Bronte 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.