To Talk, or Not to Talk: A Multiplayer Question

By Nick Breckon, Feb 08, 2008 11:49am PST There's something to be said for the written word.

For one, it never mumbles. It doesn't have an accent. It rarely shouts, or speaks too soft.

It doesn't carry with it the whining of your two young children, or the barking of your Taco Bell dog, or the sound of your 500 watt speakers.

It can't belch.

The same cannot be said for vocal communication. The ditching of dial-up and the advent of broadband has lead to a revolution of multiplayer video game communication. Whereas voice chat used to be a rare occasion, organized only for the most important of clan matches, plenty of multiplayer games are now shipping with their own built-in voice solutions.

From Halo 3 to World of Warcraft to Team Fortress 2, the gaming air waves are officially open. Now everyone can hear your whiny, nasally nerd voice on demand, complete with raspy breathing noises and god-crushing sneezes. Now all have a chance to voice their opinions on the coming political election, and the advantages of being heterosexual, all while blowing up bases and spawn-camping the innocent.

Now everyone has an equal voice. Let freedom sing.

On second thought, please don't sing. No, really. Shut up. Dude, come on. SHUT THE FUCK UP. Can somebody kick him?

You know, maybe it's the fact that I grew up with the internet, mastered instant messages before I got to algebra, and quickly learned how to type a three-page dissertation while flying through the air and shooting off a spinfusor in Tribes, but I just can't get behind voice chat.

The hindering nature of headsets. The harsh tearing of low-fidelity throat noises. The direct communication with a seething sect of humanity.

All these reasons have me hugging my keyboard in terror.

Headset Hell
First of all, I don't like headsets. They freak me out.

Their whole structure is alien, like a pair of headphones with some kind of creepy plastic snake trying to reach around and bite off your face. They remind me of a scary contraption you'd put on at the dentist, right before your local practitioner says something comforting like, "Just let me know if it hurts too much."

Freud would probably have a lot to say about this.

It's hard finding a decent headset, too. Gaming sets are often cheaply made, with boxy vice-like phones that clamp to your head, and cheap pipe-cleaner mics with little give. When you finally find a set built well enough, it's not likely to sound better than your $250 Sennhesiers. And wearing two pairs of headphones at once does not work as well as you'd think.

If you happen to settle on a set of cans, actually using them can be a surreal experience. The dampening power of the earmuff-like headset adds a decidedly subsurface effect, to the point where even the shortest of phrases sound utterly foreign. It's like trying to talk on the phone after being hit with a flash-bang.

On the console side, the standard Xbox 360 headset has a smaller profile than most, but it's also a flimsy excuse of a peripheral. Its ear-piece may be light on the lobes, but the scratchy noises emanating from behind the foam padding certainly aren't. How do you communicate on a device that renders your voice as a tinny, high-pitched computer? When your voice is already tinny and high-pitched, as is mine, the resultant boosting is downright painful.

And if you're using the Xbox 360 headset, that also means you're probably using Xbox Live. Nothing is more painful than that.

50 DKP Minus
There's the guy who knows how to win, if only you'd just listen to him. How about the guy who got drunk an hour ago, and thinks everything out of his mouth is the funniest thing since Dane Cook? And, in case you forgot inbetween maps, he is soooo high.

Or the guy who figured that it must be cheaper to talk his friend over Halo than to use a phone. The guy who so desperately wants to know where his team is. The guy who only likes to eat crunchy things.

And then there's the guy who just wants to call somebody gay. It doesn't matter who.

Yes, Xbox Live is the undisputed wasteland of rational discourse. Children and immature adults of all ages cling to its web-like assortment of gaming pleasures like venomous insects, violently venting everything from racist tirades to plain incoherent babbling.

Of course, people had been calling eachother gay long before Xbox Live was created. On the PC, external voice chat applications like Teamspeak, Roger Wilco, and Ventrilo have been around for years. But now that voice is a freely available feature, there's no avoiding it.

And nowhere is voice chat more prevalent, and more discomforting, than in World of Warcraft.

The full bore of a 500-man guild populating voice chat channels is at once horrifying and obscene. While some can handle taking snappy commands from a 15-year-old kid in the heat of battle, hours on end, somehow it all seems absurd. I spend my free time taking terse orders from a guy that I wouldn't trust to mow my lawn? Really?

