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Skype down? Nooooo! Adventures with Integrated Voice Chat

17 Aug

It was unfortunate that the world-wide Skype outage hit yesterday. You can read about the current status here. What’s more amazing is that in the more than 2+ years we’ve been using it as our defacto voice chat app for gaming, I can’t remember that there has ever been an outage. Up to now, it really has been completely and utterly easy to use and amazingly reliable.

So much so, that when LotRO rolled out with its own native voice chat built-in, I tried it for about 15 seconds and immediately went back to Skype. I suspect folks who already had access to a Vent server, etc. probably didn’t adopt it.

But as Thursday was one of our designated LotRO group nights, we logged in only to find that Skype wasn’t the only one having trouble last night. As soon as we logged into Windfola, LotRO seemed to be having trouble with chat channels which were intermittently available. Likewise, friends lists were slooooooooow to appear. “Khaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!!”

With Skype down and fellowship and kinship chat channels down, we were forced to attempt to use LotRO’s integrated voice chat. As a sophisticated user, we got our group to reconfigure for in-game chat reasonably quickly, but to the uninitiated, I would suspect that it might be quite bewildering.

The Bad:

Complexity. On the LotRO side, there are about half a dozen settings including simply enabling voice chat, hands free mode or not, capture thresholds, and capture and play back devices and a latency slider (who would opt for greater latency?). As I said, not a terribly bewildering array of settings, but certainly required some twiddling and guiding group mates, which of course was made all the more difficult by having to to it all through /tells since fellowship and guild chat were down.

What LotRO and others who are contemplating integrating voice chat really need to do is integrate a set up wizard. This is particularly essential if a game, like LotRO, is supposed to be easily “accesible” to a broad group of users who may not even know what the windows control panel is. How hard could that be? Confirming configuration and setting levels should not be something you need to spend 15 minutes figuring out.

Oh, and a reminder, if you enable voice chat while grouped in LotRO, you’ll need to leave the group and rejoin for the group to recognize you are voice enabled.

Latency. Once we got everyone quickly configured and working (Note: though you can surf key mapping to figure out that the z-key by default is the push-to-talk button which should be familiar to veteran voice chatters, but unknown to the uninitiated), it actually worked passingly well. The only significant problem we experienced was an annoying latency problem of about 250-500ms giving conversations that crappy-overseas-cellphone quality to it sometimes.

Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be that noticeable, but my wife and I have our game rigs in the same room. On Skype, when we hear each other’s voices both through chat and ambiently from across the room through the headphones, the slight delay is noticeable is not unbearable. With the integrated LotRO chat, however, it was pretty disorienting. Don’t know if that’s always the case or because the chat server was working overtime with Skype down.

No address book. LotRO integrated chat works only in groups, so you can’t just log on and BS with folks not grouped with you. Its not a free voice chat client bundled with the game, it is actually part of the grouping system.

The Good

Always on. On hands free with a reasonable voice threshold, all you have to do is simply group with someone who is voice enabled and voila, you are all in chat. No channels, no dialing, no friends list, no connecting, just on.

Sound effects Integration. Since its part of the game’s audio stream it does a much better job of attempting to balance levels of game music and sound effects (if you leave them on) with the chat stream. Skype also integrates with the audio stream, but you need to individually control game audio effects so you aren’t screaming as a result of the “walkman effect.”

Overall, quality is so so. Not bad, but not great, considering how good Skype usually sounds for the bandwidth it uses.

All in all a workable alternative for us in a pinch. As a trend, the integration is a good idea in theory, but if you play multiple games, users could end up having to tweak and retweak settings from game to game.

Still, the Skype outage really points out how far VOIP has come in the last 3 years and how reliant we’ve become on it. Please be fixed by Saturday….

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8 Comments

Posted by on August 17, 2007 in Uncategorized

 

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8 responses to “Skype down? Nooooo! Adventures with Integrated Voice Chat

  1. Wilhelm2451

    August 17, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    The Skype outage came along the day after our IT department issued a company-wide alert that Skype was, from that day forward, the only IM client with which we are allowed to discuss any company related matters.

    I have wanted to try some of the in-game voice techs, but since Skype is always there, usually works, and generally stays up when a game goes down, I have not had the chance. Sorry I missed the opportunity last night!

     
  2. Talyn

    August 20, 2007 at 6:01 pm

    Nothing quite has Skype’s quality, but then Skype isn’t quite optimized for gaming in groups larger than five yet, at least from what I remember.

    Overall though, the integrated voice chat in LOTRO and DDO (it’s Gamespy’s voice chat, licensed by Turbine btw, not Turbine’s own proprietary VOIP) sounds perfectly fine to me. It seems to be approximately the same quality I hear from Ventrilo or Teamspeak, and without Ventrilo’s constant lag problems.

