In 2016, the soundtrack of a video game is becoming as important as gameplay. What are some of the best tools for the job?
As technology creates more immersive game experiences, audio has an increasingly vital role in driving player engagement.
Sound creates emotional narrative and supports physical player-activity through acoustics to inform spatial awareness as well as providing important aural feedback on gameplay. In short, in-game audio touches everything.
“Sound is the underestimated but vital element of computer game design,” claims Lucy Prebble of The Guardian. “It’s audio that has distilled a game’s essence for me over the years.”
Many would agree. It’s a complex mix and no game would be complete without delivering a full-range of experience to the senses. Along with all the other demands of game development, what are the most effective tools to achieve audio success? We asked to some industry specialists to find out.
Col Walder, senior audio programmer at CD Projekt Red told us: “I think the modern middleware for audio is a great first stop for someone wanting to step up their soundtrack. At CD Projekt Red, we use Wwise and it’s really powerful for our sound designers to realise their vision”.
Robert Bantin, principal audio programmer at Codemasters agrees: “For the excessive number of sound sources and game syncs it can handle, the authoring tool, the plug-in API, and the technical support, I’m very happy with Audiokinetic’s Wwise middleware. I’ve yet to find a similar solution that’s as ‘industrial strength’ as Wwise."
Ian Macbeth of independent studio Resonant Sound Design concurs: “The No.1 audio implementation tool for me has to be Wwise. I especially love being able to make a looping event with automatic crossfades from a bunch of randomly chosen samples. The ability to shape your own envelopes for volumes, LPF and reverb send levels are also hugely useful."
MacBeth also considers other tools depending on what effects you are trying to achieve.
“Reaktor is great for UI and other abstract sounds. Sound Particles looks like being cool for this kind of stuff, too. For creatures, maybe Dehumanizer. As for DAWS, I prefer Reaper to the industry standard Pro Tools now, for some of the features that are more useful to game audio designers – batch rendering regions, for example."
Cross-platform capability has become very important in 2016 and one of the greatest challenges is making sure game audio works across different environments. Wwise supports at least five game engines and no less than fourteen platforms to date. However, close rival Fmod claims to be “the industry leading cross-platform audio middleware solution that has shipped in over 2,000 games over the past 15 years”.
These two names are the most prevalent techs we see at Amiqus on the CVs and job specs in the audio world.
“FMOD vs Wwise has become like Coke vs. Pepsi – both are cool, refreshing and sure to fill most of your game audio middleware needs,” declares Gameaudio101.
Matt Simmonds, audio director at VR specialist NDreams offers a production perspective: "Whilst it’s useful to be able to interchange projects between individuals, some teams prefer a more flexible approach where members can work with their tools of choice rather than a fixed workflow from the director.
"By using middleware that favours multiple users – such as WWise or Fmod – a lot of the production work on assets can be put together outside of the creation tools, giving the team a common work-flow for working on the game but still allowing each member freedom to create with their own tool sets. There are exceptions though – for example, having a common tool-chain for heavily iterative work, such as cutscenes, can be a real benefit."
According to our conversations, endorsements for Wwise middleware come from right across the board, but CD Projekt RED’s Col Walder believes that tech tools on their own can only take you so far.
“To really take it to the next level though, add in a dedicated audio programmer on top of that middleware to build some custom tech for your game," he says. "That can really help you stand out from the crowd."
In addition to the high-tech tools, Codemaster’s Bantin has advice for a low-tech option: “I get a lot of mileage out of Microsoft Excel, in particular the add-in called the Analysis Toolpak. It’s crazy that hardly anyone knows it’s there.
"I’ve used Excel to design adaptive curves, derive filter coefficients, process data from CPU profiling – it’s just so immediate, and because the file format is so well known the documents I make are easily shared."
No matter how much tech is used however, the complex balance of audio experience ultimately addresses the human senses. Tom Hoggins, video games editor of the Telegraph agrees, pointing out “mixing is part art and part science".
"The art is in guiding the player’s ear so they’re hearing whatever is most important relative to what they’re seeing on a moment to moment basis," he writes.
Finally, Ian MacBeth also reminds us that tech-tools aside, the human element is a key component “at the end of the day your ears and a great imagination are the best tools for any sound designer”.