Surrounding us from all directions I saw a writhing, rioting mass of digital humanity, overlapping chat bubbles floating toward the horizon for miles around. Some of these bubbles were legible, though many featured bizarre butcherings of the king's English as well as certain phrases that I couldn't even begin to decipher. Almost all of them sported excessive punctuation and some variation on LOL.
Squinting his eyes against the glare and covering his ears with both hands, my mentor inclined his head down the slope. "Global chat," he said, a weary sign escaping his chapped lips. "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious."
Ah yes, global chat. That anonymous playground where the men are men, the women are men, and the children are FBI agents... er, wait, that's the internet in general (or at least it was years ago when it was still primarily populated by neckbeards, nerds, and night owls). As online culture has expanded to cover a more representative swath of the population in recent years, it has also softened a little bit. That said, there are still places in the deepest, darkest dungeons of the internet where anonymity reigns and asshattery plays a very close second fiddle.
One of those places is the global chat of your favorite MMORPG, and Funcom's Age of Conan is, unfortunately, no exception. It doesn't really matter what server you're on -- spending more than a few minutes in global chat is guaranteed to offend, irritate, or otherwise induce eye-rolling.
The question is why do game developers even make global chat channels available to their playerbase? Particularly in a game like Age of Conan, where the player economy is a running joke and there is virtually no trading to speak of, it stands to reason that the entire exercise is unnecessary. AoC has a separate looking-for-group channel; it has regional channels for Cimmeria, Aquilonia, and Stygia; it has a trade channel; and it has an out-of-character channel. One thing it doesn't have is the ability to make your own chat channels (a convenience most appreciated for custom guild chats), but that's another column entirely.
The point is, Age of Conan has about four global channels too many, not counting global itself. The problem is that eliminating global number one would likely cause the troll convention to move to one of the other aforementioned channels, so in my estimation, Funcom might as well do away with all of them. Beyond the occasional instance of LFG being used as intended, I'd argue that the glut of global channels detracts from the game experience rather than enhances it.
Let's call it the 4chan effect, with a substantial helping of the Greater Internet F*^kwad Theory (NSFW) on the side. On any given night in Wiccana's global chat, the topics range from politics, to religion, to more weighty matters such as the ever-present "WoW was the first MMO" debate. In fact, I'd venture to say that World of Warcraft is discussed in more detail (and certainly with more frequency) than Age of Conan, which raises the question of why the conversationalists aren't playing it. The answer, of course, is for the lulz. Most of the genre's global chat trolls have probably played WoW, and it's infinitely more fun to rile up the anti-WoW populations of smaller games that it is to go back and grind another Azeroth toon.
So, assuming you agree with me and aren't one of those folks who actually like Age of Conan's global chat, what are the alternatives? Well, if you're using it solely as a LFG tool, you can safely disable it and use the actual LFG channel. People do use it properly on occasion, though it often gets lost in the global spam that clutters the default chat window. Also, if you're looking to sign up for PUGs, Killiki or Vissy raids, or Khitai 6-mans, there's nothing stopping you from simply showing up at the encounter start locations and asking to join the groups that constantly gather there (though, omgzors!! you might actually spend a minute or two on the outside of the efficiency curve).
Another alternative, though admittedly out of the player's control, is for game companies to actually use their GM staff to keep an eye on chat channels. This is a double-edged sword, as you run the risk of over-moderation (and of course it costs more money), but when it's handled correctly, you're left with global chats that offer some real gameplay value and good advice. EVE Online's help channel and Fallen Earth's global chat are prime examples of moderation done right. Funcom GMs are, sadly, nowhere to be found in Age of Conan's public channels. Whether it's because of the game's M-rating or some other factor, anything goes in the game's global chats, and I do mean anything.
Ultimately, I'm pretty sure my (formerly) secret desire to see all global chats die horribly gruesome deaths will fall on deaf ears. People simply enjoy trolling too much, and those who don't have grown accustomed to the convenience that global channels occasionally provide. We've forgotten what it was like to live without those channels, just like we've forgotten how to live without cell phones and texting. While some smaller sandbox-ish games like Darkfall and (purportedly) Earthrise get by with regional/racial chats instead of true global channels, Age of Conan and most other MMORPGs will likely continue to suffer epidemic levels of troll population explosions. It's not the end of the gaming world of course -- and for many people, it may even be the primary reason they play -- but it is relatively easy to curb if only developers cared enough to do so.
Until next week, I leave you with a screenshot of last night's Wiccana global chat.
Jef Reahard is an Age of Conan beta and launch day veteran, as well as the creator of Massively's weekly Anvil of Crom column, which chronicles one man's journey through Funcom's global chat. Feel free to suggest a column topic, propose a guide, or perform a verbal fatality via firstname.lastname@example.org. Tags: age-of-conan, aoc, chat, chat-channels, featured, funcom, funcom-age-of-conan, get-off-my-lawn, global-chat, l33t, l33t-sp33k, leet-speak, opinion, slang, the-anvil-of-crom