As consoles morph to the next-generation, HDTVs are joined by surround sound systems as important equipment for high-end gamers - and THX's Mark Tuffy talks to Gamasutra about the company's audio/video standards, its work on Warhawk and God Of War II and plans for 'a major publisher' to use its Neural THX tech next year.
THX, known as one of the standard-bearers for high-fidelity sound reproduction in film and home theater, was originally developed and founded by George Lucas' Lucasfilm in 1983 to standardize its cinema content - that is, to ensure that through coordination of equipment and methods, the look and sound of a film production was equal to its look and sound in development.
From Movies To Games & Beyond
"The whole idea [is] that if someone spends money making content, you should have the chance to see and hear it correctly," says games director Mark Tuffy. Games director? Since starting their work in film, THX has branched out into DVDs, digital cinema and OEM systems for the automotive industry. Now, they're looking to apply over two decades of experience to helping create sound and visual standards for game development.
THX's games program is geared for developers. Tuffy explains, "There's a real issue in the industry, which is a developer or publisher [is] making a game, but they really don't know how a consumer is going to experience that game." Part of the issue, Tuffy says, is that game design teams are often compartmentalized - the team working on textures, for example, might be in a separate sphere, using disparate equipment, from an art director or sound director.
THX's team works with "Tier 1" personnel in game design, those who make decisions on the look and sound, to help them standardize their internal process and equipment. The goal for games is the same as THX's goal with movies - that the quality of color, texture, light and sound turns out exactly the same for the consumer's experience as it appeared to the design team.
Servicing God Of War II, Scarface
THX has already applied its services and technology to some big names: Warhawk, Lair, and God of War II, to name a few. Do they have an exclusive relationship with Sony? "We have no exclusive relationships, but Sony is one of biggest clients," Tuffy clarifies. Though he didn't disclose his clients in development, he also named Vivendi's Scarface and Namco's Soul Calibur series as other titles THX contributed to.
So what's the process like? With Scarface Tuffy's team went hands on with the group and started with a full analysis on the design equipment and the monitor setup. "We make sure that all video games we work with fall in line with HDTV video specifications and industry standards for audio," Tuffy adds. Recalling one of the major issues with Ubisoft's King Kong in 2005, where some argued the game was so dark as to render it unplayable, Tuffy said, "That never happens in a THX game, because we make sure the art people don't work on monitors that are set too bright."
"[Game developers] work with ones and zeros, we do calibration," he continues. "We make sure all the art guys -- all their PCs are calibrated to industry standards. We make sure the televisions are the same, too. So the ports to the console are exactly the same. It's more efficient production, and it avoids reworks." This becomes even more important, Tuffy noted, when teams are geographically split because the look and sound is standardized and coordinated among disparate departments.
Far from being in opposition with other sound technologies like Dolby, THX works with such technology to optimize it. "We also give the consumer on the back end some technology," Tuffy adds. "Our optimizer is a very quick set of test patterns and audio tones that lets the consumer set it up really quickly. And it looks and sounds as close as it can to when they were developing the content, so you can see and hear correctly."
Getting The THX Seal Of Approval
The program is geared to be customizable - after all, no two development teams, nor games, are the same. "On our first run through each studio, we try to teach people about the tools and what we're doing," Tuffy describes. "Especially the visual calibration - it's knowing how to use the tools and what result you're looking for."
Still, THX won't put its name on the box of a project that doesn't use its standards correctly. Noting that they strive to minimize work flow by enabling the development teams they work with to become self-sufficient, Tuffy adds, "We're essentially a brand; that's how we're seen. So they have to feed back to us what they're doing to make sure we don't devalue our brand. People expect a certain impression when they hear about THX - especially the videogame industry."
Neural THX - In Your Brain?
In addition to the title-based program geared toward helping teams with game production, the THX team is now bringing their audio technology directly into the games. It's called Neural THX Surround, and it's made, as Tuffy says, to address some compromises that are made when people play video games in surround sound, partially due to the technological limits of consoles. Most of them are in 5.1 sound, Tuffy says, and some PlayStation 3 games go up to 7.1.
"But that causes a problem," Tuffy notes, "because you cannot allow a gamer to have a full 360-degree experience with only five speakers. You have two surround speakers, and you have to pick where you put them. That's a compromise. So we started looking at a way to give people the ability to have nice ambience and sound coming from everywhere - the back and the sides, no matter where the speakers are placed - so you get the full benefit of a game's audio engine."
The technology allows a game to provide sound through more channels, thereby bypassing what Tuffy calls as the limits of 5.1. Residing in the game's audio engine, it allows two extra channels of sound info in the back - and this makes good sense for developers, as Tuffy says that THX's Nielsen research found that 54 percent of PS3 owners, 48 percent of Xbox 360 owners, and 45 percent of Wii owners use surround sound with their consoles. It surprised us," he says, "how many people were playing games with multi-channel home theatre systems."
Tuffy likens the effect of the technology to a DSP effect, and the amount of resources it takes up on the console is analogous. Instead of the audio engine running on 5.1, it runs on 7.1, and loops the ambient sound in the surround. "The tech is constantly analyzing the back of the sound and distributing it among the speakers."
Launching Neural THX In 2008
THX has the code already prepared as an API, and they work with developers to find out how best to integrate it into the production process, whether a developer uses middleware or writes their own tools. As official console developers, THX often gets builds shipped to them so that they can ensure that their code is implemented correctly.
And, Tuffy says, the computational load is extremely low - less than one percent. Based on recent analysis, for example, the sound tech only weighs about .4 percent on the Xbox 360's CPU. "People sometimes worry if it's going to take a lot of CPU or affect the graphics or AI, but it really has virtually no impact in providing this benefit to allow for extra sound channels," says Tuffy.
Tuffy says the company's in the process of working with "a major publisher" as a launch partner for an original IP slated for next year using Neural THX surround, but couldn't provide details as of yet. "The reason that we felt we had to do this, is we spent 18 months talking to publishers and developers, and the key thing that came back is there was nothing like this in the industry," Tuffy explains. "Companies like EA and Sony are massive in terms of revenues, but there are a lot of bad habits. So we are teaching them production techniques and standards."