I was so busy today I almost forgot to write a blog post!
The way MMO gamers communicate today and expect from games is a world apart from a decade ago. When I started playing UO there was no guild chat or voice chat. All communication as done by overhead chat. If you became good friends with someone you would exchange ICQ numbers and be able to converse over a distance. Thus, unless you were standing next to someone in the game you could not communicate. Even more, there was no such thing as private conversation unless you went into a house.
When UO Renaissance launched there was a new revolutionary tool, the party system. You could party up to 9 other people and chat over any distance. This is most akin to the current today’s modern chat box, but not quite. The message appeared for a short time and if you missed it then you had to read your journal. Unfortunately the journal is cluttered with all the other game text. And once it scrolled out of your journal (which only holds about 100 lines) it is gone.
Despite limitations, the party system made it possible to have truly private conversations for the first time. It was possible to stealth around and eavesdrop on other unsuspecting players, even in their own home! When the Age of Shadows launched in early 2003 that became impossible because homes could now be set completely private. Around this time gamers started to take charge of their own communication abilities with 3rd party voice chat programs.
Things would never be the same. Now you could easily coordinate any activity. You were no longer restricted by what the game offered. Speaking also freed up your hands. Could you imagine not being able to talk on the phone and do whatever (driving for example) at the same time? Now you could at least double your game playing efficiency.
In the Samurai Empire expansion UO finally added the long request guild chat feature, allowing communication to everyone you know at all times. In my opinion, this was the death blow for how communication used to be. No longer did you have to party someone you know or make sure you were both in voice chat. Just press and speak in private guild chat. Often you will encounter people in game asking why you never talk. Well I am, it is just through voice or guild chat.
While this is obviously progress, it ends up taking away from world immersion. But there is really nothing developers can do. Players will communicate however they wish to.
One caveat, UO did implement an IRC like chat room system before the Renaissance expansion. However usage was next to nil and continues to be so to this day. In fact the button for it was removed from the Paperdoll, although you can still access the menu via a macro.
PS – The title refers to a brief stint in late 2000 when some UO players tried to start communicating via voice chat. It was not popular and died out for some reason. Perhaps due to most still being on dial up connections. Voice chat didn’t become big until several years later.