Who Are We Catering To?

* This was first published on CreatingSound.com and was edited by Ariel Gross


I had the opportunity to attend GDC this year and to meet some of the people behind the games I play and consider references. I got to pick at their brains and get details about their approach.

One thing they all shared was the need to push the boundaries, refine the processes, or further advance their toolsets. The conversations usually involved a technical challenge, followed by some sort of solution. Some of the solutions were temporary while others were more permanent. The process of constant iteration and improving the pipelines was to achieve the goal of creating a better product and to create a more immersive experience. But to the end user, what does that all mean?

What happens under the hood is a mystery. Even between departments it is sometimes difficult to fully understand what’s going on. Of course, players might understand the concepts of reverb, asset variations, and interactive music, but what really matters to them is what it sounds like.

That’s why some games just work. It’s because they’re designed for the player. They’re not created to be played exclusively by other developers and lost in a jargon of technical approaches. They’re intuitive. They’re challenging, but easy to understand, making the player’s progress fun. That comparison can be seen everywhere, and a good (but extreme) example is architectural functionalism. The core concept is this: Does the design serve it’s purpose?

Who do you design for? The designing process involves me thinking about the player. How will he or she interact, or interpret what they hear; is it clear? There is a part of me that also thinks of how my colleagues will hear it. To create something my peers can enjoy and analyze often helps push the product even further. However, when taken too literally, this can lead to the demise of the design.

When we think next-gen, we think more versatile tools, a more dynamic mix, more variations, more access to gameplay elements. Well, maybe, and I assume this list won’t harm the experience, but what truly makes a great sounding game for the player? I wish I had the answer. Hell, what it sounds like to me depends on so much, time of day, my mood, the listening environment… I don’t think there is just one answer, but i’ll throw one out there and see how it sticks.

Transparency. We prototype, design, and master, constantly refining our toolsets, all while compromising to fit within our technical limitations. All of that just to make things work, but the real challenge is in making it seamless, unnoticeable… as in nobody noticed it. This brings me back to the title question: Who are we catering to? Let’s not forget that.

Where I’m From

With origin stories making their round, I figured it’s a good time to publish mine, as well as shout out those who helped along the way.

Internship @ Wave Generation in 2006
Internship @ Wave Generation in 2006

Prior to The Secret World, I had the opportunity to work at Wave Generation, an amazing game audio outsourcing company catering to anyone requiring a sound solution. I am so thankful that they took a risk and invested in a young student! What started as an internship in sound design ended with me managing my own project. Dave, Mike and Noémie (owners), allowed me to learn and grow beyond my expectations. I learned so much from Michel (sound designer), Nico (composer) and JC (mixing and recording engineer) in my time at Wave Generation. Although our relationship started off as professional, over the years we have developed a friendship and an appreciation towards each other’s work.

We have been known to still hang out regularly to talk shop and make pretentious remarks about films and games. My first duties during my internship were sound design for ringtones. Wholesalers would place orders via spreadsheets and we’d do our best to make it work. I had the opportunity to edit the original Family Guy tones and even the Death Row Records discography. Of course we had original concepts as well… like farts, lots and lots of farts.

Dyno recording for Army of Two in 2008
Dyno recording for Army of Two in 2008

Soon after I started working on game audio projects and this involved editing files, helping out with spot fx, composing and implementing. My first taste of implementation came when I was scheduled to work on “High School Musical: Makin’ The Cut” for Nintendo DS using Nitro SDK. Those were great times! I was eager to optimize every sample to make the music shine through those little speakers. Soon after, I began editing dialogue for the original Crysis. From that point on, my primary focus was working on game projects (which was part of the master plan ). I had the opportunity to do sound design on TERA, Army of Two 1 & 2. Voice casting for Far Cry 2, Deus Ex 3, Civilization V. Dialogue post-production on Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age 1 & 2 and so many other great games. Throughout my time at Wave Gen, I worked with countless teams that allowed me to build on a standard that I am proud of and continuously improving. Working with studios like Ubisoft Montreal, Eidos and Firaxis had an integral role in my growth as an intern and subsequently as a sound designer. The audio team at Bioware Edmonton taught me so much that I know today, and I can’t forget the dozens of projects Ludia and Behavior sent our way, each one more fun than the last.

