More and more these days, videogames are captivating both fervent and casual fans with a sly mixture of graphics and audio. As audio hardware is constantly upgraded - some now boasting 5.1 capability - sound designers and composers are being called on to deliver sounds on par with their peers in the feature film business. Many of the aural professionals we spoke to for this month's feature on videogame audio, in fact, view feature films as their main competition for the hearts and minds of gamers worldwide.
At the same time that demand for more dynamic titles is growing - reports suggest that console sales fell last year by 2.7 percent. That decline belies the $10 billion in sales companies such as Sony, Nintendo and Microsoft had last year. That decline could be chalked up to a number of factors, most obvious is that Sony's PlayStation 3 and Microsoft's XBox 2 won't be released, at the earliest, until late 2005. The good news, for those who were concerned about having to prepare audio for four different consoles that had divergent audio requirements anyway, was the fact that Sega left the marketplace when their Dreamcast was discontinued.
Whether these pros are working on sports, action or fantasy games, the challenges continue to grow in this market. This is what six facilities had to say when it came to working on audio for videogames.
Composer Jesper Kyd recently completed the score for Hitman Contracts (left).
Bay Area Sound Department
The audio team at the Bay Area Sound Department (www.basound.com), or BASD, has been busy providing sound design and music on a number of titles for LucasArts (Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic), Blizzard Entertainment (Starcraft: Ghost) and Double Fine Productions (Psychonauts). Music director/composer Clint Bajakian and audio director/ sound designer Julian Kwasneski are former members of the LucasArts staff who opened their doors in 2002. Last year Bajakian scored the game Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb for LucasArts.
"The challenge in videogames is that you have to master all the different aspects of the production process," Bajakian reports, "and it calls upon really different fields. You have to be a competent audio engineer, but you also have to be an artist and a talented composer or sound designer and know how to create high quality music and sound." Additionally, he says, being a team player and having the technical background to understand hardware and memory constraints are crucial.
BASD has stocked its San Francisco area studio with all of the conventional audio post tools: a Digidesign Pro Tools Mix Cube system, a pair of Digidesign 888 I/O interfaces and a TASCAM TM-D4000 digital desk. Bajakian recently moved over to Steinberg's Cubase SX on a PC. "The reason I moved to PC is because the technology, largely led by Steinberg, is so cutting edge," he says. The switch wasn't just one machine in a room; rather BASD added six machines that are linked via a gigabyte LAN. One PC is the Cubase host, one holds Bajakian's woodwinds, one holds brass, two machines hold strings and the final is a LAN-based GigaStudio from TASCAM. He uses the East West Quantum Leap Symphony Orchestra library.
Based on his experience, Bajakian has a number of tricks that he's found to work in this market. The first is the design and creation of music and sound effects, and making sure they all work together. "The other area that is critically important is how to interact with the people who are actually building the game, because you have to represent the interest of the audio quality while you are simultaneously designing and creating the audio," he explains. "You have to be an advocate and be proactive in working with the team to push through really cool things that may require some of their work to make it happen.
Composer James Hannigan wrote the score for Republic, which is known as a "God-game."
"The third trick is that you have to meet with them personally," he continues. "It's the only way to get truly involved in the project, to get excited about the project and to understand what they're really all doing and the pace of the production process."
Soundelux Design Music Group
Sound designer Peter Zinda at Soundelux Design Music Group, which is part of Ascent Media (www.ascentmedia.com), was challenged by the variety of scenes in Atari's game Shadow Ops: Red Mercury for XBox. "It's a very dynamic environment," he says. "The game puts the player in a first-person shooter perspective and depending on the level it can be very busy with things going on. For example, in the beginning of the game you're dropped into a firefight that's going on in a Middle Eastern town where there are mortars exploding all around you, people are shooting at you and teammates calling to you. It's a very intense environment."
Coming up with the sounds for the game was fun for Zinda, who borrowed some gunshot tracks from the movie Blackhawk Down, where he served as a sound recordist. "We were able to do some things that we've been wanting to do for a long time and the technology has finally developed to a point where we were able to do that," he says. "We did three versions of every gun because the sound of a gunshot changes depending on the environment it was fired in. So, we had an indoor, outdoor and urban version of every gun that is designed specifically for those environments. For example, the interior gun has a short interior sound and for a large space we used the reverb that's inside the XBox to provide a longer reverb. The outdoor guns echo off the surrounding hills and valleys and in the urban settings you can hear the gun shots slapping back off buildings."
