In this reprint from the September 2005 issue of Game Developer magazine, composer Alexander Brandon (The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim) shares some useful formulas for determining the audio budget of your game.
When we audio folk are engaging in the more fun side of game audio, we're sitting around the campfire strumming Martin Backpacker guitars, fudging with Kyma and a Korg Kaoss Pad on the laptop, and figuring out how to squeeze a thousand sounds into 32K of memory. Yet, there's a harsher reality emerging in recent days: our budgets.
Without a keen understanding of what really goes into an audio budget, content creators and directors alike will encounter some nasty pitfalls in today's game development environment. More and more, game budgets seem to encounter cost overruns, and while I can't make an analysis of an entire game budget in one column, let's take a look at some techniques that can help your audio budget stay on target.
What are the variables that make an audio budget go out of control? There are a few simple formulas I follow to avoid over or under estimating a budget (three of which I detail for you in this column).
Estimating the audio budget is the responsibility of audio leads, managers, and producers, but estimation also plays a role in a content creator's pitching process. A high-level initial plan of many music contractors (I say music contractors because most of the demos and solicitations I get are from composers) is to look at a publisher's annual revenue and charge accordingly. But this is only part of the picture.
The Birth of SoundMusic.
The industry standard (IS) rate for approved minutes of original music is $1,000–$1,200 per minute. "Approved" means with a reasonable amount of revision (if you revise something more than five times, you're wasting money). When devising your budget, you need to estimate the number of minutes required (MR) for in-game original music. Each game has its own needs, but fortunately we're mostly beyond the old tradition of having one minute of looped original music per game level.
The standard MR these days is around 2–3 minutes of music per level, but there are always ways to spend less and get zero repetition with an adaptive soundtrack.
Padding (P) is incidental music that you add depending on the project genre. Racing games, puzzle games, and fighting games have less need for padding than other genres. Role-playing games usually require the most padding because they have the most gameplay time and the greatest need to avoid aural repetition. Here's the formula I use for figuring the estimated music cost: ISxMR+P=estimated music cost.
I find a good way to estimate is based on sound type. If you break your sound asset list into categories, it will help you identify which sounds are easy to produce, and which are more complex.
This equation can be used for as many sound types as you need, and so I urge whoever is estimating costs to use this for every sound the game design will require. A top notch driving game will have a lot of complex sound effects, but that complexity may vary from a single engine loop to a complex engine loop with piston sounds as well as the hum of the engine block, which varies cost.
Knowing the number of sound effects required (FXR) and their production rates (PR) -- which range from $5 per sound effect for something like footsteps (simple effect, or SE), to $50 or more per sound effect for a good machine gun sound (complex effect, or CE) -- will help boil down a budget to something more realistic.
The formula I use to estimate my sound effects cost looks like this: (FXR x PR(SE))+(FXR x PR(CE))= estimated sound effect cost.
[Note that (SE) is a signifier rather than a multiplicative.]
The industry standard rate for a four-hour session with either a Screen Actors Guild or American Federation of Television and Radio Artists-based union member is $759 as of press time.
Good non-union rates are around $500 for a four-hour session. Yes, there is a place for non-union talent in games, but remember that in most cases you can only use union or non-union, not both. Count on about 80–100 lines an hour (LH) with a good director, and 50 lines an hour or less for ADR (automated dialogue replacement, which is the process of re-recording dialogue once video has already been created).
ADR is what you really want to avoid since some actors can nail it and some take a lot more time. Regardless of time, it is a very painful process, and often it is more economical to re-mocap and re-lipsync, depending on the length of the scene. At this point, you have your line count (LC).
Finally, will you outsource (OS) the editing of the dialogue? Will you outsource the directing? If so, you're looking at around $2–$3 per line for editing and $3–$6 per line for directing. It is usually less expensive to do this inhouse when possible.
A useful formula for configuring your estimated voice over cost is: LC/LHxIS(+OS)= estimated voice over cost.
These formulas won't necessarily get you a completely accurate estimate. You have to use these tools throughout the project, keeping track of what you're spending, while also following a few more guidelines.
Read the design document thoroughly.
If you are lucky enough to have an accurate, regularly updated design document, reading it carefully will allow you to estimate every possible area for sound, voice over, or music that you will need, outside of the developer's basic asset requirements.
Just as in art, integrating is an important part of the game audio process. If you're with a big firm like Electronic Arts or Sony, you have in-house engineers that can do this for you. But if you aren't, chances are a designer or programmer will be integrating your audio, and you're entering a potential cost overrun situation. Audio designers are less expensive than programmers (and often designers as well), and they'll integrate the audio faster and with better quality. I don't have a formula for integrating because each game has different individual integration requirements, but this climate is changing with a slow but steady global movement towards standardized audio integration tools. Just be sure you have a solid pipeline for getting sounds into your game.
Be careful with licensing.
There are many hazards and benefits involved in licensing, but using celebrity talent for a game is the first thing that can balloon an audio budget. Often, using a single star for the lead voice over role will cost as much or more than the rest of the actors' fees combined. Ask hard questions of the marketing departments and producers: will use of a star really help sell units? Historically, stars have not helped games sell units unless the game is based around that star, and even then, the gameplay and license are the main selling points.
Understand the goals from the top down.
Most developers have two primary goals: make a fun game and spend the least possible amount of money. The second goal is a hard one to take in, but understanding it is important because it is an integral part of generating profit, namely the money that developers and publishers use to stay alive and grow.
Each publisher and developer has a different way of doing this, but history tells us that intelligently concentrating on the "fun" goal first and the "money" goal second generates a hit. Two simple examples are World of Warcraft
and later iterations of the Grand Theft Auto III
franchise, but remember, I said "intelligently." There have also been a lot of failures using that goal focus.
The Sound of Game
With all of this in mind you're well on your way to spending less while achieving more with your game audio. If you use this information from the first days of pre-production, you'll be able to more intelligently estimate and stay on or under budget.