When in Rome Archives - Voice Originals

When in Rome

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Ep. 6: Even More Voices!

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In our sixth episode of the Voice Originals podcast, we continue delving behind the scenes of When in Rome, the travel trivia board game that’s hosted by Alexa.

This week, we get together with our Nairobi local Aggie Nyagari and Dialogue Director Shane Solanki. We delve into Aggie’s work as a film maker, the path that led her to work on When in Rome, and what it’s been like for her on the other side of the directing dynamic.

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Ep. 5: More Voices!

You can subscribe to the Voice Originals Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and Soundcloud.

In our fifth episode of the Voice Originals podcast, we continue delving behind the scenes of When in Rome – a travel trivia board game that’s hosted by your smart speaker.

This time, we chat with our Lima local Daniella Valz Gen and Dialogue Director Shane Solanki. Daniella’s experiences living in different cities while working as a journalist and as a poet, have contributed to a thoughtful look at what it means to create a ‘true’ representation of a city – and whether this is actually ever possible. Combined with discussions ranging from body boarding to the brilliance of Lima’s sportswomen, Daniella takes us through Lima in her eyes.

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Ep. 4: The Voices!

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In the fourth episode of the Voice Originals podcast, we’re digging deeper into the process of making When in Rome – a travel trivia board game that’s hosted by your smart speaker.

This week, we chat with one of When in Rome’s locals, Manisha Ferdinand, as well as one of the game’s Dialogue Directors, Shane Solanki. Manisha is When in Rome’s voice of London, and together we explore the city’s thriving village economy, what it means to be a ‘Londoner’, the experience of representing London in a game… and what it’s like getting chased through a London park by zombies at 2AM.

Group of people playing When in Rome
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Ep. 3: The Free Skill!

You can subscribe to the Voice Originals Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and Soundcloud.

In the third episode of our Voice Originals podcast, we’re looking further at When in Rome: a travel trivia board game that works with your smart speaker.

One of the (many) unique aspects of making a board game that uses an Alexa skill is the opportunity to create free elements that offer a taster of the game. This week, we’re looking at the free daily skill – a travel question asked by a local each day, that anyone with an Alexa can answer!

It sounds simple, but how does it hold up as an experience all by itself? And how does a daily skill fit into people’s day-to-day lives? These are just some of the questions that George Buckenham, our Game Designer for When in Rome, and Andrew Marks, our Growth Marketing Manager, explore in this episode.

When in Rome board-game photo
When in Rome logo

Ep. 2: The Board!

You can subscribe to the Voice Originals Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and Soundcloud.

In the second episode of our Voice Originals podcast, we’re looking behind the scenes at what goes into making When in Rome: a travel trivia board game that works with your smart speaker.

This week, we looked at the design of the game board itself – the stylised map of the world that players travel across in the game. We talk with Product Designer and Illustrator Steve Bachmayer and Sensible Object founder Alex Fleetwood to investigate the process of making a map that feels both beautiful and self-aware.

How do you balance style and game requirements against authentic cultural representation? Find out in our second episode of the Voice Originals podcast!
Follow along with our transcript below:

Ana: So welcome to the Voice Originals podcast! We’re now on our 2nd episode and we’re looking behind the scenes of what goes into making our voice connected games. This week we’re diving deeper into the creation of When in Rome, and if you haven’t heard about When in Rome before it’s a travel trivia board game that works with your smart speaker. So you’re using your worldly knowledge to race around the world and win the game.

So as you can probably guess from the description I just gave, this is a game where having a map is pretty important. And it turns out that creating a map can be pretty tricky, so I’ve brought in two members of the When in Rome team to discuss a little bit more about creating the map for When in Rome and the process behind it. So, Steve and Alex would you like to say a little bit about yourselves, your background and what your role has been on When in Rome.

Steve: Hi my name is Steve Bachmayer and I’m an illustrator and 3-D designer at Sensible Object and yeah, I guess sort of came onto this project of this game quite early on, just to sort of design this map. And initially the game was very different, both in it’s sort of gameplay and its intent and the structure of it. And so it’s been quite a interesting adventure, kind of figuring out the aesthetic of it along with the way in which the game is being played and how the one defines the other.

Alex: Yeah! So hello I’m Alex Fleetwood I’m the founder and CEO of Sensible Object, and kind of initiated the When in Rome project as a prototype last summer in Seattle at the Alexa accelerator, so worked on an initial prototype with Steve providing graphics and design and creative input from the UK and then kind of been leading on the creative direction for the game, managing the production team as we’ve been putting the whole thing together over the last three or four months.

Ana: Great! Yeah, so as you can tell these guys have been absolutely crucial, I mean just in general in the design of When in Rome but especially for the map and I’ll just carry out quickly here that the person speaking here is Ana –

Steve: Yeah I was gonna say! Introduce yourself Ana

Alex: Hello Ana

Ana: Yes, hello! I don’t normally speak about myself in 3rd person and refer to myself as Ana but I’m the community manager for Sensible Object which is also coincidentally the team behind When in Rome. So, now that we’re all introduced let’s jump into a little bit of the process for making the When in Rome map.

Alex: Maybe just before that can I just talk a bit about, a bit more about gameplay?

Ana: Yeah no please!

Alex: What we have is this map which I’m gonna let Steven describe any minute now but it’s also a smart speaker game. So Alexa is the host of the experience, flying you, transporting you around the world so you’ll say ‘Alexa fly me to Tokyo!’ for example and there are 20 cities marked out on this world map and in each city is a local! A real human that we’ve recorded a ton of interactive dialogue with. And that means when you land you find out a bit about that place, you then get asked a question about that place and you can specify what kind of question you’d like to answer, and if you get that question right you’ve made a friend and that means you’ll place a friend token from the game physically on the board. So it’s a game about flying around the world and making friends and critically it’s about hearing amazing voices from people all around the world so you know Alexa is a voice platform, it’s all about putting voices and listening to voices we think into people’s homes and so that was always really cute. This idea of bringing the world into the living room and letting people feel like they were travelling to different places. So that was I think some of the brief that I kind of handed over to you in the first instance when we started creating the board and that we’ve kind of been working on and refining. So now with all of that in mind, Steve do you want to just say what it actually looks like.

