Sorry ma’am, I don’t speak text?

What might our games might be like if we couldn’t communicate via text? It’s a difficult concept, because text based communication has been absolutely core to every MMO I’ve played. No guild chat? No whispers? No way to carry out multiple conversations at once? The more I think about it, the more I wonder if text chat is one of the big enablers of massive games. Without them, our communication is limited to the number of people we can reasonably see or hear at the same time.

But if consoles are going to be the next MMOified platform, this is a barrier that they will have to cross. Will it mean more voice chat? Will consoles get keyboards? Will we have to pick our texts from a list instead of being able to input them freeform? Does it matter? Is text an old medium that just slows our games down and adds more pointless information for players need to read?

As a society, we have a long, long history with text. Historically, Victorian text chat — or telegrams, as we like to call them– was the great enabler for the modern internet. And back in those days, if you needed to communicate with massive numbers of people, you put a text advert in the local paper or published a pamphlet.  (If you spend too long thinking about this, you can see why some people hail the printing press as the greatest invention in human history.)

  • Text carries a sense of permanence. Someone can read it later than the time at which it was written. It may not be much later if it is in a text box that scrolls off the screen, but communicating via text doesn’t mean that both the sender and receiver need to be time synchronised. Voice messages can also be stored but it is less convenient.
  • Text is fast, but voice is slow. It takes much longer to listen to someone speak a sentence than it would to read it. If we have to rely on voice for all communications, we simply won’t be able to pass on as much information in the same timescale.
  • Text is easily searchable. You can skim through a box of text to find the amusing typo and copy it to all your friends. Skimming through voice chats means listening all the way through, and hoping that someone has bothered to index which topic came up at what time so that you can fast forward.
  • Text can be used to maintain multiple conversations at the same time. It is easy to be whispering two different people, chatting on guild chat, and having an argument with someone else standing next to you. Voice chat — not so much.
  • People can’t talk over each other in text. They may ignore each other, but you don’t have the issue of more than one person trying to talk at the same time.
  • Texts can mix private with public conversations. At the risk of embarassing mavs, you can have a private and a public conversation at the same time. This is why you can discuss your cat with your best friend at the same time as explaining a boss fight to your guild.

I wonder if text based chat is required for any kind of massive game experience. If we forcibly keep the group size small, then voice chat could totally replace it. You wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone outside the group but maybe that wouldn’t matter. If we make sure that all the information needed is provided by the game, then you might not need to explain fights to people. We could imagine using menus to select what we want to say from a list of options (ie. instead of typing), but that feels restrictive. Or maybe we can communicate via symbols, emotes, interpretive dance on screen?

Or, I suspect, the other alternative is that people still use text. They just find ways to do it outside the game. Maybe everyone has a netbook running IRC, or uses their iPhones to text each other instead. They chat via text boxes and bulletin boards and only log on to actually play instanced content.

Possibly console type MMOs just get less massive. Maybe you don’t need to talk to anyone outside your immediate group ever. Maybe … maybe you don’t need to ever talk to anyone at all.

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17 thoughts on “Sorry ma’am, I don’t speak text?

  1. With phantasy star universe on the 360, people would kick people out of parties if you didn’t use voice chat. It seems a lot of guilds also use vent or teamspeak for most serious work, and I can’t blame them. MMO’s may use text but its hard for a lot of us to type and act at the same time.

    I think text is best when you have leisure to chat with a lot of people, but voice will almost always be better in parties or in situations where typing is harder. Consoles can do both.

    • I guess they have a keyboard for text input? It just seems as though it’d be slow otherwise (I guess maybe a good voice-to-text transcriber would sort that out.)

      Now that I think of it, I guess voice is quicker to input, but text is quicker to parse.

    • Yeah most modern consoles have USB ports now, so just buy a USB keyboard and plug them in. Before they made keyboards that fit into the controller ports. Most games also use a software keyboard if you don’t get one, but its incredibly slow.

      An interesting story was that with the gamecube version of phantasy star online, the only way to get a keyboard for it was to import one from japan, and a lot of people spent hundreds of hours picking out letters with the software one until madcatz finally released one here.

  2. The consoles already have keyboards. As far as I know the Ps2 accepted usb keyboards and Id be surprised if there isnt something for the Ps3. My brother has a thumboard for his 360 ( http://www.slipperybrick.com/wp-content/uploads/2007/04/xbox-keyboard-controller.jpg )as he uses msn messenger on the 360 as well.