Zinda turned to Pro Tools 5.1.3 and a variety of outboard gear and plug-ins to manipulate the sounds. Outside of the DAW, he used an Eventide DSP 4000 and within Pro Tools the Waves bundle - Waves EQ and the L1 and L2 were used. "It's great in Pro Tools to automate the EQs if you want to leave something full range at the beginning of the sound and then restrict the frequencies toward the end," he explains. "On a feature film they spend months mixing and trying to balance the music, the dialogue and all the sound effects. We really tried to incorporate that process into mixing this game, but for a game you're not using a mixing console; it's all being done with the Microsoft XBox audio creation tool." That doesn't necessarily mean making everything loud. "We very carefully went through every level and balanced the background and music," he reports. "We wanted the music to have a volume curve to it that we couldn't do inside the software, we would actually pre-render it."
"The challenge in videogames is that you have to master all aspects of the production process," says Bay Area Sound's Clint Bajakian. His partner Julian Kwasneski is pictured at right.
The extended audio capabilities of consoles like the XBox are an exciting trend that Zinda is seeing. "Everything is being designed for 5.1 audio now," he reports. "It used to be that we were limited to loops of a second or two seconds long that had to be mono and sounds were played back at very low sample rates. Now we can have full sample range audio playing back."
While working with audio director Joe Zajonc and sound designer John Young at Zombie Studios, Zinda learned that the entire game was going to be a cinematic experience from the script to the game play. While it aimed to be feature film in feel, Zinda knows from experience that sonically things are not the same. "There is not a one-to-one relationship for audio for cinema and audio for games," he explains. "For one thing, they are experienced in a totally different venue. People hear a movie in a theater that's calibrated to 85dB and peaks can go up to over 100dB, but games are played in people's living rooms and have a much quieter volume. So, as a sound designer you have to take that into consideration and you have a little less dynamic range to work with.You have to make sure that your sounds are even more interesting because they are going to play out of speakers at a lower volume."
EA Sports' Oge Young and Aubrey Hodges (top to bottom) make sure gamers feel like they are on the field when playing Madden NFL Football 2004.
In the "If it's not broke, don't fix it" department, Electronic Arts Sports (www.ea.com) is just finishing work on the Madden NFL Football 2004. It's the 14th year EA is releasing the game. For the audio team of producer Oge Young and audio director Aubrey Hodges, though, the game itself is a challenge. "The audio challenge with the game is that Madden is a simulation game. It's our offering that tries to most closely represent real-life football," Young explains. "So, there's the realism aspect of it, but audio is a place where you get to pump it up a little more. If you're watching a game on Sunday afternoon, you won't hear most of the things you'll get to hear in Madden from the perspective of field sound effects."
"When you're watching on television, the number one thing they're wanting to hear is the announcing, so you're hearing a lot of talk but you're not hearing a lot of action. When people play the game they want to feel like they're making the game happen. When they take their linebacker and slam into a running back and put them on their back, they want it to feel like they did that. The challenge for us is to take it as far as we can without stepping on the announcers we have in the game, because John Madden and Al Michaels play a big part in the game."
Indeed, perfecting the Madden/Michaels interplay was a challenge for Hodges when he started to work on Madden 2003. "We had to go through all the audio and find a way to normalize so the volume was even and also treat the equalization of each file separately so that the files blended together better and you could hear Madden articulate these things when all the sound effects were firing off as opposed to a bunch of low-fi audio," he explains. "That was a big task, because there's somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 lines in the game."
To get the on-field sounds that pepper Madden, the EA team uses a Fostex PD-4M portable DAT machine with an Audio Technica AT835ST stereo shotgun microphone. "We record either directly to Pro Tools or directly to Sony Vegas with the Layla 24 audio card," Hodges reports. We use a list of plug-ins too long to mention, but included are Waves and TC Tools and Digidesign." There are also a fleet of proprietary audio tools developed by EA that offer power and flexibility in their sound design. "What I can say about the tools that we've developed internally is that most of them are developed in a way that the goal is to put more power into the hands of the sound designers," Young explains. "Things that in the older days of game development you needed a programmer to implement, we're trying to lay down the low-level code of that and put the power of how game events and parameters affect audio." The game was mixed either with Pro Tools or Vegas and the music was mixed in Logic Audio.