Steve: Yeah for sure, in terms of what the board looks like as it stands it’s a world map as you might know it, we actually did initially play with some other ideas surrounding kind of other shapes of the world and different perspectives but we’ve landed on standard map. But so at the moment the whole idea is that we wanted to I guess give an insight and a taste of all of these different wonderful cultures from around the world much like a visual iteration of the idea of a local but at the same time not becoming too visually overwhelming that it would take away from the audio experience of your interaction with the smart speaker. So what we decided on ultimately was to go for an illustrated map where there are elements of each country, or continent or culture from those respective regions illustrated into the shapes of those areas.

Alex: Do you want to give a couple examples so like what are some of the things in Canada?

Steve: Yeah so some of the things in Canada, Canada was lots of fun, we’ve got a tin of maple syrup that is very specifically from Quebec, and then there’s a hockey player, there’s somebody ice fishing, you’ve got somebody snowboarding, canoeing because Canada can also get quite nice and warm and summery, there’s a hotel that I don’t quite remember the name of which looked quite fancy.

Alex: There’s a giant bowl of poutine, I’m gonna get the map out I brought it with me.

Ana: Oh that’s smart. Yes!

Alex: I thought that we might need it!

Ana: You were prepared! (continue from 5.52)

Alex: So you can sort of imagine there’s this gorgeous you know like if we’re looking at the board now like, I mean it’s interesting to just talk briefly about the shape of the world because it is yeah it is like mercator projection map. We tried some other projections but they didn’t feel right but we have had to fairly enthusiastically resize some things, so the Atlantic is only a little bit wider than Great Britain for example and New Zealand is roughly I’d say about a third of the size of Sydney, of Australia you know so. And do you want to just talk about why there’s been there’s been some fooling around with the geography.

Steve: Yeah. So yes there’s been some skewing of geography in the just in attempting to get the board into an illustratable state. There’s a need to have a space in which to illustrate and also to explore such a breadth of cultures. For instance I mean the UK is a great example but it’s such a tiny little space. So if you’ve just got to kind of make do with what you’ve got there but at the same time we had to kind of take sort of some liberties.

Alex: And I think we talked a lot in the process about it’s not, no one’s no one’s trying to navigate like a real landscape off of this, or like do geography. It’s imaginative. You know this is a kind of background to a kind of imaginative play where people feel like they’re traveling around the world and the illustrations really to my mind help with that.

Steve: Yeah

Alex: But yeah so I think that taking some liberties around that. There’s also just a kind of really practical point which has to do with this being a tabletop game and consequently there are pieces in tokens like airplane tokens and friend tokens and souvenirs and you need space to place those around the cities on the board. So we also had to be a little bit canny or you had to be a little bit canny about sizing things so that we could make room for those those elements.

Steve: Yeah for sure. And as you were saying before just in terms of taking those liberties, just being aware that, well whatever we’re illustrating is representative of a culture and not the physical space. A pyramid in Egypt while it spans most of North Africa, one pyramid does not actually span of Africa.

Alex: That would be some pyramid. There’s an experience that a bunch of people who we play tested the game have, where they look at one element of the map and go “Wales is really weirdly shaped” or something like that and then they go “oh but wait everything is like off” and once you realise everything is off and that the intention wasn’t to be representational in that way it kind of goes away.

Steve: Yeah exactly. I think it’s a hard pill to swallow for anyone when they look at their own sort of –

Alex: Corner of the map?

Steve: Yeah when they look at their own corner of the map and realise that whatever they’ve affiliated with their own country maybe hasn’t been represented. But I guess that’s sort of what comes with not being able to be from around the entire world. I mean for instance I’m from Australia and so –

Alex: Well you’re from quite a few places actually

Steve: Yeah

Alex: You’re pretty… we’re a fairly multicultural team.

Steve: Yeah

Alex: You managed to be multicultural all in one Steve.

Steve: I’ve got some some South African in me and I’ve actually got some Latvian in me.

Alex: There you go!

Steve: There you go

Alex: And didn’t you spend some time in Israel as well?

Steve: Yeah yeah. I lived in Israel for a while.

Alex: Now you’re an honorary Pami.

Steve: Yeah exactly. I’m sort of coming back to sort of Nestle back into the commonwealth. But yeah there’s a, I’ve been around my day. But yeah it’s still and even then I still don’t have the full cultural breadth to tackle robust illustrations of the entire world for sure.

Alex: And no one human can. I mean Ana shall we maybe talk about this shall we talk a bit about that kind of process of how we went through these different styles.

Ana: Yeah. I mean it’d be interesting to hear more about like how the map has progressed.

Steve: Yeah

Ana: So I’m sure like the beginning map and what it is now look pretty different from each other.

Alex: Yeah I was like let’s go back to map zero, map number one.

Steve: Yeah

Alex: So you’re in the Sensible Object office, it’s like kind of August/September of last year and I’m off doing wild things in Seattle and there’s these kind of communications coming back over slack and over calls and I’m just trying to visualize that that kind of first map.

Steve: So I actually found it earlier and it was kind of the earth hovering in space. And both of the polar caps have sort of popped off and there’s all these arms kind of coming out of it. And I think the initial part of the game we were talking about rather than sort of friend tokens we’re talking about that all kind of like gems or something and these sort of trade pieces

Alex: That’s right

Steve: And so there’s kind of this idea of chasing these gems across the world. And so I was kind of at one point there’s a –

Alex: little spaces for the gems to go and stuff

Steve: Yeah there’s space for the gems to be kind of the hands coming out of the world sort of like moving around and sort of picking up these gems and trying to plop them off the earth.

