Develop speaks to Wave Studios about bringing filmic-quality sound to games

Audio Special: Lights, microphone, action

[This feature was published in the May 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad.]

It will surprise nobody in this business that many games developers long for cinematic audio in their games.

Games makers have for many years tried to match pace with the film industry, keen to deliver products that rival the silver screen’s knack for drama and immersion.

And as games’ visual and aural potential is constantly bolstered by new hardware, middleware and methodology, it seems like a reasonable ambition.

But for audio production specialist Wave, which serves the film, advertising and games sectors, it’s clear that the reality of cinematic sound in games requires a distinct and considered approach.

While Wave has seen vast improvements in developer’s expectations of what can be done with games, many times the team there has been greeted by clients naïve to the fact that achieving cinematic audio requires an approach quite different to that of Hollywood’s.


“What I hear all the time now is that developers want their games to sound more cinematic, and they want to give their games a feel of being a film through sound,” explains Wave’s head of game audio games Anthony Matchett (main image).

“The problem with that is that a game is not a film; it’s an interactive medium. If you take a film, it requires 90 minutes or two hours that’s completely linear from start to finish. With a game, you don’t have that luxury, and that’s where the differences arise.”

Instead of people wanting their games to sound like films, says Matchett, what they should really be striving for is for the audio in games to have the same level of quality as film. It’s a subtle difference, but one that demands a tailored approach utterly different from that adopted by cinema.

“I think the biggest difference in terms of the production process is that game sound is played ‘live’ from a games engine, or at least the bulk of it is,” offers Wave co-founder and co-owner Jonnie Burn (left), who has worked on some of Wave’s most high profile film work.

“Although those engines are extraordinarily complex and well developed, they still lack a little in allowing you to give the audio quite the finesse you’d give to a film.”

But any potential shortcomings are perhaps just a symptom of a bigger problem, rather than a cause. In the world of film, ample portions of time and budget are assigned to sound.

Contrast that to games, where audio teams still have to fight for resource, and the problem becomes clear. The time given to craft a film score is often many times that typical of the games business, meaning less hours to produce more content, ultimately resulting in a diminished opportunity to refine.

“What’s more, with a film when you work on the audio, the sound is the only thing you’re changing when you do change the sound,” states Burn.


Fortunately, Wave is confident that much can now be done to match the aural quality found in films.

“The crucial differences is that with a game you’re constantly putting yourself and your audio work in the hands of the player,” states Matchett. “So, if you want that cinematic sound you can’t just copy the film industry approach. You have to make the right sound choices, and consider how the player’s actions might bring different sounds together.

“There’s also the way the sound needs to react to every possible kind of eventuality the player can create, rather than that linear series of events seen in film. You really need to put a lot of thought and time in.”

That particularly applies to games VO, says Matchett, where the attitude still persists in some corners that the process can be rushed through with corners cut.

Wave is optimistic that more can be done. Matchett and Burn believe that attitudes continue to change, and more studios are beginning to understand the time and effort needed to parallel, if not match, cinematic sound. And Wave’s expertise across every facet of both games’ and films’ audio production means that they can do much to help with the process.

“It’s really as simple as doing the mix in a good sounding room, using nice mics and monitoring speakers,” concludes Matchett, who points to Dice’s work on its titles’ audio as proof that the best studios do understand great audio.

“Finally the games industry is starting to realise the effort needed to give games good sound,” he concludes.

To see other articles in our Audio Special series, visit our archive

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