It's common knowledge among sound and music professionals that game developers generally don't know what to do with us. We're usually brought in near the end of a project, one of the last elements considered -- this in a medium that has rarely been considered silent.
This differs from filmmaking, where by necessity sound is essential on the first day of shooting and musical ideas are often planned early in the process. For example, composer Trent Reznor sent film director David Fincher music while he was shooting The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. But outside of an in-house job, our services for game developers are usually brought in on the last lap. Get the assets recorded -- perfectly -- ASAP, then move on to the next gig.
On the other hand, audio experts don't know how to deal with computer folks, broadly speaking. With filmmakers they likely share a similar passion for other aspects of production: story, directing style, visuals. Though games have similar elements, how many audio pros have a conversational interest for things like Unity, C++, or monetization?
Game sound professionals are creative types who have (hopefully) developed the technical skills of audio implementation, while developers are technical wizards who have fostered the creative and leadership skills that get their projects to completion.
The two face a challenge in communication that's complicated by the subjectivity of creativity. Developers don't understand how hard we work to create a needed one-second sound effect anymore than we understand how hard they work to get a game to even basic functionality. Perhaps that understanding isn't essential, but a lack of recognition for it can create roadblocks that cause time and money to be wasted.
What are some steps each side can take to improve communication and ultimately create more effective game audio? I can't claim to have experienced every possible audio/developer situation, but for this article I want to share a few of my experiences in the indie universe.
What Does a Freeze Ray Sound Like, Anyway?
I worked on a game with a designer in Israel. I was required me to create the sound of a death ray that freezes the character. I whipped up a cool magic sound in my studio... and got rejected. Tried a variation... fail. Tried more ideas... nope. The designer's complaint? None of these assets "sound like a human being frozen."
Huh? "What does a human being frozen sound like?" I asked.
"I don't know, but I'll know when I hear it."
Oh, heck no! I didn't have the time or financial incentive to indefinitely email variations on one sound. I wanted guidance! So I prodded a little further about where to explore and the developer made a request for something organic sounding.
A-ha! No mystical magic-type sound created with synthesizers. Samples, earthy sounds grounded in the real world! I created a mish-mash of outdoor winter sounds (footsteps in snow, skiing, etc.) and the developer was thrilled with the very next sound I created.
What did I learn from this situation?
1. Get more explicit details of what was needed in the sound asset. I know; it should be obvious. But typically I'm given a list of desired sounds, a few general comments, and then everyone crosses their fingers, hoping I nail everything perfect in the first try. In this case, I wrongly assumed the "freeze ray sound" would be something magical sounding. Even if he didn't know what he wanted, we could have discussed possible ideas that got us to the organic concept faster or eliminated my initial magic ideas before I'd invested any time into them.
2. It made me reflect on our contract. I'd simply agreed to provide the specific assets on his list, but there were no limitations on how many variations I would create for him. This is a very tricky subject worthy of another article, as the developer doesn't want to be stuck with sounds they don't want to use, and the sound designer doesn't want to be taken advantage of -- especially if we're working for cheap and under deadlines. But if we'd agreed to, say, no more than two revisions of the same sound before additional pay kicks in, there might have been more concern on both sides to make sure our goals were mutually understood before I went to work.