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Idle Musing: The Fundamental Importance Of Voice

Gamers Should Be Heard And Not Seen

It's mid-May and it's raining outside. Someone I can't see is making me laugh. These omens suggest that it is time to return to my Idle Musing column. Something else inspired this, too, which was last week's Planetside 2 Call To Arms. I had intended to film the whole thing and then chop it up for YouTube commentary, but once I was on the Mumble voice server, I found myself running a platoon. Then I found myself marvelling at the effort the RPS guys had put in to the organisation of allowing players to communicate. There were dedicated radio operators in each squad. And then I was thinking about voice comms. And not doing any filming at all.

I suddenly realised how voice communications had invisibly underpinned a decade of the most incredible gaming experiences. This is a missive to their importance, the joy they brought.

I had been using voice comms for several years by the time they actually managed to cause me to take note of them as a kind of phenomenon in their own right. I remember that evening with some serious clarity: it was when my little band of Eve players jumped on to a server that was hosting the main fleet for an attack on Russian-dominated Red Alliance, towards the end of the first phase of the great war, immediately before the intervention of GoonFleet.

There were thousands of ships in the fleet, and logging on to a voice server outside the game, I suddenly saw hundred of names in the chat. I don't know exactly how many people were listening and talking on that server, but it must have been upwards of three hundred individuals. We suddenly realised that we were part of a colossal enterprise, and the voice server alone gave us a glimpse into the enormity of the attack that was unfolding. It was a titanic fleet, and the communication infrastructure that lay behind it had to be equally vast. We logged in to near-perfectly disciplined communications, with two commanders talking to the assembled hundreds, who followed the commands as best they could in practised silence.

And we still had to abandon the operation, defeated.

There are a few critical differences between PC and console gaming, and most of them are reasons why I play games at a desk in a spare room, and not on a couch in the main room of the house. Principle among these is communication. Voice communications have been in games of all kinds for years now, but there's long been a critical difference between communications on a console and those on a PC, and that's down to matters of control and versatility. Sure, running your own Mumble or Teamspeak server is more expensive and more complex than letting the game do it for you – that's just the water we swim in with this sort of thing – but the advantages of it bring us some of the most important attractions of what it is to play on PC.

I've discussed elsewhere how for many people voice comms built into online games have ended up being a perceived as a potential negative – the classic complaint of “a twelve year old swearing in my ear during a game of Call Of Duty”. These are what you hear offered as a standard of the downsides of gaming. And it's hard to counter these with descriptions of the enormous, positive services that voice comms provide, at least until you can show people these things in action. And showing means doing, so consequently it can be very hard to convince anyone to /do/. Perhaps they will discover for themselves, perhaps they will see the things I and others have seen.

Anyone who was there for our Planetside 2 evening, of course, will know what I am talking about. There were five platoons, each with four squads of around ten people. Co-ordinating this were a duo of generals who had to speak to the entire 200+ throng, as well as co-ordinate strategy for the deployment of the individual platoons via the platoon leaders. Those platoon leaders, meanwhile, had to deal with the tactical challenge of four squads, and the objective they'd been set by command. That means a lot of information going back and forth. The solution was radio operators for each squad, each of relaying information so as to avoid a massive babble. It didn't entirely work, sadly, because the command chatter too often conflicted with what the radio operators were saying to the platoon leaders. But just the fact that could be attempted was an Ode To Joy moment in the backrooms of gaming.

It reminded me of the time when bandwidth finally allowed me to use voice comms at all: when my 56k modem was dispensed with for a DSL modem, and I could hear the voices of my Quake III team. We still used our ultra-complex set of “binds” to spam information “RED ARMOUR NOW” “ENEMY FLAG ESCAPING LOW” through the text chat, but suddenly more specific and urgent communications were possible.

The incredible attention to function of the mod community had already seen fit to build on this, of course, and a mod we used in the competitive Quake III tournaments – OSP – enabled a “coach” function, whereby a spectating player could see what was happening on all four screens of the playing team at once. A near-impossible task of information processing, of course, but it allowed that person to provide a running commentary on voice, and to give the active players a better overview of the tactical position of their team-mates on the map at any one time.

And that has been the pre-dominant use of voice in-game over the past decade. It gets used for socialising and idle chat, too, but the main reason to have it is ease of co-ordination. Making playing together communicative and co-operative in a way it couldn't be when we were just hammering abbreviated blatherings into text chat. This is true if you are role-playing with pseudo-dwarves, and true if you are co-ordinating a fleet of one-hundred tense Eve pilots.

There's something else though, which I think we've only just begun to see, and that's voice comms as exploration and the unknown. The best example I can think of this is the proximity chat in DayZ. This was patched in as a part of the ongoing development of Arma 2 system has appeared in several BIS games, and basically meant that you could speak in “real space” with other players nearby on the server. This was not an out-of-game system, it was based entirely on whether you were in physical audible distance to other players.

A chance for a twelve year old to swear in your ear, maybe, but it took on a rather different nuance in DayZ's vicious survivalism: figuring out if someone was going to kill you.

The first time I used it for real – rather than just testing it with my chums – was when I was crouched in a barn, alone, knowing there was another survivor outside. After a few moments of breathless anticipation, I heard him say something on the proximity chat.

“Say again?” I said.

He replied, in Russian. I didn't understand the words, but I understood the tone. He was questioning, probably asking if I was friendly.

I replied that I was friendly. I tried to sound friendly. We eventually moved into line of sight of each other, and he made more friendly Russian noises. We lowered our weapons. He searched the barn, and then barked something in thanks before he moved on.

A smarter man than me – probably Bruce Sterling – once observed that it was interesting how modern computing had become more about communication than it was about computation. It would be easy to overlook how much multiplayer gaming relies on this truth: that we have developed ways to talk and so have created even better ways to play. There's something beautiful about that, and we should not ignore it.

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