Starting with the introduction of CD-based games, both Young and Hodges have seen an upward trend in quality. "That was where you could start getting full resolution voice and music," Young explains. "Now, with XBox you've got your first system with digital surround and no hit to the processor in terms of system resources. You're going to see that from now on in other systems." In PlayStation 2, Hodges adds, there is an option for Pro Logic 2 that is growing in popularity.
Just setting up a digital multitrack record-er and a stereo shotgun mic isn't the key in getting good tracks for sound design, and Hodges offers this tip: "To get a discrete surround sound recording we use two microphones with one guy at the 27-yard line on one side of the field and the other guy at the 27-yard line on the opposite side of the field at a diagonal angle. The two recordists then roughly point the microphones at each other's directions, but up a little," he says. "Although they are shotgun mics, the dispersement gets so wide by the time you're going from one end of the stadium to the other it becomes a pretty wide pattern, and you do pick up a lot of neat details. So, when you're listening to the recording it almost sounds like you're standing on the field of play rather than being on the stands."
Blitz Digital Studios
While many post houses concentrate on console games, the team at Blitz Digital Studios (www.blitzds.com) builds the animation and audio for Internet games in either Shockwave or Flash. Mark Cohn, executive producer at Blitz, is working on a number of games, including a new one based on the movie Sky Captain and a game for Nestle. The challenge for Cohn is making sure the audio sounds good during play. "For Sky Captain most likely I'll get music from the movie, so we'll loop that," he explains. "That game will be downloadable and we can be a little more free with what we do as far as file sizes and compression. The Nestle game is more of a straight online game, so we'll have to be smarter about how loops are cut up."
Almost more than that, Cohn faces the challenge of working on sounds that will be delivered on a widely divergent set of platforms. "If you're doing something for XBox, there's specific hardware and specs that you can follow; there's things that you can do with the hardware," he reports. "We have to make sure that everything is going to run on anybody's machine. There are still people using computers they bought a couple years ago. There are still 56K users with really slow computers that can still handle playing the game. There's also the balance between decoding an MP3, which is pretty CPU heavy, at the same time as graphics things that are pretty CPU heavy. We have to shuffle that around."
Sound designer Peter Zinda of Soundelux recently worked on Shadow Ops: Red Mercury for XBox.
While writing music for games, Cohn turns to Logic on a Macintosh G5, which is relatively new for him. "I used to have Pro Tools, but I've gotten rid of it because it pretty much [got] in the way of writing music," he says. He's hoping that in the future he'll be able to use the compression scheme Oggvorbis for his Macromedia work. "There are issues with the loops while using MP3s with Shockwave and Flash because of the way the thing compresses," he explains. "Not being able to use it is a huge issue for me, because often programmers don't want to pull something externally. They don't want to do something tricky."
That said, there are a few compression tricks that he uses to get the job done. "I'm able to set compression rates for each sound individually," he says. "For sound design stuff, the way MP3s compress is the first thing it rolls off is high end, obviously. I keep that in mind and I'll use more high frequencies and make it a lot shorter, whereas an explosion, I can make it long if I want, but I just compress it like crazy. I just want to make sure the balance is still good."
Composer James Hannigan (www.jameshannigan.co.uk) is challenged every time he starts to work on a new videogame versus a film for one simple reason. "It's all very different, because the application of music isn't the same," he starts. "I mean, you can't plan exactly what you're going to do with the music. It's much easier in a film, because it's going to be locked to picture." How he moves beyond that is coming up with very general segments of music without a narrative. "It's quite inhibiting not working with picture. When you're working with picture you have to make sure the music will work with the picture. So, really, the challenge is working with the playback system and tailoring the music to work with that."
Another difference between game and movie music is the music is often used for narrative support and to underpin emotions in films. "In games the player is making the story for themselves, and if you apply music like in a film you start telling them things they don't know yet - they are writing the story in a sense," he says. "That's why the option exists to turn music off in a game, because it's something detachable for them."
