"Simple design, intense content." - Edward Tufte
When in doubt, simplify. This is perhaps the golden rule of sound design. Occasionally, I have been guilty of designing overly complex, layered, and busy sound effects.
At one point I was working on an action game and was very unhappy with my design aesthetic as a result of piling too much into every sound.
To get a different perspective, I listened to Rainbow Six 3 and SSX 3, and while they were both quite different from the game I was working on, what I was immediately impressed with in both of these titles was how clean, detailed and sparse the soundscape was.
By "sparse", I don't mean anything was lacking, but merely there was nothing unnecessary in the audio design of the games that should not have been there.
On almost every project, sound designers often have to struggle just to get enough resources and time to get their work done before the game is shipped off to the plant with audio missing from half the cutscenes.
Designing your sound to overpower the gameplay experience is not a good way to get your sound noticed. When in doubt, it is always best to strip away anything that is extraneous until you are left with a clean, meaningful design.
One of the biggest problems with many games -- especially high-intensity action games -- is that too much ends up happening on screen at once. While instance limiting and sound prioritization on the engine side can alleviate much of the cacophony, there is also a design element to determine where sound should be applied in a game and where there should be space left to allow the existing sounds enough room to behave appropriately in accordance with the game and audio direction.
One helpful exercise is to take your mix and begin muting some sounds to hear how this affects the feel and sound of the game. Often we inadvertently layer up sounds unknowingly and unnecessarily
For example, a character's punch may have some clothing and gear movement, a whoosh sound and an effect sound tied to a visual trail. If these are all designed separately we may not even realize they are all there until mixing the game. Sound design can often sparkle when we remove some of these elements in order to let others shine through.
People often say the best sounding games are the ones where you don't notice the sound at all, and it takes a well-balanced, well-planned, detailed design to accomplish that. Granted much of the best sound design is wildly complex, and some of the best sounds are made from dozens of layers of different elements.
I am not advocating anything silly, like a "one resource per sound effect" rule; I am merely suggesting that stripping your sound down to the core elements, whether it's four or 40, will go a long way to improving your design and the overall game playing experience.
"I not only use all the brains I have, but all I can borrow." - Herbert Hoover
The fourth way to jumpstart your creative juices is to use your mouth instead of your ears and talk with other people. There are myriad ways to discuss your ideas these days, from social networks to message boards, and there is always much to be learned from discussing ideas with co-workers, friends and colleagues.
The best ideas are often collaborative, and bouncing an idea off someone or getting their opinion about a sound you are designing or a problem you are having can spell the difference between good sound design and great sound design.
Years ago I worked for Konami in Hawaii and was fortunate to work with an outstanding audio team. We worked in an open, collaborative manner, and if one of us got stuck on a sound, we'd just ask each other, "Hey, what do you think Frogger's tongue would sound like if it punched someone in the face?" and we'd get some creative replies like, "Maybe try a good wet face smack, with a party favor razz, a tight fart, and some wet paper towels hitting the floor."
Suggestions like these inspired us to try new concepts for our sounds, and also solidified our work as a team. At Shaba Games I had a similar, cooperative environment. Not only was the sound design of our games strengthened as a result of these collaborative studios, but the individual sound designers developed their skills much more effectively than working solo.
If you work alone and no one around understands what you do, there are numerous organizations of game audio professionals from G.A.N.G. to IASIG to the numerous audio related groups on LinkedIn and Yahoo.
These organizations are full of people just like you and me: excited, inspired audio professionals with brains full of ideas and years of experience. In spite of the competition among companies in our industry, the key to advancing our skills and our medium collectively is through collaboration and discussion.
No one thinks about audio the way a sound designer does and brainstorming with your colleagues can foster new design ideas for yourself and throughout the community. A colleague of mine recently told me a tale of a veteran sound designer explaining to him that when a sound designer enters the industry, he immediately "learns everything" and the concepts he comes in with are those which he will rely on throughout his career.
He and I disagreed with this sentiment and concurred that like any other discipline, sound design is a continually evolving field and the tasks of learning, reinventing, and discovering should never end. Embrace these four principles and you can reinvigorate the discovery and evolution of your personal design aesthetics. Being consistently creative every day of your career is an imposing challenge and sometimes when you need to be creative, and the inspiration is not coming, just take a moment and: