Videochat systems

A lot of my gaming these days is long-distance. Many of us are in vastly different time-zones. Trying to make things work in person would be basically impossible. As a result, we’ve come to rely a lot on videochat systems.

Six abstract figures in a variety of colors arranged to appear like a videochat.At one time, it seemed that the standard for online pen-and-paper face-to-face RPG gaming was Skype + MapTool. By the time I started to get into videochat-moderated play, though, Skype wasn’t great. Connection quality was, and is, frequently very juddery; and what used to be a pretty user-friendly application has become increasingly about a shiny interface atop a money-grubbing, hard-sell social network. I’m very much not impressed with Skype these days.

For a good few years now, the main videochat system I’ve used is Google Hangouts. The bandwidth is far better than Skype is these days. Hangouts works directly in a browser, not requiring a separate app like Skype does. Hangouts also offers the ability to save call URLs, so everyone can come back to the same chat location later on.

Hangouts is not perfect, though. My standard joke is that every session, we need to assign a number to each player, and then roll a D6; that # is the player who has connection problems that day. Juddery sound, difficulties getting video working, or whatever else. Also, like most free Google products that were once useful, Hangouts will probably one day get consigned to the Google Graveyard.

My main concern about Hangouts is much like my concerns about many Google products: It’s really easy to use, free of charge, feature-rich, and all about giving Google access to our private information. Gaming isn’t necessarily stuff that needs to stay super-private — heck, a lot of us play in FLGSs, which are quite thoroughly public. But I’m still not a fan of giving Google any more of my information than they already have.

So for a while, I’ve been on the lookout for a videochat system that allows for private conversations. My first big hope was Signal, which is end-to-end encrypted, gets lots of praise from security experts, etc. However, Signal has other problems; most importantly, it still doesn’t do videochat from the desktop. It’s primarily an instant messaging/SMS replacement, at least on the desktop. That is apparently a feature they’re working on.

There are a bunch of other videochat systems out there, including ones designed specifically for online RPG play, such as Roll20. It has a lot of kind of amazing features, including an interactive map system, character sheets, dice rollers, and more. However, the overall feel is pretty D&D-esque. I could probably adapt it to Blade & Crown, but it looks like it would take a lot of work. Not ruling it out, but I think it’s a bit too fiddly for now.

There are lots and lots of (fairly) secure messaging systems out there, many with videochat abilities. None are perfect, of course; but there are certainly better choices than Hangouts.

One I’ve experimented with recently was Jitsi. There are actually a bunch of different Jitsi projects, including a server you can install, and more things that I kind of don’t understand. The main thing I’m interested in, though, is Jitsi Meet, which is pretty much a direct replacement for Google Hangouts: A web interface to create and conduct videochats. Not only is it much more private than Hangouts, it has some really kind of nifty features: You can set all the chat windows up in a tiled mode, to see everyone at once (instead of just whoever talked most recently); there’s a “raise hand” feature to allow people to signal that they’re trying to get a word in edgewise, or that there’s a question from the audience (which I could see being really, really useful if you were holding a panel discussion via Jitsi); and the audio and video quality has so far been significantly better than Hangouts (though I suppose this may go down once more people start using it). It doesn’t have a built-in map, or dice rollers, or initiative trackers, but there’s an ability to do screensharing, which allows showing maps and what-not, and that’s most of what I usually need, really.

No videochat program is perfect, but for now, I find Jitsi very promising. It’s certainly a good replacement for Hangouts.

And mostly, of course, it’s just very neat to be able to game with folks who are far away — often, not even in the same country.


Videochat systems — 2 Comments

  1. I would agree that there are a lot of options out there but they’re all a trade off in one area or another.

    Is there anything good in VR? It seems like that would be the most logical way to get a tabletop experience over the internet.

    • The closest thing I’ve heard of is Tabletop Simulator, but a) I haven’t actually used it and b) I’ve heard it’s not that great. So, definitely lots of room for nifty new programs there.

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