For this month's feature, we're honored to have Richard A. Bartle's thoughts on voice communication in multiplayer online games.Not Yet, you Fools!
By Richard A. Bartle
When I first heard that the X-Box would support real-time voice communication between players, my heart sank. It didn't sink because the effect it would have on X-Box games; it sank because of the effect it would inevitably have on virtual worlds.
You can see how the logic goes. "Virtual worlds are multi-player computer games. The latest multi-player computer games feature real-time voice communication, and they're a blast! Players are coming to expect it, current virtual worlds don't have it. Hey, we should put voice in the new virtual world we're developing and blow away the competition!".
This is so depressing…
Newbies, I can forgive. Newbies have heard that virtual worlds are fun. They're looking to play one, but they have no easy way to determine which of those on offer is the best. Are they going to head for the one with all the latest bells and whistles, or the one that looks like it was created in 1999? Are they going to play the game written for broadband or the game written for 28.8K baud? Even if they've never experienced X-Box Live, they may have read reports extolling the amazingness of trash talk in Unreal Championship. Who wants to read, or use keyboards?
Designers are not newbies. Designers should know better. Maybe some of them do, and are right now locking horns with the marketing director and threatening to resign over the issue. Yeah, like that's going to happen…
The thing is, most designers of virtual worlds don't know enough about what they're designing. Design is about consequences. One of the consequences of adding real-time voice communication to virtual worlds is that it will attract newbies; this is why marketers want it. Another of the consequences is that when players cease to be newbies they won't stay for as long; this is why designers should be telling marketers they can't have it. Unfortunately, many of them don't give a moment's thought to the possibility that real-time voice communication might be A Bad Idea for virtual worlds. This is what's so depressing: it exposes just how little they grasp about their craft.
A know-nothing designer works on instincts acquired from being a player. They'll remember going on plane raids with their group, imagine how cool it would have been if they'd been able to talk to one another, and relish the thought of creating a virtual world where this would be a reality.
A more thoughtful designer might vaguely be aware of the concept of immersion, and have an inkling that real-time voice from players could present them with some difficulties in that area. They may also have some dim recollection of the importance of anonymity (or pseudonymity) in virtual worlds. However, these are bridges that can be crossed when they come to them, once the rest of the design has been fleshed out. No need to worry, la la la.
Designers who know their trade will realise that the introduction of voice - real-time or otherwise - will seriously influence the way their virtual world is played. They will also have absolute confidence in their ability to design round the problem, however. A little modulation here and there will give people voices that aren't their own. Sure, there may be some teething problems tackling the abuses that are certain to arise - it's an awful lot of data to log - but nothing intractable. Audible channels can be gagged as easily as textual ones. Things will work out.
Designers who simply understand will recoil in horror, despairing that anyone could even contemplate such an immersion-busting, reality-intrusive, anti role-playing debasement of what virtual worlds are. Don't these fools see what damage they're going to do?
Virtual worlds are just that, virtual. People play them to get away from reality; they play them to get away from themselves. In a virtual world, you can be someone else. By being someone else, you can become a better you. Why do people play the same game for hour after hour, night after night, for week after week, month after month? It's not because they like the game; it's because they like who they are.
Designers who don't understand that should go away and not come back until they do.
If you introduce reality into a virtual world, it's no longer a virtual world: it's just an adjunct to the real world. It ceases to be a place, and reverts to being a medium. Immersion is enhanced by closeness to reality, but thwarted by isomorphism with it: the act of will required to suspend disbelief is what sustains a player's drive to be, but it disappears when there is no disbelief required.
Adding reality to a virtual world robs it of what makes it compelling - it takes away that which is different between virtual worlds and the real world: the fact that they are not the real world.
Voice is reality.
"But it's not your voice". Well yes, gee, instead of sounding like I do in real life I can sound like someone in real life does after they've had their voice put through a processor. It fools no-one. Besides, even if the pitch changes were good enough to make men sound like women and vice versa (which they aren't), it wouldn't alter accents. "Hey, this elf babe is from England!". Hello reality.
This is what we're going to get. Virtual worlds will appear with voice. They'll attract newbies. They won't hold these players, but they'll condition them to expect voice in whatever virtual world they decamp to instead. To compete for newbies, new virtual worlds - and perhaps some well-financed older ones - will also add voice. Eventually, they'll all have it, their players will all be unsatisfied because of it, and everyone will wonder what the fuss with virtual worlds was all about. They're just like regular multi-player computer games except with more players.
I'm being pessimistic, I know, but still… Are virtual worlds as we know them doomed?
Fortunately, no, they're not. It's not that we shouldn't have voice in virtual worlds; it's that we shouldn't have it yet.
Voice isn't in itself any more disruptive of the virtual world experience than are photo-realistic graphics. It's fine to fool the senses, to make virtual worlds appear to be real, so long as that final step - their actually being real - is not taken.
Here's a look into the future…
Even if voice becomes the norm in virtual worlds, text as a means communication will still exist: not all players will be able to use voice. My wife can watch TV while I visit virtual worlds, but she wouldn't be able to if I were talking the whole time in the next room - it would be way too annoying. So I'd have to type; so would plenty of other people.
Having two distinct input channels - typing and speaking - is non-problematical, because no player experiences both simultaneously. Output, however, is problematical. If I'm talking with text and someone else is talking with voice, the person being talked to must read some conversations while listening to others. Ideally, they should either read them all or hear them all. As to which, well, you could make it a switch: those that prefer to read could see spoken words rendered into text; those that prefer to listen could hear written text rendered into speech.
OK, the technology to do this isn't quite there yet, but suppose it were. You'd have something that converts speech to text and something else that converts text to speech. So in theory, I could say something in my male, English voice, it could be converted into text, then replayed to listeners in a female, New English voice. It would be real-time voice communication, but no more "me" than my graphical avatar: just clothing for an alternative identity.
It works because it sounds real, but we know it isn't (hence we have disbelief to suspend). It works because it permits us to role-play (to become the someone that we want to become). It just works.
At the moment, though, it's mere whimsy. Current speech-from-text generation software isn't quite as bad as that used by Professor Stephen Hawking, but it still flows very awkwardly. Text-from-speech is pretty good once trained to your voice, but not if you start getting emotional (like when you're screaming for help because a dragon is eating you).
Give it a few years, though, and who knows? This could add a whole new dimension to virtual worlds! Not only do you look like a marsh troll, but you sound like one, too. How groovy is that?
Very groovy! Unfortunately, while we're waiting for it we may have to have to endure some otherwise excellent games ruined by the ill-conceived, premature use of an inappropriate form of the technology.
Real-time voice communication in virtual worlds does promise great things - just not yet.
The mustachioed man pictured to the left, Richard Bartle has an excellent thorough web site: www.mud.co.uk/richard. It explains his projects and insights better than this short biography can. In 1979, Bartle co-created the text-based MUD, the first system for players to share adventures online. He's continued development of games in many forms since that time and he works as an advisor and commentator in various capacities. His contribution of a simple taxonomy of MMOG players (Killers, Achievers, Explorers and Socializers) has been a valuable framework for discussing online player behavior.
Recently Bartle collected his expertise in book form, now available on Amazon: Designing Virtual Worlds.