My recent honeymoon took my wife Aili and I to Budapest. One interesting quirk to traveling in Hungary is that the Hungarian language is unrelated to other European languages. Between the two of us we had Mandarin Chinese, college level French, a smattering of Spanish, and a German phrasebook that we didn't get much use out of, but none of that really helps much. (Ironically, the most helpful non-Hungarian language in the area appears to be English.) This got me thinking about languages in MMORPG's.
In some ways, exploring the real world is not unlike exploring a game. Sadly, until we all have smartphones with internet access anyway, alt+tabbing out of the real world to consult WoWHead for the location of the evening's restaurant is not an option, but travel books play a relatively similar role. Even so, it turns out that Reading IS Fundamental. It's hard to navigate when you look up and see a sign that reads "Arany Janos Utca" and have no idea what that means. However, even a week in a strange land was enough to teach us at least some key words (for example, "Utca" means street).
Strangely, online games largely ignore language as a game mechanic. One low level Draenei questline (which magically teaches characters a new language over the course of about 10 minutes of game time) aside, WoW NPC's either will speak to you (neutral or better reputation) or they won't (unfriendly or worse), and they'll only occasionally mutter something you don't really need to know anyway in their native tongues. Your character's languages are listed on their skill page, and there was speculation during the original beta that it would be possible to learn others, but this never happened and WoW currently does not allow players to learn other racial languages by any means. Over in LOTRO, a new zone added in a recent patch contains villages of eskimo-like people who CLAIM they distrust outsiders, but most or all of them seem perfectly content to offer you quests, speak your language, and take your cash while you work on gaining their trust. Why not have language play a bigger part in the game?
- The LOTRO example I mentioned would have been a great place for there to be a language barrier lore-wise.
- Immersion. Slowly teaching the player or the character a smattering of the language would reward attention to detail in the world. It was very satisfying for me personally to learn how to get around foreign cities, even if it did take me a day or two to learn where to get food.
- I hesitate to say Edu-tainment, but one could, in principle, imagine an MMORPG set in modern or future times (e.g. a Firefly MMO) that actually teaches a real world language.
- Learning a new language is an example of a reward that could be offered to non-raid/arena players without affecting game balance.
- The pain in the tail factor. Kingdom of Loathing is a game that includes several randomized puzzles that basically require you to play the game with an out-of-game notepad by your side, even if you know how to solve them.
- Frustration. Obviously, not being able to find a food vendor might be one of those things that is too much like real life to justify having in a game. Depending on the setting, it might be possible to implement some universal symbols (for example, European pharmacies all have a green cross, and most cities' public transportation systems have their own logos), but I can't see having an igloo with an in-character repair anvil on it.
- The Wiki Effect. If you make a puzzle that depends on out-of-game knowledge (e.g. learning that utca means street), someone's going to put the solution up on a Wiki or forum somewhere. (The Kingdom of Loathing Devs actually attempt to banish solutions to puzzles from their official forums, and occasionally even request third party sites not to reveal solutions. The latter efforts are, as far as I know, relatively unique amongst MMO developers, and typically are about as ineffective as one might expect, though it does sometimes take a day or two for the off-site community to figure things out.) The alternative, having the character learn the language and slowly understand more of what NPC's are saying, might be cool, but probably won't be much better than what WoW does currently.
- Competence. Tolkien was a linguist, and he took as much time as he needed to make Elven languages that didn't suck. Many writers (and game devs) can't (or don't have the time to) write decent "foreign" phrases for the cultures they're creating in ENGLISH, much less a completely novel new language.
The pitfalls are non-trivial, but I still would like to think that there's some room for developers to make better use of language somewhere down the line.