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A Revolution in Sound: Break Down the Walls!

Rob Bridgett, audio director on Prototype 2 issues a rallying cry for the mixing of the audio discipline with the rest of the studio, and opening up the closed studio space to collaboration -- perhaps even suggesting a fundamental change in studio structure.

[Rob Bridgett, audio director on Prototype 2 issues a rallying cry for the mixing of the audio discipline with the rest of the studio, and opening up the closed studio space to collaboration -- perhaps even suggesting a fundamental change in studio structure.]

Video game development is a collaborative and iterative endeavor, where artistry, design, ideas, and technology intersect, with creativity at its core. There is one analogy I have found useful -- although not always accurate -- in summing up the industrial and collaborative nature of development. Think of it like a Hollywood movie production with no single director; instead, a group of peer directors run each discipline: art, sound, design, and technology. Ideally, they don't run them independently.

Having these directors, and their teams, work together collaboratively on the push and pull of a shared vision is perhaps one of the most compelling and gratifying aspects of the development of video games, yet it is rarely something that is reflected in the design of the spaces we use. What causes this? The designs and functions of audio department suites and sound studios is a major factor. There are a number of very specific problems that have arisen out of the soundproof box design currently found in most, if not all, game development houses.

On paper, the requirements for a development studio are clear: a collaborative and open environment through which different disciplines can easily move, work, and play. Creativity, iteration, and innovation are the cornerstones of our business as developers. "It was just one year ago that 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the number-one leadership competency in our complex global marketplace," says this Co.Design article.

Yet, where audio design is concerned, I believe we are at a crossroads where old, outmoded sound studio design and architecture is failing us on an industrial scale in not allowing us to fulfill our collaborative, critical and iterative role.

But, wait a second. Surely soundproofed audio studios are necessary to the work of a sound designer? This is, in one sense, absolutely true, at least of the actual asset creation, tuning and implementation work.

The problem requires different kinds of thinking -- for example, one or two transparent glazed walls or windows in iso booths with sight-line access, built in central positions within team spaces, answers the design requirement of isolating sound (in order to do the work without distracting or distraction) without isolating the occupant. Headphones are temporary options, as they are more fatiguing for the wearer than listening through speakers, but they should certainly be used as a flexible tool in a more agile armory.

This is an idea about promoting a "culture of sound" throughout an entire company, so rather than being cloistered in quiet, solemn spaces, audio designers are integrated in the team. They could become more used to sound (and the distraction that comes with it) in the office as a part of everyday life.

I want a culture where sound is not literally invisible. This, I hope, would provide an alternative vision to the common notion that audio production needs to happen in a studio. In fact, I don't believe this is true of the work of a sound designer; the collaborative conversations and meetings are as crucial, if not more so, as a part of designing sound. I think the notion of sound work needs to be broadened into production (creating and working with sound assets themselves) and ideation (or "design" discussions). Both are equal parts of the process.

With architectural and cultural change answering these challenges -- these two forces are invariably intertwined -- we could be on the brink of a true renaissance in video game development. That's a bold statement, I realize. Let's consider the factors at play and what we can realistically expect to gain from a different working attitude and environment.


Opening the Door to New Ways of Working

I personally believe, as an industry, we are not looking outwards nearly enough at other interdisciplinary crafts and creative businesses in an attempt to see where different environments, thinking, creative problem solving and working practices can be assimilated into our production culture. There isn't much of a way in for new ideas, especially in terms of the day-to-day process of creating and prototyping features and eventually shipping successful games.

We are overly guilty of looking to other games, and sometimes cinema, which has its own failures -- but most often only for examples of content, rather than working practices. We are almost too busy working in and on games to recognize failures in our culture (there are many, and they are well documented: crunch, etc.) and seek change. Failure is an opportunity to iterate and improve, a pathfinding tool to success -- but only if we embrace and recognize it.

The likes of Apple, Google, Pixar, and Ideo are places where an open, critical, iterative and collaborative culture is deliberately built into the DNA, and, crucially, the working environment itself. The work process itself, reflects this with open meeting, play and work spaces that evolve and change as the teams work together on solving design problems.

Sound production and direction suffer acutely from being uniquely reactionary (at the end of the dependency and production line) in the industry, yet the real problem is that sound is an afterthought in the creation process itself. As an audio director, in my work across several different studios, I've seen too many missed opportunities arrive too late in production.

Perhaps the only real solution to the afterthought culture is for sound to be an active participant in the design process itself. This is not an easy integration to accomplish, particularly in a production culture that's already beginning to stratify, which is a worrying trend for such a young medium.

Some, myself included, have had reasonable success here, sitting on the team space at certain times during production and operating as part of design and story "cells", yet the momentum needs to push further in this direction. We need a more culturally embedded approach. Interdisciplinary practice should be a more natural and sustainable feature of the working culture of an audio designer. It is ultimately the work of many years of change.

Culture of Critical Collaboration

How then, do we as audio designers on a team, move forwards out of the bunker studio and silo cell mentality? In actual fact, I don't think it is fair to call the sound studio culture a "mentality". Here is the crux of the problem. It is a working practice that has evolved out of, and is perpetuated by, studio design.

