Appreciating good game audio

Sounding Sweet Studio owner Ed Walker addresses the discrepancy in value between audio and visuals in video games.
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Ed Walker, owner of recording studio Sounding Sweet, offers his thoughts on why sound is becoming a more crucial factor for video game developers, and his predictions on the future of the sector.

As an audio professional with over 10 years experience in the creation and production of sound for video games and visual media, I have always pushed myself to improve my skills, but I have also evangelised the value of good quality audio to the producers and directors of the games I have worked on.

The word ‘value’ has several meanings – it is not the digits surrounding our equipment controls that I wish to consider, the moral rights or ethics of audio, or in fact budgets and monetary value, but rather the importance or worth of audio when compared to its visual counterpart.

At the beginning of my game audio career I frequently felt that audio didn’t command the same attention or respect as the visuals. We often seemed to be on the back foot and at the mercy of the ever-changing game development goal posts – very much reactive rather than pro-active. When compared to our film, television or music production brothers we had seemingly limited resources. We didn’t have the necessary equipment, facilities and support to create the audio experience we wanted to.

Over time I started to feel very differently about the game audio work I was doing; I was actually part of something that was developing and gaining respect in a more rapid way than in many other areas of game development. The game design department began asking about how sound and music could be used to support their gameplay concepts, and as game audio guys we started to be included in more meetings about the ideas and features that we would ultimately have to support from an audio point of view.

As surround sound became more commonplace and the technology became capable of reproducing high-fidelity positional sound at runtime, audio was embraced as a way of adding to the overall game production values, but also as a way of making the experience more immersive. This ‘inclusion’ of audio has brought the audio quality bar up to meet that of the high visual standards that current generation consoles are capable of reproducing.

The value of audio is arguably more difficult to define than that of its visual sister. It is often the case in audio that ‘less is more’ and for creative reasons, adding value might even be creating space for silence. When one looks at a short section of film or visual media, it is often very clear that a lot of effort has gone into creating a visual feast of perhaps fast cars, explosions, helicopter shots and complex visual effects. Even when the visuals have been created rather than recorded there seems to be something infinitely more tangible about the visual experience as opposed to the audio mix. 

Interaction

When developing a game there is a third dimension, which depending on the game genre could be more important than either the visuals or audio production values, and this third dimension is gameplay. Not only does the modern cinematic game audio mix have to support the next generation graphics, but also more importantly it needs to do this while supporting the gameplay and being tied to the input from the gamer. Interacting with a game is often quite literally tangible and therefore perhaps the most valuable aspect of all.

Audio in games has become more valuable; it is no longer possible to hide behind the limited channel counts, low-resolution playback and file compression, as these limitations are no longer a valid excuse. Many game development studios and audio outsource companies have invested heavily in their audio production facilities over recent years, and this has helped raise the audio quality bar and add value to game audio in general.

So what is next for game audio, assuming that I am correct in my theory that audio has now largely met the cinematic high fidelity quality bar of films?

I believe that the value of game audio will continue to be embraced not only by the big triple A console game developers, but also by the smaller independent mobile developers that are looking to add value to their gaming experiences. Perhaps binaural audio for mobile gaming will become more commonplace, and with the audio expectations of the new virtual reality technology, developers are looking to their audio departments and outsource partners to not only support that highly immersive experience, but to build on the technology and techniques that have been developed over the last 10 years as the value of audio appreciates.

Ed Walker has over 10 years of experience working on triple A gaming franchises such as Forza Horizon, F1, GRID and DiRT. Having built his audio production facility Sounding Sweet from scratch just over 12 months ago, Walker now finds the studio a finalist at this year’s Develop Awards.

Picture: Forza Horizon 2

www.soundingsweet.com

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