Voice chat – Another modern myth

It started as a discussion on F13, also anticipated by Darniaq. One of those topics that will become more and more important (and recurring) as time passes. And again I had to fight against this tendency as I did already with the DKPs.

The pattern is similar and was prefectly described by Darniaq. Also fitting as a conclusion (and here as the starting point):

What actually matters is the rules players set. You can mock and sneer all you want, but if 39 people use Voicechat for Raiding or PvP or just dicking around at the Auction House, the 40th person is going to use Voicechat too.

Players make the rules. Everyone else decides to follow them or gets excluded.

The point is that the players constantly work to make the game worst. Always. If you read Raph’s book you already know this behavior in the form of transforming the fun into absolutely boring and repetitive actions (see this). If you read AFKgamer you can see clearly how *that* type of “design” is merciless and selfish. Definitely not helping the game and its community in the long term. But selections are always done and the progress is always built on top of the “victims” that are constantly being excluded. Foton says that these online worlds are not appropriate for real life principles but, instead, he makes obvious exactly the opposite. He underlines how they are similar. How everything is built on top of a merciless selection, maybe more or less blatant and justified, but still there.

To understand better what I mean I could bring the example of how the content is used. Lets imagine that the game offers two different paths. One offers complex and interesting quests, bringing the players to group together and explore the world. The other is a small instanced dungeon with a row of mobs standing still, possible to solo and with a calibrated difficulty for your party. With a big experience and money boost as you finish the dungeon in 10-20 minutes. Ready to zone out and back in to rinse and repeat.

Well, the first obviously sounds more interesting and we could expect the players to ignore the second path. Instead what actually happens is the opposite. All the content of the first path will be completely deserted. The few players willingly to experience it won’t be able to do so since there won’t be anyone else around that is willingly to group and, as anticipated, most of that content isn’t accessible for the solo player. So it doesn’t exist. This may sound as a teoric example but it isn’t. This is exactly what happened to DAoC with the release of the “Catacombs” expansion. So definitely not something made up by me.

Now what is important is to understand WHY the players work constantly to ruin and dumb down their own experience. Again Raph’s notes help to figure out this point. In this case he was commenting the violence in games but what he says is valid even for different contexts. Players “see past fiction”, they know and see what the game is about often before the designers realize what it is (in particular when they are bad designers).

In this case the players know that the game is nothing more than a treadmill. They know that the only impact they have on the game world is about their loot, money, and experience points. There isn’t anything else. The persistence of the world is summarized into those three elements. The rest is faked. The rest is fiction. And the players “see past fiction”. They see a ladder and they see two paths to climb that ladder. The second path I described above is faster. More efficient. Functionally optimized. It doesn’t even have the added burden of “dealing with people” since it’s soloable. So most of the players choose this pattern and all the remaining players will just HAVE TO follow. As Darniaq explained above.

Now. We know that the DKPs problem comes directly from design problems. We have examples where the distribution of the loot lacks proper tools (DAoC) or is perceived as unfair or bugged (WoW), so the players look into ways to override the standard rules and bend them to their own advantage. In fact the system wasn’t actually unfair. It was actually too fair and not appropriate for the selfish desires of the players. Because the concept of “fair” for a player is about whatever comes to the personal advantage (which also explains some constant and contradictory rants about the perceived “unbalance” in these games). In fact the DKPs system was created to bend the rules to the personal advantage of a smaller group.

This is why we design (and will have to continue to). Because people are bad. We are selfish and violent, ready to take advantage of the other. Without laws, governments, myths, morals, religion and principles we would be just animals eating each other. Lum says: Men are two days from savagery. And it’s true. Nothing changes when it comes to the internet and online worlds. It can be actually worst because we have the added problem of the anonymity. We have often examples of people stating that they don’t want to play with others because “other people kind of suck” (both Anyuzer and Foton often comment along these lines even if I wasn’t able to track proper links). Often there’s this funny quote that says that the first problem of a mmorpg is the fact you have to deal with other people.

Again, this is why we design. Why there are selected people with the competence to do this very specific work. In this case so that everyone else can have fun, avoid the griefers and possibly building social ties that will help to retain subscribers in the longer term and make the game world more meaningful and interesting.

This brings me back to the problem of the voice chat. In this case the reaction of the players isn’t the result of bad design as it was for the DKPs. It’s just about the players using their own tools, external to the game, to ease the experience. In this case to overcome the limits of a chat box and the slow use of a keyboard. This is nowhere different from the RMT problem, the players are finding more and more ways to disrupt their own experience and ruin the game and erase other possibilities. Cheats are yet another form of the same pattern.

