Today I read an article by Clive Thompson about the growing trend of using voice communication services from within MMORPGs (massively multi-player online RPGs), and how it is taking away from the “virtual” experience. You can read his article here (Wired.com).
Just to summarize before I launch into my own opinion, Clive is essentially saying that utilizing voice chat, that is, using a microphone with your computer so that you can speak with other people instead of typing to them, is degrading the sense of a virtual identity. Now I want to elaborate on his idea and then introduce my own take on the new trend.
Role-playing games have always been about creating a character and pretending to be them, as the name of the genre implies. You literally play the role of whomever you choose. In WOW, that role may be a female Night Elf Mage (even if you are a male in real-life), or a male dwarf warrior (even if you are a tall and shy woman). Not everyone plays the opposite genre, but it certainly is quite common in WOW, with Elves especially (I wonder why). Either way, when you create your character, you are making a virtual identity that you then pay $14.99/month to become whenever you choose. You can use magic and do other supernatural things that you could never do in the real world, which creates a sense of an alternate reality.
As these games become more advanced, and online-only, the level of social interaction is increasing exponentially. Ten years ago online play was constrained to RTS and FPS games, where your objective was to kill other players. Rarely were bonds of any kind formed, unless you played Team Deathmatch with members of your clan. Either way, the level of interaction and friendship creation was nowhere near the level it is in modern RPG games (older online RPGs like Ultima Online and Everquest 1 had these elements, but lacked the popularity to be consider “massively multiplayer”, and thus similarly lacked the massive society of players). Nowadays, the online world of virtual characters becomes a virtual society, reflecting on the real society but different in its own ways. Real-world identities usually do not translate into the virtual worlds, and things like age, gender, location, and appearance of the real person rarely go through the minds of players. If you’re playing with a female Night Elf, you can question whether or not “she” is really a she, but overall you respect the virtual character not based on age or gender but based on how that character behaves in the virtual world. Generally, better players are more respected, even if they might be social outcasts in the real world. The way for this complete virtual identity to exist is because the communication is restricted to text, and only text. With only words to identify a person, you a basing your judgments on their knowledge of the game and how they talk from behind the shield of a virtual identity.
All of this leads to what Clive is saying in his article. A recent trend has introduced voice chat into the MMORPG world. Whether it be TeamSpeak, guilds everywhere are implementing servers that allow their members to communicate using voice rather than text. The implications, pointing out by the article, are obvious: the age and gender of fellow players instantly becomes recognizable via their voice. Clive also says that things such as location or region are obvious by accents. You can tell if someone is from Texas or Boston without a degree in linguistics or much trouble at all. In other words, the voice chat destroys whatever virtual identity you might have, because your real identity is going to be the voice they hear. Your virtual character will becomes nothing more than a puppet commanded by your real life identity.
Not only does this damage the virtual identity, but it also brings some privacy concerns into the mix. Clive brings up the fact that some people may not be comfortable with giving out all of that information against their will. By sharing your voice with the world, you are giving out your age and gender whether you like it or not, and maybe your location depending on accents. What’s worse is that some guilds require you to use voice communication. While you certainly don’t need to join those guilds, it still doesn’t change the fact that you will probably need to start doing voice chat eventually in order to compete in PvP especially. Simply put, a team that can coordinate via talking instead of writing text will be infinitely more productive and efficient.
The voice chat innovation and widespread use is not entirely bad. In fact, it is the first step on the path toward a very, very interesting future. This is where I divert from Clive’s article and speculate instead on what is coming, not what has already taken place. I believe that the MMORPG market is growing at an intense rate. There are studies that show the population of WOW falling, but I attribute that simply to their lack of new game content. WOW would be a really boring place for a Level 70 who has done all the quests, since they don’t add many new things in time frames as long as a year or more. Burning Crusade represents a lot more to do, but that came far too late in my opinion. But let’s not talk about why WOW may or may not be starting its decline… regardless of whether or not it fails, MMORPGs are the future. It will just take one breakthrough game to replace WOW’s spot (if WOW does indeed fail any time soon, which is unlikely).
