A few days ago I was watching a video of a single-player RPG — Witcher 3, I think — and what really caught my attention was how expressive and natural the various NPC characters were with their body language and emotes. Just little things, like hands fluttering to different areas, eye contact, leaning against things, but instantly I had this connection with the game world and felt that it was more “real” than what I’ve been used to in MMOs.
I love MMOs, don’t get me wrong, and one of the things that I love the most is how I get to inhabit a world populated by many other people. Even if they’re running by or standing around or being silly, it’s all the difference to me between being in an empty room and hanging out at a coffeeshop with like-minded people.
But what’s subtlely bugged me over the years is the feeling that these other avatars are masks. I know that there’s a person sitting behind them, controlling them, but the range of expression is usually limited to movement and combat. Is that person — or his or her character by extent — happy? Sad? What are they looking at at any given moment in the game world? Even with MMOs giving characters some small measure of idle animations (shifting, breathing, fidgeting) and some games tracking a character’s eyes or head to what that character is targeting, it still often feels like there’s this “emote barrier” between me and others. A little like I’m in a world with controlled puppets that are unnaturally restrained.
So how do we overcome that? SOE famously rolled out its “SOEmote” tech a few years ago, and we all had a hearty laugh at Dave Georgeson’s goofy faces and the weird results in EverQuest II. Yet now that I look back on it, I can’t say that this was the worst idea in the world. SOE was trying to free players’ hands up and allow a quicker and more natural interface to controlling a character’s expressions.
This is problem one with emotes: triggering them takes an extra step or two that doesn’t always feel natural. You either have to type a slash command in, find an emote from a menu, or drag emote abilities to a hotbar for faster use. And unless you’re deep into the roleplay scene or make yourself do it, chances are that most players just don’t think about emotes much of the time and don’t develop the habit of using them.
Personally, I only fiddle with emotes when I’m standing around in social situations in-game and have nothing else to do. I mostly use them as amusing tricks, to see what weird things my character can do, but I worry that if I spam too many of them, I come across as annoying and as an attention hog. It doesn’t feel like I’m just using them in the natural course of my character’s day.
While SOEmote was an interesting experiment, it only went so far as to mimic exaggerated facial expressions — and emoting to me involves the whole body. How can we cross the emote barrier to make using emotes among the population easier, more natural, and more accessible? It might seem like fluffy nonsense, but I think that encountering others who have characters that are more naturally emoting would go a long way to deepening our immersion in these virtual worlds.
I don’t have any great answers, just some random ideas. Voice-activated emotes could be a solution, especially in the Siri/Alexa age when we’re already getting used to talking to machines. “WoW, grin.” “WoW, handstand.” “WoW, shake fist and growl.”
I’d be down for more robust idle animations that would allow players to pick and choose their own character responses to expected MMO encounters in advance via menu. For example, if my character was near a wall and I stopped moving her, the character would automatically back up against the wall, cross her arms, and kick up a heel. Or if I encountered a guild mate, my character would automatically wave and cheer at them. Or if I partied up with others, my character would go over and shake their hands.
In LOTRO, the community loves collecting and using emotes, and if we had better tools for using them, this could be as addictive as collecting pets and toys. I just feel that this is an area that MMOs have been stagnant in for about as long as there has been MMOs, and maybe it’s time to shake things up a bit and move emotes and body language in games forward.