Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The State of Audio Chat in PC Games


I think one of the biggest reasons why Microsoft's Xbox live service has been so succesful, has been the universal integration of audio chat across the board in the service. Every XBLive game has audio support, and the implementation of it is pretty much flawless (there is room for improvement). Hooking up with friends far and wide, and being able to chat before, after, and during battles is awesome! You wear a small headset, and plug straight in to your controller. I use a very small jabra ear gel thingy that is tiny and comfortable, and works great! Any cell phone wired headset works, and those things can be pretty small! So, while the surround system is still kicking all the sound from the game around me, I have a little earpiece in for radio chatter, which in turn simulates a "real-world" experience. In "mixed mode", you can hear radio chatter of enemies through your main speakers, instead of in your headset, which is also a nice touch, but not every game works well with this - so there is room for improvement.

I just recently purchased Battlefield 2, which pretty much requires voice chat for teamwork and organization. Typing is just too slow to be effective. I am a Counter-Strike veteran, where hitting "y" and chatting became second nature. The smallish maps made it easier to organize teamwork without a lot of audio chatter. It was eventually integrated in to the game, but not widely used, and the support was poor; still, I found it enhanced gameplay, because you could help teammates locate enemies and organize your offensive/defensive efforts on the fly with ease. Screaming "enemy spotted just over the ridge ahead" over your headset leaves your hands free to lay down fire. Stopping to type in the same message while your enemy shoots you in the face because you have become a stationary target isn't that effective. Could you imagine Army Rangers using Instant Messaging to relay comm info in a real battlefield? "Hold on guys, I am typing in enemy locations!" BLAM...the computer gets all shot up! Oh yeah, and so does the soldier.

I guess my chat experience with XBLive has spoiled me, because I still think the PC lags in the area pretty heavily. My copy of BF2 came with a headset, a cheapy stereo thing from Logitech, which you are supposed to plug in to the headphone and mic input on your sound card. But wait a minute; if I plug into the headphone output, I no longer get sound from my wonderful (expensive) Logitech THX certified 4.1 speaker system! Instead, all the great sounds from the game (and they really got the sounds right in this game!) are now going to come though a set of pathetic headphone speakers. No surround sound for me, just old school stereo! This obviously is not ideal. To remedy this I unplug the headphone portion of the headset; but now I am wearing a set of headphones to use the microphone attached to it, which in turn means audio chatter comes booming through my surround sound system. Whereas XBLive has it all right, PC-gaming VOIP has it all wrong!

I have heard of USB headsets, which augment your current sound system, and thought it might offer a good solution to my problems. However, after a fairly thorough search over the last few days, I am now even more baffled at the situation! Searching for "USB headsets" returns largely studio style headphones with microphone booms. "Cans," as they are called by audiophiles, provide decent headphone sound, and some even offer simulated 5.1 surround sound. Unfortunately, no matter how nice the headphones, you can't pack the punch of a good subwoofer (hearing and feeling low frequencies are different things!). Another baffling aspect is that all these headsets are sold as solutions for VOIP, not necessarily just for gaming (Skype or similar computer services and voice chat over IM), but in a world of mono voice communications, why do we have stereo solutions for this? Do cell phones have stereo headsets? How bout your home landline phone service? What about a walkie-talkie? Far be it for me to stand in the way of stereo audio chat as an evolution, and maybe mono broadcasting is just something we have grown accustomed to as a result of practice, but I think the subtlety of voice comm fits nicely into a mono package, and I don't see a need to make it stereo. Can you imagine seeing people at the local grocery store with giant studio style headsets for cell phones - yeah, it's a funny picture.

Because most of the USB headsets are integrated with studio style headphones, costs are also driven up. To get a decent headset, I have to pay $30-$50 bucks! Many cost over a hundred dollars! This is even more baffling to me! I paid $50 for a year of XBLive, and they included a decent headset with the kit! There is something wrong here. I know good headphones can cost a lot of money, but I don't need a great set of headphones, I need a simple solution for in game voice communications. It needs to augment my amazing surround experience, and seemlessly integrate with the gameplay experience. XBLive does this, why can't a PC game? Let's not even talk about the fatigue-factor that comes from wearing large headphones for extended gaming sessions.

I think the solution is for Creative to put a simple headset jack on their sound cards, so we can plug any cell phone headset into the the thing to create a practical solution for VOIP. Plain, simple, and best of all, INEXPENSIVE. Game developers in turn can then work to integrate VOIP services in a blended, but well simulated way in their games using this additional channel for audio. It works for Xbox, why not for the PC world, which has far advanced hardware?

5 Comments:

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