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Designing A Next-Gen Game For Sound
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Designing A Next-Gen Game For Sound

November 22, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

Designing A Game For Sound

In essence, it appears that game sound designers finally have all the qualitative tools that film sound designers have been using for many years. We have already seen many fine examples of technically improved game audio on the Xbox 360 such as Gears of War, BioShock and MotorStorm all supporting these "price of entry" features of next-gen audio development.

However, this is where games, and similarly many motion pictures, hit a proverbial brick wall in terms of sound -- because story, and more pertinently gameplay, must be designed for sound from the ground-up. There is an aesthetic/collaborative issue at the heart of being more like film, not a technical qualitative issue, and it is something that arguably game sound is agile enough to do better than film sound.

The movie sound designer Randy Thom has very lyrically stated that a movie must be designed for sound, rather than the other way around. This essentially means that a sound designer, or a director who cares and allows opportunities for sound to be used well in a film, should be involved as early as possible (meaning the pre-production period) in helping craft the storytelling elements of the movie.

Randy's work with director Robert Zemeckis bears testament to the benefits of this collaborative process with movies such as Cast Away and the brand new Beowulf containing many fascinating "sound moments".

Although still frustratingly uncommon among movies, game sound can certainly learn, and improve by using this practice as there are often full-time, in-house sound personnel physically sitting in the building at the time of pre-production.

Another advantage in game sound is that the game development process, and the roles of game development staff, are more mercurial than those working in the movie development process - the motion picture industry, particularly at the Hollywood level, has solidified into very rigidly defined jobs at very specific times whereas the game development model is still so young, experimental and flexible in terms of structure that it gives a good chance of getting this right before the development process solidifies.

There prevails an attitude among game designers and producers (much like the attitude of movie directors) that sound's job is to work miracles quickly and cheaply at the end of production with little or no collaboration in the creative process up to that point. One such core principle in designing a movie for sound is allowing the characters, at the script stage of development, a chance to listen to their environment and to hear things, essentially giving the characters "ears". This allows the sound designer to exploit more creative opportunities using the point of view of a character later on in production and post-production.

Narrative games certainly have strong characters, and many of them often have very identifiable points of view. It is a real challenge for sound designers to become involved and be more influential in the early storyboarding and early game design concepts. In many ways the potential for point of view is much stronger in games than in movies.

The taunting mechanic in Scarface: The World is Yours is one such example of where a sound feature is used to both further the gameplay from moment to moment and also to re-enforce the way the player experiences the character of Tony Montana. Dialogue is used here to both express the rage of the character during combat and also as a method of "building up points" to activate "rage mode" -- itself a core gameplay feature.

I believe that in order to change the trend, it is up to us -- as sound personnel responsible for making great games -- to be the ones who push for further involvement in pre-production on game titles. After all, it is not just going to happen on its own, overnight.

There are now so many ways of manipulating sound available to game sound designers, all they need is a game that really welcomes and relies on sound to form a cornerstone of its gameplay. There certainly isn’t the game equivalent of a movie like Apocalypse Now out there right now, which was a movie that arguably allowed the most opportunities of any 20th century film for sound to come in and tell at least half of the story. But there could be.

One of the biggest areas of challenge for audio on next generation cinematic titles, and indeed for all development disciplines, is to become much more interwoven with one another from the earliest planning stages of game design both technically and aesthetically.


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