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Getting Game Audio Right: The Big Picture
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Getting Game Audio Right: The Big Picture

June 17, 2010 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

This feature takes a brief look at how to tie audio production dates into the overall delivery schedule of a large-scale video game -- including the key dependencies you should be fully aware of.

During production, it is often the case for each component of game audio to be either dependent on some other area of work to be completed, or some other area of the game is dependent on audio finishing a particular piece of work. Understanding how all these pieces are inter dependant is the key to not only locking-in and delivering on-time, but also to staying agile and having a production schedule that is simple to read and aides communication across groups.

The working practice behind scheduling for video game production is an increasingly complicated one and boils down to an approach that embraces locking-in tightly and firmly committing, yet being ready and prepared for changes at any time.

At the same time, you must also fully understand that any changes will have implications elsewhere in the production.

Simple Task Definitions

I certainly don't wish to get into different development styles here, such as scrum, which have their own implications on task types, but I do want the "audio schedule", to be simple and clear to understand.

In order to do this I am defining two simple kinds of task: long-term, and short-term.

Long-term tasks can be thought of as either time-boxed "rapid iteration" and experimentation, or equally much longer sound implementation and development duties which do not have fully defined end-goals, but which allow time for constant iteration and direction changes, usually following in the wake of design and art feature-development and implementation.

These tasks may never be really finally completed until the end of post-production, at least from a "final sound" point of view.

Short-term tasks, on the other hand, are considered to be tasks with definite start and end dates and much more specific, defined outcomes, usually with heavier dependency. This would include audio feature code work, dialogue recording sessions, sound effects recording sessions, and so on.

A detailed and bespoke audio production schedule will only be arrived at by going through a rigorous pre-production process in which all the key components and needs of the project, such as music, dialogue quality and all other requirements are broken down broadly into these two kinds of tasks.

No matter how "agile" or "iterative" your development process is in the pre-production phases, production schedules, and the discipline of sticking to them (or at least being able to demonstrate what happens to the estimated ship-date when a date is moved out or a feature is redesigned), are absolutely necessary in game development for a number of reasons.

Firstly, they allow you to "book" often expensive outsource services and talent for a specific period of time, and to plan dollar costs. This is a similarly important element of being able to stay agile with the dollar budget for the audio on a game, as spending may adjust depending on when the item is billed.

Secondly, establishing solid dates also makes apparent a very important chain of dependencies for other areas of production, for example cut-scene production in which animation or motion capture may be unable to begin work until the voice recordings have been completed, edited and handed over as .wav files to the cinematics department.

Finally, the schedule becomes an essential communication tool between departments and allows its users to highlight changes to both in-house resources and external contract workers who may be scheduled outside of the game team, should anything significantly shift, such as ship date.

Working Backwards From Ship

One of the most effective ways of filling out a schedule is to approach it from the ship date. Working backwards from the ship date is often the easiest way to work through the dependencies on a schedule. Each major milestone is usually established by the development director, or project manager, and once this basic ladder of milestones has been established, those responsible for planning audio can begin to fill in the detail of when the audio deliverables and various kinds of work need to happen.

This, of course, does not happen in isolation, but through working closely with the scheduling being donw in all other departments, and looking at the game schedule as a whole.

Below is what could be described as a common development production schedule for a triple-A console title, in which each time-dependant discipline, tech, art, design, cinematics, etc is broken down on separate time-lines.

You will see that I have broken down each task, in both the general production schedule, and the audio schedule, into the two different types of task described earlier, short and long term, as this allows much higher level visualization of the schedule and tasks for developers with different scheduling approaches.

Figure 1: An example production schedule (top) and accompanying audio production schedule (bottom) depicting a hybrid-task view (short & long-term tasks) of audio asset production and implementation tasks. [Click for large version]

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