After five years of working as an external solution, I decided to cross over. Funcom Games made an offer and I accepted. My mandate was to create and implement creature sounds, environments, and handle dialogue post-production on The Secret World. #TSW is an action-adventure mmorpg by Ragnar Tørnquist where you get to unravel mysteries and kill monsters. Players travel to New-York, New England, Egypt, London, Seoul, Transylvania and tons of unworldly locations. Truly a sound designer dream. Being the first batch of audio members at the Montreal studio, my colleague and I had to learn quickly as the project was in full production. Hitting the ground running is an understatement! Simon Poole, our Audio Director based out of the studio in Oslo, Norway did a fine job directing the project and showing us the ropes. This is also where many of the creative heads are located. We’d always get face-time with the talented and forward-thinking Ragnar, Martin, Joel and Rui who probably know Montreal as well as I do after this project!

With The Secret World launched and a vacation long overdue, I’m excited for what the future holds. A big Wilhelm scream for the audio community, let’s keeping pushing that envelope and see where it takes us. See you in-game.

Saba Week @ CreatingSound.com

The team over at Creating Sound dedicated a week to me filled with an article, a video diary and even receive an interview. It was an absolute pleasure and honour. To recap here are some of the topics and posts:

Making of a Monster
is a video diary I shot on how we created the sound design for the Ur Draug creature in the mmorpg, The Secret World by Funcom Games.

What is an Ambient Sound and Can it Replace Music?

What is ambiance? It can be described as the environment or atmosphere of a location; or simply an emotion that an area evokes. All of this can be done without the use of music.

Within the game audio industry, ambiance falls into two distinct categories: Sounds the environment produces and harmonious elements associated with the surroundings, such as tones, swells and transient sounds; all of which are meant to evoke emotion from that location.

Sounds the environment produces can be manifested in many different forms. For instance, in a forest you might hear the wind, leaves rustling, birds chirping, grass swaying, etc. These can be directly associated with real life sounds. They can be fine tuned and exaggerated, or dumb down. This all depends on the creative vision.

The second category of ambiance takes precedence over the latter and dictates what you “should” feel. Your safe isolated forest can quickly turn into a danger zone, by adding one eerie wind layer.

By combining the two, you reinforce the direction of the playfield, be it unearthly, dark, possessed, suspenseful, or whether you want to play it peaceful and safe. These emotions can be achieved without music and the advantage is two-fold. This allows the subconscious to decode the information without music constantly pointing at the obvious. Deception can be used as a tool, playing off of anticipation. If 95% of the time your peaceful ambiance represents a safe zone, 5% can be used to fool the player into an attack. This introduces a dynamic environment, an additional sonic cue that can be more powerful than music as it is more subtle and the player becomes conditioned.

One of the biggest advantages is that players of certain genres are known to turn the game music off. This is understandable if you’re an mmo player that cranks 25+ hours a week. In this event, the sound effects and dialogue remain intact and your dynamic environment becomes just as important. We all know how crucial it is for competitive players to receive audio cues!

These are decision that need to be established early on in pre-production, by designing consistent sound palettes and implementation techniques. What do your environments need to sound like? Will they be more realistic, magical, or maybe a combination of the two? Is there a day / night cycle? How is your engine going to play these sounds back? Will it be stereo, quad, surround?

A bit of planning will ultimately benefit the player significantly.

Did You Notice That Sound?

There’s a common expression amongst among audio professionals that goes: “You know it sounds right when you don’t notice it”. More and more this term can be heard from all levels of experience, almost as though it is the golden ticket to creating a compelling sonic experience.

From what I can gather, the term was coined to reference general technical queues. For instance when mixing between onset recordings and post produced ambiances and dialogue. Or choosing specific reverbs to emulate environments with the use of plug-in effects. That said, I agree, it should be unnoticeable and avoid distracting the listener, just like any other department strives. However, as this is used in dev diaries, articles and conference rooms, it’s becoming just as mainstream as the expression “Audio is 50% of the experience “, though I do like that one more.

As this expression finds its way across meeting rooms, without proper staff to defend it, a dumbed down sonic experience is the consequence. The more creative audio concepts are pushed aside for more conservative choices.

This now popular expression has audio professionals alike second guessing their work, to the point where experimentation and risks take the backseat to certainty and safe choices. We should strive to take chances and try new approaches creating an immersive and engaging experience that make gamers hear the direction we set out for in our pre-production documents.

The solution is to educate those that refer to this out of context and correct them, let them understand that simple is good, but fresh can be great! For once let’s put the reverse cymbal to rest and try something different, something the gamer does not expect.