Talking, Listening and Reading

silentfilmBronte over at Are We New At This? took a Star Trek Online dev to task over his proclamation that voice-overs (VO) don’t add much in the way of immersion to MMOs and are too difficult to do when you’re trying to speed-rush a game to market.  It’s certainly a worrying statement about STO’s priorities and goals, but what’s more significant is that here we see a clear example of how Cryptic doesn’t get it, and BioWare does.

Now, we’re going to sweep a couple of related issues aside for the purposes of this post.  Yes, not everyone likes voice-over in games, particularly if they come with cutscenes.  I feel that this is a result of both player laziness (wanting to speed through the story to get to the XP) and a backlash against some of the more insane video game cutscenes that we’ve been subjected to over the past decade (Metal Gear Solid, anyone?).  Some folks just don’t like it for personal reasons.  And that’s okay.  We’re also going to sidestep the “Wizard 101/EverQuest 2 did a fully-voiced MMO first” thing as well.

What I want to look at is the relation of voice to immersion.  When interacting with a video game, we are limited to two of our five senses: sight and hearing.  We can try to imagine smells, tastes and touch, but it’s not easy to represent that via game.  Therefore, devs need to make the most use out of visuals and audio to tell their story and give us an interactive experience.

Yet for some reason, in MMOs we’re mostly stuck back in the era of silent film — listening to some guy plunk away on a piano as we watch the action and then read a box of text that’s supposed to fill in the plot.  I know that when they introduced “talkies” to the film world, some people stubbornly resisted the change, but change came nonetheless.  MMOs are behind many video games when it comes to voice-overs, sticking with their boxes of text while single-player titles are chatty and more cinematic for it.

As IGN said in their Mass Effect review:

“It’s easy to ignore a paragraph of text asking you to fetch a random item, which is what most RPGs offer. Try passing up the offer to take up a quest when you have a voice filled with inflection asking for your assistance. Not just a voice; a being with real motivations that you can converse with, learn more about, and ultimately relate to.”

Right now, I’m in the middle of playing Mass Effect for my first full playthrough, and I’m totally loving the experience.  Sure, the vehicle controls like a bouncy slip-n-slide G.I. Joe toy, but the combat is solid and the story is spectacular.  Everyone you talk to, including your own character, is voiced.  And yes, we can read faster than people talk, but I greatly enjoy sitting back for a minute or two to watch how a dialogue exchange plays out between quests.  It pulls me in.  It helps me learn who these people are, and why I should care about this world.  I wince when I make a selection that forces my character to be rude and callous, and I’ve had a few heartstrings plucked by the tones of a NPC telling me their story.  I can’t imagine if this game’s dialogue was 100% text — I’d miss out on a lot of the things you can’t get when you just read something: tone, emotion, speech patterns, jokes, hints, etc.

Let’s look at MMOs.  World of Warcraft is not fully voiced, by any means, but it’s infamous for having bosses that say some of the most memorable and re-quoted lines among the players.  “Arise, my champion!” may have been a blip in your chat box, but we remember it as it’s spoken.

In Cryptic’s own Champions, one of the things that tickled me about my 1,045,323 runs through the tutorial were its brief but unforgettable voice-overs — Foxbat’s snarky enticements, Ironclad’s overwrought pronouncements, and Defender’s unending lecture about how we have to shut ALL the beacons down (as they’re making the Qularr go crazy, dontcha know).  Now I can’t recall a single word from any of Champions’ quest text boxes (sorry quest writers!), but those voiced quotes are still with me.  That should mean something to them.

While STO might not consider voice-overs to be that immersive, they’re going to be directly challenged by that once TOR launches.  And I feel very, very safe in saying that we’re going to remember a crapload more of BioWare’s quests and character interactions and stories than any of STO’s, if nothing else than for the voices.

Yeah, it’s a lot of work.  It’s expensive.  It adds development time.  Excuses come by the barrel, but you know what?  If something’s worth the effort, and adding immersion to your MMO stories by voicing them is, then the companies need to suck it up and deliver.

27 thoughts on “Talking, Listening and Reading

  1. Voice is incidental though. If Bioware had not made TOR fully voiced, would anyone really complain? While it can add immersion, it can also consume a disproportionate amount of resources to that, especially for smaller companies, and comes with its own pitfalls.

    FFX comes to mind. Bad voice acting hurts, a lot. Remember Tidus and his scream scene? You also have to realize now that the voice acting pool is so small your character may blur in people’s minds if you use voice actors. Steven Blum comes to mind-he’s a common, very talented voice actor, but if you use him, you risk your players wondering why Spike Spiegel from Cowboy Bebop is your high-elf cleric.

