Wednesday, April 1

My Perfect MMO part 6: MMO VO

This article is sparked by Ryan Schwayder's post a few days back on Nerfbat.

In it he asks his readers what they think about the use of Voice Over for NPCs in MMO's while making it clear that from his (game developer) point of view, it's not worth the effort and costs involved. Especially when it comes to making minor changes to existing content.

I love Voice Over, when done right it adds so much to the experience.
Of course the opposite of that coin is that if it's done badly, it can really distract.
But in a game like Mass Effect (where finally Bioware decided to give the player a voice too, before you were always quiet) it really adds to things, along with the cutscenes and the overall cinematic quality of the game. It's so much nicer to have things explained to you in VO than having to plow through tons of text without a clue as to what is important. Mass Effect still has a lot of background story tucked away in 'databases' and whatnot for whoever wants to really dig into the lore, but the essential 411, the exposition as it's called is given to you in a much more palatable format.

In Age of Conan it also helps a lot with exposition and such during your time in Tortage.
But here the practical issues start to crop up as well. There's a big downturn in immersion between Tortage and the rest of the world. In part is that after Tortage the world doesn't revolve about you anymore (suck it up trooper, keep going) but it's also in part due to the dropping away of intense VO.
Once you leave Tortage only about one in 20 dialogues is Voiced Over. Funcom is expanding on that as they've said, but because they 'have' to do it in three languages this takes time and money. Time and money they might be better off spending on increasing content density across the board. personally I would have gone for English only with subtitles. But I'm Dutch we're used to that (nowadays many of us prefer English subtitles over Dutch ones) . Germans and French people are used to localized voice over tv, have their own localized keyboards e.t.c. While having Dutch VO would probably be magic circle bursting for me, so used am I to English VO, it's too much of a stretch for most German and French.

Looking at these two games, I'd say it's essential for Single Player RPG games, but probably too much of a good thing for MMO's. That doesn't mean I think VO should not be in MMO's at all, just not as a means to make Quest dialogue more interesting. Let's face it, 90% of players click through that text without a glance and wait for the objectives to appear on the quest tracker.
Will those listen to every monologue by the NPC? How many yarns about acquiring 10 rats do you want to listen to yourself? Several MMO's use what I'd call Limited VO. Meaning there's an auditory greeting when you approach an NPC, or insults thrown at you as you run through town (EQ2: Freeport) or other one-liner effects. All of that is fine and I feel every MMO should have that.

What I think nearly every MMO could do with as well is more of what I'd like to call Exposition VO. Maybe include a bit of scripted camera-work for a cut-scene alike experience.
You could prompt this at zone entry (in the case of instanced worlds like GW) but the way I envision this it'd be one or more NPC's around each Quest hub which you can initiate conversation with. These will tell you a bit of a story, some of the local history, the current situation and, if the game supports phasing, how your actions have changed it. The scripted camera work I alluded to could be a bird-eye view of an overflight of the general location, pointing out some of the hotspots, stuff like that.

This would be totally optional. You can approach said NPC at your leisure, or ignore them altogether. Additionally any kind of background could be given the VO treatment. Any organizations in your MMO that have a role in the world and a more than one parargaph story to them? Those are the things you want to give Voice Over Exposition on. Many games have tomes of knowledge, not in the sense of the WAR Tome which is more a personal Wiki. Add the ability to have those tomes read to you rather than having to stand still and read through an often too-small for comfort window while Stuff Is Happening around you. Click on the audio snippet for you and you can listen to some cool voice actor (contact Bioware for a list of some great ones) tell you about this or that while you're running off in search of those Ten Rats.
These are voice over 'texts' that aren't as subject to tweaking as actual quest dialogue but it's the important stuff that players might miss out on yet need for their quest solving. And it's offered in a more easily acceptable format that doesn't have to break up the game-flow.

Sorry, my often promised 'Classes article' in the My Perfect MMO chain has yet again found another topic to hide behind :-)


  1. I havent played a single player RPG in far too long!

    AoC was ambitous with it's plans for more voice overs and got it wrong with supplying as much as they did in Tortage, that move out of Tortage gives you a big shock when the world suddenly becomes so quiet, it must dissapoint alot of people, even those who just click through to objectives must share that dissapointment to a degree, you expect the same level of immersion to continue. It may have spawned the cult of 'Go then!' (everyone loves turok) but was it worth it?

    I like your idea of limited voice overs whose job (if I've read correctly) is to inform and involve you in the lore, makes more sense in terms of finance and providing that bit more immersion in the world.

  2. Aye, you got it.
    There's another sound related thing I'd like to see implemented in a current day or futuristic MMO. Oh wait, my suggestion of Shadowrun fits the bill perfectly. Imagine that.

