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Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Draw your chairs close to the fire, throw lap rugs over your knees at the approach of winter, and gather round. I will spin a tale for you of old times and new, with a bit of information about your brains woven within. It has probably been said before, but most likely not presented like this. So even if you're well aware of the information below, at least you can be entertained.
Every so often I get nostagic. But it goes beyond flipping through my iPhone playlists to conjure up the Strider or Castlevania soundtracks. I'll want to fire up YouTube to actually watch old games being played in their myriad "Let's Play" variations, sometimes for witty (or dreadful) commentary, but mostly for the pure gameplay itself. I'm sure many of you have the same inkling from time to time.
Most recently I watched "Abuse": http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E9pUaHdtlMA
Abuse was developed by Dave Taylor with sound by Bobby Prince. Many of the sounds can clearly be heard as ripped directly from libraries (how dare he! yes, we all did that then, and depending on the sound, still do, but that's another discussion), but here's where we come to my first point: you can remember almost ALL of them if you spent any amount of time playing the game.
Try to remember more than 10 sounds from Guild Wars 2 and I'll buy you several drinks.
Why is this exactly?
Before you jump to conclusions, I'll state that the sounds from GW2 are at least an order of magnitude higher in quality both in dynamic range, realtime mixing levels and effects, and in customization to fit the game (sorry Bobby, your sounds are still great!). But... there are thousands of them. The game is a living, breathing world full of "immersion", the eternal design mantra, and as such you should feel a part of it.
The problem is, your (or mine... okay, OUR) mind doesn't process thousands that well. As the LucasArts team learned with "a sound per physics interaction" when it was creating the insanely complex and impressive engine for The Force Unleashed, the brain tunes out an awful lot and focuses instead on just a few channels of information.
This is true for art, as well as game mechanics. The artwork being in sprites, you remember what an elevator looks like and instantly how to use it. You don't spend time searching for switches or levers, and the gameplay ties in with that simple presentation and repeition.
For the most part, only one sound plays at t time. And using a priority system, when catlike aliens that scare the crap out of you jump from the ceiling, their attack sound plays instead of you firing a weapon. If there are no enemies present, an ambient drip will echo through the dreary, vast and foreboding metal chambers you run through.
Because sampled sound effects (not MIDI) were in their infancy in games, this limitation did more than make veteran developers look back and say "ah, they were so simple back then". The limitations created a reason to only include what was most important, a drive to give the most critical mechanics the most development time, because resources were that much more limited.
The thing to think about as you sip your hot cocoa is that this same principle can apply to any type of game, from Assassin's Creed 3 to Canabalt.
On a larger project, of course, it's much more complex to combine environment art, character animations and blending with streaming and scripting and God knows how many systems might be running simultaneously to monitor the dozens of arrays, nav mesh considerations, rendering, visual effects and audio going on to generate these moments.
But it all starts from simple sources, as simple as a 2d demonstration, and can be iterated from there... rather than creating something that would make Pixar and Blur faint with envy and shoving gameplay in after the fact. It needs to be done in seperate teams scrumming (if you like) in parallel with tech keeping an eye on the big picture to ensure resource limitations and rules are set. It's incredibly complex and time consuming, but also easily lost in the shuffle to focus on "just getting it done" based on design prone to feature creep and publisher pressure in the name of staying competitive. Until that is someone scratches their head at a morning meeting and has the internal fortitude to say "this really isn't that fun."
Consider what the player is processing at any given moment and realize they're going to be ignoring 50% or more of what's in front of them and "around" them. It'll probably help you scale back a bit and trim the fat to create, in the end, a better game.
Of course, if you have a budget the size of The Avengers film, there's a good chance you're laughing right now.