Jason Wishnov of Iridium Studios sits down with Karl Quigley to discuss their upcoming, entirely voice-controlled game, ‘There Came an Echo’.
Iridium Studios released their first project, Sequence, in October of 2011 and was a mash up of role-playing and rhythm games. It included the customization, inventory management and plot often found in a RPG while the usually slow combat system was replaced with a Dance-Dance-Revolution input. This means hitting directional keys in time with music. Jason Wishnov, founder of Iridium Studios in 2009, said that “I had played Puzzle Quest in 2007” which was a mash-up of a ‘match-three’ puzzle game (i.e. Candycrush) and an RPG, and he thought “… if that could be combined with an RPG, anything could”. Sequence was released on Steam and on Xbox Live Arcade, and was received with an overall positive response. The unusual combination and unique style of RPG combat would not be the last for Iridium Studios.
There Came an Echo is their next project. On February 19th 2013, the game was opened to backers on Kickstarter with a goal of ninety thousand dollars. After eleven hours, they had nearly hit thirteen thousand. By the end of their Kickstarter, Iridium Studios had received one hundred and fifteen thousand, five hundred and sixty nine dollars – far exceeding their original goal. There Came an Echo is a voice-controlled, tactical, squad based, real-time strategy (RTS). Voice control in gaming has been attempted and been marginally successful before. Notably, Tom Clancy’s Endwar was another RTS that had voice control as the main component of control. Wishnov says that “Endwar, arguably the most successful of voice commands to date, merely did so as a supplementary feature”, and this is where There Came an Echo stands out. “There Came an Echo is built from the ground up so that voice control is the best way to play”.
Many arguments against voice control so far in gaming point out that it is unwieldy at times, proving inaccurate. What was previously the main strength, quick and on the spot commands, quickly became cumbersome and by the time the command is recognised; whatever tactical move the player was planning isn’t going to work. Wishnov feels that he and his team have the solution, “Certain design decisions had to be made to ensure that voice commands feel comfortable and accurate”. However, Wishnov and his team weren’t done yet. Any English speaking player outside of a neutral accent (which is almost everywhere), would know the trouble with voice control and the recognition of their accents. “We have numerous acoustic models, these cover foreign languages of course, but also various English accents throughout the world”. Iridium Studios currently have seven accents pinned down with more on the way, taking models from Microsoft’s speech recognition platforms.
“There Came an Echo is built from the ground up so that voice control is the best way to play.”
Many indie games choose to have a minimalistic story and sometimes, omit it entirely. But Iridium Studios have incorporated an intense and intriguing plot centring on Corrin, a cryptographer at a defence company in California. The game begins when he is contacted by a mysterious figure notifying him of a number of scary-looking men coming his way. Eventually escaping and linking up with a handful of eccentric and unique characters, Corrin embarks on the mission to find out who is after him and why. “We have a very in-depth narrative, and the vocal banter back and forth between the players and characters make the characters feel that much more real”.
There Came an Echo has proven very popular with fans so far, with an all-star voice acting cast including the talents of Wil Wheaton, Ashly Burch and Laura Bailey. The music for the game is being composed by Ronald Jenkees, a popular YouTube composer who also made the music for Iridium’s previous title Sequence. Jimmy Hinson is an industry veteran for music, known for his contribution to the audio of Mass Effect 2 and Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Finally, the YouTube sensation Malukah will be providing help with the vocals. There Came an Echo entered its first Beta test on the 7th of November. “[The response] was great!” and interestingly, some fans were disappointed that Iridium Studios didn’t venture down the early access path, Wishnov explains “I think that’s a dangerous road to go down… early access works for a very specific type of game… it can lead to unfinished titles, lowered expectations, and disappointment all around”.
With regards to the length of the story, Wishnov said that “It’s not a terribly long game. I’d expect four to five hours to get through the campaign for most players” but he did hint at extra bonuses to keep players around for longer. He stated that “… the story is very intense” but the game would not be empty after that. “We’ve implemented the ‘War Room’, which is an endless-wave type mode (actually it ends)”. Wishnov went on to say that while the story was great, it wasn’t the perfect environment to play with the voice commands, and this was where the War Room shined. Iridium Studios have implemented an interesting “command aliasing system” which allows any command in the game to be replaced with anything you want. The fun example they always use is the well-known “make it so” command, from Star Trek, instead of the standard phrase. The War Room is to be the perfect place to try out new command phrases as well as different squad tactics.
Indie games prove time and time again a source of excellent and innovative ideas. Voice control has been attempted before, but as Wishnov said, only as a supplementary feature. While currently in Beta, There Came an Echo is shaping up to be one of the best indie releases in quite a while. If it can pull off this voice control correctly, it will already be a step ahead of many other strategy and tactical games.
‘There Came an Echo’ is set for release on Steam late this year.