Alex: It’s really interesting how, like a big theme across all of Sensible Object’s work is this way where digital game development informs physical game development and vice versa. Like your kind of constantly going around these loops and these conversations where your needing to be very flexible in your thinking about what your design process is because extra kind of pressures and complexities are being placed on it because they’re kind of being introduced from all these other domains of activity that don’t normally like bustle up against one another in the same way. So yeah there was that original one and then I remember there was a relatively plain map with more detailed kind of like mappy outline like, so the one that we have now is more like hand drawn and has a slightly kind of vectorized feel where some of the edges have been spewed out a little and it had much bigger kind of white space for each of the cities didn’t it. It was sort of like, because we basically went with let’s just make a great big white space for each city where all the tokens and everything can live.

Steve: Yeah exactly

Alex: And then I think what was interesting was there was a really big change in our creative process at around the time when we recruited Deborah and Shane onto the project. Deborah Pearson And Shane Solanki, and they have worked together as the interactive dialogue directors for the game. So they’ve been responsible for casting and devising with and directing and writing for the locals. There’s 20 locals that we’ve cast to represent and be the voices of their city. And as you can imagine that’s another, it’s a sort of parallel activity that’s been going on where there’s been a lot of questions about sensitivity and representation. You know like how are we going to represent all these different cultures in the game and in the right way. And they definitely brought some of that thinking into the kind of feedback process.

Steve: Yeah, yeah definitely.

Alex: And I remember that they kind of looked at an early map and I can’t remember Shane’s exact words but it was something like ‘this is a colonias nightmare!’ You know Shane is kind, he was brilliant he didn’t mince his words he kind of came right at it and it was like I think we’ve got some issues here about how we’re going to representing cultures on the board. I mean do you want to speak a bit about what that process was like from your side as the kind of designer and the illustrator.

Steve: Yeah sure. So in terms of having having somebody arrive and break down the map and look at it in that way was a nice moment of ‘okay cool there’s still obviously work that needs to be done on this’ but also a nice moment of getting to sense check it and say ‘okay cool’, let’s because at that point we’d only really had one iteration of it. And so there also has been a bit of a tight turn around and so having another opportunity to sort of come back to this map and I guess address it in more depth and detail and be able to ask these questions of you know what’s offensive and what’s not and what is representative of a place and what’s not, was quite a good experience of being able to a) work into the map with more detail but also with just a sense of safety and that it’s, this is actually being able to base that off information from the locals so for instance –

Alex: I remember that Sydney Australia and I say Sydney because is the city in Australia on the map, but Australia was one of the places that we all felt really good about quite early on. And that’s kind of not a surprise because it’s a place that you’re from and that you know intimately so if I just like pick out some of the features of Sydney we have an arrow in the middle of the map. We have the flag of Indigenous Australia over the Northern Territory in Melbourne sort of region there is a very appetizing looking flat white. Sydney is represented by the Harbour Bridge and the opera house and then as you go up into Queensland there’s all manner of tasty looking tropical fruits. And in South Australia there’s the kind of wine lands and another appetizing glass of wine and then down here the twelve apostles, the sort of cliff features which run along the South Australian coast. So you can imagine all these illustrations are kind of very beautifully woven in with one another to make this kind of patchwork of references and images that kind of denote Australia and for me like they tessellate really beautifully. So like when I think about visiting Australia and experiencing Australia I think about the food and the nature and the people and the architecture and of course the history in terms of you know the invasion of Australia and the settling of Australia and the kind of tension that exists there and all of those things are kind of material and I think that you’ve represented them very beautifully in the Australian map and I remember Deborah who is very insightful fear to make a saying if we can do for the rest of the world what you’ve already done for Australia then we’ll be in great shape.

Steve: Yeah yeah. Which is both flattering in the sense of Australia sort of landed so well but the idea that I could even begin to tackle almost anywhere else in the world with as much kind of understanding as it’s taken, I don’t know about 20, 26 odd years of living in a place to get to that point.

Alex: Well what we did was we, we just tried to gather a lot of feedback so we asked the whole team. I think that at a rough count theres something like 10 or 12 nationalities represented inside of the sensible object team either either through parentage or close family or through experience. We also reached out through our locals a little bit that we’d started to cast at that stage and kind of get some of those involved. I certainly know that we all kind of tried to get communications with people like so for example sensible object has some business partners in Hong Kong. So we asked we asked those guys to kind of feed in and give their perspective. And we started to generate this sort of enormous deluge of info of like stuff that felt wrong like so for example we had some people in like kind of traditional national dress, didn’t we like there was one in South America. There was a Kossack riding a horse in kind of the big empty bit in Russia. So there was a lot of info that you were trying to kind of distill and work with.

Steve: Yeah exactly. So yeah it was just about trying to be as accurately representative of each place without treading on any toes and without misrepresenting things having any cultural faux paux that we weren’t even aware.

Alex: Right.

Steve: I mean even for instance in Japan there was quite a significant one of the Empire of the Rising Sun, at the moment you’ve just got the red sun in the sky over Mount Fuji, but before I had the rays coming off it and that’s sort of that actually calls back to the old Japanese Empire.

Alex: Right. That kind of imperialist history that people are not so comfortable –

Steve: Yeah exactly. And it’s kind of, it’s an image that’s used here in the sense of pop culture but it’s not necessarily, given the credence of it, well what it represents in history. And so I guess, so it’s something that I’ve never necessarily affiliated that with.

Alex: Yeah

Steve: And I’ve never seen is as being a sensitive image but I knew only once sort of talking to people from Japan and even you sent me some great material from your friends in Japan.

Alex: Yeah. Well all of this, I think it’s interesting. It’s like it’s it’s important to locate this in the kind of production process and I think this is another thing that’s kind of a reality of being a small company, a startup is you’re always working on constrained resources and time and really wanting to try and do the right thing but kind of doing your best with the kind of limited materials that we can kind of put behind it. You know like, I remember reading about Moana when Pixar went out to create Moana which is about Pacific Islander culture and telling stories. It was the same team that had worked on Pocahontas 20 years previously which had been this kind of disaster from the kind of politics and representation perspective and it’s the same dudes unfortunately but still, they had learnt from that initial thing and they set up an ethics committee where they actually went out and hired a bunch of people to give their honest opinion on representation in the script and in the character designs and in the kind of choice of music and all these kind of elements.

