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GDC10: Vivox's Monty Sharma interviewed

Jef Reahard

While often overlooked among gamers due to the prevalence of Ventrilo and Teamspeak, integrated MMORPG voice chat is a service that is steadily gathering steam, and leading the charge is Vivox, Inc. Founded in 2005 and headquartered in Framingham, Massachusetts, Vivox has pioneered integrated voice technology in games as diverse as EVE Online, EverQuest II, and Second Life.

We sat down with Monty Sharma, Vice President of Product Management and Marketing at this week's Game Developer's Conference to talk about the company's past, present and future.

Hit the jump for the full interview.

Massively: Could you start out by talking about a few of the titles you've worked on thus far.

Monty Sharma: Well we partnered with Global Agenda, which is a fun fun game, the thing I really love is I can tell my wife I'll be done in fifteen minutes and I'm not lying. So we're going to be playing with the Hi-Rez guys in a few minutes. Then we did Bigpoint and we are so jazzed that they've got Battlestar Galactica. There's no commitment that we're in Battlestar Galactica but we're in a bunch of Bigpoint games. We announced Runewaker, Runes of Magic earlier this week, that's a fun game too, and today was Imvu and we're live with them, with voice fonts. They're doing 500 million minutes of voice traffic alone.

So, how do you get these gigs, do you approach them?

You know, in the early days we were on our knees a lot, begging, not the other thing [laughs], just to be clear, not that we wouldn't [laughs] but we didn't need to go quite that far. Now it's become a thing where a good voice experience has a big impact on the game. One of the things, we did a research study last year where we followed 100 thousand new users in five different games. If they used voice they were four times more likely to still be playing the game five weeks later.

I cannot play a combat game with text because I cannot follow what's going on. I'll be doing things and then I'll look and go sorry that happened ten minutes ago.

Think about all these online games. I mean, look at Massively, what are you devoted to? You're devoted to social environments. Humans talk to people to be social. Text is great, and lots of time you can be very efficient in text, but just text your girlfriend 'happy anniversary' and see how good that goes. If you want to have solid engagement, especially for new players, 'how do you do this,' 'what's going on here,' I don't have to look at the screen and type. I cannot play a combat game with text because I cannot follow what's going on. I'll be doing things and then I'll look and go 'sorry that happened ten minutes ago.' By the time you type heal me you're dead. So it is best to say in voice 'hey you're a [freaking] medic, heal me.'

What is about Vivox that sets it apart?

The biggest thing for us is scale. We've got 21 million users, we've had 6000 people in a channel. There is nobody else who has actually done anything at this scale, or any scale really, integrated into a game. The APIs have to be good, they have to work fast enough that you're not lagging the game or causing any game-related problems or they'll break you out and send you home. All of that at scale is hard to do, and on top of that we have a really broad feature set. Everything from the 3D walking around in Second LIfe, and I can't tell you the upcoming game that has 3D in it, but a lot of cool stuff is going on. You can make whatever conjecture you want to make out of that, as long as that's not a camera [points to voice recorder].

The voice spots, all of the micro controls, as you work with all the different titles we have, everybody says 'oh we need to tweak this a little better,' 'we need a control here,' and over the years you build up a really solid way to do it and a comprehensive set of controls.

The final thing is the platform reach we have. We do it on PC, Mac, on PS3, we've got a webcam, so with Global Agenda you can actually get into your agency channel from the web site. You're working with email, you can't be running the game in the background, but you can fire it up and it is talk radio for a new generation. So that whole aspect of it creates a completely different environment.

Finally the biggest thing is talk to our customers. They will tell you that we go the extra mile to make them happy. Everything is up and running, the integration support, and it's fine and we're calling them every week to make sure they're happy. They're the ones who made us and we give them support like nobody's business.

If you could take any current MMO that doesn't have your service and add it in, what would be your ideal game?
The one you want to conquer?

For me it's not a conquer thing. You talk to the sales guys, they've got conquer things, for me it's a fun thing. I love things like Pirates of the Burning Sea. It's a small MMO, a publisher may say 'hey we don't want to spend the resources because my team is only so big,' but [games like that] bring fun and community. Games that are fun, interesting, that's where I want to be.

You have a few names on here, like 38 Studios, have you announced that partnership?

Yes, you're familiar with Curt Schilling's company, yeah we're out of Boston as well so it was a big deal to get his MMO, but they're doing some very cool stuff which is all under wraps.

We interviewed R.A. Salvatore yesterday.

So you probably know more than I do, then. [laughs]

Well we tried, but he wouldn't reveal much.

We had an NDA with them, we had a contract with them, we went over to their office and they made us sign another NDA, then they put us in a conference room and told us nothing. I said at the end of it that I'm happy to answer questions but why did I have to sign another NDA? But it's cool, on the merchandising and business side of it, with Salvatore on the story side of it, they're going to come out with something very cool.

Are there any upcoming games that you can talk about?

Bigpoint is the big one. There's a few different integration points there, as they build out the socialization in the games, they are the home of really high end web games. What baffles me is why anybody plays the Facebook games when you've got stuff like that available. Granted they have 100 million users so they're doing alright, but Bigpoint has a lot of cool games and voice is going to be a great part of that.

What do you see as the future of voice in games, not just MMOs but virtual worlds?

The mission for us is that voice is something that is in any experience. If you are doing...anything, voice should be part of that experience.

The mission for us is that voice is something that is in any experience. If you are doing...anything, voice should be part of that experience. What is the most up to date thing that my friends are doing? It's Facebook. Business contacts? LinkedIn. With the technology we have, the ultimate endpoint is, whatever you're doing, if you're playing a game and you have to leave but you've got a phone, you should be able to talk to those people. Right now we have where you can dial into channel, we'll be doing more native stuff on phones, all that kind of thing, you're always connected to them. I look at my cell phone and my minutes usage has declined since I got an iPhone. The stuff that's powerful is the apps. Before I call people, I'm talking to them on IM. 'Hey you there, you got a minute to talk?' All that sort of stuff, I see the phones disappearing and it all being our apps and voices.

So is there a Vivox iPhone app in the future?

Everybody has to do an iPhone app. We're not announcing one yet but I think you're required to do one by law. [laughs]

And a Facebook game.

Exactly. Eat lots of fiber, make a Facebook game.

What about Imvu, I forget the number but they've got an astronomical number of users.

They've got 8 million users, we see peaks of 120,000 people online at once, really solid usage, about 500 million minutes a month and it's growing sharply. We just turned voice on in public rooms, we started with private only and now we're selling voice fonts in there and it's had great take up.

Thanks for your time.

Thank you.

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