The Average Gamer

PlayOn: 10 Things About Conversation in Virtual Worlds…

The Guardian’s gamesblog today points to PlayOn, where Bob has posted a synopsis of a talk that he gave at the recent Austin Games Conference. He said that conversations between game avatars are still too limiting to be truly immersive and goes on to list ten points where they could be improved.

    “Avatars could…

  1. Display embodied actions
  2. Speak in real time
  3. Give IM busy signals
  4. Look at the speaker
  5. Look away when speaking
  6. Reveal player’s gaze
  7. Gesticulate freely
  8. Hold gestures
  9. Tightly coordinate gestures and talk
  10. Have visible facial expressions”

Most of them are great ideas but I think he focuses too much on replicating RL conversation and ignores the limitations of the player screen interface. As Seb Potter points out in a comment, most players are zoomed out too far to pay attention to facial expressions. If you could optionally switch to a fixed chat interface that displayed framed portraits of your conversee’s face(s), they could come in handy though. The other person’s avatar could look directly into your screen when they were talking to you, and look away when talking to someone else. Taking it a step further, if you’re both also in a group conversation with the same other person, their portrait could look at the portrait of the other person when specficially addressing them.

Point 3 would remove one of the beauties of online conversation – conversations are slightly delayed so it’s quite easy to hold five different conversations at once, should you be so inclined. It could be a useful optional feature though, to stop people interrupting a big fight or spoiling the mood of some dirty talk…

All this is largely academic with regards to real games though – unless you’re in full-on chat mode it would be almost impossible to keep track of the button-presses necessary to get everything right. In a conflict-based game like Guild Wars, I suspect the uptake would just be too little to be worth the development cost, unless they provide areas that are purely for chat. Handy for social worlds like Second Life, perhaps.

The most important thing that he missed out is physical interaction with other avatars. (No, not like that! Well, maybe in private…) If I see an old friend that hasn’t been online for months, it would be great to be able to run across the town in full view of everyone and give his avatar an unexpected hug at the press of a button. I hate that vague arm-waving near and through other avatars which is the closest you can get to it at the moment.