As it happened for the DKPs system, the players now justify the need of external tools like Teamspeak or Ventrilo, stating that the new games require more “skill”. And more skill requires ways to quickly communicate to be able to deal with these new and complex encounters. So it’s not possible to play anymore without, because the encounters are now too hard, they require organization and good players. What a beautifully crafted myth :)

The reality is that nothing at all changed. If anything the new encounters are even more stupid and simple. They are surely more polished and good looking but still remixing the same old ingredients that now are actually rather stale and dull. What the new games do well is to create and exploit the “confusion”. As I commented in the thread on F13, the difficulty in the raid encounters is about making people behave. Listen and follow orders. WITHOUT taking the initiative, without stepping outside their defined role. Without reacting to what happen and disrupting the “tactics”. The new games know that the whole difficulty in a raid is about making people behave and this is why outside the standard pattern (aggro management) they add timed spell effects that disrupt the situation, create confusion, send everyone fleeing around (or fling people in the air) or spam massive AOE attacks or multiple stages (like Onyxia) requiring mass repositioning. It’s choreography. Choreography is hard because it requires everyone to “behave”. To learn a role and repeat it over and over till it matches what everyone is doing. It is perceived as hard because most of the players have soloed till 60, so they cannot relate to a concept like “coordination”. They aren’t used to deal with other players and play together. They aren’t used to fail because someone didn’t pay attention and ruined the encounter for everyone else.

Within this frame the raid encounters ARE harder. They ARE complex (“complicated” would actually be a better word). But they NOWHERE require the use of the Voice Chat because the gameplay is just about mastering the “choreography”, repeating it over and over and over till it’s perfect. Till you can do it while half asleep and watching TV. There is NOTHING that requires a sudden decision making. The best raid and PvP groups will be those formed by players that DO NOT NEED TO SPEAK to maximize their performance. Because they know exactly their personal role into the bigger playfield, they know exactly where their mates will be and when. All these more or less complex tactics aren’t defined and performed “on the fly”. Noone has ever killed Onyxia or another raid encounter “on the fly”. These strategies are thought, like the were created, offline. Then tried and refined. And finally performed “on stage”.

The role of the voice chat is zero. ZERO. If not to make people behave, to yell at them and try to keep them awake.

My point is that the Voice Chat is an ease and nothing else. People are lazy and they love eases. Players justify the use of these external tools stating that these encounters are too hard if not impossible without. But this is obviously false as it was false that the DKPs system was created to make the loot distribution “fair”. These are silly excuses. They are far from the reality. There is nothing in these games that couldn’t be accessed with just the tools the game makes available. But then everyone wants Teamspeak and all the UI tools like RaidAssist. They want them simply because they love the eases. Playing on the thin line between what is legal and what is an exploit.

My conclusion isn’t different from the quote from Darniaq I posted above, with the difference that I don’t like to adapt myself to a false principle. I know that the Voice Chat is an ease and is useful and better than text and chat boxes. In fact I believe that this is another part, along the whole UI, that is destined to be completely removed. It’s the inheritance of an archaic model that is now felt obsolete and will progressively fade. There is no choice. Game companies will second the desires of the players and will have to adapt (along with the related difficulties), whether it is good or not. Whether they actually understand the desires of the players or not.

The Voice Chat isn’t different from the gap between text-based MUDS and graphical mmorpgs. The players will always choose the ease and will always move toward more natural patterns that can grasp more directly what these games are about (the myths, not the mechanics). As always, we’ll lose and gain a lot. At the same time.

But this doesn’t mean that I justify the damage that these awful communities are doing to these games. It’s completely false that the use of third party programs is required by the game. That’s completely made up and I explained the reasons above. Among those who can access and use these “eases” there are players who cannot (bandwidth and connection problems, hardware etc..) or do not want to (cannot be loud at night, wake up kids, breaking the immersion etc..). The advantage of the voice over text is fluff and nowhere mandatory to enjoy and successfully deal with PvE raid encounters and competitive PvP. This is why I do not criticize nor fight against who decided to use the “eases”. But I surely don’t accept the fact that the community is actively segregating those who cannot or do not want to use them. And I accept even less the stupid justifications used as excuses. The voice chat is again a simple choice. A choice that is nowhere required or mandatory to obtain outstanding results in these games, both on PvP and PvE.

Without the voice chat the raid encounters would be still be won, without a noticeable difference on the performance and just requiring some more organization and attention from the participants (which could even have a positive effect over the voice chat).

Other players (and a fair number of them) are being excluded just because of lazyness. Just because, once again, these games are nothing else than phat leet and everyone has learnt to stab the other in the eye, if it is convenient. Or you are in, or you are out. People are selfish and they care about you only in the case you are useful as a tool.

My guild in WoW readily booted me when they discovered that I wasn’t going to use the voice chat. The seven months we played together meant jack shit, speaking of social ties. I wasn’t useful anymore and easily replaced. So don’t fool yourself when others say that mmorpgs are about the people. Because they are about the phat loot and the selfish greed. Because this is what these game have taught. “Games are drugs”. And the players are particularly receptive about being selfish than they are about accepting others.

So, again. If these games are about learing, what exactly are we teaching?

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