So I’ve fallen behind on trying out new tabletop systems lately, but I have been playing the betas for a lot of MMORPGs coming out this year. This includes TERA, Guild Wars 2, and The Secret World. I also played Star Wars: the Old Republic for a while. Finally, I’ve been hearing a small amount of buzz about the systems for upcoming games like The Elder Scrolls Online. And there are some interesting similarities to the systems for these games that may mark them as “next gen” more than just better graphics. So I’d like to talk in general about those mechanics, which games do them the best, and what I think they might mean going forward.

Use of Cutscenes

MMOs have been using cutscenes for a while. Both City of Heroes and Guild Wars 1 have had them for over half a decade, and I’m sure a bunch of other games from the same era also have them by now. They’re particularly common in major storyline missions, where the value proposition of custom scripting to maximum number of eyeballs pays off.

But what I’ve begun to see in newer games is the use of cutscenes not just as something interesting in a major mission, but as a replacement for the quest text when you get that mission in the first place. SW:TOR is obviously the champion of this right now, with virtually every mission started and ended with a voiced conversation. Secret World has voiced cutscenes for its major story missions, but relies on text for secondary ones. GW2 voices all personal story quests, and has done away with mission text in general for most other purposes (because it’s done away with the standard concept of missions, which I’ll probably talk about later in the series).

The utility of this is very simple: most players don’t like to read. If you actually want to tell a story to your players, you’re going to go way further with a voiced scene that has interesting action and camera movement, than just presenting them with a dense paragraph in a dialog box. The effect was so powerful in SW:TOR that it went a long way to making me excited to play even though most of their other mechanics were similar to ones in World of Warcraft that I was long burned out on.

However, the downside of it is that it’s very expensive to do, and hard to do well. Voice actors are expensive, sound editing is labor intensive, and voice files make your game download huge. Even if you can handle all of that, the process could create problems for the designers down the road. What if you realize that you made a mistake and need to change dialogue? What if you want to add new content post-launch involving a character that was originally voiced by someone no longer available? What if your players don’t like the voice actor you’ve hired to play their characters?

SW:TOR handles this the best, with lots of fully voiced choices and plenty of (class-based) vocal selection for your PC, but rumor indicates that they spent a ton of money on it. The Secret World seems to have decided to punt on the player voice mismatch question and just not voice the PC at all in these cutscenes: your PC just stands there mute staring dumbly at the NPC’s soliloquy. GW2 is walking a middle road: they’ve based player voice on race and not given nearly as many choices mid-dialogue as Star Wars, but provided enough variety to keep the player engaged.

Ultimately, I keep waiting for someone to come up with a reasonable text-to-voice synthesizer that will work in MMOs. Voice acting, even more than quality 3D engine and art, is becoming the key differentiator between AAA MMOs and the rest of the breed. And it’s a huge, expensive gamble that makes it harder to enter the space.

Part 2