And it’s a really big deal I think my understanding at least from reading around the subject for Pacific Islanders who have seen their culture represented in this really thoughtful and positive way in the movie and I think you can tell, like even that’s not somebody who understands that culture particularly well, it has a richness and it has a kind of quality to it and a spiritual quality to it that’s really beautiful and I really love that movie. We can’t afford an ethics committee so we have to do our own kind of scrappy version of that and then ruin it all through the kind of tireless and in fact indefatigable Steve. But there was a point wasn’t there, that we reached where we had to kind of say and I think we’re going to run out of time to make any more changes will go through any more rounds of feedback.

Steve: Yeah I think maybe this is just something that is part and parcel with any creative project when you’re working to a deadline is doing the best that you can do within the means possible and that’s within sort of both resources surrounding time and kind of manpower. So yes, sort of being just the sole person, you’re illustrating this map and also coming down to the crunch against time with manufacturing. I think it just came a lot down to trying to get it into the best place that we could, certain that we’re not offending anybody because that’s –

Alex: Well we’re not 100 percent certain, because of course the capacity of people to be offended on the internet is pretty high. So I think that I kind of have it in my mind as if anybody is offended then we can say hand on heart that we really tried to be thoughtful about this and kind of go out to be as respectful as we could about about everyone’s culture and if they are offended that’s very much on me not on you by the way I’m going to be out there taking that one on the chin. But the other piece of this is it’s a paper map and we have the files and I think it’s interesting to think about how this illustration might evolve over time. You know this isn’t a fixed entity and like anything in the kind of digital physical world in which we operate we can think about how it evolves and how it changes in light of those kinds of pieces of feedback and input. And I think it’s also worth saying that we know as a team we loved the illustrations in the art style so much that they’re actually the central feature of the box and the packaging and the kind of the logo of the game. So we’ve actually kind of carried it through into the whole design of the game. In fact one one of my absolute, there’s two things which I’m going to try and describe. So when you open up the box and you take out the board you can see that the box itself is lined with a kind of cardboard insert. It has a kind of composite of the illustrations from the world map. So not done geographically laid out as it is on the world map now but more like tessellated together to become a single wallpaper like layout.

Steve: Yeah. It’s just like a texture almost rather than an illustration.

Alex: But it looks gorgeous and it looks so, it really reminds me of a certain style of print design which I kind of associate with the sort of 30s and 40s like some books that I used to see in my grandfather’s house that had a kind of paper sleeve. There was one of Swallows and Amazons which I think they reprinted recently I saw it in a bookshop and it has that same kind of idea of like printing and handwritten illustrations, really really lovely. And it also is used on the backs of the carts so you get upgrade cards in one in Rome that you can collect and then invoke by saying an activation phrase to Alexa and they’ve got the same illustration but kind of colorized in red and blue for the different teams. And it makes a very nice card back.

Steve: Yeah. The card back is probably one of my favourite iterations of it. It’s really nice.

Alex: When in Rome is quite a conceptual game right, you know like it’s sort of, we’re talking about travel and the emotion of visiting a new place and the experience of meeting somebody and what we’re hoping is that, there’s a kind of idea at the centre of that which is about how close you get to people you travel with. You know you tend to really bond with people you go on holiday with you tend to go on holiday with people you’re really bonded with and it’s because you’re kind of outside of your normal lives in your kind of having adventures and experiencing the unfamiliar and exciting and making a visual identity out of that is kind of super tough. Yeah yeah that’s a pretty even airy brief.

Steve: Yeah, yeah. I mean as you said before it was kind of a situation where the brief and font, the illustrations and then the illustrations came back to reinform the brief and so it wasn’t necessarily just a one way street of, ‘here this is the brief and get it done’. But it was kind of a here this is the brief as we know it. And then when receiving the well whatever I’d done with the illustrations whenever you would feedback on that. We’d have other discussions that will ultimately start to shape the game in different ways and it was quite nice that the two are sort of developing in tandem so it didn’t feel as stale as I just had to sort of just make this fit into the concept of the game but rather the two sort of became –

Alex: had a reciprocal effect. Yeah completely. And yeah and I do think there there’s something about this tapestry of images kind of all layered over one another. That is for me a lovely summation of that idea of travel and wonder and experience you know this sort of abundance of places you can go all kind of smooshed up next to one another that you see on the front of the box, hopefully it’s going to be something quite enticing and I think it’s quite a different looking game from you know like we think a lot about the kind of packaging design and how things stand out in a shop and I am hopeful that this one will be intriguing like why this sort of hand drawn illustration style when people find it.

Steve: Yeah. I’m certainly curious to find out what people think. So –

Alex: Are they going to buy? (Laughter) well let’s let’s hope so.

Ana: I mean I know for me personally when I look at the game but also as you were saying the box and the print which is largely influenced by the board design, for me the tricky balance of celebrating different cultures yet being aware of how you know we live in a global world now and you know a lot of places it would be wrong to sum of them up in a stereotype so getting the right balance between celebrating uniqueness whilst also acknowledging the globalness of the world we now live in. I think that’s really well summed up in that tapestry design where you can look and everything is sort of compiled into one place yet also has an ability to be picked apart and you can see like the unique aspects of different places think like that’s something that I love about the design that you guys have all sort of come up with and fed back and iterated on together.

Alex:I mean you had some experience of that with, because you brought some feedback about some locations on the board through your family right.

Ana: Yeah I mean I guess this was the neat thing that you guys were saying about feedback was obviously we didn’t have the resources for an ethics team but everyone I think on the sensible object team put their fingers or branches or whatever out as far and wide as they could to get as much feedback as possible and cover as many blind spots as we could. And yeah I have a lot of family in Asia.

My mom is from Singapore so I’ve got a lot of family there so input on the Asian region is something that we could provide some opinions on at least and then we have other people from other areas of the world also feeding back on other parts of the world as well. So I feel pretty hopeful and optimistic that we’ve done a pretty good job on trying to make the map representative maybe not in a to scale really, I don’t know geographically metre by metre accurate sort of way but something that feels true to the celebratory nature of the game and a feeling of inclusiveness that we want to embody in when in Rome.

