Talk while you play: Roger Wilco
Great idea, great program, great price, but there are some catches.
by Blake Linton Wilfong -- The Wondersmith!

For the last three years or so, my cooperative modem DOOM buddy and I have had the pleasure of being able to talk to each other at the same time we play DOOM. Until recently, we accomplished this using special modems equipped with a feature called Simultaneous Voice and Data (SVD). Powerful Digital Signal Processors (DSPs) on our modems compressed our voice audio enough to send it along with 9600 bps data--sufficient for running DOOM smoothly. Twice a week, each from the comfort of his own home, we launch DOOM, then don headsets so we can talk to each other hands-free, coordinating our actions and joking about the game like the characters on Mystery Science Theater 3000 joke about movies. It was great.

Yet we were virtually alone in our camaraderie. I've never heard of anyone else who played games with SVD modems. Lack of interoperability between SVD modems using different standards, the popularity of deathmatch mode (which doesn't really need voice communication) instead of cooperative play, and the growth of Internet gaming (for which SVD modems don't work) all brought about the quick demise of SVD.

But now SVD is back and better than ever. It first resurfaced in programs like Internet Phone that used the tremendous horsepower of modern microprocessors to perform the same task in software as those hardware DSPs I metioned earlier--compressing voice data--and transmitted it over the Internet. Using this technology, called "voice-over-IP", and the connectivity of the Internet, people around the world could talk to each other for free.

Now a company called Resounding Technology (recently purchased by HearMe) has something even better: Roger Wilco, a freeware voice-over-IP program designed to run side-by-side with popular games, sending voice data over the same internet connection you use to play games. In short, with Roger Wilco, you can talk with friends--maybe lots of friends--at the same time you play games with them over the Net. And now that cooperative games like Diablo and team games like Team Fortress have risen in popularity to rival free-for-all deathmatches, players really do have something to talk about.

Sounds great in theory, but in there are some real-world problems. For one, a standard dialup connection--the most popular kind of personal Internet connection right now and for the next few years--just doesn't have much bandwidth to spare. My own informal tests of Roger Wilco lead me to believe that its bandwidth usage is on the order of 500 or at most 700 bytes per second for one person talking. This is impressive compression, considering the excellent sound quality, and not bad when you consider that a good 28.8 kbps connection can handle some 3000 bytes per second. Too, some games include client-side prediction that may help compensate for a loss in bandwidth. But if you're playing a game with several people, the bandwidth requirement could become substantial...

Another issue is CPU usage. It's fine for a voice-over-IP program to consume all your computer's processing power to emulate a DSP so you can chat online. It's not so fine for it to steal vital CPU cycles away from your 3D First Person Shooter. My DOOM buddy and I each have a computer with a Cyrix 6x86MX PR-233 processor. When we tried out Roger Wilco with ZDoom (a version of DOOM that supports TCP-IP networking), we found that Roger Wilco's audio was choppy and broken. We reconfigured Roger Wilco to use a higher multitasking priority, and now we had the opposite problem: when we talked, ZDoom became choppy, starting and stopping like an old jalopy. During periods of silence, everything ran smoothly--once we adjusted our microphone sensitivity levels exactly right. Roger Wilco also has an option to use less CPU time at the cost of degraded audio quality, but it hardly seemed to help with ZDoom. With practice, we've gotten more used to the "lag" when we talk, but it's still a nuisance. In our limited testing so far, we've found that GLQuake works better; with Roger Wilco's CPU usage and task priority reduced, GLQuake's frame rates aren't so badly impacted when we talk, and Roger Wilco rarely breaks up. With the really powerful Intel and AMD processors in most of computers sold today, Roger Wilco's CPU usage probably isn't very noticeable.

Yet another issue is compatibility. My computer sports a Creative Labs Sound Blaster Live!, while my friend was at first still using the generic Yamaha OPL3-based sound card that came with his computer. Try as we might--with new DirectX and OPL3 drivers--we could not make Roger Wilco work with his sound card. We could chat using Roger Wilco, but when he tried to run a game at the same time, he would lose the game audio, my voice, or both. He finally bought a $25 sound card based on the A3D Vortex chipset from Aureal, which Resounding claims makes "the best drivers known to man...period". Our troubles were not over: we had to download new drivers to get the board working, and had difficulty convincing Windows to install those drivers. And we still had to fiddle extensively with various options to make the sound card work with Roger Wilco. And THEN ZDoom STILL didn't work... We found that ZDoom needed an entry in the games.txt file, which tells Roger Wilco how to deal with "difficult" games. (The games.txt file comes preconfigured for many popular games, but not ZDoom.) We found that the following line fixed the problem:

"" "ZDOOM*" 1 3000

Furthermore, Roger Wilco seemed more reliable if we invoked games from a windowed command line rather than fullscreen, and it helped if we ran GLQuake with the -window parameter, even though this parameter has little effect when using a Voodoo3 accelerator.

Then there's the buffering. Because data packets on the Internet can take varying amounts of time to reach their destinations, it's necessary to buffer any voice-over-IP transmission to smooth things out. (You've probably noticed the initial buffering delay when listening to audio streams in RealPlayer, for example.) The result is strikingly similar to conversations between NASA and its astronauts on the Moon; if your friend starts talking immediately after he hears you stop, you'll hear a couple of seconds of silence before his reply arrives. This takes some getting used to--we tend to get into vicious circles, interrupting each other back and forth--and it precludes time-critical communications (e.g., "Look out!" or "Behind you!") because they arrive too late.

Even now the sound sometimes breaks up, or Roger Wilco forgets that I told it not to play "mike clicks" signaling the end of transmissions, or my own talking is played back to me--possibly mixed with snippets of whatever my friend is trying to say. But these occurrences are infrequent enough that they pose no major problem in day-to-day use.

In fact, despite the occasional glitch and all our miserable hours of configuration and tweaking, we're now pleased enough with Roger Wilco that we do use it regularly. Current games (even "oldies" like GLQuake, and improved versions of DOOM) no longer support direct modem connections the way DOOM originally did. We've gotten around this by using Microsoft Dialup Networking 1.3, making my friend's computer into a server that I dial up and log onto. In other words, we create our own little Internet, or Intranet. Windows automatically assigns standardized IP addresses when we do this (192.168.55.1 for the server and 192.168.55.2 for the client) so it's easy to specify addresses for Roger Wilco and the games.

Roger Wilco is also useful for simple chat over the Internet. We've tried this and found it to work: my buddy launches Roger Wilco, hosts a channel, copies his IP address (conveniently displayed by Roger Wilco) into an AOL Instant Messenger window to let me know where he is; I join the channel, copying his IP address from my AOL Instant Messenger window into Roger Wilco. It's a breeze, and there are ways to make it even simpler using services like Selfhost, or the program-launching features of ICQ. Alas, one blatantly obvious feature Roger Wilco lacks is the ability to save voice recordings as files for the purpose of making a record of chats or game-playing sessions, or efficiently adding voice to e-mail messages.

Considering all its problems, I'm not sure I could recommend Roger Wilco if it were a shrink-wrapped retail product. But if--and this is a big if--you can get this try-at-your-own-risk freeware program to work, you may soon find it to be indispensable.

 
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