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SO LET’S TALK!

My wife, in World of Warcraft, is horribly, horribly uber. This Penny Arcade comic? Yeah. My life, manifest.

And, like all people who succeed in MMOs, she’s now in a high level guild. And, like most, they use Teamspeak. (I’ve used it before, but unlike my LIKE UNTO A GOD OF MONSTER SLAYING wife, I mainly used it to crack jokes.)

It’s interesting. Here’s why.

It’s painless. This is something that people pick up on in minutes. “Go to this URL, plug in a microphone, log in like this.” In fact, it’s easier than most things involving MMOs.

It works pretty well. Maybe it’s because we’re on broadband. Hell, maybe it’s because EVERYONE is on broadband. But unlike telephony apps of days gone by (like, you know, LAST YEAR) it actually works, and you hear people’s voices, sometimes at the same time.

It’s more efficient. For most folks, it’s a lot easier to shout “WATCH THE BONE THING WATCH THE BONE THING DONT HIT HIM WHEN HE’S GOT THE BONE” then type it. Plus when you type “bone thing” repeatedly, it looks pretty silly, doesn’t it? (And yes, that was a direct quote from ten seconds ago.)

It’s more effective. Voices have an immediacy. If you see typed text, it’s like email in some respects. It’s not demanding a response; it’s in a queue of much other text. Whereas when we talk to one another, it implies an ongoing conversation. It’s a form of communication with a higher resolution.

It’s more immersive. This seems almost counter-intuitive, especially in the fantasy MMO setting which we’re using as an example. But come on. You know your group leader really isn’t an elf. At least, I really hope you know. And MMOs, sadly, are not at a point where the game mechanics or the content can carry the water of immersion. There’s too many fiction break statistics and jargon that are juggled with reckless abandon to even make a pretense of story telling, most of the time. Did you ever, ever, in all of Tolkien’s lore, see the words “damage over time spell”? Much less “DoT” or “AoE”. The thing is, as MMOs become more games than worlds (a topic which we the blogosphere have, you’ll notice, been gleefully mashing into pulp in the past few weeks), they leave the realm of true fantasy and become their own entertainment. And when you hear your group leader congratulate you on “a nice pull”, for example, it’s… different. Because of that higher resolution of communication. You really feel more immersed into the game. (Not the world. The game. For example, it’s somewhat disconcerting to hear the tiny gnome female speak with a deep baritone.)

It has issues. One of the advantages to text chat in MMOs, that you really don’t want to think about, is that it’s all logged. All of it. Yes, when you were winking and going “Hows YOU doin?” to the multiclassed 32nd level half-elven princess/45 year old plumber, it was carefully squirrelled away. And if you went too far, and KEPT going “Hows YOU doin?”, over and over again, to the point where Talanaithialass found it necessary to ask the Friendly Customer Service Department to get you to shut the hell up already, it is trivially easy to see if you were being a cad or if Talanawalanafalana is being a drama queen again. And sadly, this is what a significant portion of your MMO’s monthly fee goes towards – the junior high school hall monitor. But if you went after Ms. Tallawalladega with a quickness over Teamspeak (who now, more likely plays a 45th level troll warrior and just SOUNDS like a perky elven princess) it’s just her word and yours. Even though the High School Confidential megadrama is spilling out into guild chat and all over the game and both of you are paging CSRs on an hourly basis, there’s not much they can do except to tell both of you to shut the hell up.

I make light of this, because for many of these “events” it really is that silly and makes you wonder why people aren’t doing something a touch more productive with their time, like learning basic motor skills. But for every dramatic Summerstock Festival, there’s someone who’s being a creepy stalker and chasing your customer who made the mistake of Playing While Female out of your game. And as voice comm becomes more and more mainstream, this will become more of a problem, I predict.

And this last may be part of what blocks MMO companies from whole-heartedly embracing voice chat. (The other major part is, of course, money. Bandwidth ain’t free, and voice uses exponentially more than text.) If you are logging into a third party server, even though it’s part of the game you’re playing, it’s not the responsibility of the game company to monitor and police it, much as third party message boards are also outside of the game company’s purview, even though they as well directly affect the game.

However the 800 pound gorilla is sitting on the sidelines playing XBox Live. And that XBox doesn’t have a keyboard. So the time to start thinking about these issues was… six months ago?