When it comes to upcoming MMOs, voice overs are the new public quests. By which I mean: thing you have to have to look cool.
Star Wars: The Old Republic is going to be fully voiced. Some people are very excited about that.
DC Universe Online is going to have an all-star voice acting cast. Some people are very excited about that.
However, just like public quests, it’ll mean little to players past the first brush if the gameplay doesn’t work. I don’t get the whole, “I wasn’t going to buy this game, but since Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill are involved, I’m definitely going to pre-order!” reaction from anyone who isn’t related to Conroy or Hamil by blood or marriage. Batman: Arkham Asylum had a strong voice cast (led by Conroy and Hamill) but the gameplay was rock solid. I’ve played Batman:AA enough to be sick of Joker’s “Bats, I really want you to hurt these guys! They mean nothing to me!” comments. On the BioWare side, the voice acting is something you start to skip through in order to speed up the blah-blah-blahs, especially on second or third play through.
The thing that should mute any excitement that players have for voice overs is that EverQuest 2 featured a lot of voice acting (including nerd favourite Christopher Lee and attractive blonde Heather Graham) and it still sucked. Voice acting is a hygiene factor – it can add to a game, but doesn’t do anything to fix deficiencies elsewhere. If anything, having voice overs raises its own problems, as shown by Age of Conan having its initial section featuring voice acting and then losing it past that point. People noticed. DCUO isn’t going to have happy customers if Hamill provides voice overs for all Joker parts at launch, then actually retires that voice (he keeps threatening to), seeing the Joker either get a change in voice actors or go voice-less in future updates.
Voice overs are the new black: it might get people talking (pun not intended) but it does nothing to distract if there isn’t substance below the surface.