Working as a audio director, I know how easy it is to become entrenched in an enclosed bunker, often working alone. The isolated box becomes a cultural, creative, and solitary cell in which there is little collaborative spirit; the longer you spend in there, the more a full-scale retreat from the team becomes inevitable.

Think about it. "There are sound-proofed comfortable studios available to work in. I need to get work done. There is no space on the team floor. Why would I need to be (or even desire to be) in the comparatively boisterous shop floor?"

My point here is that sound studio spaces are isolationist by design, and intimidating to others on the team thanks to a typical closed-door policy. In fact, the truth of the matter is that audio suites are mostly viewed by the rest of the team with a mixture of envy and disdain. While I won't argue that these spaces, and their acoustic treatments, are essential to producing high quality work and assets, they unfortunately do this while negating the fundamentals of collaboration.

It should also be said that, of course, a sound designer shouldn't be in one place all the time, be that on the team floor or in a sound studio; audio design is a flexible, dynamic, and energetic endeavor. What is required is a flexible open studio design to facilitate this movement and cross-collaboration.

In fact, we need a radical rethink not only of what a sound studio means, but what a development studio means, and how it functions for interdisciplinary collaboration. One architectural proposition for a forward-looking, fresh video game studio design, would be for an audio studio design and layout that forgoes the traditional hermetic audio studio design in favor of a social, collaborative and flexible space, or a sporadic network of studios that is part of the wider team, yet maintaining the integrity and dedication to a sound friendly space (free of AC hum and hiss, computers hidden away in machine room spaces).

I would even suggest that there be no "non-sound" spaces included in the entire design, and that every space include elements of a sound-savvy culture such as speakers, headphones, acoustic treatment (flexible and mobile), listening stations etc. As a young and wealthy industry, it is difficult to understand why we aren't already commissioning and working in spaces that positively influence the way we work.


Until These Studios Are Built, We Need to Have a Workaround

Having an audio department be a visible, available, active participant in the team culture and problem solving process is something I believe is all too often missing from the wider culture of video game development, despite valiant efforts on the part of some groundbreaking audio leaders within our industry.

Damian Kastbauer recently pointed out one such incredible design effort on the part of sound designer Stephen Hodde, whereby he devised a series of beautiful cigar-box audio switchers to encourage, and make simpler, the process of team members listening to the sound of the game across different platforms.

Greater collaboration between the sonic, visual, technical, design, and story elements of video game production are essential at every part of the production process.

So I issue this rallying call -- though it may fall on, if not deaf, at least tired ears.

Sound teams have to get outside the studio cell. They need to be a more active participant in development on the team floor, in the team space and in team life. They have to be mobile, agile, and comfortable working in an interdisciplinary context.

Sound ideas are not tied to or dependent upon the availability of a studio, or even a computer, although we cling on to these old ideas. Collaborative conversations and ideas can happen anywhere; they may only be capable of realization at the sound workstation (another concept that probably needs reevaluation), but the most powerful part of any idea is the conversation that brings the idea into being as a working part of a larger idea.

These ideas and ideals may be easier for a smaller agile team to achieve, but there is absolutely no reason that larger teams cannot be at the vanguard, and many more reasons why they need to be.

A Path to Interdisciplinary Problem Solving

Below are a few notes for growing a more collaborative environment between the sound team and the wider development team. These are probably also some of the core principles for the design of a future development studio architecture, but I believe that as we start to work more collaboratively, these spaces may evolve naturally.

  • Leave the sound studio, even if only once a day, to walk around the team space and engage in conversations. Establish a routine that works, changing that routine when it becomes stale.
  • Invite others into the studio spaces; open up these spaces for meetings, impromptu or otherwise. Whether you are there in a creative capacity or just sharing the space, allowing team members not to be intimidated by the sound studio is a huge step to breaking down any unconscious, or conscious, barriers to collaboration.
  • Encourage everyone on the team to contribute ideas about the sound of the game. In whatever method works, be it email, open idea sessions, beer nights (a favorite) -- ideas can come from anywhere, and even if initially seem not to have an immediate application, can feed further ideas or pop up again later when least expected.
  • Play and critique competitors' games together as a multi-discipline group. Critical faculties are often sharper than creative ones, yet are a part of the same thinking. Rather than just the sound team critiquing the sound of a game, having a multidisciplinary group play and dissect together will provide enlightenment to the differing reasons and thinking that is done by say, artists and designers. Something may sound terrible to the audio guys, but may be fulfilling a crucial role for gameplay. Discovering and discussing these differences in perspective holds value on all sides.

Fostering and maintaining this environment among the pressures of a production cycle is difficult. At some point the sound asset creation and mixing work takes over and needs to get done. However, I believe that an architectural solution can provide a sea change in some problematic thinking within the industry, and if sound is present at the inception of any project, the collaborative spirit, mutual accountability, respect and trust will continue to be of influence throughout production itself.

"Non-audio" collaborators (a term I also hope will dissolve eventually) will feel more comfortable expressing ideas and feedback, and sound designers and directors will feel more at ease with the communication of ideas themselves, as well as being a more trusted and prominent collaborative voice in video game development.

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