If video killed the radio star, voice chat is killing the typing enthusiast. No longer can we simply play a game in peace, idly tapping out taunts from round to round. Instead, every multiplayer game's soundtrack now comes with a version of That Guy yelling in the background, screaming for somebody to just get on the point, you idiots!

The only way to avoid this verbal abuse is to remove yourself from the conversation entirely; to disable voice chat and pretend the outside world does not exist, becoming a reclusive hermit in the midst of the virtual battlefield, blissfully ignorant of who is calling you gay at any one moment.

The Gang's All Here
However, rather than commit myself to the role of preaching dinosaur, I have to admit that voice chat offers many advantages that simple typing can't ever hope to replicate.

Speaking is, of course, the more expedient form of communication. In competitive play, voice chat offers a significant edge to those who make full use of it. While typing "There's a spy behind you!" would surely end in your death, saying the same thing can save countless lives over the course of a single TF2 round.

And the fact is, voice can often actually contribute to the immersion of a game. In EVE Online, organized squads of Goon Fleet members often roleplay fighter pilots, issuing cool commands while still keeping a sense of humor. It can be odd hearing something like "sector clear" from someone who truly believes it, and from a voice that isn't sampled. After a while, the geek in me surrenders to such a slick operation.

Perhaps most importantly, voice puts a face to the faceless, a sound to the silent avatars that inhabit multiplayer games. While some have developed distinctive voices in their writing, everyone is born with a unique vocal ability. Just join the Shacknews Team Fortress servers for evidence of that.

Jonathan Parker Bedrava, a man from the radio era clearly lost in time. Abigail Sponge, the ever-optimistic Englishwoman. Maddog_Delphi, a man from the caveman era clearly lost in time. Round after round, you get to recognize the tones and timbres of the people behind the soldiers and spies, and the result can often be far more fun than even the most elegant of kills.

The Final Solution
Imagine the world of Xbox Live made real. Picture a planet populated with the accumulated scum of every bad Halo 3 match you've played in.

You're in line at the grocery store with the newest copy of Entertainment Weekly--oh that Tom Cruise!--and the cashier calls you a fag. You walk into the doctor's office, open wounds bleeding profusely, and the doctors--huddled laughing around a bong--ignore you. On television, politicians hurl racial slurs across the podiums in furious temper tantrums, red-faced and ready to cry. Even your mom makes fun of your mom.

Tribes of players, roving gangs of friends comfortable with their own company seem the only solution, the only way to survive in this post-apocalyptic world of easy verbal communication. That magical headset transports you to a very scary place, but there is safety in numbers. We have to stick together.

Guys, come on. Stick together! What the fuck, where is my team?!

Click here to comment...



  • This wasn't so much an article and was more of a rant about annoying people on voice chat.

    For one, I felt this rant was slightly incomplete.

    It weighed heavily on how voice chat could be annoying, even though I felt it should of concentrated more on the people aspect.

    The person singing... blame him. Don't blame the voice chat that enables him to do so.

    Quality wise.... I'd have to say the quality in Valve games has been exceptional, the sound quality is often good, unless people don't set their microphones/systems correctly.

    This rant also didn't consider the alternative, there was no mentions of binds.
    bind g "say_team HELP AT BASE"

    Is no longer an option. Many game servers have enabled "flooding" protection and restrict your from saying things more than once per second. And if you want to get the message across to your teammates that people are rushing the base, you would need to press the bind 3 times in order to get attention and avoid being diluted through the fury of other random text messages.

    Games have essentially forced players to give up message binds, so the alternative to talking is non-existent.

    Usually, good writing offers alternatives, point of views, a solution or at the very least a suggestion of a step in the right direction. Because this article had none, I'd like to propose that the solution would be to offer easier muting options in voice enabled multi player games.

    As of right now, its long to mute players in TF2. Press escape, go to mute players, scroll through the list of names (in no order too) and then click the player name to mute.

    I would expect players to be able to press TAB to see the player names, and from there, select whichever player you wanted to mute.

    Additionally, more options such as : "Semi-Mute" (where you reduce the volume by 25db, so you can barely hear what they are saying.
    Or "mute for 30 seconds", or "mute for 5 minutes" Could be ideal and not force you to mute key people just because they sang a song ... once.

  • I'm not much of a talker, I'll only use voice-chat when there's someone I now personally in the game.
    I must admit, voice-chat is fantastic to use in multi-player games.. A quick warning "PlayerB, Sniper on your left" is much quicker than typing "plyerB, snipr on... oh nvm".