    There was a huge hullaballoo a month or so ago on MMORPG.com’s forums about integrated voice chat. Personally, I feel it’s the way of the future. Even WoW is adding it. TS/Ventrilo servers cost someone money to run. Not to mention they’re somewhat complicated to get going for the non-techies. I lost track of how many times (and how much time it takes) to explain how to download and install Ventrilo, get it configured, then input all the techie server info to connect to it. If you’re in a multi-game guild, fine, stick with third-party voice chat. If you’re of the type that just has to connect to the guild server and talk, fine stick with third-party voice chat. I just quit a guild in LOTRO because they started forcing us to use Ventrilo all the time, even when not grouped. I have no use for that. I want to play the game and enjoy the sounds and music (whether the in-game music, local MP3, or streaming internet radio) and I have to turn all that down when using voice chat so I can understand people. Most quests don’t require voice chat, but if it happens to be enabled, all the better. What makes integrated VOIP nice is there’s no need to download third-party software. No need to explain to someone about server IP addresses and ports. No need to explain codecs. Just show them where the option is, and you’re all set. It Just Works ™. It’s there if you want it, it’s there if you don’t.

    One player in the MMORPG.com forum said he specifically avoided DDO because the box advertised integrated voice chat. LOTRO also has the exact same voice chat, but it was not specifically advertised as a feature on the box. (I’m discounting the Gamespy Voice Chat icon at the bottom, btw, I’m talking about the actual text we’d read in the store, no one cares about the vendor icons.) Some people just flat don’t like it, and in the case of DDO I got the feeling this person felt voice chat would always be turned on and he would always be forced to use it. We all know this to not be the case in any online game, but still, I can see where that would be extremely intimidating and potentially a factor for outright avoiding the title, so there is that subset of the online player base as well.

     
  3. p@tsh@t

    August 20, 2007 at 6:26 pm

    @Talyn: I hear you on the challenges of third party apps like Vent or TS. If its going to be in a LotRO or WoW, they really should have a hand holding set up wizard though.

    For all the reasons you mentioned it makes sense and inevitably will probably be the way games go.

    Personally, in addition to the immersion breakage, I think voicechat crosses a personal barrier which is great for people you are comfortable with, but just too close for randoms.

    For our small group, voice is and essential part of the experience for coordination but to also put us collectively in a common social space. We could easily be sitting around a pub having a few games of darts and people watching. I don’t necessarily strike up random conversations or invite people to join us at the drop of a hat.

    Some kind of voicefonting however would solve most of that and actually create an opportunity to enhance immersion.

     
  4. Talyn

    August 21, 2007 at 4:06 am

    Ya know, once upon a time I would have agreed with you about VOIP being immersion-breaking, but since I typically make my characters 50/50 male and female (does that make me a Mangina? It’s not like I go frolicking through the flower fields flirting with the male characters for gifts and gold…) and one of my catch phrases over the years is “the best women on the internet are actually men” I just assume everyone is male and of random ages. In my early days of VOIP, I strictly talked to friends only. But once you get to the “end-game” and start raiding, VOIP pretty much becomes a requirement for group coordination, so you just get used to talking to so many people. I recently started DDO and 99% of the groups I’m in are PUGs, the majority of whom are veteran players who use the integrated VOIP all the time. So you just learn to expect it, and it’s still my choice whether I turn on my mic or just listen to them and type in party chat.

    It’s just like anything else, there’s always some “barrier to entry” that everyone has to find, and perhaps expand upon, their own personal level of comfort with.

    For me, the loud, obnoxious screaming and swearing kids are far beyond my comfort level and is the primary reason I’m careful about which MMO guilds I apply to, and why I avoided online gaming on Xbox Live until I discovered AdultGamingEnthusiasts.com and made several friends there too.

     
  5. p@tsh@t

    August 21, 2007 at 7:40 am

    I hear you. Selectivity is key to managing a good voice chat relationship. A bit off topic, but if you go with a third party voice chat client (especially if it supports IM like Skype) you have a whole host of issues “managing your presence” as one of my friends who works in the MS messaging group says.

    In a Seinfeldian conundrum, once you’ve given your details to someone else, how do you “unvite” them or demote them from the equivalent of your Skype/IM speeddial without noticeably offending them (or coming up with some ridiculous story to cover it…e.g., my harddrive crashed when my basement flooded so I have to reinstall everything from scratch and had no backup…?

    I’m much more consciously aware of my “presence” to those in my Skype contacts than sometimes I would desire. Of course, the solution is to create a hierarchy of affinity by tiers, but then you have to answer the question of “why aren’t I a Tier 1 friend?” Or if you’re much more socially complex than that, you may need multiple vertical hierarchies and manage “group” presences… Am I “Online” for the Bondage/S&M affinity group but “Not Available” or “Invisible” to the religious conservative relatives and “Away” for the Swingers/EQ1/Vanguard group? ;)

    Meh, technology is so complicated.

     
  6. Talyn

    August 21, 2007 at 6:38 pm

    Plus you’d need additional filters so the religious conservatives couldn’t actually see you in the BDSM groups… Just way too complicated. :)

    I have it easy (so far) in Skype — I have a total of four contacts, and they’re all existing friends.

     
  7. sandrar

    September 10, 2009 at 12:13 pm

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  8. humanrace

    September 30, 2009 at 10:48 am

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