    Here's the idea:
    Have an in-game streaming audio 'radio' with user submissable content.
    When I tried GTA Vice City on the old Xbox I didn't like much about it. I'm just not a 'Gangster' at heart I guess. What I did like was the very good 80's radio's. I also remember having something called Paragon City Radio (or some such) on while playing City Of Heroes EU version. I believe that the US version has a similar thing, but I never got around to checking it out.

    Anyway, I'd like the game to set up a few channels with some generic themes, much like in the mentioned GTA game, or such as used by The Sims 2. People can turn it off if they want to. I'd not put much in the way of talky stuff in there, but it might even be a nice way to do some announcements. Events e.t.c. Just try to keep it out of the hands of marketing or it'll get RL commercials half the time.

    What I do think as an option is to allow real life people to submit their own numbers to this in-game radio for a small fee.
    Imagine a site where you have to enter some data, like lyrics, and MP3 version of your song to be uploaded, e.t.c. Alternatively a deal could be made with a site like Youtube or a similar music sharing site. There should be a small submission fee, just to weed out the 'My farting song' entries.
    You could have your own in-game charts, track who's hot and who's not. Give the independents a chance and all that. If an artist or band is being listened to well enough, they could be contacted to ask them to provide a bit of design art, a log or somesuch that can be modified into at-shirt or jacket design for characters to wear in-game. If it takes off, the game could then start setting up deals with the Metallica's and other big franchisers of the world. You'd be able to use real logo's and designs in-game rather than having bland generic stuff or spoof real ones and hope you don't get sued.

    You'd be running a streaming audio service in-game, with a possible additional revenue stream attached through in-game merchandising.
    Either have artists pay for the pleasure of having their image and music portrayed in the game, or charge a small microtransaction fee for shirt-logo's of RL big bands. If you're smart you make it so that people can also choose to listen to their own stuff from in-game. If you don't, they will just do it the way they've been doing it.

  3. The reason I have not been around here or in game yet since I got back home is for a big part becuae I have a lot of work and jetlag. But another big reason is because I bought 'Portal' from a discount bin. And it got me utterly enthralled. What a brilliant piece of gaming! I finished it last night. One obsession I can now put to rest :)

    One of the charms is that is doesn't have any text at all. Everything is VO by a computer with a twisted sense of humor.

    VO adds a lot charm to any game. Funcom did a perfect job in Tortage with that. All VO was just for immersion. My personal favourite character is the beggar that wants to rat you out. I just stopped by and talked to him so he could tell me 'so long then'.

    But voice has one major drawback. You can't read it back. Unless it is pure decoration, you need to have subtitles as well. I actually want to google if I can find the text of all that the Portal computer told me. I missed 50% of what she said.

    Personally I don't like Lani's idea of speaking lore/quest/info back to me at random. If I want to know something I'll read it.

    I am also not so big on the itunes-in-game idea. Why putting in the effort into something other do much better? And besides I don't like to listen to music while playing. The in-game music is great. Hearing that familiar tune everytime I fly over Steel Canyon make me feel great and nostalgic. Don't spoil that RL tunes. It will spoil my immersion big time. But I know I am a bit alone in this, so perhaps it is not bad. I just don't like it.

  4. He he he, I intentionally kept away from Portal for that obsession reason.

    Hey, who said at random? Did I say that? What I was thinking of was an optional, user triggered event. Kinda like an audio-book on the subway or something similar. Something to listen to while hiking trhough the in-game forest, or actual subways in a futuristic MMO.
    Or attached as audio file to journal/tome of knowledge -alike features. Not random at all. See? I was trying to cover the "I didn't quite get that" effect as well. I do think everything said should be recorded as a textual excerpt as well. Except when it's a specific part of the puzzle of a game for you to pay attention like in a puzzle/RPG game, then subtitles are a minimum though and multi-session issues need to be adressed.

  5. Portal - the game I've bought for a few friends as birthday presents but never got beyond playing the demo myself, one day I will buy it for me instead of someone else. I wouldn't fear Lani, I hear the game is very short and can be completed in one long evening sitting.

    Have to say the ingame radio idea doesnt appeal to me very much either, though the beauty is that you can always make the choice to have it turned off always and leave those who like it to enjoy it, the music in most games I've played has been part of the immersion factor for me, a familier tune signifying my whereabouts and involvement, I still sometimes go to Poitan just to listen to the music rather than gather resources :)

  6. Oh aye, I would never dream of putting something like that on AoC. I'm one of those weirdo's who purchased the additional audiotracks for GW remember?

    But for current day (urban fantasy) or cyberpunk games (like mu suggested SHadowrun MMO) it would work I think. Of course you'd have to take into consideration game-themed music/audio taking presedence. That goes without saying. (I.e. I forgot)