Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Social aspects of voice chat
One of the current trends in MMORPGs is integrated voice chat. Dungeons & Dragons Online already has it, and Lord of the Rings Online will have it too. EVE Online just announced that you can now have integrated voice chat in their game too, but you need to pay $10 per year for it. Even the non-game Second Life is introducing integrated voice chat. So what are the implications of that?
Voice chat is a useful tool when you try to coordinate a group in some activity which needs coordination and fast action. I have done World of Warcraft raids with and without voice chat, and the if properly used the voice chat gives you more of an advantage than half a dozen epics. In PvP the superiority of a team using voice chat against a team not using it isn't even funny any more. But in spite of these measurable advantages, my guild isn't using voice chat any more, and I know a lot of people who are reluctant to use it, or downright refuse to do so.
One problem is that voice chat only helps if somebody is giving orders, and the other players are following these orders. Back in the days of Molten Core my guild had a very nice guy, with a good voice, and a knack for giving clear instructions. He wasn't even an officer in the guild, but him announcing when to start and stop damage dealing on mobs was such a constant factor that even my wife recognized his voice as the "go dps guy", just from listening to me raiding. I once did an afternoon of Arathi Basin PvP with the guy, and him directing us to the hot spots made us win every game. If somebody gives orders and people follow these orders, giving the orders by voice is simply faster and more efficient than typing.
But not everybody is comfortable or able giving orders. The reason why my guild isn't using voice chat any more is that the officers say that everybody should think for themselves. Which is nice in theory, but rarely leads to everybody ending up thinking the same thing. They are insofar right as voice chat is less helpful for a 10-man Karazhan raid, where there are many different functions to perform by few people. In a 40-man Molten Core raid there were essentially 30 people doing the same job, dealing damage, and coordinating that helped more. Nevertheless I feel a certain reluctance of some people to bark orders and expecting others to follow them. Voice chat is not very effective for discussing strategy, that is easier done with typing, where people can scroll back to re-read things if needed, and two people "talking" at once is less of a problem.
Thus while a pickup group in Lord of the Rings Online theoretically has the option to use voice chat for coordination, I don't really see that happening all that often. Establishing effective leadership in a pickup group is hard to impossible.
The other big drawback is the inevitable breaking of the fourth wall that comes with voice chat. If communication is by typing, you can pretend to be somebody else for role-playing purposes. You can play a character of another gender, age, or physical build than yourself in a MMORPG. Voice chat breaks that illusion, because you can't help your voice revealing a lot about your gender, age, and origin. You lose a part of the internet anonymity which is quite cherished by a lot of players. If you were a teenager with a squeaky or breaking voice, would you want to use voice chat at all? And while currently one out of every two female characters in WoW is played by a man, voice chat would much reduce this possibility of gender-bending.
Of course willingness or unwillingness to use voice chat is also a cultural phenomenon. I don't know why, but I observed than whenever I played with Germans, even in a pickup group, the first thing that was exchanged was the Teamspeak coordinates, so the group could use voice chat. British players tend to reserve voice chat for their "mates". Which given the fact that all Europeans who don't have their own language servers tend to play on the English servers, thus populating it with a very wide range of different accents, is probably a wise choice. With voice chat quality not always being optimal, having to deal with accents from Israelian to Scandinavian isn't always easy.
Personally I have two problems with voice chat: One is that I hate wearing headphones, they tend to hurt my ears after a couple of hours. The second is that I don't live alone, and you can't use voice chat without the other people in your appartment hearing it, which can be annoying for them. Especially if (see One) I'm not wearing headphones and have voice chat incoming over the loudspeakers. And of course that works in both directions, everybody who ever used voice chat has a funny story where something that wasn't supposed to be communicated slipped through an open mike. (Word to the wise: Only use button-activation, never voice activation.)
I can see the interest of using integrated voice chat for PvP-centric games. The one game that should have voice chat, but doesn't, is Guild Wars. Neither will the upcoming Warhammer Online. Voice chat in EVE sounds like a good idea (although having to pay for it doesn't), and could even be considered to be "in character". For a more PvE-centric game like Lord of the Rings Online the interest in integrated voice chat is less pronounced. I never used it in the beta, but then I was soloing most of the time anyway. The one thing I certainly wouldn't want to have is some sort of General Chat channel over voice chat. The level of immaturity reigning on typed general chats is already bad enough, no need to hear all those swear words over voice.