Kill, Negotiate and Build Empires with VOIP

Updated: March 01, 2007

In the bad old days, gamers had to use in-game text chat or third-party VoIP conferencing applications to contact teammates in online game worlds, adding time costs because of the need to type and switch browsers or applications.

Today, VoIP support is becoming ever more tightly integrated with the most ambitious online worlds. Players have long used VoIP products from TeamSpeak and Ventrilo within games like Quake and World of Warcraft, with TeamSpeak boasting about 1 million online users. More recently, Vivox has been introducing VoIP products that are seamlessly integrated with a game's infrastructure, participant communities and look-and-feel .

The major advantage of tight integration is that with it, gamers can talk with anyone and everyone in a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG), not just with team members logged in to a third-party VoIP server like Skype . Vivox technology has already been woven into Second Life, the science-fiction MMOG Eve Online, and the first-person shooter War Rock , and will be a feature of the upcoming fantasy MMOG Ragnesis Online . The company also raised its profile recently by offering a million free minutes of calls from within Second Life, covering gamers' IP-to-PSTN termination charges itself .

Integrated VoIP boosts a game's immersiveness and helps speed up gamers' actions online; a group of gamers can organize themselves and take action online without having to spend precious minutes typing instructions . Vivox's product will even make voice calls to players who aren't logged in to the game, facilitating team assembly during time-sensitive online campaigns .

But while gamers get to kill, negotiate or build interstellar empires faster, system administrators are probably already aware that online gaming is bandwidth-intensive and adding VoIP capabilities to games only increases this effect. Economizing on bandwidth is crucial.

This bandwidth-hogging makes online gamers some of the biggest proponents of Net neutrality , since they fear non-neutrality means system administrators and ISPs will be free to prioritize game and VoIP traffic behind e-mail and Excel spreadsheets. On the other hand, game providers like Verizon Game Services can be expected to do everything possible to speed game-traffic flow, and the need to conserve bandwidth should also drive game-company efforts to develop more-efficient codecs for compressing and decompressing voice traffic .

The Corporate Side

If VoIP helps games to be more immersive (and addictive), it should also enliven online training. Game settings are collaborative, and the same technologies that work to rally the troops to a specific online war zone can be harnessed to assemble and communicate collaboratively with people in online learning environments.

There is an Americans with Disabilities Act concern here, however, since hearing-impaired employees, used to a level playing field in text-based chat environments, might have to be accommodated in a VoIP environment .

That said, Languagelab.com is combining VoIP technology with Second Life-based avatars to create an immersive online language-learning environment for English and Spanish, with other languages to come. Languagelab.com is currently in free-trial beta .

Companies that enable VoIP use in games may also see such use as a gateway to selling to and/or mining consumers' preferences; for example, Microsoft surely thinks about graduating gamers from Xbox Live VoIP to IM-client VoIP and future VoIP clients. Through this lens, in-game VoIP is the equivalent of a bank's student checking account that provides later entrée to sell credit-card, brokerage and retirement services to account holders.

At the very least, VoIP-enabled gaming allows online gaming companies to compile reams of information about what works and what doesn't in VoIP, based an feedback from an extremely demanding, time-sensitive consumer segment that can be expected to keep using VoIP as it ages and heads into business.

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