Massively Overthinking: Are MMO chat bubbles the best thing ever or an interface eyesore?


One of the more unassuming threads to blow up on the MMORPG subreddit lately was one that asked about – wait for it – chat bubbles. It had never occurred to me that this was a contentious topic at all, but when one Redditor asked whether people felt lonely in MMOs without the bubbles, a whole lotta people chimed in with hate for them.

I personally love the things, but then my first MMORPG was Ultima Online, where for years the only in-game text of note floated up over characters’ heads as there was no chatbox. By the time I got into hardcore roleplaying, I relied on the bubbles for visual cues, and frankly, they just make MMO spaces look busy. So I am definitely bubbles or bust. But clearly, a lot of people find them superfluous or ugly or at least not central to their social immersion.

Let’s sort it out for Massively Overthinking: Do you like MMO chat bubbles, do you use chat bubbles, and do you miss them when they’re gone? Who’s got the best and worst implementation? Are MMO chat bubbles the best thing ever or an interface eyesore?

Ben Griggs (@braxwolf): I’m….really not sure, to be honest. I remember enabling chat bubbles in LOTRO and it was helpful. I don’t think I’ve enabled them in any game since, though. Maybe it’s because LOTRO and other older MMOs were more social by nature. I don’t typically just “hang out” with other players in MMOs anymore, though whether that’s due to the more hectic pacing of most games or my own lack of time I’m not sure. I do enable subtitles in nearly every game I play to make sure that I don’t miss some essential piece of dialogue while running about looking at fireflies or zoning in on an objective. Also, I typically use my PC speakers instead of headphones for audio so ambient noise is sometimes a problem. As I get older and am having more difficulty hearing soft-talkers, I sometimes wish I could turn on an IRL chat bubble, though!

Brianna Royce (@nbrianna, blog): Y’all know I love the bubbles, but I do admit that in truly high-traffic situations, I still need regular chat too or I will definitely miss something. But then that’s true in a noisy room in real life, right? If only we could scroll back in real life! But overall, as long as people who hate the bubbles or find them just too chaotic have a toggle to hide them, I really don’t see the problem.

So let me spend my extra space here plugging the best bubbles ever, and you just know I’m gonna say Star Wars Galaxies. But the reason they were so good there is that they were tightly integrated with the emote and mood system too, in the sense that the shape of the bubble actually changed based on what your character was doing. A normal “say” in spatial chat came with the normal bubble, but you could also babble, bellow, decree, lecture, muse, rap, stutter, and on and on – dozens of these, and many of them had unique speech or thought bubbles to go with them. My favorite, of course, was sing! I have to say I always liked how City of Heroes let people customize the colors of their bubbles so everyone had a slightly different bubble-appearance on everyone else’s screen – another throwback to Ultima Online.

Chris Neal (@wolfyseyes, blog): I’m #TeamChatBubble for sure. This is probably colored by my first MMORPG roleplaying experiences tied to City of Heroes, but I’m with Bree in that they give me extremely obvious visual cues that someone my character (or myself) is talking with has said something, which is a whole lot harder to do in chatscroll. And to be fair, I wouldn’t want chat bubbles to replace the chat box so much as simply be an additive or enhancement to it.

Admittedly, there is some visual clutter associated with chat bubbles, but if there’s a way to filter what bubbles are seen and by how far, or even have something like having chat bubbles transparent unless you’re targeting the person you’re speaking with, then I think it’d be high time for chat bubbles to come back.

Justin Olivetti (@Sypster, blog): How can you hate chat bubbles? How is that even feasible? Do you hate name plates over people’s heads? Floating damage text? HUDs? If someone talks to me, it really helps to have that message attached in relation to their avatar rather than dislocated and shoved into a text box only.

Chat bubbles help to enhance the social sphere of MMOs. It’s as easy as that.

Sam Kash (@thesamkash): I don’t usually pay much attention to the chat bubbles. Typically while I play I just read through the chat box. Although sometimes in a good story mission in I will read the chat bubbles. It is a little bit more immersive and let’s me keep my eyes on the events as they unfold. I think if they were gone it would feel like something important was missing.

So even though 90% of my chat reading comes from the chat box, I wouldn’t want to lose the bubbles.

Every week, join the Massively OP staff for Massively Overthinking column, a multi-writer roundtable in which we discuss the MMO industry topics du jour – and then invite you to join the fray in the comments. Overthinking it is literally the whole point. Your turn!
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