Audio Chief - Part 2

In the previous part of our chat with Bungie audio director Marty O'Donnell, we talked about the big divestment and the history of game audio. In this part, we talk about comparing games to films and O'Donnell's personal thoughts on outsourcingâ?¦
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Do you think that game audio is still seen as being amateur, like it’s still bleeps and bloops?

There’s a load of game composers that do spectacular work, and sound design in games is getting better and better. It’s funny – we’re working with some of Peter Jackson’s Weta guys, and when they came to talk to us they were so interested to find out how we did sound design in real-time in a game. They’re used to doing everything linearly as a film, and they can’t figure out how we’re doing this stuff. It’s interesting – even some of the best sound guys in film are fascinated by some of the technology that the game audio community has developed over the last ten years. It used to be that we were little cousins of the film industry, and now in terms of the aesthetic and technology, we’re right up there with them.

People are always comparing games to movies, and soundtracks are no exception. Do you think that kind of comparison is correct?

No, I think it’s incorrect, that’s actually a mistake. At Bungie, and probably a lot of other studios, we’re not looking to make games more like films. From a production standpoint, you want to be as polished as a film can be, but we’re making completely different experiences. We want to surpass whatever films do for people. And, according to some article I saw recently, some people are blaming Halo for diminished September film revenue – I’m sure it’s not true, but it’s pretty funny to see it!

When you ape something, I don’t care what you’re doing – you’ve made a mistake if you’re trying to sound like something that’s already been done. But I don’t think there’s anything about a music style that is indigenous to games – like games should sound this way, films should sound this way. There’s a lot of films that have full-blown orchestral scores that could just have had an acoustic guitar or a mouth organ or something. I just like the idea that we can choose whatever we want, whatever style, what’s important is that we’re making an experience for games.

Halo was the ‘killer app’ for Dolby 5.1 – how was it designing for surround sound for the first time?

Well, I’m glad I got hired by Bungie and that we got bought by Microsoft when we did, because when we all came over to Seattle the 5.1 hardware wasn’t in the box yet. I remember them promising that we could do real-time surround sound, and I said it was impossible – you can’t do real-time surround! – and then they showed me the technology. But for that whole summer, the hardware wasn’t in the box, and there was a point where the engineers said “Sorry, Marty, but w’re not going to be able to support 5.1 surround in Halo because we can’t test it.”

So I went over and pounded on one of the hardware guys’ desk and pleaded. “You’ve got to put this hardware in here, this is why I’m here!” And I did the same with the engineers, begged them to let me have 5.1 surround. So it was good that I was inside, because if I’d just been a contractor they’d have given me the specs and I’d have done it. But being internal meant that I could do whatever I had to make sure Halo was in surround.

And a lot of the time people would say “but who even owns a surround sound system?” but I really believed that this would sell them. That’s the point! It was a great experience, because we could think about really immersing the player in 360 degrees of sound, which we’d never been able to do before.

It’s still the case that most audio is outsourced – do you think that anything is lost by having this process external?

That’s really interesting, actually, because Alex Seropian [one of Bungie’s original founders] and I used to have discussions about this all the time. I could tell he was always fascinated by the Hollywood model, but I kept saying to him that I didn’t know how that would work in this industry. At some point, the game business has to mature enough where you could just have a house of game animation specialists or lighting specialists, all working with a core team that owns the IP – a bit like an Alfred Hitchcock, you know, he writes the script, storyboards it and is the director, but hires in for everything else.

That will still possibly the sort of thing that makes sense from a business and creative standpoint as things need to be more and more specialised. But I don’t think we’ve hit that yet. I still think there’s an advantage to having the whole team together, because there’s so much technology that’s being developed simultaneously to the game being developed. The technology hasn’t anywhere as near crystallised enough to where you could have specialists who know that they have a stable platform that they know they can be the best on.

You’ll have heard this before, but it’s like every time we make a new game, it’s like making a new movie and inventing a new camera at the same time. It still feels that way. Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft are doing three very different kinds of things, and then there’s the PC. So you’ve got all this hardware, and it’s hard for the developer to get everyone together working on the same problems at the same time.

The camera analogy is a good one, and it’s still certainly the case with audio engines. Do you think that once this development has levelled off that we’ll see big improvements in audio design?

Yeah. I think we’re still in that first stage – maybe the second – of the maturing of the industry, where there’s still a lot of technology still crystallising but there’s still lots of process and techniques that have not really finalised. We’re still doing things and going ‘Gee, I wonder if this’ll work’, just from an aesthetic standpoint, and some things will work and others won’t.

We look at other people’s projects, and we’ll be really impressed with something they’ve done, but it’s not a piece of tech, it’s a way of approaching the experience. We’re still at an early stage of maturing of the craft of game making. At some point things will crystallise a little more, and it won’t be about solving the big problems, it’ll just be little ones.

Part one of our interview with Marty O'Donnell can be found here. Keep tuned to for our exclusive chat with Bungie studio manager Harold Ryan, coming tomorrow.


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