Using voice commands in games isn't something that gamers generally get excited about, usually because the commands fail too often or because speaking at a screen makes players feel silly. Yet Los Angeles-based Iridium Studios decided to design an entire game to be played with voice commands, and it's a real-time strategy title to boot — a genre known for control schemes that tend to be complex and work best with a keyboard and mouse.
Some might think that full voice navigation would force developers to keep their game simple, but we didn't find that to be the case in a demo of Iridium's There Came an Echo during PAX East 2014.
Iridium raised more than $115,000 on Kickstarter for There Came an Echo in early 2013, and from the start, the studio pitched it as a title built from the ground up to be voice-native. But that was never going to be the only way to play it; the game also offers full support for a controller and for a keyboard and mouse.
"I'm not an idiot; I know how the world works," said Jason Wishnov, CEO of Iridium, in an interview with Polygon during the demo. In fact, there's one thing that voice isn't suited to: camera control. So that will be handled by a controller or keyboard/mouse.
"In a way, you have a lot more bandwidth with voice"
According to Wishnov, voice control makes sense for There Came an Echo because there's a context for it in the gameplay: Instead of directly controlling characters yourself, you play the role of a commander directing as many as four soldiers in the game world. There Came an Echo starts you off with basic voice commands and gradually ramps up the complexity of the actions required to stay alive.
Wishnov explained that Iridium's decision to infuse voice into There Came an Echo had a number of effects on the game's design. In order to facilitate voice control, the game's maps feature nodes that players send characters between. So rather than giving vague directional instructions — which would be difficult to do anyway, since "up" and "down" can be confusing from an isometric camera angle — you might say "Corrin to alpha one" to send Corrin to node A1. This system also helps teach complicated tactics: It's much easier for players to wrap their heads around military strategy such as flanking when they can learn it by sending soldiers to advantageous positions.
Strategy is also where voice commands really prove their worth in There Came an Echo. Wishnov agreed with the idea that for simple commands like 'yes' and 'open fire,' nothing is faster than pressing a button. But what voice control allows you to do is cue up commands and string together series of directions. For example, you could tell a character to move at a certain time by saying "Grace to bravo two on my mark" — Grace wouldn't go to node B2 until you then uttered "mark." That works with multiple characters and nodes, and while it's totally possible to do it on a controller, it's arguably easier to pull off and more natural with voice — not to mention that it makes you feel like a bad-ass military strategist.
voice control makes you feel like a bad-ass military strategist
"I don't personally feel too limited by the voice navigation," said Wishnov. "In a way, you have a lot more bandwidth with voice."
We watched Wishnov use cued-up commands to quickly take down a number of enemies. He simply moved his soldiers into place, and they handled their business on their own; he didn't have to tell them when or where to fire. According to Wishnov, Iridium designed There Came an Echo this way in an effort to "let the AI take care of the minutiae, and to let you focus on the larger tactical picture and give that information in a way that actually mimics how it would really happen [in combat]."
The voice commands don't require specialized hardware like Kinect, either. There Came an Echo is in development on PlayStation 4, Windows PC and Xbox One, and players will be able to use any standard microphone. On PC, the game will serve as a showpiece for Intel's Kinect-like RealSense camera, which will be embedded in laptops and other devices when it launches later this year.
"I'd rather have no voice acting than bad voice acting"
There Came an Echo's voice-oriented design came about at the same time as its story, which is a major part of the game. According to Wishnov, Iridium spent about five months writing the science-fiction tale, a length of time that's unusual for an RTS, and spent a lot of the game's budget on voice acting, which is unusual for an indie game. Wil Wheaton (Stand By Me, Star Trek: The Next Generation) stars as the main character, a 31-year-old cryptographer named Corrin, and the game also features the voice talents of Ashly Burch (Borderlands 2's Tiny Tina), Yuri Lowenthal and many other well-regarded actors whom Iridium went out of its way to hire.
"I'd rather have no voice acting than bad voice acting," said Wishnov.
Iridium is targeting an October release for There Came an Echo, and is hoping to launch the game simultaneously on all three platforms. However, "Steam takes priority," said Wishnov, adding, "I will not delay the game for my backers, because they deserve the game as soon as it's done on the PC." If the console versions have to come out later, they'll likely be available "closer to February."