The Tattered Notebook: Exploring identity with EQII's SOEmote

The Tattered Notebook  EQII's SOEmote and New Voiceovers
This week, EverQuest II launched a new feature called SOEmote. It gives players the ability to use a webcam and create facial expressions for their avatars, but it also includes the ability to change your voice to match your character in voice chat. You wouldn't think that being able to raise and lower eyebrows, tilt your head, or sound like a pixie would match up well with killing orcs and looting treasures, but neither would home decorating, and yet it's become a very popular activity in game. Will SOEmote follow suit and be yet another outlet for player creativity, or is it just a gimmick? In this week's Tattered Notebook, we'll take a look at the new feature and give some first impressions about its potential.

The setup

I have to admit, I don't do a lot of stuff that requires a webcam, so I had to dig up one from three or four years ago that was used so the kids could do video calls with their grandparents. I was a little leery because I didn't think an old, possibly outdated webcam would have any luck trying to sync with the new EQII program. I had memories of trying to get my webcam linked up with my parents' webcam through a fairly mainstream and vanilla MSN service, and I began to break out into a cold sweat just thinking about all of the problems that we ran into trying to get our cameras and our sound to work. Even when it did, there was so much lag in the stream that in the end, all we really had was just a glorified surveillance camera video from the nearest 7-11, minus the stick-up.

So it was a huge sigh of relief to see a box immediately pop up when I logged in, telling me that not only did the game discover my webcam, but it was ready to calibrate my face with that of my avatar's if I consented. I did and saw my face next to my avatar's mug, and the two matched up amazingly well (I was playing a Dark Elf at the time, so take that as you will). When I tilted my head, my avatar mirrored me; when I yawned, so did my avatar. Even the eyebrows synced up really well, which is pretty important if you're playing the cynical inky. Even though I'm a Wood Elf Ranger at heart, it was extremely fun to tap into my evil side and watch my character make sinister expressions.

After a while, I tried it on a few other races under other conditions. It did well calibrating my face even when I had jumpy kids in the background, but later on, after I could return to play, I could tell immediately that it didn't recognize my face very well in a dark room. Meanwhile, there do seem to be certain races that mimic better than others. At the top of the list was the Froglok, so it's no surprise that it was the chosen race for EverQuest Franchise Director of Development Dave "SmokeJumper" Georgeson's demo video, which announced the upcoming launch. There's something about the structure of the Froglok face that seems to pick up facial features better. Meanwhile, the Elven races did OK (I particularly liked the dimples from my Wood Elf smirk), but some of the evil races and short races had a harder time mirroring expressions. My Troll avatar spent at good minute or two in a perpetual sleep until my webcam would properly calibrate my eyes with those of my character's. And even when it did, I couldn't quite get the same range of expression on her that I could with other races. I reluctantly rolled up a Gnome after that and ran into the same problem of limited expressions. It seems that when the camera loses track of one facial feature, it sort of gives up on the rest, so when I tried tipping my head down, it lost track of my eye, and everything went to pot.

The Tattered Notebook  EQII's SOEmote and New Voiceovers
The potential

I can't quite wrap my head around SOEmote, but my inner gamer voice keeps telling me that this is more than just a quick gimmick. The only thing that worries me is that it's being showcased in front of the wrong audience, which might affect whether it's used in future titles. I know, love, and respect the longtime EverQuest II players, but I don't think emotes and voiceovers have been on the top of their wish list over the years. However, the players have adjusted to and eventually accepted many game changes that I would never have expected, so it could end up being a popular non-combat activity like home decorating or dungeon making. But if SOEmote doesn't catch on in EQII, it's not necessarily because it's not a good feature -- it might just not match up with the target audience.

Can you hear me now?

Meanwhile, the new voice fonts are as easy to use as the webcam facial expressions. There's a handy UI that lets you select your voice channel (you can choose from the presets or create your own), adjust your volume, and now, tweak the setting to alter your voice. I recall testing something like this a couple of years ago at GDC at the Vivox booth, and I'm guessing this is the same technology that's included in SOEmote now. It's great to see something like this in game finally because it allows people to get in character and give even more personality to their toons. You can basically raise and lower the pitch of your voice, so your Halfling can finally sound like a Halfling and your Ogre can project a booming voice of authority.

Overall, I was impressed with SOEmote because I think it's a tool that has enormous potential. I have a few screenshots of my performing avatars in the column, but since I haven't been livestreaming, I don't have any video. You can, however, see the original demo done by SmokeJumper as well as the promotional video that appeared with the launch announcement. Also, for those who are intrigued by SOEmote and who have enough creative talent, there's loot to be found. SOE is hosting a contest for your best videos using the EQII SOEmote feature, and the winner will receive a trip for two to SOE Live (Fan Faire) this October. If the dungeons from the dungeon maker contest are any indication, there should be some stiff competition and some impressive movies coming our way!

From the snow-capped mountains of New Halas to the mysterious waters of the Vasty Deep, Karen Bryan explores the lands of Norrath to share her tales of adventure. Armed with just a scimitar, a quill, and a dented iron stein, she reports on all the latest news from EverQuest II in her weekly column, The Tattered Notebook. You can send feedback or elven spirits to karen@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.