Thursday, May 3, 2007

Voice Chat in a Star Trek MMORPG

Daron Stinnett of Perpetual Entertainment posed the question (back in the fan discussion forum) of how voice chat might work in Star Trek Online without seriously disadvantaging text-only players. The thing is, I'm just not sure there's any way to allow text-only players to compete at the same level as VOIP-enabled players... if by "compete" we mean combat gameplay.

Players with voice capability -- whether in-game or TeamSpeak/Ventrilo -- are going to exclude those without VoiceOverIP. Using both voice and text, or using only text when some group members have the voice option, is just not going to happen. Text-only players will either have to group with each other or go it alone.

But even if they can't go head-to-head with the voice-enabled players, text-only players will still want to group with each other, and a MMORPG should be fun for them, too. To that end, I'd like to offer two specific suggestions.

1. Make it easy for players who don't have (or don't want to use) VOIP to find other text-only players.

An obvious system-defined chat channel for text-mode players would be one feature that could help here. Another possibility is allowing players to set a "text-only" flag on their characters that can be seen either visually or through a "looking for group" search tool.

An interesting twist could be to give all players some kind of item their character could wear to indicate that the player is text-only. In the same way that Geordi wore a VISOR to counteract his blindness, text-only characters in a Star Trek MMORPG might (if they chose to do so) wear a mask to signify being "mute."

2. Provide a way for players to send text strings to each other by pressing a hotkey, and to easily share collections of text strings.

This actually hearkens back to Wing Commander, in which it was possible for players to write their own "taunts" to send to enemy Kilrathi ships. In the case of a Star Trek MMORPG, allowing players to send short text messages to each other would give text-only players a more effective way to coordinate tactics than typing everything out in longhand on the fly. These text messages could be predefined by the developer to correspond with specific actions that characters can take, but if (as I hope) there are many, many such possible actions, for this suggestion to work it might be necessary to let players create their own command strings.

If that's permitted, then the second part of this suggestion -- making it easy to share collections of text strings -- would enable text-only groups to quickly agree on a standard set of tactical commands. A nice feature here would be the ability to save text string collections by name. That way you could load a new collection when joining a pick-up group without losing a favorite personal collection of text commands.

A twist on this that could make it popular even with the VOIP-enabled players would be to allow hotkey-sent text strings (whether hardcoded or player-written) to be linked to art and sound assets. When a text message is received, it would also display a selected graphic and/or sound effect. For example, if I'm in a ship-based group with Bob, and I want him to concentrate phaser fire on the target ship's engines, I'd hit the appropriate button, and on his display would appear a small pop-up box containing a picture of a ship's phasers firing and the appropriate sound effect, along with words such as "Bob, concentrate your phaser fire on that ship's engines!" If there's room, the graphic might even display a picture of my avatar giving the command (and looking suitably anxious about it). Ground communications would work similarly.

That's just one way this could be implemented. What's important is to find some way to give text chat some additional value as a gameplay feature that makes it more competitive with voice chat.

In the end, the ability to create and share text commands would probably not allow casual text-only groups to operate at the level of the hardcore VOIP-enabled guild/clan-type players. But a feature that makes it easier for text-mode players to coordinate tactics would at least let them be effective in pick-up groups, which (for combat, at any rate) may be all that's really required.