The raw power for audio in new console technology is unparalleled in the history of game development. And the importance of the aural experience is increasingly recognised and reflected in game budgets for orchestral recording, movie-quality sound, premium acting talent and even mixing in film studios.
But lurking in the shadows is a problem that has plagued audio creatives since the ‘80s: a severe and growing lack of audio programmers to harness that power. They are the keyholders to next-gen audio – so how can the industry fill these important gaps in game development teams?
HEARING THE FUTURE
“Audio programming is still seen as the least glamorous area of coding. Finding good people can be really tough,” says Nick Laviers, EA’s senior audio director. “Audio has been seen as a coding career cul-de-sac but we’re working hard to change that perception.”
This is a significant business issue, which Laviers appreciates. He’s been with EA since 1995, starting as a programmer specialising in audio, but immediately became involved in sound design alongside his programming duties. In 1997 he became manager of EA’s audio department and has to date overseen audio production for 27 titles, his team since having won two BAFTAs for their work. Key productions have included the Harry Potter and Burnout games, which required at least three audio programmers.
“Different phases of development require different resourcing, but when we’re in full production and finaling the game, we’re struggling with anything less than three – one for game runtime tech, one doing tools and one on integration,” he says.
“Of course, sometimes we just have to corral coders from other areas – but that’s far from ideal. If you’re not changing your tools and codebase between iterations of a game, you can probably get away with less people, but we’re usually trying to improve things.”
Those significant rebuilds require quality audio coding time – even with company-wide shared technology. “It’s great to have a cross-platform low level library on a plate, but it’s rarely a case of just dropping it in – interfacing work is needed to get it up and running.”
According to Laviers, there’s a widespread misconception that all game audio programming ever amounts to is creating a run-time library on top of something like Direct Sound and a tool to add sound FX – plus implementing zillions of ‘hooks’. “In reality, the job now entails much, much more – interactive music tools and tech, speech tools and tech – to help us get the dialogue playback responding to characters and situations really naturally, and this kind of dovetails into AI programming. We need increasingly sophisticated mixing tools and technology, with accompanying DSP plug-ins – 3D spatialisation, distortion, filtering, multi-band compression and the like. Then there’s proprietary tech for modeling car engines and real-time synthesis engines, spatialisation techniques and surround sound encoding – the list goes on. Next-gen is in its infancy and we’ll be doing heaps more with run-time signal processing.”
This emphasis on tools and tech underlines the significant role that audio programmers have, says Laviers: “They need to be forward looking, envisioning our future tools and systems. Moving forward, we are going to need a more powerful toolset with a real maturity of design and much longer lifespan – no more tri-yearly tech-trashing.”
So, beyond the obvious hard skills (C++, math, physics of sound and 3D audio, knowledge of signal processing), what makes a great audio programmer?
“We want people who are passionate – if you can see that they live and breathe it, they’re a good prospect. They need a Computer Science degree and ideally, some relevant research experience which demonstrates an in-depth understanding of some element of audio technology. However, if they can program well, an Electronics or Physics degree may be equally useful. While being a total game-head isn’t strictly necessary, they do need to be fascinated by the way games work and how they fit together. A keen interest in the creative aspects of sound design is no bad thing but a passion for programming can never play second fiddle – it’s one or the other.
“Naturally, they’ve got to be comfortable working in a team with a ‘can-do’, ‘muck-in’ kind of attitude. The work isn’t always about flexing amazing programming muscles – sometimes we just have to knuckle down and get a game out of the door.”
But Laviers readily concedes that finding his ideal candidate is far from easy: “Our general mainstay is trawling the standard industry recruitment channels and just asking around. Personal networking is very important, as is building relationships with universities – we’ve sourced good programmers that way. It’s an investment that takes time to bear fruit so I’m hopeful it will yield well for us in the future, too.”
Meanwhile, can the industry look further afield for fresh talent?
Laviers believes that one possible source of tomorrow’s audio coders is the pro audio scene. “I would love to think we could bring people in from other industries who could teach us a thing or two. When I was at university studying Computer Science and Electronic Music, quite a few of my contemporaries were into sound and gravitated towards pro audio jobs – writing algorithms for Waves or Sensaura or whoever. The problem with these folks is that they are often part of a tight-knit R&D nucleus creating core IP for their companies – a cool gig – so pulling them into games might be too big an ask right now.
“Still, the prospect of next-gen game technology could change that, providing we communicate that the future of game audio programming isn’t what they would see as ‘grunt work’ – actually it’s developing very sophisticated, exciting audio technology for mass-market entertainment products.”
A CLEAR PATH
Thankfully, the higher profile of sound in games generally is starting to help attract the right people. Audio is generally much more recognised as a vital component of the gaming experience by our peers, but nevertheless the industry still needs to invest much more in this area. With larger companies doing so, Laviers predicts a telling time ahead: “If smaller studios think they can get away without more dedicated audio staff, there may come a time when consumers start to hear the difference – that’s when they’ll realise how far they are behind the leaders in the field.”
Retaining the right people also requires a path for their progression to more senior positions where they will identify and plan for future business needs in their area, perhaps co-ordinating a group of people to meet those needs, and perhaps bringing in external resources as necessary. This is a scenario where juniors will be implementing all those game hooks whilst their (hopefully) inspiring audio tech bosses are orchestrating technology solutions.
Says Laviers: “We just haven’t been offering enough career possibilities for programmers in audio until now. Even our job adverts need to look different – we need to amply demonstrate the real and unique value we place on what I hope will be increasingly seen as an engaging, challenging and desirable role – and a growth area for the future.”