Jagex and OM on how to meet the daunting task of voicing an MMO

AUDIO SPECIAL: Adding voices to RuneScape

MMORPGs were slower to adopt voice than other game genres. However, advances in technology and bandwith are increasingly helping to make voice in online games the norm. Jagex recently teamed up with dialogue specialists OM to put the first voices to quests in their flagship MMORPG, RuneScape. Jagex Audio Director Stephen Lord (above right) and Mark Estdale (above left) of OM talk over the issues involved.

Why did Jagex decide to add voices to RuneScape?
The decision was a natural step for Jagex. The whole audio experience is currently going through many enhancements to provide a more immersive and emotional connection for the player of which voice is an important addition.

What were the main issues particular to adding voices to an MMORPG?
The biggest issue is the sheer size of the game. RuneScape is huge and growing all the time. So where do you start? We prioritised the opening experience towns of Burthorpe and Taverley, which have recently had big content and graphical updates. We added over 100 voices into the area but really that’s just the start.

Will the player character get a voice?
Jagex decided not to voice the player for a few specific reasons. In RuneScape, our players define what sort of character they want to be, what they look like and what they wear. To give that player a predetermined voice or accent would likely conflict with who they are.

Does this impact how you record?

Context is vital for dialogue so working without a main voice does add performance challenges. OM has an audio and script toolset that helps deal with this by enabling the voice director to instantly emulate gameplay in the studio. The tools enable us to get the actors instinctively into the performance sweet spot by giving them super-fast acting-pertinent context on the fly. The script is on-screen, supported by voice and audio cues, character images, videos etcetera.

How does the size of the game impact the dialogue recording process?
Whether recording 50 words or 5 million the focus is the same: every single word needs to add to the experience so the performance needs to be bang on. Meticulous preparation is key and the OM tools help minimise size being a issue. The tools lock script and recorded assets together as they are created enabling us to track, control, review and use data immediately.

What are the bandwidth/technical issues? How has Jagex got round these?
As RuneScape is proudly browser based, we have to be aware of and sympathetic to bandwidth issues. VO is downloaded on demand and so we’ve kept the file sizes really small. There are improvements to the audio tech in the pipeline that we intend to roll out later this year that will add further enhancements to quality and functionality.

Do Jagex plan to continue adding voices to RuneScape?

Yes. New RuneScape content is released almost weekly and will be supported with voice-overs wherever possible. We’d also love to go back and add that extra level of depth to some of the older, most popular quests. With quests in particular, the narrative is rich and often self contained which lends itself better to VO than PvP dominated areas.

How much more engaging does Jagex think voices have made the game?
Adding voices really brings the content to life. It’s easy to skip through text to get to the rewards as quickly as possible but with VO we give the player more reason to absorb themselves in some fantastic lore, great characters and engaging stories. The emotional connection between the player and the story is always our top priority, and this is where voice makes the difference.

What lessons have Jagex learnt in adding voices to Runescape?
To incorporate voice acting, the development process had to be amended, scripts needed to be signed off earlier and narrative written for text could be verbose or didn’t flow when acted. We now approach projects with the expectation that they will be voiced from the design stage. We are also bringing content developers into the recording sessions, which really helps with how they approach projects moving forward.

How have players responded?
User feedback for the first fully voiced quest ‘One Piercing Note’ has been fantastic and we are getting lots of requests to do more. For console games it is expected, but for some of our players who have played the game for years without hearing characters speak, it was quite a revelation. Voices add an extra dimension to the story we’re telling.

You can check out the results at www.runescape.com and see the audio team in action here.

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