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[In this feature, former console audio director turned mobile and browser director Brad Meyer explains what challenges are presented by these constrained platforms -- and how to get the best results with the tools, budget, and staff size that's required by them.]
The past couple of years have seen an explosion in small, free-to-play games, primarily on the web and mobile platforms. These games' pedigree is reminiscent of the early years of video gaming: smaller, innovative titles made by very small teams, often no more than a few people.
While we have seen some of these titles push gameplay mechanics into new and unique realms, the audio in this burgeoning new sub-industry is not quite keeping up with the innovation. The reasons are understandable: small teams with little or no budget rarely have room for the "luxury" of a full-time sound designer, let alone a composer or audio programmer. Also, designing games for the web and mobile platforms brings us back to the challenges of dealing with very finite disk space and more severe hardware limitations.
This article aims to address these issues and present ways to overcome them in order to boost overall audio quality in the growing browser and mobile gaming markets.
Perhaps the most ubiquitous challenge facing new developers in the mobile and browser realm is team size. Gaming is entering into a cycle of rebirth in these fields (thanks mostly to minuscule budgets). 100+ size teams are being replaced with a couple dozen, or fewer, dedicated developers.
As a result, most teams forgo costly proprietary game (and audio) engines in favor of a third party engine such as Unity, Flash, Unreal, Torque, or ShiVa.
Relying on these existing engines gives teams a head start, in that they do not have to reinvent the wheel and can start building a game with a toolset already tailored for their platform(s) of choice. With smaller teams, we see simpler games, but also less specialization and greater generalization in tasks.
As an audio developer, you must therefore become the Swiss Army Knife of all things audio. While I could rant for several thousand words about the importance of a dedicated audio person on even the smallest team, let me be brief so I can get off the soapbox and back to making sounds.
Most small teams working on mobile and browser games believe that they do not need a dedicated audio person on the team. They can outsource some sound effects and have a programmer or designer put them in. I would agree if the same were done with animation, art, and code. However, in even the smallest teams, there is at least one person from each discipline in-house to ensure the quality bar is being met and things are looking/behaving/sounding as they should.
If a game wants to be of the highest quality, then it must shine in all areas, including audio. For audio quality to catch up to consoles, someone must be involved in the oversight of all aspects of audio for a project. This individual must be passionate about good audio and devote all his/her energy to it (just as an art director ensures the graphical quality of the game meets expectations).
A jack-of-all-trades in each discipline is often necessary on a small team, and while it requires a huge skill set, it helps the team tremendously. Without a dedicated sound person no one would have the appropriate bandwidth to keep an ear and eye on audio.
Furthermore, a sound person can make him or herself indispensable by allowing other departments to focus solely on their own tasks. Animators can focus on animating and the sound designer can place animation event sounds. Level designers can focus on building the level while the sound designer hooks up the ambience, level event sounds, etc. A dedicated audio person may expand team size, but s/he will also increase quality of the entire project, allow others to focus on their respective disciplines, and keep a necessary ear in production. Okay, sermon over. On to the sound!
Due to smaller team sizes, sound designers cannot necessarily rely on having an audio programmer or audio implementer putting their sounds into the game and getting everything sounding great. Most game engines provide a scripting language for control over in-game playback and parameter control. If you are not using a separate audio middleware solution (and often if you are), these languages will be one of the main keys to getting your game's sound to shine.
So for better or worse, one of the first tips I have for a sound designer in a small company is to learn scripting. The most important part of a great sounding-game is creating great sound effects. The other big piece of that puzzle is how the sounds are handled within the game engine, and control over this is most often through scripting.
The hardest part about learning a scripting language is getting started. I learned scripting in a multi-stage process: I was fortunate enough at my previous studio, Shaba Games, to have our technical director, Robert Morgan, and the programming team give classes to designers to help them get familiar with basic scripting principles. He also pointed me to this website: Pinky and Brain learn C++, which, cheesiness aside, is probably the most helpful, straightforward guide to teaching basic scripting and programming fundamentals.
From there, it became a matter of reading reference materials, experimenting, and looking at other people's code. A very helpful tidbit I learned from programmers early on is that using someone else's code and tailoring it to your needs is not so much stealing as a way of life. Forums and online communities, which we will discuss later, are also a great resource for direction and help when getting your feet wet in the world of scripting.
Scripting is not for everyone. It takes dedication and time to wrap your head around the concepts of basic scripting and then the unique functions, syntax, and idiosyncrasies of whatever scripting language your game engine may use. However, the time and energy invested in learning how to control your sounds' behavior will pay back dividends throughout the rest of your career. We need to be able to create complex audio systems such as occlusion, dynamic ambience, and interactive music that are common in consoles and can push online and mobile game audio to the same level. All of these systems can be created via script in most modern game engines.
While scripting is inherently necessary in most engines, some do offer GUI components for tweaking certain parameters. Whether it's building sound behaviors, setting attenuation curves, or even doing complex visual scripting such as Kismet in Unreal, these are welcome additions to the sound designer and can occasionally replace the need for scripting.
As I briefly insinuated, it would be unfair to expect a sound designer to pick up scripting and suddenly be an audio programmer. This is a huge challenge for smaller studios, and a potentially tremendous difficulty in building an audio system with features one would expect on a console.
Enter one of the most beautiful, populist means of social interaction and idea dissemination in the information age: the community forum. Most engine providers support a forum or email list designed to help users solve problems collectively. Having been involved in both Unity and Unreal's forums, I have repeatedly seen people from competing companies help each other solve problems and share techniques. The end result is that everyone's game is improved through friendly cross-corporate cooperative spirit.
In regards to audio, there are people out there who can help provide insight into setting up scripts or tools to do what you need. You should never approach these forums expecting someone to write an entire system or script for you, but participants can be very helpful in pointing out issues you may have or problems you may have overlooked. It is usually just a matter of asking around, being patient, and learning from your colleagues.
One person being in charge of all sound effects, music, and audio programming is a tall order, no matter the scope of the project, which is why contractors were invented. Having a dedicated audio designer does not necessarily mean you can expect them to handle every task related to audio.
Just like other disciplines, it is often necessary to outsource certain elements of a game to maintain quality and make deadlines. In the scope of the project, outsourcing a component (be it weapons sounds, music, dialogue editing, localization, etc.) can be an efficient means of raising the sound quality bar while keeping costs reasonable. At the same time, having an internal audio designer gives the team someone to manage the relationship with the contractor(s), provide direction, and accept, reject and integrate assets.