Monthly Archives: November 2020

Communications Software for Running Online Larps (LAOGs)

This entry was posted in LARP, tools & techniques on by .

This was written in November of 2020 by Eva with help from Quinn. Some of these details may have changed since then.

This post was updated in late November with more details based on feedback I got about the original post.

Services are listed roughly in order of the ones we are most familiar with to the ones we are least familiar with. If you have opinions and experience with ones we haven’t looked at please leave me a comment!

A quick accessibility note: I have been told that Microsoft Teams and Zoom are the most accessible for blind and deaf people. Google Meet is also somewhat accessible for the deaf. I have not tried to test the accessibility of most of these systems first hand.

Zoom

  • Breakout rooms let groups split apart from the central chat room into separate video chats.
    • There’s a lot of lag when people change rooms (a few seconds).
    • It’s easy to accidentally hang up when you’re trying to just leave a room.
    • Rooms can have time limits (both a timer when the room ends and a buffer after that for when people get kicked out). It shows a timer on the screen to remind players. Once set, the host can’t reset the timers for a room.  
  • There are several models for how people get in and out of breakout rooms.
    • In the default mode, only the host can move people to and from rooms.
    • If everyone involved has Zoom 5.3.0 or later, the host can set up breakout rooms to be open to participants to jump in or out as they like. This can let you set up video chat spaces analogous to a divided/large physical larp space. 
  • It’s trivial to change your display name as often as you want and into anything you want.
  • There’s a user option to hide non-video participants. (This can help with immersion and limit distractions, especially with the GM checking in silently on small rooms.)
  • Backgrounds are a double edged sword, they can be super cool, but can also be buggy, distracting, and weird. People with older hardware may not be able to use them at all.
  • Has global text chat and the ability to privately text chat with people who are in the same room as you. Has some options for host broadcasting to rooms and asking for “help” from the host.
    • Does not have per-room chat and you can’t direct message people who aren’t in your room.
    • The host can send messages into breakout rooms, and that appears over the screen rather than in text chat.
    • Breakout rooms also have a button of “request help” that will message the host. 
  • There are “raise your hand” and “applause” buttons that users can use to tag themselves with icons. 
  • Supports push to talk. Uses the spacebar to temporarily unmute if you’re muted and zoom has focus. This can help folks with bad audio take part without destroying your audio quality for everyone. 
  • Generally handles poor connections gracefully.
  • Has mobile support. 
  • Has gallery view and host can spotlight people. 
  • Has screen sharing (including sound sharing from your computer, easy to screw up the sound part). This can be somewhat buggy depending on what you’re sharing. It generally does not handle sharing videos very gracefully, but still images or slides work ok most of the time. 
  • Free up to 100 participants but limited to only 40 minutes in length. Paid plans start at about $150 a year. You can purchase a paid plan monthly and cancel at any time.

Google Meet

  • Has live, automatic closed captioning that each user can turn on or off for themselves. This is not infallible, but it is easily available and will usually at least get the gist of what’s happening across. 
  • Has gallery view. 
  • Has an associated global chat. 
  • Users can “pin” people to make them big on their own screen. Hosts can’t spotlight people or otherwise control your screen. 
  • Free until March of 2021. 
  • Can’t change your profile name easily. You will need to use access without logging in via a Private browser window. Even then you can only enter a name on entry to the chat (no changing it). 
  • Has mobile support.

Hangouts

  • Hangouts now has no video chat. It redirects you to Google Meet if you try to make a video call. Thanks Google. :/
  • You can invite people, but can’t schedule group meetings with it anymore. 
  • Very basic. No frills. 
  • Free and no time limit, but everyone needs to have a Google sign in. 
  • Provides audio/video/text chat.
  • Works fine for 2 to 10 people, may get a little tough to use with more than that.
  • Has mobile support. 

Discord

  • Mobile or computer support. 
  • It’s peer-to-peer, so when using video it quickly overwhelms people’s upload capacity. For most people you won’t be able to video chat with more than one or two other people without serious problems. Voice only connections tend to work much more reliably, even with many people. 
  • Has push to talk, but the setup is confusing. 
  • Can have multiple audio or text channels. Has permissions that can control who can see or go into which channel.  
  • Moderators can move users from one voice/video channel to another. 
  • You can easily change your display name. Also has a “nickname” which is server specific. 
  • Your avatar is account wide. 
  • Users have control of what channel they’re on and if they join voice chats and which one, etc. So you can use channels as analogs for physical spaces. 
  • Does not have any global audio/video chat. So moderators will need to message people privately, go into each space for announcements, or yank everyone back to a shared space to contact them all at once. 
  • Has mobile support. 
  • TOTALLY FREEEEEEEEE!