Alex: I think if anyone is going to be really offended it’s going to be the Welsh, Wales slightly looks on the board like a suburb of London as a kind of, and knowing and loving some people from Wales, the idea that a bunch of trendy London design people have kind of eroded some of their national identity and culture is going to go down like a cup of cold sick I reckon. But you know if we end up with this sort of contingent of angry Welshman at the door we’ll figure out we’ll figure out a way of placating them in future versions.

Steve: I’m sure we can massage the UK out a bit more on the next iteration of the map and give Wales what it deserves.

Alex: Maybe we can add Cardiff as a location I think it might you know, but then what will you do about there not being a place in Scotland! We’ll have to do when in Great Britain focus on 20 places in the UK.

Steve: I think we can reduce Russia by at least 50 percent.

Ana: Yeah. There’s no pleasing everyone but I think we’ve done as good as we can.

Alex: Let’s hope so.

Ana: Yes, Steve and Alex thank you so much for joining us today for the podcast. I feel I’ve personally learnt a lot and I’ve been on the team for when in Rome so this has been really great getting insight into the map development process.

Steve: Thanks a lot for having us!

Alex: Yeah it was really fun thank you.

Ana: Great. So people listening if you’re interested to find out more about voice originals or When in Rome you can go to voiceoriginals.com or follow us on Facebook and Twitter at the same handles, voice originals. When in Rome and the free daily skill fully launch on July 2nd but you can preorder a copy from the 18th of June on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk. Thanks guys again for joining me. And thank you listeners for tuning in. And make sure to check back for the next episode!

When in Rome logo

Ep. 1: The Words!

You can subscribe to the Voice Originals Podcast on iTunes, Stitcher, and Soundcloud.


In the first episode of the Voice Originals podcast, we peer behind the scenes of writing for When in Rome: a travel trivia board game that works with your smart speaker.

This week, we chat with When in Rome’s dialogue directors: community-orientated artist Shane Solanki and playwright Deborah Pearson, diging into the process of sourcing and working with locals from different cities and creating all the wonderful words in the game.

We look at what makes a good local, what makes home feel like home, how to evoke authenticity (and if that’s even possible) and… whether robots are the future!

The Voice Originals podcast takes a look behind the scenes at what goes into making the world’s first series of voice connected games: board games that you play with your smart speaker!

You can read the full transcript of the first episode below:

Ana: Welcome to our Voice Originals podcast. So this is our first episode, which is pretty exciting and what we’re gonna do is take a peek behind the scenes of what goes into making all of our different voice connected games and this week we’re looking at When in Rome.

So if you haven’t heard of When in Rome before, When in Rome is travel trivia board game that works with your smart speaker where you’re racing against other teams to get around the world and use your world smarts to get points. So enough about the game, this is about the people behind the game so we should probably get some intros to the two people that are gonna be chatting for the most part of it.

So Shane and Deborah, would you like to give a little intro about yourselves, what you do and and a little bit about what you’ve been doing in When in Rome.

Deborah: Hi!

Shane: Hi!

Deborah: Well Shane and I are the dialogue directors of When in Rome, so what we do is we cast the locals, we cast all of the voices that you hear in the game. We wrote a lot of the trivia questions that you hear in the game and we also directed the recording sessions for the people who speak in the game basically. And both Shane and I come from more of a contemporary performance background we’re really used to devising with people in that kind of a setting. This was the first time I worked on a board game which was exciting, but I’d done lots of different community led pieces before.

Shane: Yeah sure this is the first time I’ve ever worked in board games or the idea of gaming. Lots of my work has been participatory so it’s been encouraging other people’s stories. So it’s been nice taking that skill and applying it to this process.

Ana: Cool, that’s great. Thank you guys for kicking that off for us, I guess I’ll also add really quickly just like this other random voice that’s interjecting things, my name’s Ana, I’m the community manager for Sensible Object, the team behind Voice Original. But yeah, back to the questions, so in terms of all of the dialogue directing you guys had on your plate there was quite a lot of stuff going on. So, just to pick one place to start, in terms of finding the locals that you were going to direct, what do you feel makes a good local and what was it like in terms of the process of finding the locals for the game?

Deborah: I think that one of the main things we were going for was that we didn’t necessarily want professional voice actors. Some of the people who we’re working with just happen to be coincidental professional voice actors but if that was the case we found out afterwards. So for example the person who we cast for Moscow who usually works in education as an education consultant, we only found once we were actually well into the process, used to be a professional voice actor in Moscow so he does have professional voice acting experience but for the most part we just wanted people who knew their cities really well, who love their cities, who are passionate about their cities and who had a kind of warm, friendly, vibe I guess that you could hear in their voices. Like the kind of people who you would want to stay in touch with afterwards if you were travelling.

Shane: This morning, I went into Greggs which is a bakers’ just around the corner from here and I watched the manager from Greggs pull in 8 people for a job interview and I was thinking about how the kind of culture of every company or every organisation or every team is kind of dictated by the kind of personalities involved in the team. So when I came in to actually meet, to audition for this job as it were, I met the When in Rome team and I was surrounded by this really young, dynamic, fun, friendly, intimate kind of atmosphere. And I think that’s exactly what we were looking for, for me in casting with the same kind of people.

Ana: Yeah I mean that makes a lot of sense. I’ve been listening to the dialogues you guys have been recording and everyone just sounds like the kind of person you could easily chat to and is super friendly which yeah I guess is what you want if you’re travelling around the world. That’s the kind of people you’d ideally want to meet. So yeah that makes a lot of sense. Were there any challenges while you guys were recording that you found, that you weren’t expecting maybe in terms of approaching dialogue directing?

Deborah: I think one thing that’s interesting, I’m aware of this from doing a podcast is that some people will be very very comfortable when they come into the room, and very much themselves and then as soon as they know they’re being recorded, as soon as the microphone’s in front of them they just become a different human being, because they become really self conscious I suppose and they’re overthinking the fact that whatever they’re saying is being recorded. So that’s really been something that I think as a dialogue director where I feel part of our job is just making people feel comfortable throughout the session, making them forget about the microphone and making the real them come out as much as possible on the recordings.

