A Chat About Chat

Anyone who has spent any time getting to know Layonara and what we are about knows that encouraging, fostering and supporting role-playing is at the top of our list, and as we work to bring the next generation of Layonara to life, it remains at the top of our list. As a result, some extra thought and attention is going into systems that support RP, help keep a high level of immersion while still allowing players to communicate in meaningful and effective ways. This is not to say, of course, that game mechanics will be marginalized or not receive the same sort of attention. Rather, it means we seek to make the ways that players interact with each other, whether IC or OOC, somewhat robust and reflective of the type of experience people want to have.

The primary way that characters interact with each other in-game is through chat. To use our current incarnation in NWN as an example and a basis for discussion, we have several “channels” at our disposal, which I will list for the sake of information. There's “Talk” and “Whisper”, which are the open-channel, range-limited channels that implement the mechanics of a general conversation. Arguably most inter-character interactions happen over Talk or Whisper. The “Party” channel is server-wide and primarily used on quests, though is often used when a group of characters get together and go adventuring. It cannot be heard outside of the party, so someone not in the party cannot hear anything said on this channel even if standing right next to the speaker. We have the “DM” channel, which sends messages to all logged-in GMs only and remains invisible to everyone else, including the non-GM speaker. There's the “Shout” channel, which is only available to GMs, that broadcasts messages. Lastly, we have “Tells” which send messages privately to a specific player or character and which cannot be heard by anyone else.

Beyond these channels, players have two windows in-game that display text information. The first displays all messages heard by a character, and the other displays combat information, system messages and whatever else we want to put in there. This separation is very important to keep conversations from being overwhelmed by even brief combat. One can even, to some degree, decide what appears in a window.

Taken collectively, these systems and components of the game's UI form a decent basis for supporting RP, giving good and useful feedback to the player and keeping relevant and important information properly organized. But, we think it can be better.

So to highlight what sorts of things we see as shortcomings and areas for improvement, I'll keep describing things in terms of what presently exists in NWN. In no particular order:

  • Limited options for customizing and/or limiting displayed text

  • No visibility of messages sent to GMs by the players who send the messages

  • All chat goes into the same window

  • Feedback from crafting spams the open channel

  • Combat feedback can overwhelm other status information and important system messages

  • Combining certain chat channels/modes with things like languages or speaking through a summons are difficult to impossible (i.e. whispering in a different language)

  • Players who minimize their windows can miss important information

  • Only two windows for display of all important/relevant messages

  • Windows are fixed in place with limited resize options (height only)

  • OOC chatter gets mixed with IC conversations

  • No ability to block unwanted communications from the main view

There are more points we could list, but these are the big ones, and most of the rest would be variations on a theme. Of course it is not our intent to criticize how Bioware implemented the NWN systems. In fact, I think that they worked very well for the design intent and goals for NWN. However, NWN was never really intended for an always-on, persistent world implementation and the various dynamics that come with such an environment.

With these things in mind, our next generation's chat system is being designed with some particular goals in mind, RP being prime among them. As such, a lot of thought is going into what is needed to support RP, provide immersion and offer the best experience for each player.

What follows reflect things that either have been done and tested to a degree or which are on our list of intended things. Taken together, they form something of a complete picture of our goals for this very important aspect of the game.

The core of the messaging system is built around the idea of channels, volumes and flags. Some messages, such as system messages and combat messages would have their own channels and could be handled accordingly. Normal chat can have multiple volume options, from whispering to yelling, offering more options to players. Lastly, messages can get flagged as OOC and get special handling. But what does it all mean?

It means we can design a messaging system where information presented to the player in a way that is better separated (if desired) and more organized. Language parsing is being integrated at the core of this system so that we can process language (elvish, dwarfish, etc.) directives independently of other directives and even potentially display each language with unique font properties. OOC messages could be shunted to their own tab and not displayed in the main view at all if the player so wishes. We want the chat window to be very flexible, in that users should be able to resize it and reposition it on screen as they want. Being able to customize fonts, sizes and/or colors is also of some importance, if nothing else but to account for people who have vision problems, very high-resolution screens and/or conditions like color blindness.

The end result is a more flexible system that allows players to see what they want and not be bothered by what they don't. This will be mostly under player control. I say “mostly” because some messages will need to come through and be visible regardless of choice, such as administrative messages.

Taken as a whole, these considerations and features should result in a system that is more oriented toward role-playing and immersion in game where RP is a key focus, not just something else one can do within the game. At the same time, its flexibility should support a wide range of play styles and preferences to make the overall experience personal.

That's all for this month. Thanks for reading!