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Adaptive Audio: A Tough Sell

Response to David Vink's article on Adaptive Music, and why adaptive music won't sell video games despite being a fantastic concept.

Reading David Vink's article on Adaptive Music (here is the Gamasutra link) got me thinking about adaptive audio in games.  If you have any interest in the topic, I would highly recommend reading the entire article.

Before we begin, some knowledge of my mindset going into this is necessary.  In the past I’ve done both live sound and recording, and done sound design for both short films and stage productions.  I’m somewhat of an audiophile, and the speakers plugged into the computer being used to write this are worth far more than the computer itself. 

I would love nothing more than adaptive music in video games.  Left 4 Dead has the best adaptive music of any game I’ve played, and arguably the game would not be nearly as good as it is without this adaptive music.

All this aside, adaptive music in games is a tough sell.  From my perspective as a marketer, adaptive music simply will not sell games.  Great graphics and great stories make great one minute trailers, not adaptive audio.  In the games where it works it is fantastic, but adaptive audio will never make or break a game. 

If we assume limited time and budget (and by extension design and programming hours), video game designers can get a better return on investment by investing in good graphics, a great storyline, and excellent level design.  These three things make a game playable and award winning.  Music is simply the icing on the cake, taking an already solid and good video game and making it better.

A marketer looks at how he or she can sell games.  There are several ways to do this, but one very common way is the game trailer I’ve already discussed a bit.  Most people want to see what the game looks like before they buy it.  They either want gameplay clips, or they want epic trailers that make you excited about the plot.  Music is very important in these trailers, but it need not be interactive. 

I would argue that no matter how good the programming of the interactive engine, this engine could not score a good game trailer.  Spending valuable budget on making the music in trailers excellent is far more important than good music in game from the point of selling units.  Using the same music in game and in trailers is simply more cost effective than programming a special audio engine and then having someone separately score and record the trailers.

The “music culture” that we live in is simply not conducive to adaptive audio.  The primary distribution of music for young people is through online digital distribution (iTunes), where the quality of the music is terrible.  Most people now listen to their music on their mp3 players through shitty headphones, while they are doing other things.  People rarely sit down and enjoy music for the sake of music anymore.  They listen to music as an auxiliary activity to whatever else they are doing.

One might make the argument that this new phenomenon of music as an auxiliary activity is great for adaptive music in games.  People themselves can choose what music they want to listen to at any given moment, so it follows they should be more receptive to music in games following their activities onscreen.  After all, this adaptive audio will drastically increase the immersion in a game, and immersion has been somewhat of the “holy grail” of games as of late.

But does it really matter?  I would argue that for the most part, it does not.  Music is simply not important enough to most people to think about it.  Trends in consumer electronics confirm this point. 

There is a huge disconnect between how much money people spend on computer monitors and HDTV’s versus the speakers for these setups.  People go out and buy giant 51+ inch LCD TV’s and are content with the terrible speakers built in to the TV.  As far as I’m concerned, this is an affront to Man and God, but most people simply cannot tell the difference between a good set of speakers and a bad one. 

Because most people today are far more visually oriented, adaptive music simply does not work for the majority of games when taken into a cost-benefit equation.  For each dollar put into it, a game designer will get far more units of enjoyment by spending those dollars on graphics, level design, and story.  Because nobody really knows how to program one of these adaptive engines, the initial cost of one of these engines would be phenomenal.  When factoring in all the time it takes to record individual instrument tracks, adaptive audio is simply too cost prohibitive for most games. 

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