Ana: Is there anything that you’ve found surprisingly rewarding or any really great moments that you had in recording sessions that made you like ‘wow this is something I wasn’t expecting but it’s been really great.’

Shane: There were loads actually, I was kind of reflecting on the fact that in the process it was hard to design because I would’ve liked more room for the improvisation of the moment and the intimacy of the moment to come up. But in the design of the process because the design of the process had to serve the actual game it was difficult to do that. It was almost as though the script became what was important rather than the intimacy of the moment and the improvisation that might come up in conversation. So I think in the answer to your question the good moments were when we captured something that was a little bit off script where personality could really bubble through as opposed to a non professional reading the script.

Deborah: Yeah I’ve been doing a lot of the audio reviews and so I’ve been reviewing some of Shane’s sessions along with my own sessions and there’s one moment I really really loved which was for the Auckland local Josh where Shane somehow, I don’t know how you guys decided to do this, Josh starts singing I believe ‘the robots are the future’ to the tune of Whitney Houston’s song and it’s really, it’s very very funny and it also sort of feels like you guys were just having a nice time in the session and you know you could just push it a little bit further in terms of how silly he was willing to get, which is lovely I really like it.

Shane: The more we’ve moved on with the sessions and the more comfortable we’ve been with each other, so for example Dan’s been here as well and we’ve really kind of been able to effectively relax and the more relaxed we are the more intimate an environment has been created which suits the material that we’re making.

Ana: Okay I definitely want to hear that, Josh’s Auckland singing piece because I haven’t heard that yet that sounds incredible.

Shane: It’s quite fun asking people who are not used to using a microphone to sing so for example, how’s your singing voice?

Ana: Oh it’s very questionable, the tone is normally quite what the song should be but I can give it a shot you know.

Shane: Alright shall we go for ‘I believe the robots are the future’ we can go all three of us if you like.

Ana: Erm I don’t actually know, I’m not sure I know that song.

Shane: You’ve seen the Whitney Houston song ‘the greatest love of all?’ I believe the children are the future. (singing)

Ana: Oh see I recognise it when you sing it but I’m not sure I know it.

Deborah: Oh this is all very convenient isn’t it!

Ana: I mean what can I say you know, if I don’t know the song I guess I couldn’t sing! But no I think we’ll be saving everybody listening to the podcast from hearing my attempt to sing right now especially with my croaking voice in the air. If you guys wanna go I’m happy to listen. If you wanna give ‘I believe robots are the future’ a shot

Shane: We’ll need Alexa’s ‘I believe that robots are the’ – that doesn’t sound like Alexa

Deborah: ‘I believe that robots are the future’

Ana: Yeah!

Deborah: ‘Hello Shane, my name is Alexa’

Shane: That’s weirdly computer-like and weirdly hot, it’s like a female version of Hal.

Deborah: Of Hal yeah! Hal’s kind of attractive in a weird way, sort of, because he’s like really erm, what’s that word where he denies you everything? He’s really withholding.

Shane: Yeah

Deborah: ‘I’m sorry I can’t do that Dave.’ ‘I’m afraid I can’t do that Dave.’

Shane: One of the interesting things about that is, and this game is the fact that things can’t be seen we’re living in an age where everything is so visual and here’s a really interesting experience where personalities that people are hearing in the game, the locals, they can’t be seen, so in effect you’re creating a picture of them as you listen to them, which for me is fascinating.

Deborah: Oh yeah absolutely, I often wonder the extent to which you can tell a person’s age or I don’t know personality, like when I look at the locals and then I hear them I do wonder like how much of the way they look is gonna come across in their voices? But I think what does come across is how warm and personable they all are. I mean I was going to say that was for me the sort of unexpected – I mean it shouldn’t have been unexpected but yet it kind of was because we had so many recording sessions back to back and you’re really just thinking about them in terms of your schedule.

What I think started to dawn on me more gradually, was I suppose I knew it but I didn’t know it, was just how diverse the group of people we were working with more in terms of where they were from and where they’d grown up and what their experiences had been and that’s like being able to spend you know two weeks with, one day with someone who grew up in Australia, the next day with someone who grew up in Hong Kong, the next day with someone who grew up in you know in Lima has been such a pleasure. And it’s a thing we kind of experience all the time living in London anyway because it’s a really international city but it just has been so clear through working through this project. And it’s something that kind of snuck up on me in a really lovely way I just like to be around people from all over the world. It’s a really rich experience.

Shane: It was interesting the contrast between working in a London studio and working with the international studios. Initially, I was kind of freaked out by the discombobulation and the removal of working across skype internationally but the more it went on and the more I kind of sank into the process the more fun it was because you were actually zooming into another place in the world and kind of capturing this very global conversation.

Deborah: Oh yeah absolutely I definitely had that experienced when I was skyping with the guys in Cairo. First of all because Cairo has a little bit of a dodgy internet connection but luckily we were okay most of the time, but secondly because one of the directions that the first sound engineer gave to Muhammad when we were in Cairo was that it would probably help Muhammad a lot if he spoke with his hands more while he was recording. And so I could see them on skype and I could just see Muhammad getting really really expressive with his hands and suddenly I was like, it just really kind of brought home to me like this is really, in Cairo, people speak with their hands all the time and that’s a really big part of the way people speak and it was just like such a lovely moment of being like ‘oh god I wish I could just go to Cairo and just hang out with these guys’ because it seems great!

Shane: That’s so cool. That’s what it felt like in Mumbai actually it felt like I was hanging out in the recording studio in Mumbai. People were kind of coming in and out with cups of tea and I was there!

Ana: Yeah I mean I was gonna ask like, did it feel different or more difficult when you were doing an in person recording versus directing over skype or something like that but it seems like maybe it was sort of like different but in a good way to do over skype sessions as well?

