Skip to the end.

One of the earliest and most popular AddOns for World of Warcraft was a simple little LUA script that made the quest text appear instantaneously instead of scrawling its way line-by-line across the screen in an achingly slow fashion, as though being received in real time from a Morse code operator on the other side of the world and then translated behind your screen by an arthritic octogenarian who was two-finger tapping it into a teletype interface. This AddOn was simple enough on the face of it, but it instantly broke a part of World of Warcraft’s quest system; any pacing of content that the Blizzard team had planned based around the fact that players would have to wait for, and therefore probably read, the quest text was nullified as the majority of players voted with their AddOn folders and chose to be able to click ‘Accept’ before the NPC had even had the chance to inhale a breath in order to speak. The standard motto for MMO questing became ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever’. Later this evolved into ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever. Stick the objectives in my tracker’, and later still — ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever. Stick the objectives in my tracker and mark where I need to go on my map’.

One assumes that, given a few more years, it will eventually become ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever. Why don’t you go and kill the ten rats and bring them back here to me, and then you can just give me the reward’. It seems to me that there’s a perverse trend in the evolution of the genre, where we’re slowly and inexorably taking on the role of the NPCs. Next we’ll be running around desperately trying to give quests to any NPC that we can find, watching them run off and come running back to us, whereupon we hand them a reward; even that will be too much like hard work though, so we’ll eventually get to the point where we simply log-in to our character who stands stationary and waits for an NPC to come running up and ask for a quest. Groups of players will gather together and form camps or villages or towns, and our game will simply consist of logging-in, standing around and doing nothing while NPCs speak to our characters to gather quests and collect the subsequent rewards. We’ll have optimised our game-play time into the absolute purest essence of effortlessness.

True story.

The thrusting point of all of this, if you could call it such, it’s more like being poked gently with the blunt end of a large marrow, is with regards to Bioware’s fully voiced MMO, Star Wars: The Old Republic. I imagine the point has hit home, probably because I’ve not so much poked its soft marrowy hide gently at you so much as clubbed you brutally around the head with it. Alas, marrows never were a subtle instrument of enforced learning.

To wit: Bioware is spending quite a lot of money and effort on voice acting talent, these are resources that could be spent on other things, say, for example, game-play content, and all evidence points to the fact that the majority of players in MMOs want to ‘skip to the adventure please’. Case in point: the reason for my thinking about this was due to my recent play through of Dragon Age: Origins; this is a game where all the dialogue has voice-over, but at the end of each segment of speech, when you inevitably have to respond with a dialogue choice, Bioware sensibly places on the screen a text version of the sentence the NPC has directed at you so that, should you miss the spoken question, you can read back over what was said and answer appropriately. I would assume that Bioware will do something similar for TOR, and of course what this means is that you have instantly created a way for players to ‘Yeah, yeah, whatever’ their way out of it. The problem with voice dialogue is that it is easily as ponderously slow as the tip-tapping octogenarian of Blizzard’s original quest text interface, because to provide any sort of immersion with voice acting you need to have dramatic pauses and drawn-out inflections and character defining twists and turns to the speech, otherwise you end up with a bunch of robotic NPCs all alike, as though every quest hub was a franchise of some quest awarding super-conglomerate, “Hi, welcome to Questbucks! What can I get you?”, “Thank you for buying from McQuestalds. Have a nice day!”.

I think the Esc key (oft used to skip dialogue in Bioware games) will become the most overused button in an MMO. Even in Dragon Age, where I don’t have the peer pressure of a party of several other players all waiting for me to get through the dialogue so that they can “GO GO GO!!1” and get on with their game, and where I want to immerse myself in the world that Dragon Age presents, I find myself yawning every now and again and, as Zoso said to me when we were discussing it last week, “sometimes I find myself thinking ‘Summarise, man, summarise!”. Don’t get me wrong, the voice acting in Bioware games is always most excellent, and fantastically immersive in most cases, but it is a thing that is utterly at odds with the direction that the general MMO play-style has developed. Perhaps Bioware’s game will be the next jump in that evolution, something so at odds with what is currently taken to be the norm that it takes the genre in an entirely new direction, or perhaps it will be a lot of wasted effort on the part of Bioware, effort that could have gone in to making a better and more expansive game. The pacing of voice-over in a game can sometimes appear ponderous even to a player invested in the world of a single player RPG, I just hope that Bioware have taken in to account the inbred impatience of the itinerant MMO player.

