soles of his shoes begin to glow red. Later, he asks Amazon’s virtual assistant to make his shoes green. Lo and behold, green shoes.
The man is Nolan Bushnell, and he’s the former founder of Atari and Chuck E. Cheese. Once upon a time, he was also Steve Jobs’ boss. Now, addressing an audience of developers as CEO of X2 Games, Bushnell and his LED shoes are trying to make the point that the age of voice is brimming with possibility.
For Bushnell, a veteran gamer in every sense of the word, that possibility spells a new era of interactive board and card games that you’ll play using Alexa.
‘I’ve always liked to do things a little weird,’ he tells the crowd. ‘Believe it or not, a lot of people who bought video games were weird. There were even states that outlawed them. Then, imagine if you would, going to a venture capitalist and saying, ‘I want to build a pizza parlor that’s 10 times bigger than any you’ve ever seen, and it’s also going to be an arcade, and it’s also going to have animatronics.’
‘It seems like trying to do new things is really hard,’ he finishes.
That certainly isn’t stopping him now. Still 75 years old when we spoke to him (he’s now 76), Bushnell and his company have just announced plans to release six new voice-controlled, Alexa-centric games in 2019. The first of which, a board game called St. Noire, is now available for preorder on Amazon. Bushnell pauses his presentation to ask Alexa what the game’s all about.
‘St. Noire is a voice-activated murder mystery game that challenges you to solve a murder by interviewing a full cast of characters using me,’ the assistant says.
Set to ship on July 18, St. Noire follows the trail blazed by other interactive Alexa games that came before it. First was The Wayne Investigation, a Batman-themed adventure that let you investigate the murder of Bruce Wayne’s parents. Other skills like it soon started to follow suit, including Alexa-interactive toys and an Alexa escape room challenge from Stoked Skills. As Alexa continues to mature as a platform, so too will the experiences developers build upon it.
As for Bushnell, he makes his pitch alongside Zai Ortiz, chief creative officer at X2 Games and a visual effects expert with films like Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Tron: Legacy and Iron Man on his resume (he’s the guy who designed the visuals for Tony Stark’s personal virtual assistant, Jarvis).
‘We think we can bring voice and images together to bring a new kind of cinema to people,’ Ortiz says. ‘That’s what games are. You’re able to choose the world.’
Of course, you’ll need to have chosen a touchscreen-equipped Amazon Echo Show if you want to see the images that go with St. Noire. Otherwise, it’s an audio-only experience, albeit one with a full cast of voice actors, plus music and sound effects.
To play, you’ll need to download the St. Noire Alexa skill and buy the accompanying board game from Amazon. The price: $40.
The game looks to be a little like Clue. You’ll travel to different locations, interview different suspects and try and narrow things down to determine the identity of the killer, as well as the weapon they used. Aside from suspect cards and a game board that helps you track their whereabouts, the entire experience is driven by Alexa voice commands.
Moving forward, Ortiz hopes to create experiences that are even more immersive, interactive and cinematic. He points to Bandersnatch, the interactive episode of the Netflix series Black Mirror, as evidence that people are excited about the potential for these kinds of experiences, and says that using your voice makes for controls that are more natural than holding a remote.
‘You can look at games like Pong as being clear to the left, and movies being clear to the right,’ Bushnell explains. ‘There’s a whole page in between that’s part game, part narrative, part movie. We think there’s a very vacant area that we can fill with some of the weirdest stuff you’ve ever seen.’
Along with St. Noire, X2 has five other games slated for release in 2019 — some for kids, some for families and some for adults.
‘Drunks,’ Bushnell tells the laughing crowd.
X2’s team tells me that the variety of demographic targets will help them — and Amazon — determine how different types of users respond to games like these.
Bushnell, who says that he wants to make the future happen quicker so he can live in it, seems ready for the challenge.
‘The thing that you don’t know about me is that I have a very short attention span,’ he says. ‘Once video games were kind of change-and-replace, it was a lot less interesting to me. That’s what pushed me to pizza. Then that got kind of boring. I’m just constantly trying to amuse myself.
‘Right now, [the] Amazon Echo is a powerful device that has what I call the bones to create on top of,’ he says. ‘And that’s what I really like.’