Deborah: I mean we have a minority of sessions that we’re doing over skype I think that is probably for the best because they take longer and they’re just a little bit more complicated for lots of practical and logistical reasons that just aren’t interesting to talk about on a podcast. But they are exciting, like it is really exciting to feel like you’re beaming in at least for me in my case to New York and Cairo that’s really really exciting.

Shane: It was very much about the engineer, and I guess if the job is to create intimacy then face to face as we all know is much much easier to do. You know it’s much easier to create that atmosphere when you’re making eye contact and you’re kind of almost breathing the same air. So with the international ones it was almost down to the engineer. If they were a person that could encourage that form of intimacy then that’s what happens in a way, that’s how it was for me.

Deborah: I think in a way the engineer ends up being the other dialogue director really in that situation because they’re the person who’s in the room with the performers so they do things like give a direction like ‘why don’t you speak with your hands that’ll make you sound more natural’ which was such a good direction and not something that I would’ve ever thought to say because I don’t know him, speaking with one’s hands isn’t necessarily something that we feel is super important to do in western culture.

Ana: Yeah especially I guess if you’re thinking about the voice part so much and you totally forget like actually other signals that you might be using that even if you can’t see them they just naturally feed in to your voice as well but yeah that’s really interesting I hadn’t thought about that before either. But now that I think about it, yeah hand gestures can be a huge part like body language in general.

Deborah: Oh yeah absolutely I mean one thing when we, with a couple of locals like if somebody’s smiling while they’re reading a question you can hear it. Like you can hear a smile in someone’s voice so every now and again if somebody was you if it’s a really really long session and people are getting tired we might say like ‘could you try smiling while you read the next question’ and you can hear it in the recording but also it does up their energy a little bit. It kind of ups everyone’s energy.

Ana: I don’t know when I’ll ever use this information I have no idea when I’ll have to record stuff but I feel I want to remember this to use in the future at some point but yeah I mean did you guys find that your previous experiences, I know you said you haven’t worked on board games but you’ve definitely worked in directing other creative communal, not communal, community sort of projects like have you found that that was useful in working on When in Rome as well?

Deborah: Yeah absolutely I think certainly in terms of the casting that was really useful because Shane and I both had pretty extensive networks where people we knew could kind of contact other people we knew I think because of that we’ve ended up with a really really cool group of people. We have a lot of artists actually in group, a lot of people who make some kind of creative work I think that’s just because of the network we’re able to reach out to in terms of the locals. I would say probably also just the devising sessions because basically what would happen for the game is we would write the questions collectively, a group of about 5 or 6 people wrote the questions as you know because you’re one of the people Ana, and then after the questions were written we would have a 90 minute skype session with each of the locals to just go through all of the questions and devise some things and make the questions feel a bit more personal to them and I think that that was very much, for me a place where I really felt I was using the skill set that I have through making participatory work and more devise contemporary performance work. I don’t know if you would agree Shane.

Shane: I was thinking about something completely different whilst listening to you.

Deborah: Really what were you thinking about? How about how robots are the future?

Shane: I guess I was thinking about Alex Fleetwood’s vision in terms of creating, I remember when we created an engine like a little bit like a, kind of an international whatsapp group for everybody to participate in and he shared with all of us an earlier seed for his project. And this kind of idea for creating an iterative process that a global community could engage in. So for me, this was almost, the first stage I think in what may come later for further Voice Originals games of creating a globally devised family or a globally devised stage. So I feel almost that this is like a first step process of the voice originals team figuring out how to actually create this material that represents a very kind of, devising group, a kind of family, a team, a kind of ensemble from different parts of the world in different locations.

Deborah: Yeah I agree, I think it was also just a situation of like being based in London, was a really really important thing for this game because we could kind of capitalize on the fact that this is a really international city and people come from all over the place I mean my accent is paid to that because I’m not from London originally I’m from Canada. So yeah I think that being based here was a really really useful thing but it is cool to think that we’re devising this kind of global community and I think that the people that we’ve brought on board are the right people to be part of that global community. It’s not like we’re devising with a group of bankers, because that’s a global community too the markets are also a global community.

Shane: That would been fun.

Deborah: That’s the next Voice Originals game.

Shane: I guess, I don’t know how honest we wanna be in this podcast, you can always chop this bit out. But in a way you know the logistics of this project, it was easier to find people from all over the globe here in London, the dream would’ve been to have 40 sessions all over the world but the logistics of that would’ve been an absolute nightmare so we found most of our people here so which in some ways brilliant because it kind of represents what an amazing city London is but also it feels like a bit of a cop-out in a way.

Deborah: I don’t know I mean I think if we had Toronto, if Toronto had been one of the cities I feel like I would’ve been really really proud and happy to represent as the local from Toronto because I actually think that if you’re a person who grew up elsewhere and now you live here you moved here as an adult, although sometimes it means not all of your references will be as contemporary as you like unless you’re visiting quite often which most people do, I think that actually the nostalgia of living away makes you feel like more of a local for the city that you’ve left. At least in my case like I feel really a lot of pride and a lot of love for Toronto even though I don’t live there anymore. Yeah I can’t explain it but I think it’s when you live away from somewhere sometimes that’s where you really understand the extent to which is a kind of home for you.

Shane: That is for me on a slight tangent is such a note which I find really interesting just in terms of how being a child with a diaspora, my parents were born in Kenya, my grandparents in India, how much children in the diaspora community often, kind of almost refuses to let go, things become frozen about their homelands, their traditions, their stories become a little bit frozen which is a fascinating thing.

Deborah: Oh yeah absolutely, yeah my mum is Hungarian refugee in the 1950s so I also have this, I mean my dad’s British but I feel like no connection to the UK even though I live here whereas the Hungarian side of things, maybe it’s because they were forced to leave I don’t really know but yeah there is an element that that Hungarian thing is pretty strong somehow in our family.

Ana: Yeah I mean like, even like, I guess it’s interesting for me listening to like everything you guys have said just understanding where people feel like they’re from versus where you might officially be in your passport or marked as ‘from’ or where you’ve grown up or where you now live and all of those things are like really sort of mixed in this sort of strange personal heritage soup and like it can be really hard to know where you’re from at least for me personally, now we’re just going in a little biography.