    But there are 3 reasons why I dislike voice-chat.

    -Squeaky voices; it really does seem the headsets have been taken over by 7 year olds, or some nerdy guy. Last night, I was playing PVK 2, and we were VIkings. Suddenly a player uses voice-chat to warn us of incoming Pirates... And the dude had a whiny, nerdy voice. Not very Viking-esque if you ask me.

    -Bad mics; if people are telling you to shut up because all they can hear is a crackling, buzzing sound from your headset, please, for the love of the game gods; DO shut up. Do not tell you're sorry, or ask if it really is that bad... It really is, so get a new one.

    -Horrible accents; German people saying LOL is dreadful to hear, people who can't speak english properly "hey, I is new to game, how you like fun?" I mean... Learn english if you're talking (except when that language is the prime language on the server).

    So, voice-chat with friends: Big +
    Voice-chat with other people; big no-no, please keep you're mouths shut if it really isn't that important.

  • As others have said, game developers aren't exploiting voice chat enough. It's not good enough to have just team chat. It's ok but you can do so much more. The best voice gaming experience I had was splinter cell chaos theory. It was built in the game and you really needed it to win.

    Of course you could communicate with your teammate, but as the spy you could tag the enemy with a dart that not only showed their location, but allowed you to hear all their voice communications. You could also accomplish this with the spy binoculars when you had the enemy in site, you could hear their chat, although only while you had them in site of course.

    There was also when you were a spy and grabbed an enemy from behind, you could hack their communications for a moment to say 'good night gracy!' while you snapped their neck.

    Also you couldn't chat when you were dead, unlike in other games when people are using teamspeak/ventrilo which of course the game can have no control of.

    This experience made me think how it could be used in other games. At the time I was playing a lot of Enemy territory. The covert ops class could use something similar to the spys in hacking communications. And then I thought that the communications tower could actually be something in the game, and if the other team blew yours up, well no talking till it's repaired.

    The next obvious thing is positional based audio. As others said, when you say something like, 'behind you', or 'need a medic', you don't want to say it to everyone. There should be global chat over your communications system in game and local chat, which would be positional based so you'd hear the warning is behind you. Or when someone says 'need a medic', you hear it's over to the left, and depending how quiet it is, is how far they are away. Really though, the vsays in these games could be positional already (like need a medic) instead of global. They should have been that way from the get go.

    On the quality front, it varies. I've heard enough TF2 to know the sound is kinda shaky and can get scratchy. Teamspeak (no offence TS devs) can give you a high pitched sound if your mic already has some noise (as tons do unless you're using usb) . I never tried ventrilo until just recently, even though it's been out all these years, and it's quality is amazing. I mean really. I was in a channel with about 15 people and every single one sounded crystal clear. There's no way all of them had great quality mics. I tried other ventrilo channels and experienced the same thing. My own mic, which is a basic piece of crap, sounds horrible in teamspeak, a high pitched squeal constantly while talking, but sounds perfect in ventrilo. I think ventrilo must be doing some noise cancellation prior to compression to have such good quality from so many people.

    But even though I just raved about ventrilo, no standalone voice chat app can do any of the things I mentioned above. Ventrilo devs, make some type of voice api, license it to game devs and get it out there in lots of games. As it is, a game developer has to reinvent the wheel each time and it can fair from ok to horrible.

    Anyway, it's 2008, voice chat shouldn't be coming into it's own just now. It should be a given for every single game at this point. And for the people who don't like it of course you can turn it off.

  • I think large-scale group/clan support would help this sort of thing immensely.

    I know it's sort of bad form to reference another gaming site, but Destructoid has an XBox Live group-ish thing set up--it only sort of works. Half the time you jump in a game with someone and get some serious cold-shoulder action. Until MS goes full-scale with some sort of community integration, Live will continue to corner the "islands of cool folk in a sea of fuckwits" market. Though in fairness, I've had some ridiculous fun on Live, but it still only takes one asshole to ruin a night of gaming.

    By all accounts TF2 on the Shack servers is a wonderful blast of comradery and cartoonish explosions--if I could get into TF2, I'd be all over it. Though to be fair I've only tried the PUG route... maybe I should start chillin' with you folks.

    I think a lot has to do with finding the haunt and folks that work for you, more than anything else. Some day there may be accountability where douchebaggery can lead to actual consequences. Until such a system is created, I think we're boned.

    Mostly though, I just stick to single-player.