Would any of you turn off music in a movie if you could? And even worse, turn on some random pop music that has absolutely nothing to do with what's happening on screen? Why do it in a game then? Composers and sound designer put a lot of effort into their work for a reason. It is supposed to match what you are experiencing visually and emotionally.
Kevin VanOrd explores how MMOG developers use sound effects and music to bring persistent worlds to life.
Game audio. You might only notice it when it’s really bad, and possibly, when it’s really good. And yet audio is as vital a part of most games as are visuals, drawing us into entire universes with the sounds of footsteps, the calls of birds, and the strains of orchestras. Last year, I explored the creativity and passion that goes into creating a massive online world. More recently, I asked several developers about the role of audio in a massively multiplayer space. In part one of our two-part feature, audio designers and composers share with us the arduous, imaginative, and rewarding process of making worlds come to life.
Unsurprisingly, it begins at the beginning.
While art directors are working on a visual style and writers are fleshing out the narrative, audio directors, too, prefer to start their work during the pre-production phase. Everyone I spoke to agreed that this is the ideal circumstance, but it was also a general consensus that we don’t live in this perfect world. Funcom audio director Simon Poole says, “There are many tech/stylistic decisions that need to be decided early on so that when full production commences everything is being produced and implemented in the optimum way for the project. In reality that doesn’t always happen, and although not nearly as common as it was 10 years ago, it can be that audio is tacked on at the last minute almost as an afterthought. Producers have really wised up in recent years though, and invariably enlist an audio director to get on board a project at the earliest stages possible.”
Michael Henry, audio manager at Cryptic, where he’s busy working on the upcoming Neverwinter, concurs. “The days of development where it was ‘OK, we have our game done, so now let’s go get some sounds for it from a contractor’ are long, long gone. If you look at any AAA title from the past few years that received plaudits or awards for its sound, you’ll find that these games are clearly designed with audio in mind. They are intentionally designed to allow moments where audio will carry the emotion of a scene, or designed with spaces for audio to breathe, shine, and do what is necessary to establish a mood or convey the necessary information to the player. Only by taking into account all of the elements--visuals, audio, gameplay, story--will you create a truly immersive gaming experience.”
'If a part of the narrative should be told through the drama of sound or music we will mix and match each accordingly.' - Stephen DiGregorio
And thus begins the sonic journey from concept to creation. The developer determines what emotional state they wish to put the player in, and sound is the primary vehicle for instilling that emotion. The question at hand: How do you want the player to feel? Poole looks at a theoretical scene as an example: “Imagine a normal suburban residential neighborhood scene at night, nothing out of the ordinary is going on, there’s a few lights on in houses, somebody’s out walking his dog, etc. By adding sound to this scenario you can completely influence how the viewer is experiencing the scene. Light music, laughter, bird song in the background and the viewer feels safe. Ominous music, a dog barking aggressively, something smashing in the background, and the viewer feels that the scene is threatening.”
Henry had similar considerations. Are you shooting for dark and dreary? Sunny and happy? What signature sounds can you create that establish an aural identity? He says, “We often will point to films for reference. The goal is to create a sonic design so recognizable that you would instantly know what game someone is playing even if you can’t see it, simply by hearing the sound.”
Planetside 2 presented its own unique challenges to audio director Rodney Gates. In an online shooter, sound doesn’t just create emotion and atmosphere--it’s an indispensable method of communicating important information to the player. What faction’s vehicles are flying overhead? What faction is shooting you, and from where, and with what weapon? And even: is there an enemy nearby preparing to murder you? “Starting off, you need to be able to move around,” says Gates, “so we began working on creating essential character movement sounds as initial character animations came online. That was closely followed by the first weapon. All of this required a first-person and third-person perspective with the audio. From there we crafted some of our first ambiences for the desert continent, Indar. Things start slow, then grow out horizontally pretty quickly as more and more resources are added to the team and direction is solidified, so we do the same. At a certain point, the tech for things we need to do catches up, and we begin tuning our sounds to that and mixing.”