As an example, Hannigan points to the game Republic, which is loosely known as a 'God-game' since it enables players to create scenarios for themselves and make their own story. In Republic a player tries to become the president of a fictional Eastern European country by any means possible. "Games like these are not so reliant on telling pre-existing stories or showing the player cut-scenes," he explains. "For this reason, there's little for composers to work with if they are seeking to write music to picture in any traditional sense."
So, in Republic the composer chose to indicate how well the player was doing via background music. "It's a musical state arrived at by making calculations using variables from the game," he explains. "The reason I think the music had some impact on the players of Republic might have been to do with how it provided information for them for which there were no visual cues. In that sense, the music became integral to the game. I have no idea how successful Republic was or wasn't, commercially speaking, but for me it was a welcome opportunity to do something different with music - something usually prevented by the industry. This was partly thanks to Elixir, the developer who wanted to break away from the norm and partly because they provided an excellent audio coder on the project."
Hannigan's gear choices will vary from studio to studio, though he'll turn to the Cubase and Vegas tools more often than not. "I like to work within a PC, since that's where the game is most likely going to be developed and played," he explains.
One of the trends the composer is seeing is "polarization, where you've got the big movie game launches on one hand and hard core games on the other," he says. "When I say hard core games I mean conventional games that aren't mainstream. It's almost like Hollywood where you've got the blockbusters at one end and you've got the art house things at the other end." Hannigan speaks from his experience, since in addition to Republic he's been scoring Catwoman, an upcoming EA release that's tied in to a feature film release.
Jesper Kyd Productions
Jesper Kyd (www.jesperkyd.com) recently completed the score for Hitman Contracts, the third title in that series, as well as the film Night All Day. He took two paths to finish the projects, because "when you're writing for games you've got to be careful to write music that people can listen to many times in a row," he explains.
"Sometimes you're stuck at a certain part in the game where it might take you an hour or two just to complete that puzzle or figure out how to solve that puzzle. So it can't be like film music where if you have a big action scene and the film score is all full of lots of thundering brass and big stabs."
Typically, Kyd adds, those things wouldn't work in a game's action scene. "That kind of music is pretty annoying," he says. "It works in the movies, because you only have to see it once, but imagine watching that sequence over and over. That's what I try to do. That's not what a lot of people are doing, but that's my philosophy on game music - to make music that's really interesting to listen to and has some interesting elements so when you hear it for the fourth or fifth time you find new elements you haven't noticed before."
That approach supplies his trick for making game scores that don't foster fatigue. "It's kind of like the philosophy when bands put out their CDs," he reports. "That type of music is also designed to be listened to over and over. That's my mission in games. I tweak my producing skills a lot and I feel that almost half of what I'm doing now is just kind of producing the sound, making my own sounds and sampling all my own kinds of stuff. While working with orchestras and choirs, I always try to put something interesting in there as far as electronics or beats. My suggestion is to go for your own sound and if you can make your own type of music then that will benefit you in the end. It's going to be a lot harder to come up with your own sound. It is a lot easier to copy the general Hollywood sound of today, but if you do it the long way and you're still making music after five years, then you're musical style is going to be that much more unique."
Kyd's list of gear includes around 28 different keyboards, from Yamaha's CF80 and VL1 to Roland's V-Synth to an Alesis A6 Andromeda. He turns to a double Bitree patch bay with a Yamaha O2R console.
"The gaming industry is changing a lot year after year, because there's new gaming machines coming out every two or three years," Kyd reports. "It's not like the movie industry where things have kind of been the same or are looking like they might be the same for awhile. Things keep changing in the gaming industry, the machines keep getting faster and right now most of them have
5.1 and it will be something crazy after that. So, you're kind of on the forefront of the entertainment industry when you do videogames."
What that means to him when it comes to a trend in the videogame market is higher production values in sounds and voiceovers.
"Music is a completely different matter," he counters. "I still feel like 90 percent of the game music these days sounds kind of generic and boring to me. It seems like a lot of people are going for that Hollywood sound and usually they end up saying that it sounds almost as good as a Hollywood score. If somebody said that about my music I would be really disappointed. I try to go for my own thing where the music stands on its own."