    Text is safer and cheaper.

  2. I’ve got guaranteed access to the STO beta, so I’ll try it out, but I doubt I’ll be playing it come release. I’m a bigger fan of Star Trek than I am of Star Wars, but that’s not enough. I’ve craved an MMO with proper immersion for so long, and so far I’ve come up empty-handed.

    I’m hopeful for both Mortal Online and TOR, but we’ll have to wait and see. Until then, I got dragon age to tide me over for goodness knows how long, probably the better part of a year or more if I get off my arse and learn the toolset.

  3. No matter what, if STO and TOR come out at the same time 90% of the people looking for a new MMO or sci-fi MMO are going to play TOR. There is nothing exciting about STO. Their marketing is meh. Bioware has us drooling for the nextbit of information at every turn. It makes Cryptic look lazy and unfocused. I want a game that the devs are passionate and excited even if it is a fake passion just to get my cash. I love the Star Trek world, but Cryptic is boring me with their passive marketing

  4. … but I don’t like voices in my games. I really don’t. Minor, ‘sound-effect’ bits of voice are fine, but if I have to listen to an in-game voice for more than a sentence, I start looking for the ‘turn voices off’ button. There are a few reasons for this.

    1) Speed. I read fast. Voice is slow, and I have limited time to play. If I were to stop and listen to each NPC in EQII, I wouldn’t get any game in. As it is, I retain memory better from text anyway.

    2) Accents. If they’re not perfect, they grate, and they’re so rarely perfect. That busts immersion wide open, for me – it doesn’t draw me in-world, it chucks me right out. At the absolute best, I end up wondering where the accent is from.

    3) The ‘DM Voice’ in DDO. That thing annoyed me enough for twenty games; there’s a backlog to work through.

    Essentially, ‘fully voiced’ discourages me from getting the game, rather than otherwise – at some level I suspect they’ll have spent too much time and effort on the voices, and not enough on the game. But as long as I can disable them, I’m happy enough.

  5. The “Battle of Angrathar the Wrathgate” in-game cinematic in Wrath of the Lich King – in particular, Grand Apothecary Putress’s proclamation – sent chills down my spine.

  6. The other side of this coin is that if I’m not paying attention at the right time and I miss some crucial bit of VO info, then that’s it. I’m either screwed or I have to replay the whole thing.

    Without text, even the worst of cases of accidental lack of attention, all I have to do is scroll up a few lines.

  7. @ Julian – There should always be a “backup” of your conversations, either in a journal or in your chat box for that reason.

    @ Drew – And some people just don’t. But for me, part of the game IS the story, and I think we’ve lost that in MMOs because we are in such a high-falootin’ hurry to speed through quests to the next XP bump.

    @ Dblade – Yes, they would. BioWare is known for exceptional writing and voice acting spanning back several games, and it has proven essential to their storytelling. I’d also point to The Longest Journey/Dreamscape as a pair of games who employ awesome voiceovers, and I can’t imagine those games with merely text. “Safer” doesn’t mean better, nor does it mean progress. I mean, apply that to graphics. Why try to push the envelope when you could just throw a screen of text describing the action? What if the devs’ design of the game’s visuals turn some people off? Maybe they shouldn’t try that either.

  8. Maybe I’m in the minority based on some of your comments here, but I totally agree with you.

    I don’t play MMO’s to be the best or level the fastest, I play them to be an undead walking nightmare, or a superhero, or a goblin, or a jedi. A good example would be Lady Sylvanis’ (sp?) echoing voice which matched the previous warcraft games. It was a real treat especially when she sang. It did something that a text box could never accomplish.

    I support any effort to try to immerse the player into the game, even if the voice acting is pretty bad (“earth is under the protection of Ironclad”).

  9. we’re going to remember a crapload more of BioWare’s quests and character interactions and stories than any of STO’s, if nothing else than for the voices.

    Doubtful. Look at Mass Effect, since you’re playing it now. Do you remember the quests because the NPC is voiced, or do you remember the NPC himself because now he’s an actual character with a personality rather than yet another text-spewing quest Pez dispenser?

    Voice-overs help bring out the C (Character) in the NPC acronym.

    BUT — I also think it’s important to offer shortcuts through dialogue trees (Mass Effect does this) or give the option to skip cinematics if there is no player interaction in them. I love the story, but on a replay I may already know the story and just want to get on with things.