And so the hard work truly begins. Sounds are assigned to key actions, and directors must decide what noises take precedence in what situations. The solutions aren't the same in each game; audio choices depend on the developer’s focus. Says Henry, “I’ve done racing games where the need for engine sounds are the most crucial thing in order to give the player feedback as to sense of speed, excitement, etc. In an action combat game like Neverwinter, we first focus on the weapon sounds and hit sounds to give people the feel for the experience of intense combat. In other words, the first things we sonify are often the actions that contribute to the core gaming mechanic.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Poole agrees. If the game is focused on combat, that’s what you nail down early on. If vehicles are prominent, you get to work on engine noises from the get-go. And if it’s the new Lego project he’s currently working on at Funcom, the sounds of little plastic figures get the bulk of the attention.
Then comes music--and suddenly audio design gets a lot more complicated.
First, the studio needs to find a composer (or multiple composers), and as Turbine’s director of sound Stephen DiGregorio explains, that can mean distributing the work to multiple individuals, some in house, and some not. “We have in-house composers and outsource some work,” says DiGregorio. “We work extremely closely in all aspects of the sonic landscape to fill it with a balance that emotionally taps the player and brings them deeper into the gameplay. Considerations when balancing music and audio are mainly taken from where we want the effectiveness to come through. If a part of the narrative should be told through the drama of sound or music we will mix and match each accordingly.”
Some of the best music orchestration has been implanted into MMO's from my own perspective. One of the best examples of that is Guild Wars 1 & 2. TERA also has some nice music score for a Korean MMO, especially during major fights.
Sound design has definitely improved in the past half a decade or so. I used to almost always just have Winamp playing my own stuff in the background with just about any game. I find myself giving the in-game music a chance more and more these days, particularly since they have gotten better about syncing it up with gameplay and events going on at any given time.
Although I don't know why you picked MMOs to demonstrate this. They are the furthest behind when it comes to sound design right now imo, compared to other genres. TSW did a pretty nice job with it, but it was certainly no Mass Effect or StarCraft II, or (insert SP RPG here).
Hey guys. Please check out my feature. It's about my perspective on Next-Gen
Leave a comment and let me know what you think. Also, there's free pie!
I'm a game audio student myself (although I was first accepted under the pretense that I was gonna be composing for games and film). but after seeing how many jobs are available in sound design in the game industry, I changed my degree plan to chase a more promising career. writing music to visual cues is actually pretty easy (assuming you're a musician of course), at least easier to me than writing music without them XD. there hasn't been much video game music lately that has seriously "wowed" me other than Hotline Miami..
but considering how prevalent in the audio industry sample-based recording/production is, i don't see how hard it could be to do sound design for games when there are tons of high quality free audio samples available on the internet to use as a starting foundation for whatever sound you're shooting for. I guess what i'm trying to say is that sound designers don't have to synthesize their own sounds from scratch (although that's something we learn in game audio i.e. designing footsteps on different surfaces with software synths and hardware synths), so it isn't as hard as everyone thinks..but i guess a computer programmer could say the same thing about learning C++ eh?
I have yet to play an MMO that used sound to any sort of emotional effect.. Why did you decide to concentrate on MMOs? Games like Mass Effect, Skyrim would have been much better examples of effective sound design.. Anyway sound design, is the least of the problems affecting MMOs at the moment..
MMORPG are the worst and MMO are all the same they are a grind its' about keeping players online and spending money.... IMO MMORG have the least amount ingenuity of any game you will ever play. .
MMO are all about the money. Music and Sound isn't going to make a MMO better.
@megakick Yes. All MMOs are the same :/
Actually, if you play games in the genre, you will come to know that many of these games are remarkably different. In terms of emotional impact, focus, moment-to-moment gameplay, and core interaction, Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World are night and day, for instance.
Also, all games are typically about money. They are artistic expressions too, but you spend money on them so that there might be more games in the future. If you come to games assuming that their makers should not make money for their product, then, well, there's not much more I can say to that I suppose.
a lot of times, i dont even turn speakers on, or another times i play other music in background. i only listen to game's sound effects when its necessary for survival. for example when its nice to hear enemy. usually in pvp but pve as well sometimes. but thats just me anyway.
great music and atmosphere is not a priority imo...most companies cant get gameplay down right and just make safe bets with derrivative gameplay mechanics, i certainly could care less if the music and atmosphere is spectacular but the game itself is just bland, copy cat gameplay..
Kevin, you should definitely write an article about how all MMOs aren't basically the same game over and over! We had an argument once in a thread and it was very interesting to read your thoughts on this premise.