    Voice chat does have huge benefits and there’s nothing better than a bunch of friends all on vent together laughing and joking. It’s more personable.
    From a roleplayer perspective though, most folks I know seem to only be able to voice chat or text chat. Teamspeak/Vent kills immersive roleplay.

  3. Maybe … maybe you don’t need to ever talk to anyone at all.

    Considering that over the course of the last 10 years MMOs moved from a “you need a group to accomplish anything at all” position significantly closer to a “single-player experience in a shared, simulated world” state, that would not be a necessarily unthinkable path for console-MMOs to take.

  4. > Text can be used to maintain multiple conversations at the
    > same time. It is easy to be whispering two different people,
    > chatting on guild chat, and having an argument with someone
    > else standing next to you. Voice chat – not so much.

    Yeah, maybe… probably if you’re a girl.

    … I can’t. :-)

    I can’t even chat while doing an instance, besides the group chat.

    But, to stay on topic. I think WoW is primarely a chat client, and
    then a game. That’s why it was so successful. It’s the next generation
    of ICQ. And it’s threatened by Facebook and not by Aion. Therefore,
    a WoW without text chat will not be possible.

    I think your question should be, how could a successful MMORPG look
    without text chat and not how can we turn our current chat client (WoW)
    into something else that it isn’t (a MMORPG without text chat).

    New features which are announced by Blizzard.
    – Cross Game Chat via Battle.net
    – Therefore (and confirmed) cross realm chat
    – And therefore (and confirmed) cross faction change

    I tried many times to play horde but it got boring. WoW with an empty
    friend list feals deserted, even in the middle of Orgrimar. I may finally
    be able to play and enjoy a horde alt.

    They only have to make their Battle.net chat a standard (Jabber) and we
    could even have cross different vendor game chat or chat with people outside
    of games (at work, surfing the Internet).

  5. This is really all MMOGs are, is solo/group games with text chat rooms letting us talk to all those “other” massively multiplayers on the server. If we want to. Or not.

  6. My browser seems to have pressed the Submit button all on its own…

    Continuing, as others have mentioned, voice is definitely quicker. There’s a reason guild’s require voice for raids, it’s just too slow to type in all the instructions over and over.

    Voice isn’t always wanted though. I’ve never been the type to just login to a TS/Ventrilo server just to talk to the guild. I’d rather text that, since the implication there is that we’re not grouped therefore the conversation is distracting and I’d rather have the ability to not pay attention and scroll back later.

    The consoles have accepted USB keyboards since the PS2, so that’s really not an issue. I have a spare wireless keyboard to use with my 360 but I rarely hook it up since I’ve got that chat-pad addon for my controller now. Not sure about the PS3 but the 360 will also allow multiple voice chat channels, the catch is that (just like TS/Ventrilo) you can only be in one at a time so you can’t really maintain multiple conversations like you can with text chat.

    I’m very excited to see some MMOGs appear on the current crop of consoles, though I’m not sure it will happen. I’ve been playing mostly 360 games lately while the MMOGs on the PC I don’t really “play” at all, I just chat. On a console MMOG there would be less direct interaction I’d imagine, and perhaps less “I met this cool guy while doing XYZ content” although if doing the content was the reason we met in the first place, there’s a good chance we would have met eventually even in a normal multiplayer server-browser based game.

    • I’d like to see console based MMOs, but I also don’t yet understand how they’d let me play alongside my husband. As it is now, we have a room with two computers so we can play together in game, or we can go do something different and just chat to each other. I’m just not sure that replacing that with a big sofa, two TVs and two consoles would really work. (Mostly because consoles seem to expect you to be at a distance from the screen, PCs expect you to sit quite close so it’s easier to fit them in.)

      (For that reason, I’ve said before that I think MMOs on handhelds would be the way to go on consoles.)

      I agree with you about a large part of the MMO experience being similar to a huge chat room at the moment. I’m just curious to see how things will go. Will they throw the baby out with the bathwater?

  7. I agree. I already miss how much less people “talk” (by which I mean type) in games these days. Actually, I’ve noticed over the years that the range of /say has become shorter and shorter; in Asheron’s Call, for instance, it’s fairly long, so someone 50′ away (or whatever – a fair distance) will hear your /say. In WoW and EQ2 and others, the range seems to be much shorter.