Shane: Where are you from?

Ana: Where am I from? So I was born in London, but then my mum’s from Singapore and I moved there when I was young, my dad is from Greece so the majority of my family on his side is still in Greece so yeah I was going to say Deborah the feeling of feeling more connected to the place almost when you’re away from there I definitely get that with Singapore as well, from my accent if you hear it it doesn’t sound Singaporean but funnily the more I’m away from it the more it feels like home which sounds really counterintuitive but in that sense I guess, is there a conclusion to this story, maybe not a very concrete one but it feels like maybe where people are from and their pride for what they would call their home is like not always as straightforward as you might assume and definitely I think like there were limitations when making When in Rome in terms of, yeah it’s so much easier when everyone’s in London with like a tiny team, to have everyone be here but I guess in that sense maybe it’s also uncovered some nice things like just by coincidence in terms of ‘oh so this is what it means to feel like you’re from a place’ even if you’re not necessarily there right now.

Shane: I’m thinking about the cities and where those people were from. You know I think when we were initially casting we were so, I think there was this kind of, you know we definitely wanted people who perhaps were born there. We went through a really interesting process didn’t we with regards to ‘what happens if our Japanese person is Japanese but caucasian’ so that was interesting.

Deborah: Yeah we did have that because there were quite a few people like we had an american guy who auditioned who had lived in Berlin for a long time but he had an 100% american accent and he was interesting, I could see how he considered himself Berlin local but we didn’t cast him because we cast your housemate instead who’s also from Berlin which I think is great.

Shane: He’s so Berlin my housemate, he’s so Berlin.

Deborah: But yeah that did come up a couple of times around whether or not, yeah and we also looked at someone who was Lebanese who’s living in Berlin now who we also almost cast. So there was this question of like what is, what is a local, but I think the people we cast all felt like the right people to cast to be honest.

Shane: That’s a good thing.

Deborah: Yeah, yeah exactly!

Shane: But there was accent as well wasn’t there, it was so fascinating considering. so for example absolutely hands down, you know even though it’s very bad to have favourites my favourite to work with was Cape Town because he’s so gorgeous and his accent is so thick and initially when we recorded him we were like, ‘are people gonna kind of understand what he’s saying’ whereas some of them for example we recorded May in Bangkok yesterday who’s effectively got an american accent and will make it probably quite easy for people in the game in particularly north american’s to play. And when she speaks thai it’s with the most gorgeous thai accent so that was fascinating thinking about. We did something so bad in the process it was almost ‘could you say it a little bit more, for the western ear, could you change the way that you said that’ away from how it should be said and say it in a way that people in the world would be able to understand it.

Deborah: Yeah we had to do that a lot.

Shane: Which feels kind of a little bit –

Deborah: I know –

Shane: Kind of almost colonial you know counterintuitive in a way.

Deborah: Yeah but people do need to be able to play the game and understand what’s going on in the game. I mean I yeah I’ve always felt kind of really torn, there’s always one part of me that’s like ‘no everybody should just be saying things exactly the way that they need to be said’ but at the same time we also just need the players to understand the questions. I don’t know, hard to know.

Shane: So I think when you listen back to Josh from Auckland who you loved but he loved speaking maori words or ‘maori’.

Deborah: He said it like ‘maori’.

Shane: Yeah, And for you you couldn’t understand that.

Deborah: It just sounded like when I heard it, the first time I heard him say ‘maori’ it sounded like he said ‘mouldy’ and I was like oh no and then as we kept going I was like I understand he’s saying maori and he must be saying it the way it’s supposed to be said. But of course in the game you only hear from a local once or twice because of the game design so you don’t have that time for your ear to adjust to the way things should be said. So I don’t know what you guys have decided to do with that maori thing but –

Shane: We kept it.

Deborah: Alright, great, well people just have to get on board.

Shane: We put in a couple of questions about the fact that sometimes he heard people call it ‘mayori’.

Deborah: ‘Mayori’! (laughter)

Ana: I guess like game design plus authenticity plus dialogue directing altogether equals like compromise in some areas like for sure.

Shane: Wow for me that’s a really interesting point in particular given the speed and turnover of this project. I’m not used to working on commercial projects in this way the speed and turnover was insane so marrying, particularly game design to the job that we were doing it was all happening so quickly it was all almost as though decisions were happening so quickly that post, you could say oh we could’ve done it like that but there was a lot of kind of I guess hit in the ground with our feet running.

Ana: Yeah no definitely, like this has been a whirlwind of a project for sure but I think, yeah it’s gonna be really exciting to see you know all of the work you guys have done come together, like we already play testing I know you guys have been at some of the play tests as well and hearing all of the dialogue snippets actually popping through in the game now and it’s just transformed what would be just basically a trivia game into something that really makes you feel like you’re engaging with other parts of the world and learning really interesting connective things about other cities from people that care about them so yeah thank you guys for all the work you’ve done on behalf of the Sensible Object team. It’s been a mammoth task but you guys have done amazing.

Deborah: Thank you, thank you Ana I think that also it’s a thing where you know, you and Andrew who both work usually in marketing have also helped write the game, which I don’t know if you knew you were gonna be doing going in so it goes both ways.

Ana: I mean, it wasn’t like initially ‘this is confirmed’ but it was something that we thought ‘this would be cool if it came up’ and it did so that was really, that’s been really fun for us as well. But yeah thank you guys for joining me for this podcast ranging from robots in the future to finding the best locals!

If you are interested listeners, I’m talking to you guys, if you’re interested in finding out more about When in Rome or any of our Voice Originals products then just head over to voiceoriginals.com and you’ll find everything you wanna know there. Shane, Deborah, is there anything that you guys wanna add at the end?

Shane: This has been such a blast, this has been one of my favourite gigs ever so thanks to y’all.

Deborah: Yeah thank you to you guys.

Ana: Awesome, cool, well thank you guys for listening in and take care!