Choose your own adventure
By now, many people have experienced a narrative with branching paths, whether it's a Choose Your Own Adventure book, a video game, or an interactive audio experience from your favorite voice assistant. But as anyone who's ever tried to create one of their own already knows, writing that kind of story is much, much harder than it looks. EarReality hopes to make the process easier. They hope their proprietary content management system (CMS) will soon be a universal platform where creators can quickly build and deploy to interactive voice experiences, like Bixby.
Meet Bixby Premier Developers Christian Mahnke and Sebastian Schöps of EarReality
The first step, according to EarReality’s CEO and Chief Story Guy Christian Mahnke, was to create their own stories. What better way to discover the demands that would be placed on their product? "We had to find out how to tell stories that way, because it's kind of complicated," he recalls. Fortunately, two of their earlier efforts proved to be quite popular: The Magic Forest and Iron Falcon.
In The Magic Forest, EarReality's interactive audiobook for kids, users befriend a bear who explores an enchanted wilderness, while making friends and solving puzzles. "It's a modern fairytale," Christian explains. "It's about exploring a magical world, while also teaching values like friendship and respecting the environment and other creatures of the forest." The Magic Forest has been a hit with entire families, Christian says, who like to listen as a group and decide on a course of action together. Since each episode (there are eight so far) takes only 10-20 minutes to play through, it's possible to play them repeatedly to make different choices and see what's possible. Some decisions affect how the story proceeds, Christian explains, but others are simply for personalization: "You get to decide who you want to be in the story. Are you a nice person? Are you shy? Adventurous?"
Choose your own adventure stories: Iron Falcon and The Magic Forest.
Adventure is the theme for EarReality's other hit interactive experience, Iron Falcon. A tribute of sorts to a classic 1980s branching narrative book series called Lone Wolf, Iron Falcon takes amusing liberties with the form itself. The story starts like any other fantasy adventure, but after ten minutes or so, it breaks the fourth wall. Taking advantage of some clever use of Bixby’s voice, the adventure makes it sound as though Bixby itself has begun to interact with the player: trying to lure them into traps, making ironic or sarcastic asides, or poking gentle fun such as, "Do you really intend to attack that entire group by yourself?” Christian says, "When you work with voice, people tend to establish a personal connection with their device.” So in our story, we wanted to let Bixby's personality shine through: always good-natured, never spiteful, like a good friend who's trying to make fun of you, but is still dependable."
"When you work with voice, people tend to establish a personal connection with their device.”
The Magic Forest and Iron Falcon are still going strong, with new content still being created today for both. In addition to providing their CMS for experienced voice developers, EarReality has also done plenty of end-to-end work creating voice experiences for clients like Fox and Disney. "We provide services, support, and advice on how to tell interactive stories," Christian explains: "how to design questions and choices that matter, how to engage customers, how to make a story truly interactive. There's a lot of advice we can provide." All of this work feeds back into improving EarReality's voice CMS: some clients and writers already working with it have provided useful feedback, making it usable without any programming experience necessary.
In phone screens from Iron Falcon
Becoming a Premier Developer
EarReality chose to dive into Bixby when the DevJam Developer Showcase was announced in 2019. "I started looking into it and the concept is very different from Alexa," says Sebastian Schöps, EarReality co-CEO and Head IT Guy. With the pressure of the DevJam deadline looming, EarReality enlisted the help of Daniel Mittendorf of DigiVoice, who had already made several Bixby capsules himself. "If you know what you're doing, you can get great capsules very fast," Sebastian remarks. "Yes, there's a learning curve, but when you've learned to adapt your thinking, you can build great things." Now that their CMS has been configured to work with Bixby, users can create interactive stories in hours, complete with all the audio files and metadata required.
Sebastian maintains that the most important criterion for a good voice CMS is making the hard part invisible. The proposition of managing different voice ecosystems means a tool like theirs needs to have some sort of abstraction layer that enables it to talk to Bixby or whatever other voice assistant EarReality’s users might want. "It's a challenge, but if it happens in the background, that makes it great for the user, who doesn't have to think about it—they just think about their story." Sebastian says the user experience is also vital. Stories like Iron Falcon have upwards of 500 elements, and you need to be able to manage them easily. "In the beginning, we made the tool with the focus on experimenting and trying out new features. Now we want to make it available to anyone, so we work on the UI. Our users need to do nothing but write their text, draw their tree charts, and make use of our storytelling features."
"It's a challenge, but if it happens in the background, that makes it great for the user, who doesn't have to think about it—they just think about their story."
EarReality has also been giving some thought to monetization lately. Christian is pretty sure the ideal model for monetization will depend on the story and target audience for each experience. What works for one story might not work for another, so different capsules might see different strategies, like premium pay-only content, perhaps, or episode bundles. His hottest idea, however, is something that only a person working on a CMS could imagine. "Remember Game of Thrones?" he asks. "If they had offered me a way to choose which characters survived the story and given me my own ending? I would have paid everything." Imagine a world where every Game of Thrones fan could craft their own custom ending to the series and have it delivered to them! He says there's a lesson there for voice app creators: think about how you make your customers become emotionally connected with your story, and you'll have no problem with whatever monetization model you choose.
There are plenty of these types of opportunities waiting. EarReality has already proven to itself the viability of two major genres: children's stories and fantasy. Christian says children love interactive stories because they have a rich and fantastic imagination. Listening to a story allows them to become a part of it. As a creator, you can concentrate on providing great stories that engage the listener and teach valuable lessons. As for fantasy, Christian has noticed that voice-device users tend to be first movers who like to try new things, and most of these people are also fans of science fiction and fantasy! He's positive, however, that there are even more genres waiting to be explored. Horror, for instance: imagine being told to turn off all the lights in the room so you can listen to a story in total darkness. "Do you remember when you were a child and you woke up in the middle of the night and saw things moving in the shadows? Your brain was constructing different realities and everything was very creepy and full of secrets. When it's dark, anything could be there. Having a voice device tell you a story in complete darkness is a whole new level that an appliance with a screen cannot achieve."
EarReality is looking forward to bringing their CMS to a wider audience in the future. Their system would put them in a unique position in a market that brims with possibilities in story, form, and genre. Sebastian says he's excited for a world where everyone, including storytellers who've never touched a line of code in their life, can write and publish stories on the voice platform of their choice. "I love to create new formats for voice," Christian summarizes, "because I think there's a whole new world to create and a whole lot of stories to tell and whole new ways to do it through voice. It's very exciting to be a part of that."