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[Veteran audio designer Rob Bridgett (Scarface, Prototype) outlines how audio designers can avoid creative fatigue and deliver the most compelling audio while collaborating on large studio projects.]
There are a great many reasons why gathering critical input from trusted colleagues and other sources is of a huge benefit to improving the sound on a video game production. Feedback comes in many different ways and at many different times, but not always of our choosing and not always articulated in a way that is easy to understand.
In this feature I'll explore some of the ways that feedback can present itself, when it is useful, and some methods by which this essential process can be leveraged in order to acquire some truly valuable criticism during development.
Working on a single project, from anywhere between a year and three years, can be a grueling experience on the critical faculties of an audio designer.
As most of us are aware, hearing fatigue kicks in after around eight straight hours of working with sound, at which point the audio designer's ability to make critical decisions about a particular sound, or group of sounds, becomes severely impaired and counterproductive.
In the case of short-term hearing fatigue, it is wise to take regular breaks and to arrive all the more refreshed the next working day. However, what happens with long-term fatigue on video game productions is less understood.
Becoming oversaturated in a single IP or project can have negative effects on one's critical faculties, and it is often not even easy to be aware of this kind of fatigue or even how it manifests itself. This could be one of the key reasons that freelancers decide to go freelance in the first place, and are able to function better. Not only do they work on projects for shorter amounts of time than in-house staff, but they have the opportunity to take on multiple projects and move from one to the other to refresh when fatigue sets in.
This particular kind of IP weariness could be referred to as "creative fatigue". Some of the best ways to negate the effects of creative fatigue are to take a complete break from a project, and go back to something that really inspires you, preferably in a completely different entertainment genre, such as a favorite movie, book or album, or even some kind of side-project.
Whether you do this for an evening, a weekend or a couple of weeks is dependent on how much relief is needed, but this will begin to allow your creative juices some replenishment.
However, in most cases, these kind of long-term breaks are not practical or possible, so in order to supplement your own critical faculties, it is of benefit to orchestrate and bring in outside opinions to help you see things that you may have missed. Sometimes these are small details, and sometimes they are of "elephant in the room" proportions. Whatever they are, it is beneficial to acknowledge the usefulness of outside help and opinions to the working process.
This kind of creative fatigue that I have described is very difficult to be aware of, and difficult to combat, and it may mean several things.
It may manifest itself as an inability to hear or recognize the obvious -- mainly because you have become used to them, or their sound. For example, there may be placeholder sounds in your game that you quickly wrangled in, and that have just "stuck".
It is this inability to hear certain problems that necessitates the need for useful and trustworthy feedback from a variety of different sources, at different times and of varying degrees of focus. I am sure we have all found out how easy it is to criticize other games, movies, or any other form of art or entertainment, yet effectively criticizing and evaluating your own work is an entirely different and almost impossible task.
It is absolutely critical at some point to gather feedback and input from your clients; in fact it is the very nature of a client / vendor relationship, and therefore the very nature of sound's relationship with the game or image.
Whether the feedback is in-house, in the form of colleagues, producers and designers, or whether it is from a freelancer's viewpoint actually working with the developer as a client is in some sense largely irrelevant to the process of getting the feedback you need to continue to do your job. As a freelancer, feedback may come in thick and fast at various points of exchange, or it may not materialize at all.
From my own standpoint, I have always found it better to receive and talk about feedback with a client or team colleague face-to-face, even though it is often easier as a client to create a "hit-list" in an email. It is tempting upon receiving such a list of feedback to address those issues in the same way on paper or via email, however, if time allows, ask to go over the list in person, or at the very least over the phone, by setting up a meeting.
A lot of feedback -- particularly feedback on sound -- gets confused and is easily misinterpreted through the overuse of examples from movies or reliance on particular vernacular that is borrowed from other media.
It could be that the client is very comfortable giving feedback and has a lot of experience in it, but it is not always the case. Often times feedback can have a tone to it that is perhaps unintentional, and it is actually the job of the vendor or the audio guy undertaking the work (That's YOU!) to step back, attempt to unpick the salient points, try to remove any negative connotations or personal feeling from the text, and set up a phone call or face-to-face meeting to discuss the feedback in context.
Listening to sounds or music in the context of the gameplay is crucial here, as listening devoid of context will not give either the client or the vendor any idea of whether the direction is working with the gameplay and visual direction -- so be sure to ensure that any review takes place with in-context sound and visuals.