    It’s more realistic, possibly, but it creates a distortion of perception in which /say ceases to become a useful chat channel. That’s a bad thing, in my view, in terms of interacting with people you just happen to come across. Tells are single-target only. What if there are 4 people standing at a crossroads? Guaranteed that if you /say anything these days, 2 will be out of range and 1 won’t be watching that chat. If it’s not group, guild or zone-wide (or more), it just doesn’t exist anymore.

    And yet, voice is here to stay, whether we like it or not. I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan, because while I can zone out of text chat (not look at it), I can’t hop in and out of a Vent room every time LootAdvertiserKid is enthusing about the HelmOfCrapitude he just found… and about the GlovesOfPoopScooping he gets 10 seconds later… and then about the LeafOfButtWiping he finds 20 seconds after that.

    And of course, some people find that fascinating. That’s the thing. I would never require people in voice to moderate their discourse around what *I* personally find interesting or not (room rules notwithstanding), but moving out of the chatroom or muting it seem to make the whole endeavour kind of pointless, and I’ve been brought up to think that kind of “You bore me, I ignore you” behaviour is discourteous when it’s done so blatantly. People have every right to be boring. ;) But at least in text, I can let my eyes glaze over and scroll up later to see if I missed anything.

    Also, as a female gamer, I still get endless “zomg you’re a rl gurl!” comments on voice chat. Yeah, most of them are jokes, and I take them as such, but you know what? After the 1000th rendition, no matter how amusingly meant, it gets fecking old.

    And finally, if I AFK a lot or for any length of time (both of which happen when I play), I’ll miss whatever’s being said on voice. Not so with text.

    This is shaping up into a rant, so I’d better stop. Suffice to end with the fact that I miss the demise of text chat. It’s not dead yet, but it’s pretty moribund as a means of entertaining communication. It’s *great* for auctions though. /rolleyes

    • This was on my mind as well. What happens when some devs decide that text chat and multiple channels are just too confusing and inaccessible for people?

      But I also really like that I can drift off and split my attention and come back to the conversation later and join in with text.

      Also, why don’t we have multi-tells yet? ie. /whisper A,B,C ((message))

  8. Also, why don’t we have multi-tells yet? ie. /whisper A,B,C ((message))

    That would be spam, that’s why. IRC — which despite its age is ironically a far more advanced text chat medium than what we have in MMOs — even doesn’t let you do that and frowns on scripts to do it for you.

    As a former IRC junkie myself, I say if you think you “need” to /tell multiple people who are not within /say distance, just get all of you in your own private chat channel.

    • Actually, we used to have it on MUSHes and it was quite convenient for when you just wanted to coordinate a meeting. So instead of paging three different people to say ‘Are you free for a scene in 10 mins?’ you could send one multi-tell.

      • The problem with multi-tells is that it would be abused by spammers – imagine how much faster you could receive gold pitches and porn sites! It’s usually just as easy in some games like EQ2 or WoW to invite people into a private chat channel (or, if you like, at least in EQ2, you can invite them into a private voice chat.)

  9. Really interesting topic Spinks. I have to say that personally I have really come around on voice chat. Initially when guilds started to have Ventrilo channels for raids and such I wasn’t a big fan, for some of the reasons you mentioned. Text chat is great for having long conversations or any kind of roleplay but voice is great for short commands and such that work to support actually *playing* the game.

    There are a lot of downsides – some you’ve mentioned, but others that I see a lot in EQ2 (because of its built-in voice chat) are that not everyone may be in voice, or have a microphone. It limits your ability to communicate to some extent, and at times means things will have to be relayed to the people who don’t have voice – very time consuming. Also there are innumerable issues with volume and being able to understand someone because everyone has different sound levels and headsets. Not to mention accents!

    But for all that – telling a joke and hearing people laugh is so much better in voice chat than the rather tedious text process and seeing a lame “lol” at the end. I find voice chat to be more intimate, more like the conversations we have every day, and I enjoy that, particular with friends or guildies. Voice chat is also a great help for poor or slow typists – sometimes you find the people that seem reticent in text chat really bloom in voice chat and are very outgoing. I like recognizing people’s voices and being recognized, basically it helps to put a more human face on these artificial bodies we inhabit.

  10. Pingback: Ups and downs of voice chat « Big Ogre, Small World

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