Monday, June 23, 2008

Integrated voice chat coming soon to EQII

I'm very excited that this week we're rolling out an update to the Test Server that will include our integrated voice chat. This feature is due for release with GU47 in about a month. Pushing an update to Test this early is something we don't do very often, but for a feature of this magnitude, we want the community to have plenty of time to try it out and give us feedback.

I had the privilege last week to participate in our usability studies making use of our brand new usability lab on-site at SOE. The lab is really amazing and the process of studying usability has always fascinated me. We brought in several groups of players during multiple play sessions to try this feature out while they play. The groups consisted of players with literally no EQII experience to players who play 20+ hours a week.

We watched them learn how to enable the voice chat and use it in different environments. They were given different tasks throughout the session and we observed how they responded. In some cases players would instantly know how to respond. In other situations players would fumble around the UI looking for a specific option or a clue as to how to complete their goal. These were the situations that concerned us most and led to us making quite a few changes to the user-interface. There were no major changes, but lots of polish to make sure it was easy to use.

One of the more interesting things we observed from users who were new to voice chat is that they didn't realize from the beginning that there were definable keys to control the push-to-talk feature. Our Voice Bar has a talk button that lights up when you're talking, but you can also push the button to talk. Many players found this from the very beginning and continued to use this button in order to talk to their group-mates. We made the mistake in assuming that people would find the push-to-talk feature under options, but we quickly found that this wasn't the case. As a fix, we simply added a tooltip to the Talk button that shows which key is bound to the push-to-talk feature. Now if anyone puts their mouse over this button to talk, they should notice the tooltip which will hopefully clue them in that you can press a button to talk without having to use your mouse. It's simple things like this that we often overlook due to our own experiences but are key in designing a user-interface that appeals to all players.

Now to round out the blog post, I'll conduct my own question and answer session based on concerns I've seen posted on various community sites.

Fictitious Interviewer: Does the new voice chat feature go through existing EQII servers and could it potentially cause lag for me or my guild.

Me: The EQII client uses the Vivox API which will run in it's own process. It uses very little CPU time and should not introduce any client lag. As far as the voice network traffic, all of this goes to completely different servers. You can compare this almost directly to existing voice clients and how their traffic is sent someplace other than EQII servers. Ours works the same way, so this traffic will in no way affect your gameplace experience. In addition, if you do not want to use voice chat, disabling it will remove any possibility of it consuming local resources.

F.I.: How does the sound quality compare to other voice chat systems? Is it as good as Ventrilo?

Me: I'm picky when it comes to sound quality and my first concern when I heard we were going to add this feature was that if it didn't sound good, no one would use it. I can honestly tell you that the sound quality is the best I've ever heard. I use Ventrilo daily and the Vivox system sounds awesome. It's like you're talking to someone over a crystal-clear phone line. However, there are several options to adjust volume and mic sensitivity. I've noticed that if a person boosts their mic sensitivity too high, it will become distorted. I'm sure this is an artifact of the amplification. They key is to increase the volume on your speakers if voice chat isn't loud enough, rather than increasing the in-game settings too high.

F.I.: Why are you spending time adding a feature that people can already get through other means instead of putting something better into the game or fixing existing bugs?

Me: Integrating voice chat into our MMO's is just the next step in gaming evolution. SOE as a company is taking the initiative to integrate this into as many of our games as possible. We'll even be integrating it into the new Station Launcher. We know that this feature won't be a benefit to everyone, but as with all new features we add, some people like them and some people don't. For new players, the integrated voice chat will be leaps-and-bounds easier to use than setting up a separate client. For many guilds, this feature will eliminate monthly fees that they pay for voice servers. I can tell you that we've not neglected other features or bug fixes as a result of this feature.

F.I.: Is SOE implementing this feature so they can moderate us or spy on our conversations?

Me: Yes, we want to hear your leet raid strats! NO, I'm just kidding. This is not some under-handed attempt at gaining control over your communications. There is absolutely no truth to these conspiracy theories.

[End of Interview]

If you're still reading this, I apologize for such a long blog post. Unless of course you are REALLY bored at work with nothing else to do. (Note: I'm writing this Monday morning at 2am, so I'm not neglecting my own work.) :p

If all goes well we'll be pushing the update to Test sometime Monday. If for some reason we've broken something that must be fixed first, look for it ASAP. I know many of us will be hoping on the Test Server as soon as its live to chat with people and test it out first-hand.

TALK to you soon!