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Alter-Ego: Working together is hard to do

The news earlier this week that DC Universe Online is now Sony Online Entertainment's best-selling game probably won't come as much of a surprise to anyone who has actually played it. There's an enormous amount of fun to be had in running through the game, and the storylines are incredibly well thought-out. However, for all that I personally love the game, there is one thing that I and many other people I've talked to find to be incredibly lacking, and in this case, it's something so integral to the MMOG experience as to essentially make or break parts of the game.

Essentially, what point is there to an MMO in which you can't really reliably interact with the other people you're playing with? It's also rather eye-opening just how much your enjoyment of a game like this can be impacted when you can't effectively talk to other people. As such, this week I'll look at several crucial problems with the DC Universe Online chat interface, as well as things that can be done to improve the overall experience.

Before I get rolling, allow me to say that when Larry and I interviewed Chris Cao a little while ago, he stated that chat improvements were one of the first things that the dev team was working on putting into the game. While we don't have a specific date on this first major patch, I do believe that the team realizes how utterly messed up it currently is. The devs would have to be ignoring the game, the forums, and pretty much every other social media avenue to not realize by now all the problems the inability to communicate is causing.

When you're first dropped into DC Universe Online, chat isn't really an issue. After all, the first ship area is instanced, and even if you know someone in-game and manage to track him down, he can't join you anyway. However, on leaving that ship, you're dumped into the first general area for your mentor, and that's when the first issues start to show up.

As MMO veterans, we're used to a great many ways of communicating. Hitting enter, more often than not, will bring up the chat bar in most games. In DCUO, it is supposed to work that way as well, but on many occasions, there's either some form of server lag at work, or the command isn't always recognized. This can result in one of a two things happening. If you're the watchful type, you'll wait, not see the chat bar come up, and wind up hitting enter several more times before it finally decides to show up. If you're more the enter-and-talk type, then you won't notice that your chat interface isn't open until you've managed to pop up a few different menus on your screen because you were already well into your first words of greeting. In this particular case (and not knowing the root issue as to why this is the way it is) I can't explain how it can be corrected. However, I would strongly state that this is one of the major issues with the text chat system overall -- the inexplicable inability to consistently get the chat bar to show up for work.

As for a workaround, the best thing I've found to date is to hit O to bring up the social tab. Yes, it takes up most of your screen, and it's annoying since it means you have to stand in one place and focus on nothing but social interaction. However, it is significantly better than repeatedly getting hammered with menus because the UI can't keep up with what you're trying to do.

From there, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that using slash commands is a painfully hit-or-miss endeavor in the game. While many players have gotten used to /tell or /t (username) to say hello, others are used to /w. Further complicating this is the utter absence of any type of in-game documentation or /help command. That's right, if you type /help, you are simply told it's not a valid command; there's no list of commands. Considering the presence of /help in just about every other MMO with a slash command system, I find this to be this is a major oversight, especially for a developer as large as SOE. Add in chat filtering that can't be turned off and is overzealous to the point of absurdity, and even basic conversation can be an incredibly tricky thing.

Further complicating things, when attempting to message someone with two names, players are required to add in quotes around both names. Depending on your background, this can be both unintuitive and (at least in the case of those who used a digital download service) very poorly documented. In this case, the only reason I found out the proper format is due to hitting O, finding someone in my friends list, clicking on his name, and hitting the "tell" button -- which gave me the properly formatted tell command. Of note: Commas used in other superhero MMO games do not work here with two names, although /r for reply will work.

With all that said, there is one even more glaring issue. The whole point of playing on a console is to avoid using keyboard chat, right? Unsurprisingly, there are also continuing problems with in-game VOIP services. In my case, I can only speak to using a controller with a PC, as I do not have the PS3 version of the game. However, if the PC version and reports I hear from PS3 players are any indication, League and group chat is only working halfway properly, and a push-to-talk button is pretty much non-existent on a controller. As being subjected to listening to Avenged Sevenfold channeled through two tin cans and a piece of string isn't terribly enjoyable, many PC players are seeking external VOIP solutions. In our case, the Massively group has temporarily moved to using Ventrilo. I've also used things like Mumble and Skype for real-life friend groups rather than messing with the in-game VOIP. In short, the voice feature appears to be unreliable to the point that it's more of a frustration to attempt to figure it out than it is a boon to have it. This may be because it also doesn't have nearly enough documentation, because of server loads, or because of heavens knows what else. About the best workaround currently is the F2 shortcuts for quick chat or using an external program if possible -- both of which are difficult on a controller.

Ultimately, the incredibly messed-up social interaction systems are seriously reducing my enjoyment of DCUO as a social creature. Add in things like being unable to see who is actually online in your League without friending every last one of the members individually, being unable to sort listings of friends, league, etc. by levels, and many other related issues with social tools, and the overall problems are making DC Universe Online feel like an amazing single-player game that other people just happen to be wandering around in.

I'm going to hope that, as Cao told us in that interview, this will all be fixed very soon. The keyboard interactions are difficult, but being restricted to a controller without a keypad and broken voice chat is well into game-breaking territory. With any luck, this launch issue will not only be fixed soon but learned from as Sony Online Entertainment continues looking into developing for both consoles and PCs. As it stands, the way chat works in DC Universe Online reminds me of vichyssoise: cold and overrated.

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Every week on Saturday, strip off the mask of your Alter-Ego and soar through the world of DC Universe Online with Krystalle, then catch up with Larry on Wednesdays as he showcases the superhero game on the Alter-Ego livestream. Send up a bat-signal to ping Krystalle or Larry with your burning questions. (Packages wrapped in green with a purple bow will be returned unopened.)

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