Morphing for Online Games

"Online communities that form around these imaginative activities are some of the most vibrant on the Web. For these players, games are not just entertainment but a vehicle for self expression," stated Will Write in the article "Dream Machines" (Wired magazine, April 2006).

Write's comments are especially true for games that encourage players to become a part of the game rather than simply play it. "These games are highly immersive," explained Adam Mersky, communications director for Turbine, Inc., the developer of "Dungeons & Dragons" online (DDO). "They are persistent online worlds that you can run around in with hundreds of thousands of people from all over the Internet." DDO, "World of Warcraft," and other massive multiplayer online (MMO) games also enhance the role-playing aspect of the games by encouraging gamers to create online personae (avatars) and by providing tools for customizing every aspect of those avatars: hair color, facial features, height, clothing, weapons, and even species.

Immersion extends to communication between and among players. Increasingly, that communication involves online chat. "At high levels of the game where several dozen people must be coordinated to accomplish certain tasks, and strategies often need to change on the fly, it would be extremely difficult without voice, because typing is simply too slow. In player versus player situations, a team communicating by voice has a clear advantage over a team that has to type to each other," Dave Spohn wrote in his book, Your Guide to Internet Games. The demand has become so widespread that there are specialized chat tools for gamers. For example, Turbine built chat into DDO.

Although chat enhances immersion for MMO gamers, it does have a downside. "The whole reason I play games is to get caught up in the setting, my character, and the game I'm playing," explained Andrew Konietzky, producer of "The Instance!" podcast for "World of Warcraft" gamers and co-producer of "ExtraLife Radio." "It blows the immersion when the big guy on your left actually has a twelve-year-old kid's voice." It's also a problem from the speaker's perspective. "You'd like to choose a voice that goes along with the other features of your online character," adds Mark Ramirez, CEO of Screaming Bee, "especially if you're someone who wants to play a character that's the opposite sex or a different age."

That's why Ramirez and his business partner, Shawn Pourchot, created MorphVOX, voice-changing software for gamers. MorphVOX can not only modify the characteristics of the player's voice, it can also provide unique voices for goblins, wraiths, and other kinds of characters.

What distinguishes MorphVOX from other voice-changing technology is that it's designed for gamers by gamers. "We've done a lot of things to make the product very specific for online games," Ramirez says. "For example, when you are playing you can change your voice at a touch of a button without having to leave the game. We've also made it theme-based. You have fantasy and sci-fi voices, for example." Now, players can match their voices to their characters. The main limitation is that it can't change childish or offensive language that players behind the avatars may use.

Both free and fee versions of MorphVOX are downloadable and work with game-oriented chat software, like TeamSpeak. Screaming Bee has also kept resource utilization low, an important issue for players of resource-hungry MMOs. "When you run a separate program, it eats up your bandwidth," explained Konietzky. "You're transmitting two sets of data - voice data and game data. That's why some of the game companies are starting to integrate voice into their games. I'm surprised no one else has done it. I'm surprised companies making games haven't done this, too."

"As far as we are concerned, anything that enhances the player's experience and makes it more immersive for a player is good," Turbine's Mersky responds. "If our fans asked for a feature such as the one offered by Screaming Bee, then we would respond."

Judith Markowitz is the technology editor of Speech Technology Magazine and is a leading independent analyst in the speech technology and voice biometric fields. She can be reached at (773) 769-9243 or jmarkowitz@pobox.com.

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