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Weapon Sound Design for Sci-Fi Shooters
by Michael Bross on 06/13/14 04:41:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Some of the more interesting and challenging sounds to create for a video game are found in weapon audio for Sci-Fi-based shooters. In the sound design process for this genre, there are many intriguing facets to consider.

Most importantly, the audio needs to feel gratifying for the player when shooting the weapon. What’s more, it needs to feel that way over and over again since player may use their weapons hundreds or even thousands of times over the course of their experience within a particular game title.

Sound design for games can be as much about the technical as it is about the creative. In this article, we’ll look at each aspect, and how they are intertwined throughout the process.

Generally, we work within a two-phase process--pre-production and production, as described below.

Pre-Production: Discovery and Planning Stage

This is the phase where we ask a lot of questions. It’s a discovery and planning stage. It’s where we first conceive the technical design so we are able to move forward on content design. Generally, this is done for all audio and music across a game’s experience (not just weapons).

Audio is driven by the game design itself. And also by the limitations of the technical pipeline (and how we can cleverly get around those limitations). In the case of weapons, how a sound is created is also heavily influenced by the animations to which the sounds will be attached.

From a creative standpoint, we are gathering reference. This is for inspiration and also to generate ideas of approach beyond what our own brains may drum up. We are looking at other games on the market (along with film). What supercool weapon designs are we hearing? Doing this helps us to establish a bar and then we figure out what we can be inspired by and aim to exceed.

What’s the creative approach to the weapons that would best serve the game? For example, is it something with more of a “laser” vibe like Star Wars?  Or would it be better to do something that models modern-day weapons while adding “futuristic” enhancements? The beauty of creating for sci-fi weapons is that it leaves a lot of room to be creative.

From a technical perspective, many details need to be defined in this phase.

--What type of weapon is it? Maybe it’s a plasma rifle or some kind of gravity grenade. What are the parameters of the weapon? Does it have a high ROF (rate of fire) or is it slow but powerful like a sniper rifle. What’s the scale of the weapon? Is it a turret or a handheld weapon?

--What are the “event types”? In games, because we are not dealing with a linear mix and instead, we’re thinking about what the player-driven possibilities are, we tend to break it down into “events.”  A weapon’s events could be: “fire”. “reload”, “fire empty”, “secondary fire”, “overheat”, “low ammo” and so on. Approaching it this way allows for all aspects of a weapon’s audio to be covered.

--What is the distance model? It’s the behavior of the weapon’s sound over a distance (also known as “falloff”). For more complex weapon designs, the sound designer will need to come up with near-distance sample sets that flow seamlessly into far-distance sample sets.

Though there are many other questions to be asked, those above represent a good starting point.

Production: Making it Happen

Once the weapon’s tech and creative approach have been conceived, creation of the content itself begins. The best place to start here is with mockups of the weapon which are usually done to gameplay video captures or animation exports. A mockup helps in conceiving how all the layers and events of a sound will work together. It also aids in selling the idea of what the weapon will sound like to the rest of the team.

A good game sound designer will keep the idea in the back of his/her mind as to how these assets might be stemmed out as game-ready assets.

Variations on certain sound events are essential. Shell casings dropping to the ground is one such event where this is important. Employing variations adds life. 

This is the point where implementation of these assets can begin (after the material is stemmed out). We then would import the material into the game-side audio tool (such as Wwise or FMOD). This process will typically involve collaborating with other departments such as code engineers or animators to align the sound events with the actual game events that these sounds are matched to. Once this happens, we can finally hear the weapon working in the game. This is rarely the end of the work and involves further iteration on the both the content and the tech to refine the weapon’s SFX.

And in the big picture, this sound would also be dialed into the overall soundscape in regard to mix.

As you can see, the process of creating sci-fi weapon sounds involves much more than crafting a couple of sound files. It’s a unique, challenging experience that requires us to find solutions to tech and creative challenges that manifest throughout the  process of creation.  That’s the most exciting part, though!  And when we finally hear the game audio in action, and see from a player’s perspective how much depth the sound design adds to the overall gameplay experience, we know we’ve hit the mark spot-on.

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Kevin Fishburne
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These are simple sounds, available on the web and licensed CC0: I made a few edits, but otherwise left them intact. Variations, as you mentioned, are necessary for truly believable sound. An algorithm to sequence variations randomly but never repeating the last x number of sound(s) also helps.

Edit: Had a few too many beers and thought this was about shoot 'em ups, sorry.

I think with respect to weapon sound design that the most important thing to consider is the repetition of the sound, which is often at a high frequency. Something I've noticed when editing sounds is that they all sound great when played once, but play the same sound repetitively or too frequently and there's usually some little detail that begins to stand out. You begin to recognize the pattern very quickly and it becomes annoying and ruins suspension of disbelief. This applies to any repetitive sound, such as footsteps, armor creaking, etc.

To avoid this I'll usually record about 20 variations of an effect, whittle the selection down to eight by careful listening, then edit the remaining eight. I then use an algorithm which keeps track of the last four samples of each effect type that have been used and randomly plays one of the remaining samples. So the sample sequence is randomized, but never plays a variation that has been played the last four times. This creates the illusion of more than eight samples, and as long as each sample doesn't have a distracting artifact it works pretty well.

Owen Evans
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Thanks Michael - I enjoyed the read and took notes! These shorter articles are easier to absorb :)

Mark Kilborn
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"This is rarely the end of the work and involves further iteration on the both the content and the tech to refine the weapon’s SFX."

This. I find myself beating this drum a lot.

I strongly feel that we've reached a point where implementation is half of the creative process in game audio. There is so much with the implementation that defines how things will sound. How you break out the various layers of the weapon fire, how you handle reports, interior vs. exterior, interaction with in-game reverb, distance modeling, occlusion, run-time EQ, how many voices you use (both from a performance and a loudness perspective), 1st person POV vs. 3rd person, do you use the spatialization matrix or bypass it and go full 2D... the list goes on and on.

If you're just throwing WAVs over a fence, you're doing it wrong.

And if you're the client in a contract relationship, and you don't have a sound person implementing sounds in the build themselves, you're also doing it wrong.