Monday 18 January 2010

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.

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