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.
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.
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….