Virtual Voice

Real-time communication in modern MMORPGs is a funny thing. With rare exception, it tends to resemble anything but “role-playing”. MMO user text generally consists of acronyms (LOL, ROFL, etc), poor grammar, and a million little references to the outside world (“hang on, my dog is barking.”) Speech is, in some ways, even worse — nothing like the screech of a petulant 10-year-old (or the sound of a toilet flushing in the background) to disturb the illusion of fantasy.

Outside the context of self-policed, dedicated role-playing servers, this may be impossible to “fix”. I put “fix” in quotes because it’s unclear that this is a problem of any real significance — it’s quite possible that the majority of potential players really don’t miss the opportunity to role-play more deeply, even in the “perfect” environment for it. But my gut tells me that, at a bare minimum, there’s room for something more than what’s available today.

And given that, I just don’t understand why better voice-masking technology hasn’t found its way into MMORPGs yet. I know it’s complicated, but I refuse to believe it’s impossible to create efficient software that makes a 10-year old girl sound like an orc (or a 30-year old man sound like a female elf, for that matter.) And I have to believe that such software would not only be extremely popular in MMORPGs, but in many online virtual environments. The benefits:

  • Greatly enhances role-playing.
  • Eliminates “I hate the sound of my own voice on the answering machine” syndrome.
  • Greatly reduces shyness. (Voice chat is far more intimate than text chat. There’s a reason most non-hardcore gamers still don’t indulge in much voice chat with strangers online, and that voice-chat is less popular in more reserved cultures.)

Many people are wondering what will define “the next World of Warcraft“. It would be egotistical at best to imply that I hold the answers to that question — I certainly don’t. But if I had to take a wild guess, I’d say there’s a decent chance that the next WoW will offer:

  1. Significantly better integration of user-generated content. (A virtual world is really not much of a world at all if its inhabitants can’t change it. And virtual worlds are growing too large for even the best-funded dev team to populate with content.) And/or,
  2. Better and more numerous opportunities for users to express themselves. That brings me back to user-generated content, but it also brings me back to my original point — the most basic form of self-expression — direct communication. Virtual voice.

And yeah, I really want to sound like an ancient dragon. Or an English-speaking cave serpent. So sue me.

PS. My friend Tom Cadwell raises an excellent point: it’s unclear what the ethical, legal, and PR implications of virtual-voice technology would be if it were used, for example, by sexual predators to more effectively prey on children. I haven’t immediately thought of a great response to this; I can only ask “where do you draw the line?” Should we shut down MySpace because it makes life easier for some deviants? Eliminate webcams? This is a far larger debate.

83 Responses to Virtual Voice

  1. My friend Tom Cadwell raises an excellent point: it’s unclear what the ethical, legal, and PR implications of virtual-voice technology would be if it were used, for example, by sexual predators to more effectively prey on children.

    Roleplayers tend to be die-hard advocates. If you market an MMO game as a haven for roleplaying with all the trinkets and advancements, anyone discovered out of character will be quickly beat to death by the community.

    Moreover, the "sexual predators can use it too" argument is as weak as the "serial killers can use it too" and the "those affected by HIV can use it too" arguments. Technology that facilitates social interaction facilitates social interaction. Participating in society automagically puts an individual at risk of contact with other people. That’s the big idea! Social networking software, such as MySpace, certainly increases the risk of an individual coming into contact with the wrong people too, but these are risks that are inherent to being human.

    Ultimately, we are individually responsible for our own lives. Don’t blame the technology when mean, ugly orcs start raping gnomes. If an individual chooses to meet with someone they have never met whose voice is virtually masked, that individual is just plain stupid. Let’s just hope they don’t cancel their subscription because of their mistake.

  2. I would say,
    > My friend Tom Cadwell raises an excellent point: it’s unclear what the ethical, legal, and PR implications of virtual-voice technology would be if it were used, for example, by sexual predators to more effectively prey on children.

    can be avoided relatively easily by current methods, such provided as “OPTIONS”.
    You can select what type your voice will sound like, but the other end has the option to enable voice mod’ on his speaker. Thus I will be able to listen to your raw voice, while other 4 on the group will listen to you as a English speaking firedragon with a Deutsch accent.

    For the game play sake, that “Option” should default to what you select. This should be enough to say that the developers have done their part.

  3. RP is dead til wow fever goes end of.

  4. The lack of ability to change the world is one of the key failings of WoW (Blizzard\’s World of Warcraft). Their world is completely static, more of an amusement park than a world. The recently released expansion has only exacerbated this. On the other hand, worlds that were completely fluid (like Shadowbane for example) are also a problem. A stable, long term virtual world needs both stability and fluidity. Some areas that are largely impervious to player tinkering, and other areas that are highly malleable.

    On the subject of voice chat: Blizzard has just released news that they will be incorporating VOIP into their game at some point in the future. And the boards are rife with debate on the subject. For myself, I suspect that this will be bad for the kind of immersion that I like in role playing games: The ability to be someone else for a while. The majority of gamers I suspect will not care or notice the lack, but by the same token, I suspect that I am not alone in my disappointment.

  5. APB had VoIP broadcasting, and it was great! I really enjoyed overhearing teams’ chatter when they did not realize they were being crept up on – or hearing people’s exclamations upon avatar destruction! One more great thing APB was doing for MMO’s that I’ll miss dearly. Of course there was the occasional ‘tard who would scream into the open mic as a form of griefing, but you can generally drive away from them. The social controls worked well enough that the benefits and fun far outweighed the risks and griefing.

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