AUDIO SPECIAL: The audio industry's household name talks games

Dolbyâ??s Dominance

It’s the daddy in the cinema world, but Dolby isn’t letting up on its push into games. Michael French talks to Jane Gillard, senior marketing manager of PC and Games for Europe, to find out more…

What changes in the way games are developed has driven Dolby to become more and more involved in games?
Dolby’s involvement in video games started back in 1994 with King Arthur’s World on SNES, the first ever game title to feature Dolby Surround. Since then we’ve continued to leverage our expertise and heritage in high audio quality to elevate the gaming experience. From a console perspective, we saw a massive leap forward with the introduction of the next generation consoles.

The Xbox was the first console to incorporate real time Dolby Digital encoding, followed by the Xbox 360 and PS3. Dolby Digital revolutionised the audio opportunities for developers and now we see games on the market with in-game surround closely resembling that of the biggest Hollywood movies – this step change has been incredible and a huge leap forward. Changes like this have enabled developers to bring a truly compelling surround sound experience to their games.

Also, the transformation of consoles – the PS3 for example – into connected devices has enabled us to extend the roll out of our Blu-ray audio portfolio to the hi-def audio savvy gaming community. It is fantastic that gamers can now experience all of their entertainment – be it games, movies or music – in full Dolby surround sound and get full value from their surround sound rigs.

Probably the most dramatic change we have witnessed in the last decade is online games. Our latest offering, Dolby Axon, is a high quality 3D voice solution built from the groud up specifically for online games.

What brought about Dolby’s move into online gaming?
Online gaming has become a huge phenomenon and we see voice communication as a vital part of the experience. Talking to developers, we heard a lot of complaints about online audio quality: players using mono headsets, bad sounding mics, poor quality codecs and people with audio levels set too high or too low were all causing headaches. We saw this as a perfect opportunity to solve an industry problem.

Also, with Dolby Axon we can surround-pan voices, associating them with game avatars in a believable way. We can take occlusions into account so if someone goes behind a wall, you’ll no longer hear them – until you blow the wall out and they are full volume again. And we have distance attenuation – if someone moves away from you, their voice gets quieter.

Are there any specific things developers are requesting from Dolby to help further improve the audio in their games?
There are two things that jump out here. The first is that loudness has become a bigger issue in games. Developers are looking to Dolby for guidance on volume levels in games, and we are able to draw on our experience in both the cinema and broadcast sectors to help the industry move towards common best practices.

Second, we have heard in the past from the development community that they want height channels for their games. We recently rolled out Dolby Pro Logic IIz, which places two height speakers in the living room. Game developers can now encode their games with height channels, opening up a whole new dimension of game play.

Do you think audio in games has been underappreciated at all?
We are in awe of game audio teams as we understand the sustained effort, creativity and commitment it takes to deliver an immersive audio experience. Perhaps the most underappreciated aspect of game audio is that it must be created and mixed in real time depending on the actions from the players in the game. Once a movie is mixed, it is played back the same way time after time. Most games will never sound the same even twice.

We definitely feel that game audio has been long overshadowed by graphics, but things are improving and it is great to see more and more publishers using full orchestral recordings and professional effects in their games. This has been commonplace for years in cinema and Hollywood has tradionally had a better appreciation of the important role that audio plays in delivering a great entertainment experience. As game developers want to raise the bar, then they will need to ensure that their audio teams get the proper resources and exposure.

 From a media and marketing perspective, it is horribly disappointing when we read a review or an advert for a game that makes no mention of the audio – particularly when we know the amount of time and effort that the audio crew for that game put in to make the game sound great, which happens far too often. Game audio definitely deserves more column inches and audio teams need a lot more love.

What areas of gameplay does Dolby Pro Logic IIz improve? And, similarly, how does it help during development?
Dolby Pro Logic IIz, is an extension of the Dolby Pro Logic II algorithm that introduces front height channels, creating a 7.1- or 9.1-channel playback system – or it can be applied to a 5.1 set up too. Extensive listening sessions have established that adding a height dimension to a home theater system brings an enhanced sense of depth and realism to the listening experience.

People are also far more sensitive to directional cues from sounds occurring in front than from those behind, determining that front height speaker placement is ideal.
The aim of the technology is to bring a whole new level of realism to game play by enabling gamers to really experience helicopters, gunfire, and rain overhead. The enhanced spatial effects bring an overall airiness to the listening experience; a new dimension of presence and depth. And for games developers, the added dimension increases the realism and immerses players more deeply than ever in the action.

Most gamers don’t have surround sound systems – so do developers address making games for both audiences with and without that technology?
According to IDC, 48 per cent of gamers were connecting their consoles to a surround sound system in 2008. This is a considerable percentage and is still on the increase, particularly amongst hardcore gamers who truly appreciate the competitive advantage that audio brings to their gaming experience.

From our perspective, the most important thing is that consumers and gamers enjoy the best possible audio experience for all of their entertainment, from any device and the freedom to tailor their listening experience. So for those that don’t have the space, or inclination for full-on surround sound, it is great that there’s an increasing availability of surround sound headphones, 2.1 surround sound systems and soundbars for example. It’s also fantastic to see device manufacturers raising the bar for audio quality on products that don’t have a heritage of producing great sound such as laptops, netbooks and mobile phones. Dolby is all about the best audio entertainment experience, so any development that supports that is great by us.

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