At this year’s Game Awards, Dragon Age: Inquisition won both Game of the Year and RPG of year – thanks, in no small part, to a crack audio clan delivering an epic production. With 42 massive levels, 834 characters, 82,000 lines of dialogue and 33,000 sound effects (let alone more than 100 minutes of music), the scope is mind-blowing.
For audio directors Jeremie Voillot and Michael Kent, Inquisition’s key challenges centered on creating a dynamic, believable soundscape to immerse the player in Thedas, while hitting BioWare quality across the massive scale of content the player encounters.
This duo’s unique eight-year professional relationship is characterised, they say, by deep understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. On both Inquisition and its predecessor they’ve shared the lead role; Kent focusing on creative matters and Voillot the technical mastermind.
“Working as a leadership team has led to some outstanding audio results,” says Voillot. “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts and we’ve really learned when to push and pull, delegating ownership and challenging each other on goals.
“Very early, we hammered out the creative and technical vision, meaning we could create lots of content during pre-production, sometimes just using pictures as inspiration. That helped ready us for the inevitable onslaught.”
Kent adds: “Defining audio guidelines upfront was key. Locking down a composer, even figuring out what microphone would achieve our dialogue direction – it all helped. We broke things down into distinct audio areas assigned to specific individuals who really took ownership.
“For some signature sounds, like the dragons and the Fade’s overall aesthetic, it’s important I creatively lock down early, providing the team a strong steer as they iterate on content later.”
The entire game was migrated to the Frostbite engine, providing Voillot’s main challenge: liaising with audio programmers to harness the ‘awesome power’ and audio functionality of the famed tech for an RPG.
“It’s not simple,” he explains. “FPS requirements differ a great deal from an RPG. Procedural systems became central, as handling the sheer amount of work on a title like ours with older methods and workflows isn’t an option. I pushed very hard on as many systemic solutions as possible. Removing some key rote tasks – tagging animations or placing sound emitters – meant freeing up guys to focus on what mattered more: amazing sounds.
“A great side effect from these tools was removing art team dependencies, allowing them to iterate right until we shipped. This improved the audio team’s morale and our relationship with other departments.”
Whether it’s for the ‘grounded, saturated, heavy’ combat audio, the creature audio, the environment sounds, the detailed foley or the UI, Kent and Voillot cannot speak too highly of their team.
“We had semi-procedural systems, but to maximise their fullest potential we needed people to create new styles of dynamic content – whilst painstakingly hand-scripting key story moments,” says Voillot.
Kent adds: “We had a very strong team behind us on this project; you could really feel that during the final months. Normally it’s a bit chaotic, but these guys really had it under control. We were the first BioWare project to use our new mix theatre built last year – a huge improvement.”
Last but not least, the soundtrack had a new addition: composer Trevor Morris, an intentional direction change from previous DA games, to bring a new emotional flavour to the franchise. Voillot and Kent couldn’t be happier with the results.
Reflecting on the overall effort, Voillot speaks for Kent, himself and the team: “It’s incredibly difficult and humbling working on a project of this enormity. I guess the thing that helped most – both in the creative and technical realms – was preparation.”