Gather.town

  • Easily handles many people. It’s free for up to 25 people. (Can pay to have up to 450, but it’s per user, so this can get expensive: https://gather.town/pricing)
  • Computer only, no mobile. 
  • Has a map that you move around on. When you’re closer to people you can see and hear them. Has private spaces (tables, booths, etc.) that can have limited people in them.
  • You have a little pixel avatar who moves around. Your range to see and hear others is around 10x the size of your avatars. Normally you can’t walk through others, but you can use a “ghost mode” to move through things if you get stuck. 
  • There is a virtual space. You at least have more tools for gauging how people are interacting before approaching. 
  • You can gather people up to do things like briefing. There are options for broadcasting to a crowd. 
  • Has global chat and per-user chat. 
  • Has a find feature that gives you a path to get to other people. 
  • Users can set and change their name on the fly. 
  • In a crowd it’s hard to use the text to see anything.
  • The avatars are super tiny and hard to identify as people. You can pick an avatar, but there’s not that many and it’s a little irritating to select then. 
  • By default it’s a view of the map big with a small ribbon of videos, but how many you see depends on how big your screen is. You can scroll, but it’s not graceful.
  • You can switch to a gallery view with 9 people at a time. 
  • Really large maps can be overwhelming and people can get lost. 
  • Has spotlighting for a moderator or some they put in the spotlight to present to others. 
  • Moderators can set up custom maps. This can be great for larp, but it is also complex and painful to set up. 
  • (Lots of cool media support, clearly designed for conferences.)
  • Has an “interaction distance” and users set it for themselves. (This could cause weird issues with who can hear who.)
  • For more details of how to Gather.town use as a user and facilitator see this awesome thing Quinn wrote.

Remo

  • Kind of expensive. ($100 per month for up to 50 people, can get a 14 day trial free: https://remo.co/conference-pricing/)
  • Has separate “tables” that people can go to. The host can label the tables with text. Tables have a limit of how many seats they have, but a host can exceed those limits to join any table. 
    • There is a hard limit of six people to a table (no table can be larger than that) and depending on the room layout you use there can be a mixture of different sized tables in the room. Each table has one or two hidden spots that will allow a host to join even when the table is full (you can exceed six people at a table this way).
    • The limited table sizes can cause problems with being able to access people in a game. Especially with two person tables, there are likely to be problems with players being unable to contact people they need to talk to. 
    • Each table has a whiteboard by default. The host can lock it or let people who go to the table modify it. You can put video or images on the whiteboard or draw/type on it.
  • There are only a few room layouts that control the sizes of the tables. Users can move around to the different tables freely. 
  • There are time limits to how long you can have the room open at all. (Pretty short, like 2.5 hours for the cheaper versions)
    • You can do a larp longer than the limit if you’re willing to do briefing and wrap in some other system (like Zoom or Google Meet or whatever).
  • Relatively robust. When video breaks, audio usually still works, and you can move around to make it refresh. 
  • No global audio or video. 
  • A host can send global text messages that pop up in a box in the middle of the screen (this is a different interface than the global chat). The pop up is very obvious but will disappear as soon as you click, so it’s easy to accidentally dismiss this before you’re able to read it. There’s no other host broadcast options at the moment.
  • It’s easy to see who is where, even when you’re not at the particular table with them.
  • Jumping from table to table is very abrupt. You can’t gauge how the conversation at the table is going before moving there.
  • Has global chat, chat inside a table, and per-user chat (direct message a single other person). People can use per-user chat to try to communicate before going to a table (can be clunky and slow, definitely a hack). 
  • Has a few views, like room map + bar of small videos or gallery view. 
  • Has a feature where you can “get” someone. The system will tell them you are trying to get them and give them the option of either joining your table or not. Have not tested what this will do if you try to get someone while you’re in a full table, but this is a useful feature for calling a GM during a game. You can also use it to alert other players that you want to talk to them if they’re someone inaccessible.
  • No mobile support.
  • You can create custom maps/floor plans that use your own image. There is an approval process you have to submit your work to and it will take time for them to look at it and approve it. This is being used for one of the games at ExtraCon. I got a preview of the map and it is super sweet.
  • (At the time of writing, I haven’t talked to anyone who tried to host something non-trivial here. I’ll try to update if I’m able to ask a friend about this.)

Microsoft Teams

  • Has a free version with video “meeting” functionality. 
  • I’ve been told this is the best system to use if you need to cope with disability access.
  • If you’re using this with a paid company account it can record to the cloud.
  • Shows your own video only as a thumbnail.
  • Has a classroom view you can use with more than 4 participants which positions everyone together on a common background that looks like a lecture hall.
  • As of writing I have not tested this out. 

Twitch

  • I have not evaluated Twitch, but it’s mostly meant for public broadcasting streaming, so it’s unclear if it’s even possible to have a private Twitch stream. 

SpatialChat

  • Free up to 4 people
  • Video chat with a spatial component, similar to Gather.town, so people fade in and out as they move near/far.
  • Does not have a virtual map or avatars, just an open space that you move your self around. People are represented by either their video or a circle with a letter in it (when they’re too far away to see their video).
  • If you want more than 4 users their paid plans start at about $50 a month.
  • Basically impossible to use if you (or your players) have visual impairment problems.

Jitsi

  • Free and open source video chatting.
  • Has a mobile version. 
  • Can do recorded data streams to YouTube.
  • The publically available Jitis is a non-commercial service, so there are limits to when they’ll be available or how much bandwidth they can share with you. You can theoretically install your own private Jitsi server if you want.
  • I haven’t evaluated the details of how it works.

StreamYard

  • This software was suggested by a friend for use when you want to make a stream of your game.
  • It’s free for about 15 hours of streaming a month and allows direct recording to YouTube (either public or private).