At Volley, Fun Is a Serious Business

How one company is shaping the future of voice entertainment.

Published on Aug. 18, 2023
At Volley, Fun Is a Serious Business
Volley
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As a company at the forefront of family game night, Volley takes fun seriously.

The San Francisco-based startup specializes in voice games for platforms like Amazon Alexa, smartphones and connected TVs. From the musical trivia competition Song Quiz to the immersive game-show experience Jeopardy!, it leverages rapidly evolving artificial intelligence technology to create engaging opportunities to bring people together.

James Wilsterman, the company’s co-founder and CTO, recognizes the importance of cultivating a work environment that reflects the ethos of the products the team is developing. 

“Our ambitious goal to create a new form of gameplay means our workplace is full of ambitious and creative people,” he told Built In. 

 

“Our ambitious goal to create a new form of gameplay means our workplace is full of ambitious and creative people.”

 

The team is working hard to shape the future of play, and its employees have to be ready to adapt when advances in AI create new opportunities — or obstacles — for the business. Fortunately, though, they’re never facing any challenge alone. 

“Because our products are designed to bring friends and families closer together, we also care deeply about nurturing this same spirit of togetherness in our work,” said Wilsterman.

With hundreds of millions of households worldwide using smart speakers and connected TV platforms like Fire TV and Roku, Volley has the potential to foster countless connections — and the team listens to customer feedback to help guide product decisions.  

Built In caught up with Wilsterman to find out more about the company’s role at the intersection of innovation and entertainment and what sets it apart from competitors.

 

Volley
Volley

 

What gave rise to your product? What impact do you expect it to have on the business or its customers?

James Wilsterman
Co-Founder and CTO

Casual gaming is an $8-billion market in the United States, and the vast majority of that activity today takes place on mobile devices. We realized that customers want to play casual games at home with their friends and family members in their kitchens and living rooms. People crave a modern family game night experience that involves less hassle and setup than a board game. Improvements in AI voice-recognition technologies and the wide adoption of voice-controlled devices in the home has made that possible.

 

What role did you play in developing and launching the product? 

I co-founded Volley with my longtime friend and former college roommate, Max Child. As undergraduates, Max and I worked together at The Harvard Crimson to produce a daily campus newspaper in both print and digital formats. We observed how the web was completely transforming the newspaper industry and we wanted to continue exploring that intersection of technology and media in our post-graduation careers. Together we developed a thesis that gaming would be similarly transformed due to the rise of conversational AI and voice technologies.

 

What tools or technologies does your team use to build products?

At Volley, we build games from the ground up from conception to launch. To enable this, we created our own proprietary voice game engine to power all of our titles. This engine lets us prototype and ship new games at a rapid pace.

Our products have benefited from the rapid improvements of AI over the past five years in many areas including speech recognition, speech synthesis, and natural language processing.

 

What obstacles have you encountered along the way, and how have you successfully overcome them? 

Many of the platforms we’re building for, like Amazon Alexa, Roku and Fire TV, are fairly nascent and evolving quickly, especially in the gaming space. That means we’re often encountering issues or roadblocks before any other developers. We’ve worked to form strong relationships with those platforms to create efficient communication channels. It’s motivating for our developers to be able to quickly sync with their counterparts to get unblocked.

We’ve also sometimes struggled internally to agree on when products are ready to ship. We want to build quality products but we’re also trying to invent the future of AI games. The latter requires taking risks and learning what most resonates with our users through rapid iteration.

For this reason, we made “best-in-class” a core value at Volley. “Best-in-class” means we will settle for nothing less than building the best games on the platforms we choose to build for. It also means we don’t let perfection be the enemy of the good. We’re not afraid to launch something new that might not work out. This core value has helped give teams a solid framework for staying aligned throughout the development process.

 

When you think of other companies in your industry, how does Volley compare when it comes to how you build and launch new products? 

Volley is unlike many other gaming companies in that we are inventing a new form factor for gaming that leverages emerging AI technologies. In five years, we believe conversational AI will be one of the primary gaming interfaces alongside controllers, keyboards and mobile touch controls.

We’ve seen how much fun voice AI gaming can be and we want to bring that joy to as many households as possible. Using your voice to play Volley games with your loved ones by your side is a magical experience.

 

Responses have been edited for length and clarity. Images provided by Volley.

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