An important factor to consider, however, is that of monthly fee. WOW charges $14.99, and most other games sport similar costs. I think this slows the growth of the industry. There are a lot of people out there, myself included, that simply refuse to pay that kind of money to play a game. What the monthly fee creates is a commitment to the game, to get your money’s worth. However, this damages the overall point of the game. As you all know, Guild Wars is my favorite MMORPG because it offers a quality game experience, that constantly has new features (via expansion packs), and lacks a monthly fee. That’s right… it has no monthly fee. This isn’t an economics-based post, so I won’t go into why such a practice is feasible, but just know that it is very possible for companies to profit using Guild Wars’ business model (ArenaNet is profiting quite a bit, as far as I know). I think the lack of a monthly fee makes the game more accessible to people, but unfortunately with Guild Wars the game just isn’t popular enough to make a dent in WOW’s population.
In 2008, ArenaNet is going to begin a closed beta for Guild Wars 2. This new game will represent a huge step forward in the MMORPG world, both because of graphics and functionality. They are trying a lot of new things that may or may not succeed, but that is why it is a beta. Either way, I hope that Guild Wars 2 is marketed correctly so that it can attract a lot more new players. Guild Wars 2 will continue the no monthly fee model, and I think that would be a great starting point for advertisement. “Get all the fun of WOW, with no monthly fee, plus better graphics.” Sounds like a good deal to me. With a game like that properly marketed, it should gain huge ground by reaching into untapped markets. Like I mentioned above, there are those who simply won’t pay per-month to enjoy an online game, and Guild Wars and similar games can appeal to them if they are marketed to.
Whether it is Guild Wars 2 or another no-monthly-fee game, I think the world is ready at this point for widespread adaption of the MMORPG. There are plenty of people who would buy into (no pun intended) the lack of a monthly fee. But I think there is another market of people who are not targeted at all by current MMORPGs, and should be if the MMORPG is going to be a universally accessible type of game. The people that I am speaking about are females. It is no secret that females, statistically, don’t game nearly as much as males. In fact, the only game ever to be bought by more females than males is The Sims. The Sims is really one of the only games to ever appeal to females. I think if a company were to make an MMORPG that appealed to girls, in addition to guys, then females could join the growing virtual society. It would be interesting, for once, to actually hear the voice of a female person behind that virtual Female Night Elf. For the true future of MMORPG to be reached, the virtual society needs to be representative of the real society, where there are just as many females as males.
When/if such a time is reached, when there are all kinds of people playing MMORPGs for all different reasons, then the power of voice chat and general online communication within these games will truly be seen. I foresee a future where AIM/MSN/YM/etc. and GTalk/Skype/etc. are completely replaced with MMORPGs. I also believe things like Youtube, MySpace, and FaceBook will be replaced with an MMORPG. In fact, there may come a point where, when you turn on your computer, it comes up to the game instead of a desktop. Who needs YouTube if the huge population of WOW or a similar game is able to share videos with one another, in the game? Who needs AIM when you can simply private-message someone, or meet in an instanced location (easier to do in GW) and chat using the regular text chat with many people at once? And who needs Google Talk and Skype if you have the ability to use Ventrilo or TeamSpeak right from in the game to communicate with other people?
Sony’s Home that is soon coming to the Playstation 3 makes this idea a reality. In Home, you can do all the things mentioned above… talk with others, text chat with others, share photos/music/videos, play games together, etc. Plus, you can create your own virtual “home” a’la The Sims and show it off to other players. Want to have a chat with a friend? Simply invite them to your virtual apartment and chat using a keyboard or a microphone. I think Home will be revolutionary, in that it will introduce the idea of mixing a massively multi-player world with various media-sharing capabilities to create a huge, interactive social world. The fact that it closely resembles The Sims will also make it very attractive to female gamers. While Home isn’t a game unto itself, it might as well be an MMORPG since you are role-playing using a virtual character.
In conclusion, I think Sony’s Home will open the eyes of the world on the issue of a massively multi-player online role-playing community. I hope that games like Guild Wars 2 and a WOW 2 if there ever is one, will realize that they need to implement some things like that in their games. With no monthly fee and some way to attract female gamers, the world of MMO gaming is going to go to a new level. The current trend of voice chat and its illicit destruction of the virtual identity is going to create a future MMORPG where you don’t role-play at all, but actually be yourself online.