[In the first installment of a new series, journalist Tristan Donovan dives into a discipline-specific topic to discover the most important tips and techniques those who practice it can share. In this article, he tackles audio.]
Sound is crucial to any game, but what do you really have to concentrate on to reach the heights of the video game medium? Gamasutra caught up with audio directors to pick their brains for 10 juicy morsels of sound advice and ideas.
1. Focus on Sounds That Matter
"One of our mantras during the development of Saints Row: The Third was 'is this sound going to be meaningful to the player?'," says Ariel Gross, audio director at the THQ-owned studio Volition.
"Some sounds just need to be there and sound right. If you hit a dumpster, then it needs to sound close to a dumpster, but is that sound meaningful to the player? Usually not. They just need to be there. So we spent less time on object impact sounds than the unique sounds for the big moments in the missions.
"We had to keep asking ourselves 'How important is this sound?' and 'Would the player care?' If they did, we would put our time, money and resources towards that sound, but if the answer was 'Well, yeah, it's kinda important' or 'Not really', then we would spend a lot less time designing those sounds."
2. Blur the Boundary Between Sound Effects and Music
Martin Stig Andersen drew on the concept of electroacoustic composition when creating the audio for Playdead's Limbo. "My background is in electroacoustic composition, where instead of writing scores for orchestras you record sounds and then make a sound montage or collage that would become a piece of music," he says. "To do this I use the same tools as sound designers but I think of my work in a more musical, compositional way."
The moment in Limbo when the boy nears the spider is a good example of how this works, he says. "Instead of putting in traditional music, I used sounds from the environment to create the same effect. So when you approach the spider, the wind sounds stand still, because that gives a tense feeling equal in suspense to using an instrument like a violin. But instead of having this abstract orchestra sound dropped in, I work with the sounds from the actual game space."
3. Be a Good Housekeeper
"Maintaining your library of sounds is not the sexy part of the job but it is one of the most important, and it's one of the places where you can fall down the worst," says Jeff MacPherson, the audio director of EA's FIFA games.
"When I work with or hire people, one of the things I value most is good housekeeping skills. If you cannot manage a database of 50,000 samples, you may make a mistake that could result in a lot of bad things happening. Something that is not licensed could make it into the game, so you could get sued, or bad content like swearwords get in, and you get into trouble with the ratings board.
"You could also lose stuff or not put the right stuff in. We're paying a lot of money to get a lot of different audio content, and so if you don't manage it properly in the databases and backup systems, you could get into trouble, and there's really no excuse."