    But for me, part of the game IS the story, and I think we’ve lost that in MMOs

    We’ve lost that in MMOs? When did we ever HAVE that in MMOs? Seriously…

  10. I’m actually quite surprised that so many people can continue to argue why they don’t like voices, but from what I see, they come from the exact same logic that you had already mentioned.

    Yes. Reading is faster. Well, no one is going to make you listen, you ultimately can skip past it. No, I really don’t think they’ll pour the countless amounts of dollars it takes to pour into hiring voice actors, but decide they really don’t like having text for the hearing impaired. Text is cheap, that will stay there.

    As for bad voice acting, well, that’s the problem with it. Its bad. If you hire people on the street to voice act, it’s pretty damn stupid, but that only tells me, “If you’re going to do something, do it right.”

    I played Age of Armor, which was re-released for english speaking audiences, had mechs, and quests for us. But the translation was so completely awful I couldn’t figure out what to do from the game, I just had to wing it. In this case, they would have been better off using visual cues for us to play it and just let us grind it out.

    Conclusion? If you’re not going to do it right, don’t do it at all. But if you can add to your game and make it more enjoyable for an audience without harming another part?

    Cryptic is making the safe choice, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    Bioware is taking the tough choice, and there’s definitely something -right- with that. People will love them for this, as they spare no expenses on making their games as good as they possibly can, and that’s why so many people trust all bioware titles. Not some, ALL. Great blog.

  11. Like so many things in games it may well be zero sum.

    Put it this way – if you have $X million per year as Live Team manager to spend would you want to spend half of it on voice actors?

    In other words I can accept that they are saving money in this area for a pipeline of great free content.

    But if SWTOR puts in the same amount of free content while voicing it too it’s clearly a winner.

    Another consideration: if SWTOR is both sub-based and quite heavily RMT so that you realistically need to spend $30 a month and STO is a straight $15 a month deal and they produce the same amount of content except that SWTOR’s is voiced would it be worth the extra $15 a month to you to get that extra immersion?

  12. I tend to prefer the DDO method: voiceover for flavor, but nothing critical.

    Bad voiceover (not all of it, but too much of it) or even just voiceover that doesn’t fit what I think the characters should sound like (common in W101, especially pronunciation errors) grates on my nerves, and is an active detriment to immersion or storytelling.

  13. I honestly don’t care a whole lot about voice overs in MMOs because the “cheap” side of me thinks content is being shorted for the acting. I do enjoy them though.

    With that said I think it is really odd and just feels wrong that STO won’t be voiced. I don’t know why but it just feels like the computer should actually talk to you. When someone pops up on my viewer I don’t want to see a cartoony text box. I want to Khan to talk to me.

    When I scream KHAAAAAAAN I want everyone to hear it in game, not just on Vent and in my house.

  14. @ Scott – No doubt here, I really do remember the quests and stories more when they’re voiced (and voiced well) versus not. Doing a quest requires motivation. Part of that motivation is a physical reward, be it money, gear or XP. But the other part is why I’m doing it. If a game can make me actually care about the quest from the perspective of the NPC and how it relates to me, then I care more about doing the quest. And I feel that hearing a NPC (and interacting with them more than a simple “yes” or “no”) is a bridge to making that happen.

    You’re right about the skipping ahead, and I’m sure that’ll be there. People complain too much if it isn’t.

  15. I’m not sure what they’ll do in STO, but at least in Champions some of the more important missions (Stronghold and Dr. Destroyer’s Factory are two I’ve done myself) that have voice in them. While I did enjoy the missions with voice in them, I’m not sure I would want every mission to have that. I don’t remember feeling that the voicing in EQ2 added much to the game.

  16. Syp:

    Bioware’s writing is good, I agree. The voices aren’t critical, though, and in a lot of games, we only get limited voice with text supplying the bulk of the information, mostly because there’s just too much to fully cover. It doesn’t seem to hurt games otherwise. How much of Fallen Earth is voiced, and how does it affect your sense of immersion?

    Safer does mean better when it comes to voice. Some things its pretty easy to break, and voice especially is. It’s also something that tends to hurt more than it helps if done wrong. The visuals can affect it as well, and its a good idea not to use pre-rendered or in-game cutscenes unless you can do them competently. However I think it’s harder to bust the game that way, because if you can’t direct an in-game cutscene, your game is probably going to suck as well. Voices can wreck good games very easily. Tenchu was a like that.

  17. If you are, let’s say, entering a new area and picking up ten new quests, are you really telling me you’d be willing to sit quietly and listen for 15-20 minutes before you get moving? Even the most avid roleplayers I know have WoW’s instant quest text enabled…
    I am a big fan of good voice acting, especially in a single-player game, but in your average long-playing MMO you’re talking about many, many extra hours of idleness over your entire journey.
    For important story stuff, and also for fun incidentals that don’t slow you down at all, I remain a passionate fan of good voice acting.
    “Time is money, friend!”

  18. @Syp Oh, story is where it’s at. Well, right after sandboxiness (on the GNS thang, I go S, then N and G is there somewhere only because it has to be) I just don’t feel that voice adds anything to the story.

  19. In my opinion, “safe” leads to stagnation. I’d assume that Bioware want a fully voiced game not only to improve quality and immersion but to raise the bar – to encourage progression.

    If no one makes that leap, then we are doomed to mediocrity.

    Take Age of Conan for example. I read many posts on the internet describing wrathful fury that the specs to play the game at max settings were too high – but someone had to do it. Someone had to raise that bar so future developers would strive to deliver better visual fidelity.

    The same will come with TOR. Future developers will be encouraged to add rich story telling and VO to better immerse their player base.

    Obviously, the option to skip voiced dialogue and review it in a chat log is essential; just as a scalable game engine is essential for gamers with lower spec rigs; but the standards need to be raised.
    With this in mind I could not fathom why anyone would be opposed to the progression of video game development in any area…

  20. The cost of including voice acting is that it slows down the play experience, which means the quality needs to be high enough to compensate. Unfortunately, most voice acting in games – and, sadly, most cut scenes – are dreadfully written and performed.

    There are exceptions. Max Payne’s cut scenes, or Garret in Thief.

    However, my concern about voice in TOR is it’s an MMO, and we kinda expect new content to be added to an MMO. Adding new content with voice is going to be much more expensive than adding new content without. That might lead to less new content being made – albeit the content that is *should* be of a higher quality.

    That said, there should be some voice in STO – at least Patrick Stewart dulcet tones…

  21. tarisai, Bioware doesn’t care about raising the bar, they are a business designed to make a profit. If anything Bioware is the ultimate safe company, they’ve spent most of their time remaking KOTOR in different games, using the same old game system with minor tweaks.

    There’s a difference between making a quality game with the tools you have and being experimental for the sake of experimental. Most companies have the former in mind, because the latter tends to lead to marginal sales unless you get the rare genius on your dev team that can make it work. When it doesn’t, it becomes like Breath of Fire Dragon Quarter, a game which experimented and sought to update the JRPG experience, but no one bought.

  22. Voice in an MMO can be the complete opposite of immersive. It can in fact be an immersion breaker.

    Don’t like your characters voice? Tough.

    Also… books still use words, and there are tons of reasons why the books end up better than the movies.

    Think about it.

    BioWare is creating an anchor for their boat with this one…

  23. @ Dblade

    I appreciate what you’re saying. Bioware are a business and their main aim as a business is generate sales and profit, of course. However, I feel you are contradicting yourself.

    If Bioware were a company who only play it safe as you say, then surely they would just develop an MMO which caters to proven formulae and push out a “WoW Clone”.

    They aren’t though. They are paying close attention to and are enthusiastically promoting their story telling aspects, which are yet to be seen in modern MMOs (to my knowledge: I’m a post WoW MMO gamer).

    The proof will be in the pudding, or the taste will be in the sauce after it’s cooked, or like, gnocchi tastes better as an appetiser – whatever the figure of speech is.

    Whilst they may not be making a conscious effort to encourage development in this area for other developers – if it is a success then it will have a positive knock on effect.

    Whilst books will never die, some silent films are still regarded as masterpieces and mimes roam our streets trapped in tailored invisible boxes: progression from these formats has brought us new marvels.

    Why, as gamers, should we accept the age we live in and not be excited about new developments, regardless of whether they will be successful or not? I’m surprised that devs have any enthusiasm for new ideas at all anymore, the amount of flak they receive for wanting to try something new.
    Gaming is now a consumer market, but it has it’s routes in the arts. The purpose of art is not to drill out commissioned prints of wilted flowers in a vase: it is to refine new means to express ourselves. Is the collective consciousness of the worldwide gamer community now so attuned to consumer comforts that we frivolously dismiss change and innovation. We control the market, and all we want is the same?

    My old Addidas Sambas were super comfy and familiar but when I finally got a pair of new Reebok Pumps, I swear I could jump higher…

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