Wait, harmony can change the mood of a song? This is big news, I'm going to have to tell my choir students.
I think I would have to be games that really solidfied my admiration of orchestral music. Some movies got me mildly interested, but games I think did it for me proper. And if I recall, a lot of it was due to composers like Inon Zur and Jeremy Soule in the early 2000's that really brought a lot of emotion through orchestral pieces in some of the early games like Icewind Dale and Morrowind? I really liked this article, I hope there will be more stuff that focuses on game music in the future :)
For racing games they go thru great lengths to get the engine sounds right and yet when I'm racing it starts to irritate me even if the quality is great.
@bigruss51 When I'm playing Forza, not only does the feedback in the controller let me know when my car is on the edge of it's tires about to break traction, but you can hear the slight squeal from the tires in the sounds as well. Not only that, but you can hear your rev's to let you know when to shift, your boost to let you know if you're on top of it in a corner... I don't find it irritating, it's all a need for me to play competitively.
@VeeArSick @bigruss51 Actually Forza doesn't bother me at all and I'm only talking about engine noise. But in Shift 2 I find myself getting irritated almost like when people are having a conversation while you're trying to watch a movie. I can't lower the volume either because I need to hear the other cars. If you're playing competitively then you need a wheel, it cut lap times by 10sec in some cases for me. Idk if there are any good racing wheels for the xbox.
@bigruss51 Sound is more important than VISUALS in a VIDEO game? I'm sorry but there is no video game without the visuals. Just like there are no Potato Chips without Potatoes. However, games may be played without the sound.
I do find sounds very important in games. In fact, my favorite games all have great sound effects, and music. Forza Motorsport 4, Skyrim, and Oblivion, to name a few.
Maybe I took your comment to extreme measures, just sounded funny to me that sound is more important than visuals in a video game.
@VeeArSick @bigruss51 I was referring to quality sound vs quality visuals. Of course you need visuals or there would be no game but whatever, I thought it was understood. My bad. I'm a pc gamer and its always been about the most amazing graphics until people said that I should get a sound card for my pc instead of the integrated one because audio was just as important and since then I've become an audiophile.
Can somebody tells me the games behind the characters in the picture article?
Usually I mute the sound when i play MMOs because nothing is more annoying then when your in a group and all you hear is 5-25 peoples spells mixed together it just sounds like ^&*( .
I have a lot of respect for great sound design. Unfortunately, I find that video games are almost always accompanied by very disagreeable music selections. Turning music off is usually one of the first optional configurations I make. It's similar to my feelings about music in a grocery store. Just turn the shit off. You will never make me happy, I promise. But with games, the sound effects themselves can be quite interesting and enjoyable. Maybe grocery stores can take a lesson from that. Celery bag explosions and modulated can clinks. Or, better, how about the fantasy RPG obligatory background chatter at the inn, featuring loud drunk blather and even louder drink and gulp sounds? Just an idea. Thanks again, Kevin, for an interesting view into the industry.
Yes, this is a great article in regards to the info and everything.
I cannot play a game with the sound muted. It doesn't matter what it is. I just cannot do it! Sound can make or break a game.
I've always had music on. I'm an amateur musician so it's an important piece of the experience. For a change I've recently tried turning it off in one game after having played it for 200+ hours. It was fine at first, but then I started missing something. The soundscape filled with nothing but assorted background and battle noise became too empty. Now I'm turning it on again, maybe a bit quieter than it was previously. And it's great.
@cent73 For me it depends on the game. If I want to get immersed in a game like ARMA or Rainbow Six then I will always turn in-game music off for realism. But if I'm playing a more cinematic game or an MMO I'll leave the music on but I usually turn the volume down to about 40% or so.
I play every MMORPG with the sound muted. I've found them all to be utterly irritating to listen to. Stuff like PlanetSide 2 is okay. I would've thought that horror games and the like would've made a better genre for this.
@jinzo9988 ironically the only MMO close to horror has great non-irritating music that sounds nothing like the fantasy MMO music I usually mute pretty quickly
@jinzo9988 Same here. The musical score could literally be fart noises and I'd never even notice.
@jinzo9988 I totally am the same. When I played wow and GW2 i didn't bother with sound at all. nice music and all but annoying after a while!