Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Engagement and Immersion for all to Hear

There was another recent newspaper article about video game voice actors, this time in the Washington Post. It talks quite a bit about the difficulty in voice acting for video games, which are frequently more demanding than for animated shows for television and movies.

For me, one paragraph stood out: “They keep saying, ‘Games are different,’ ” said J.B. Blanc, a well-known voice actor and director who has worked with Burch several times. “But that’s no longer true. Because games want to be movies, and movies want to be games. These are basically 100-hour-long movies.”

When you add on all the takes, retakes, and variables in potentially different outcomes from a player made decision, the sheer volume of hours spend performing voice work is pretty immense.

But the result of a well performed voice role is pretty much instant immersion.


Some gamers really identify certain voices with specific roles, often to the point where some actors simply are the role they play.

A prime example of this is Jennifer Hale, known in MMO circles as the voice of the SWTOR female trooper, Jennifer has had a lot of prime voice roles in video games. But Jennifer is likely best known as the voice of Fem Shep, the female Shepard PC in the Mass Effect Trilogy. Okay, it's not much of a stretch to admit that to a lot of gamers Jennifer is Fem Shep, as this Sneaky Zebra video celebrates:

And not to be outdone, here's the dramatic reading by Male Shep Mark Meer:

But on the flip side of that is that a game can be ruined by poor voice acting.

The first Destiny had its share of problems, but Peter Dinklage's lack of inspired performance as Ghost was --while not the largest problem-- certainly amplified due to it being an issue with a speaking role. When you get called out in a Smosh Games Honest Trailer, that's not a good place to be in:

Still, that such an accomplished actor had difficulty in a voice acting role underscores the importance of getting the role right.


If there's one advance in MMOs over the last 5-7 years that has pushed the genre forward, I'd have to say it's the fully acted questing cutscenes. Yes, it makes MMOs more expensive to develop, but after having had expanded voice roles in SWTOR and other new MMOs these past few years, it's kind of hard to go back and pick up an MMOs that doesn't have it.

Working my way through ArcheAge, I had to take a break for a while and go back to SWTOR just to hear voices in quest cutscenes again. Sure, the graphics of ArcheAge are fantastic, but I miss the voice actors that bring a world alive. And I understand that ArcheAge is tapping into a JRPG tradition in its quest cutscene presentation, but it just doesn't feel the same without that vocal immersion that I've grown accustomed to.*

Going forward, however, I'm not certain whether a new MMO will even bother to try to fully voice act the game. Even though voice actors aren't paid a lot for their efforts, fully voice acting an MMO can balloon the game's development cost. The payment model for MMOs going forward --very few will brave the subscription only model and instead rely upon F2P + cash shops for funding-- doesn't help a lot either. This is a shame, because the one MMO I do subscribe to is SWTOR, and a large reason why is the immersion that voice acting provides.

*Even a game that is 10 years old, such as The Witcher, has quest cutscenes with voice acting. Of course, Bioware had been doing that for much longer --KOTOR, anyone?-- but even ignoring Bioware's output the concept of voice acting in video games is much older than SWTOR itself. And while Age of Conan had voice acting for the main questline's quests, SWTOR was the first MMO to fully integrate voice acting with the game. Unfortunately, the lack of WoW level success for SWTOR meant that the the most recent expacs have entered into this hybrid area; it's better than Age of Conan, but still it's a step back.

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