Everyone talks about game graphics, but the true challenge for next generation games is audio, says Rob Bridgettâ?¦

Designing for Next-Gen Game Audio

For a long time there has been a trend in narrative console games towards sounding as good as film. What exactly does ‘sounding as good as film’ mean? Is it simply technically being able to do the same things that film does at the same resolution?

In the previous generation of consoles, memory has been sparse enough to impact on the sample-rates, or ‘perceived quality’ of the audio content. It is certainly the case now, with advancements in audio compression that sample rates can now rival those of a film soundtrack on the PS3 and 360.

Again with limited memory on previous-generation consoles, the amount of sounds that could physically be played at any one time was strictly limited. It is also now the case that more sounds can be played simultaneously than they could on previous generation consoles.

Not only this, but now software DSP such as reverbs and high/low-pass filters can be run and tweaked at run-time, rather than relying on crude, hard-wired reverbs that ship with the development kit.

With more sophisticated mixing and post-production techniques now being used in the development of sound for cinematic-game titles there is also the opportunity to use sound in such a way that it can focus very clearly on particular sounds at particular moments in game-play by reducing, or removing, unnecessary sounds using real-time interactive mixers.

It appears that game sound designers finally have, more or less, all the technical tools in their arsenal that film sound designers have. We have already seen many fine examples of this on the 360, higher sample rates, more sounds playing etc.

However, this is where games, and indeed many motion-pictures, hit the proverbial brick-wall in terms of sound because story, and more pertinently game-play, must be designed for sound from the ground-up. There is an aesthetic/collaborative issue at the heart of being more like film, and it is something that arguably game sound can do better than film sound.

The movie sound designer Randy Thom has often very lyrically stated that a movie must be designed for sound, rather than the other way around. This essentially means that a sound designer, or a director who cares and allows opportunities for sound to be used well in a film, should be involved as early as possible (meaning the pre-production period) in the story-telling elements of the movie. Although still frustratingly uncommon among movies, game sound can certainly learn, and improve a great deal from this practice as there are often full-time, in-house sound personnel physically sitting in the building at the time of pre-production.

There prevails an attitude among game designers and producers that sound’s job is to work miracles quickly and cheaply at the end of production with little or no collaboration whatsoever. One such core-principle in designing a movie for sound is allowing the characters to listen to their environment and to hear things, essentially to give the characters ‘ears’. This allows the sound designer to exploit more creative opportunities using the point-of-view of a character.

Narrative games certainly have strong characters, and many of them often have very identifiable points-of-view. It is now a real challenge for sound designers to become involved and become more influential in the early story-boarding stages and early game design concepts. In many ways the potential for point-of-view is much stronger in games than in movies. I believe that in order to change this trend it is up to us as sound personnel to be the ones who push for further involvement in pre-production on game titles, after-all it is not just going to happen on its own overnight.

There are now so many ways of manipulating sound available to game sound designers, all they need is a game that really welcomes and relies on sound to form 33% and often up to 90% of the game play. There certainly isn’t the game equivalent of a movie like Apocalypse Now out there right now, which was a movie that arguably allowed the most opportunities of any 20th century cinema for sound to come in and tell at least half of the story.

Perhaps the biggest area of challenge for audio on next generation cinematic titles, and indeed for all development disciplines, is to become much more interweaved with one another from the earliest planning stages of game design both technically and aesthetically.

Pre-production is typically a very quiet time for sound personnel on a video game project, perhaps being involved in some ‘look and feel’ movie material for green-light meetings is the extent of the workload. However, try to re-conceive of this as potentially your most productive and collaborative time on a project. My advice is:

1. Ensure that sound is clearly represented at all the pre-production game design meetings, particularly early story concepts. Think about how sound will change over the course of the story, and how to deliver these changes in terms of game play.

2. Ensure sound is represented at all early technical meetings in terms of art pipelines such as animation. Sound should be considered not only aesthetically but also technically as an integral part of any art asset or any animation. In dialogue, consider driving character animation from sound, rather than having to retro-fit sounds to match the animations. The direction for how a character looks, sounds and feels should be a collaborative direction invested in by everyone involved in it’s creation.

3. Be present at story board meetings in order to have input on how scenes play-out, work closely with the DP in allowing opportunities for dialogue to feel natural and also allow for the characters to ‘hear’ things and interact with sounds within cinematic scenes.

4. Be in as many game design meetings as possible, in essence, at this stage it would be most beneficial to be considered part of the design team by the designers. Consider sound as part of any game play device or feature, and how it functions. Always allow for, and state the case for, sound to lead the game play.

5. Be pro-active! Get out of the studio. Remember it is very rare for game designers, animation artists etc to come to you looking for your input on the design of a feature, they usually only manage to find your studio when they need something from you, i.e. when they have finished the art or design and now need to make it sound good, at which point it is often too late. Take a laptop and sit among the game designers or artists for a few weeks, be visible on the team and a vocal sounding board for ideas.

6. Collaboration. Most importantly, remember this is not about your ego! As a sound artist you are collaborating with artists, designers and producers in getting what is best for the game, be prepared to listen to other’s opinions as well as expecting others to listen to yours. It is collaboration that is often the key missing ingredient from sound, game design and art pipelines in the current development environment.

Rob Bridgett is currently sound director at Birmingham-based Swordfish Studios. Prior to that he spent four years as sound director at Radical Entertainment in Vancouver, where he was responsible for the audio on Scarface: The World Is Yours (2006). He has also worked on World in Conflict (2007), Timeshift (2007), Crash of the Titans (2007) Sudeki (2003), Serious Sam: Next Encounter (2004) and Dreamcast racer Vanishing Point (2001).

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