In summary: do you think that mice would evolve the ability to wear lederhosen if they were slapped on the thighs on a daily basis?[1]

1. Yes, I think they probably would. Shall I go and slap ten mice for you?
2. Are you mad? You can’t slap mice, it’s against the religion of the land!
3. Ah ha! I’m working for the Mouse King, and now your plan is revealed. Prepare to die!
4. I like cheese. Do you like cheese? Mmmmm, cheese.

[1] This is here just to freak out all those people who skipped the main post text to get to the dialogue question at the end.

12 thoughts on “Skip to the end.

  1. Hirvox

    There are already games out there that reverse the roles of the NPC and the player. In Square Enix’s My Life as a King, the player manages a town that serves as a hub for NPC adventurers, managing shops and schools, posting quests and so on.

  2. Zoso

    Honestly, some of them don’t half go on. “So I said to Mary, ‘Mary’ I said ‘that was a lovely chop, that was, was that from the normal butcher’ and she said ‘well no as it goes there’s this new stall up on Harbour Street’ and I says ‘Harbour Street, what, with Norman’s Haberdashers’ and she says ‘well that’s the thing, Norman had to sell the haberdashery after the ordinances of 1019 that prevented anything apart from plate armour being at all styled or looking vaguely decent so his spot was up for rent and that’s why this new bloke was there’, and I said…”

    “This is all very interesting, good burgher, but the Darkspawn are, even as we speak, coming up the road towards us, so if you could possibly skip to the bit of the quest where you reveal the location of the item that can defeat them, that would be really useful…”

    There’s a big issue with pacing, sometimes I want to immerse myself in a fully-voiced world and delve into the intricacies of its religious and political systems, more often I want to get on and stab or shoot a bunch of beasties. The Bioware example that most readily springs to mind is the first Mass Effect, where you had one exciting combat mission right at the start, then SIX! HUNDRED! HOURS! (not to scale) of audio exposition before the action picked up again, and I trust they’re thinking about that in terms of SW:TOR, ‘cos the only thing worse than standing around listening to hours of dialogue and occasionally picking a response is standing around listening to hours of dialogue while someone else occasionally picks a response. Still, I’ve just stuck an order in for Mass Effect 2 so it’s not like it put me off that much, we’ll see how that handles it…

    (Oh, and 4: cheese! Depending on the type of cheese. Sage Derby?)

  3. Brian 'Psychochild' Green

    I think that a lot of people just aren’t looking for story in MMOs, even if they were good. MMOs are about doing stuff, sometimes with friends. Reading an NPC’s witty banter isn’t exciting and it’s not necessarily a group activity (unless it’s bad enough to get the MST3K treatment). (Insert lengthy explanation about why stories are a waste in typical MMOs here.)

    I installed instant quest text because I got tired of the slow pace. I can read incredibly fast and it was just annoying having the quest text scroll so slowly. However, it got harder to actually read the quest text once my friends installed it, too. But, for me, voice acting causes the same frustration because I’m happy reading instead of listening. I suspect I’m in the minority, though, and that good voice acting might draw some more people in.

    Does this mean that MMOs should devolve to “push quest vending machine button, insert 10 rat corpses, obtain product” setup? No. It means that we have to be smarter about how we do stories in games. My guess is that fully voiced dialog isn’t the way, but Bioware will probably happily prove me wrong. At the very least, I think some people will enjoy the voice content mostly because it is in a beloved setting.

