The new generation of consoles is well underway (for those of us who can get a hold of one, anyway), with a host of possibilities for the future of our industry.
One area of the games industry that is arguably getting more respect than ever before (at long last) is the audio sector. While the industry has often been hyper-focused on graphical fidelity, game designers are fully focused on exploring how to use
audio in creative and exciting ways.
So what does the next generation of audio in games look like? What challenges does the audio sector face? Those are the questions EPOS looked to answer, at its recent virtual event ‘The Power of Audio in Gaming,’ where it reached out to a panel of audio experts to get their view on this rapidly growing sector.
“The whole process of how to be a sound designer, over the past 20 or 30 years, has changed a lot,” says Bjørn Jacobsen, sound designer at Cujo Sound. “Whereas you would previously be the guy who was only creating content, and then someone else with more experience of the engine or setups like an audio programmer would implement your stuff.
“The job of being a sound designer is now more and more containing the need for sound designers to do their own implementation, which means that implementation and the way the sound actually behaves is becoming part of the design process.”
“Certainly with the development of middleware, that has certainly given us more creative freedom,” says Andy Gibson, audio director at Rev Rooms. “Without relying on other members of the team so much, we can now use parameters and make the sound react in ways that we want. The constraints are becoming fewer and fewer, with faster CPUs and more hardware space, we’re able to add more variety and certainly more quality to the audio nowadays.”
As the panel points out, games are beginning to understand that the way audio behaves needs to be tailored specifically to the game in question.
“Context is everything,” says Dominic Vega, lead sound designer at Avalanche Studios Group. “So something like in Counter-Strike where it’s more competitive in nature, those decisions are a little bit more focused on sending information to the player – whereas in open world games we might be doing something completely different, like driving context.”
That context can have vital uses in gameplay – for instance in games like Counter-Strike, or more recently Call of Duty Warzone, listening out to enemy footsteps can be crucial to survival. And being able to dictate when the player is able to hear those footsteps is easier than ever.
“So do those footsteps matter?” Vega continues. “If the player is driving past in a car, probably not. And making those decisions on the fly is a relatively new feature that we can use, both within our middlewares and then also within our custom engines that let us pick and choose when that stuff is important.”
Audio may have gained traction over the past few years, but the panel of experts noted that it is still often the last consideration in post-production, with graphics often still taking priority.
“I think that sound has always been the very last piece of the puzzle when it comes to post production” says Jacobsen. “It’s always been like that, even when video games were not a thing. And I think that even though we’re gaining traction and we’re gaining respect in terms of how production actually works, I doubt that it will ever change.
“We probably all know people who say sound is super important, we’ve all worked on productions where that sentence was uttered. But in the end, it turned out that graphics were more important. I think that human aspect will mean that hearing will always be considered less important than vision for some reason. Even though without sound vision isn’t the same. And without vision sound isn’t the same. They both support each other.”
“I totally agree,” adds Gibson. “It’s always been the last in line for post production. But in the last few years especially, we’ve got more storage space on hard disks. Space and processing was always a problem, but they can’t use that excuse against us anymore, because there’s plenty of space and there’s plenty of processing.
“I also think, as the industry grows, the audio teams are getting bigger. There’s more audio people with passion that will fight harder and push the importance of audio forward in games. And I think now games are on a level pegging with Hollywood. So the expectation as a final product, if people value audio or not, it has to be there. It’s slowly but surely getting there but it’s kind of an uphill fight. But we’ll keep going.”
One problem with audio is that it’s harder to showcase in bite-sized, social media friendly snippets.
“I think it’s also something in the medium, that it’s hard to showcase sound,” says Martin Kvale, sound designer at NokNokAudio. “When you have people writing about games, you can’t really show audio snippets in a magazine. When you have people reviewing it on social media or YouTube, that is also kind of hard because they’re talking over it all the time. It’s a bit harder to showcase versus a picture.”
Though it does need to be pointed out that, while audio is becoming more recognised in PC and console games, it’s a very different story in the mobile space.
“I guess with triple-A games that are scaled down to mobile, I think it’s easier to get people to put on their headphones” says Kvale. “But I think with small games, we’re kind of assuming that a lot of people will never hear the sounds. At least my work will be there, so once they put it on hopefully they will want to keep it on. I make it quite entertaining and pleasurable and just make it like a nice little space, with the option of putting music on and off because I think a lot of people want to have music on in the background.”
Players muting a game’s audio is a challenge that can be overcome, however, with some creative thinking.
“I worked EVE Online, and we had statistics that 70 per cent of the players weren’t even playing with sound on,” says Jacobsen. “Which means that when you try to ask for more funding, you realise that you are talking to only, like 20 or 30 per cent of all the players. So sound is not important at all.
“So what we did was that we tried to make a tactical advantage, make it part of the game design. You could hear what guns the opponent was firing, what armour they’re wearing, what you’re wearing, what type of damage you’re taking yourself. Of course, not overdoing it so that deaf people couldn’t play the game – But we tried to add these tactical elements to the game.
“And suddenly, it was really important for a lot of players to have sound on because then they found out that it was really important. Game designers started to come to us in the sound design department and ask, ‘how can we put focus on this specific element without adding something graphical in the corner?’ It was like they realised all of a sudden that sound can actually inform people quite subtly, without having some giant fireworks in the corner saying ‘click here.’ It was really nice.”
So that’s the journey audio has taken in our industry up to this point. But what of the future? How do the panel expect their jobs to change in the coming years?
“I certainly think it’s gonna change,” says Vega. “I think we’re already seeing this happen in the industry. But I think with the democratisation of tools and technology, the size, scale, and the cinematic quality of games is going to continue to grow. I also think because that bar of entry is lowering on the tools and technology side, there’s gonna be a lot of talented sound artists who are able to enter into games.
“People are going to start actively paying more attention to audio. And that demand for high quality audio is going to stretch just not just from the top tier, triple-A console games, but all the way down into indie, one person audio teams. And I’m really excited about that.”
“I think we’ve sort of transcended the comparisons with films now,” says Gibson.
“The games audio space certainly seems to be more exciting, We have more options to do more with it. It’s not just a linear thing anymore, we can totally go off-piste with creativity.”