08 February 2010

Communication channels

Past - channels and emotes

Dourish reports that in old MUDs of the 80's, typing emote smiles and bows would make your character smile and bow to another user. Twenty years later, typing /smile in SWG would similarly let your character smile for a few seconds to another character. Compared to textual MUDs, the SWG players see avatars acting when performing the emotes.

Chats with multiple simultaneous channels have been used for at least a decade in first-generation (ie pre-2000) MMOG such as Everquest. As of December 2009, UO, another first-generation MMORPG launched in 1997 only allows its players to participate in one channel at a time. Hence I guess multiple simultaneous channels have been a feature found after the latest first-generation MMOGs. Conveniently let us say multiple simultaneous channels is a second-generation MMOG feature.

Even though MMOs have evolved a lot in the last two decades, it seems that within the MMOG worlds themselves, the communication mechanisms have not evolved that much.

Present - voice-chat

Some current virtual worlds/MMOGs offer general group activities who require a fast-paced synchronizations and collaborations between avatars within the virtual worlds. Intense action between players means textual chat does not provide a fast-enough and handy-enough communication chanel. As Monty Sharma says, typing and combat don't mix - it's a good way to die. And being able to talk freely improves strategy because your guild can discuss the plan of attack in detail without being tied to the keyboard for IM. However, enabling such a functionality within the game means increasing enormously the data traffic for the server, potentially increasing player latency. To my mind, this is the reason why MMOG system designers avoid implementing a voice-chat system within the game. Hence, players often use a external third-party tools like Ventrilo (launched in 2002) or Teamspeak (launched in 2002) and many guilds (if not all) look for free Teamspeak or Ventrilo servers so that they can use a voice-chat system.

Since its creation in 2005, Vivox has brought voice font and 3D voice to MMOG. Their voice-chat system has been integrated into more and more MMOGs:

  • Eve Online in 2006
  • Second Life in 2007
  • SOE Station Voice plateform in 2008
  • All Points Bulletin in 2009
  • Global Agenda in 2010

Technically, the Vivox system is based like Ventrilo and Teamspeak on VoIP. But the difference is the Vivox voice-chat can follow the client-server architecture and logic of the game itself (providing, I bet, the MMO game developers have an access to the Vivox component(s) API). There is actuallty a lot to comment about Vivox solutions, whether from the social, technical, community management or marketing perspectives so I may post about all this later. An interview with Monty Sharma, VP of Vivox production management and marketing, tells a lot about the overall strategy and benefits for all sides. For the end-user, the MMOG company seems to provide this voice-chat service. But behind the scene, the MMOG company does not suffer the enormous extra data traffic generated by voice-chat and the development burden as they outsource it to Vivox. A win-win-win strategy between MMOG companies, Vivox and end-users.

In the end, third-parties such as Teamspeak, Ventrilo or Vivox have realized that The real-time strategy is too important, and the socializing is too much a part of the fabric of these games to leave the communication in a rudimentary form. Voice is elemental in this context.(Monty Sharma). It seems substantial improvements in MMOG player communication have come through in the last five years...

Future - Facial

I wonder if written chat will still be actively used in Global Agenda. Global Agenda is a MMOTPS, which means text-chat can be deadly in critical situations. Maybe it will be used between strangers who do not want to talk to each other during quick missions they have to complete together. The interviewer of mmorpg.com explains voice-chatting is not always what players want in the game.

One of the issues I had while playing DDO is that groups would invite you into a party and immediately set up voice chat. Suddenly strangers were on the game talking to you over your computer. This seemed a little more open than having a password to get into say Ventrilo and only allowing certain people in.

It might well also happen that emotes are still widely used during PvP encounters. For instance, the following chat log is something perfectly possible:

St3ve [Team 1] has been killed by j4ck [Team 2]
j4ck waves at St3ve
j4ck [Team 2] has been killed by Azure [Team 1]

Azure waves at j4ck
St3ve laughs

The Ragnarök Online MMORPG enables the use of alt+digit shortcuts for emoticons. For instance, by default, alt+2 displays an interrogation mark above your avatar's head. Even when fighting dangerous boss monsters or other guilds, players can use these emotes without having their fingers too far away from their skill shortcuts.

In the futurist dystopian movie Gamer, a (fat and ugly) player smiling or laughing will make his/her (slim and sexy) avatar respectively smiling or laughing. With Microsoft Project Natal recognizing 31 body parts, we are on the way to facial recognition. Actually, Shane Kim, Microsoft Corporate Vice President, mentions that Project Natal also got voice recognition. It has a multi-array microphone so that it can recognize different voices in a room among the different players. It also recognizes faces. I do not really think that recognizes faces means recognizing facial expressions like smiling. But it's on the way ...

Suggestion to Microsoft

For frequently visited web pages like the Project Natal main page, I'd suggest to be CSS-compliant with as many "common" browsers as possible. Try visiting this page with Firefox3.6 and access/display the tabs at the top of the page ...

Edit (February 25th 2010): it seems that Microsoft has updated the page :-)

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