  4. Hirvox

    Personally, I like the Half-Life/System Shock type of storytelling, where the player can explore the story at their leisure if they choose to, either by exploring the environment or listening to log files or something. Of course, the downside is that if everything important has already happened when the player gets there it makes the player feel superfluous.

  5. Caspian

    I’d just like to thank you for using a blog title which now means I’ll think the word ‘Inconceivable’ every ten minutes or so for the next day…

    To the pain!

  6. Ysharros

    I’ll have a 3 please Bob.

    As for the content locusts, they can bite my caucasian ass. The only problem (though it’s a sizeable one) I have with voice-overs is that they’re lovely THE FIRST TIME. When it’s the second, third or thirty-third time then yes, I am mashing that ESC key right next to the content locusts.

    “Enchantment? Enchantment!”

    I rest my case.

  7. Melmoth Post author

    Princess Bride quotes are always splendidly welcome of course, but the righteous will know it also as a quote from the most magnificent British television situation comedy Spaced.

  8. Andrew

    Next we’ll be running around desperately trying to give quests to any NPC that we can find, watching them run off and come running back to us, whereupon we hand them a reward; even that will be too much like hard work though, so we’ll eventually get to the point where we simply log-in to our character who stands stationary and waits for an NPC to come running up and ask for a quest.

    As previously mentioned, this has been done in the Wiiware title “My Life as a King”. It’s also dreadfully dull to wait for the NPCs to come back from their dungeon crawling. An MMO like that would be….. painful at best.

  9. We Fly Spitfires

    It’s a very interesting topic. When I started playing DA:O, I listened to every word the NPCs said but after about 30 hours, I stuck on subtitles and started skipping it.

    I don’t often read quest text in WoW and I remember being annoyed by the slow text when I played the beta. I guess I don’t really care about the quests that I do, I just want to experience the social fun and thrill of rewards when I do them.

    Voice acting though, without a doubt, does enhance the immersion of a game. I’d urge anyone to try out Everquest 2 if they disagree. Even just running around a city and hearing NPCs talking and calling out to you is incredible. Once players get past the intitial immersion and roleplay though and enter the “stat grind/competition” element, it’s all meaningless.

  10. Capn John

    The final bit of your Blog raises an interesting thought. What if you couldn’t just hit Accept at the end, but had to select one of multiple choices?

    Sort of like when you help Volcor in ‘A Lost Master’ in Darkshore. You get a choice of fighting your way out while trying to keep Volcor alive, or sneaking out which, unless you’re a Stealth class, usually means legging it and hoping you survive (because Volcor will nick the Cloak of Invisibility and disappear on you).

    So, how about a nice bit of Wensleydale?

  11. Melmoth Post author

    The thing that interests me about such choices is how well they will really work in an MMO, and this is why I’ll be interested to see whether Bioware just implement Bioware Standard Dialogue Choice Mechanic or whether they tried to invent something new for MMOs, the problem being as I see it: no save games.

    There are numerous reasons why people might want a save game to go back to and take a different choice. For example, imagine your cat or child attacking the keyboard at just the wrong moment and making a dialogue choice that sends your character development or current quest path in entirely the opposite direction to what you had intended. Part of the fun of the Bioware games is that the choices you make in dialogue do often have an impact on the world, but those consequences can also turn out to be not what you imagined they would be.

    Will Bioware’s MMO have some sort of save option? It doesn’t seem likely, so I wonder if they have come up with a different way to deal with the fact that most MMO players don’t seem to like being tied to a decision if it turns out to be the wrong one for them.

  12. nugget

    If you wanted to escape (heehee) the voiceover upon hearing it for the first time, once you had the text in front of you, it means that the voiceover wasn’t good enough.

    …I would never have made that statement before playing Sacred 1. Their voiceovers are good enough that I want to hear them read. At least the first time anyway. Sometimes on subsequent visits with other characters I may listen to them. >.> or not.

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