In his delightfully morose keynote at the Austin Game Developers Conference, Jason Page, Sony Europe's R&D audio manager discussed the present and future of game audio, musing that "working in the games industry can be an insular experience," but then going far beyond -- revealing new Sony tools Sulpha and Awesome along the way.
Page, who at times sounded uncannily like a wittier version of Marvin the Paranoid Android from Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, discussed the possibilities that the extremely swiftly moving game audio world needs standardization on a massive scale.
He asked as a starting point, "How much could we be doing, and what's stopping us?" Unfortunately, he noted, the public and press don't notice sometimes when relatively backward audio is ported to next-gen systems.
For example, there are some relatively recent games (presumably family-centric ones) which actually use the PlayStation 2 version as the base, and have the sound files and methods ported to all the other platforms - including the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
In addition, Page noted ruefully: "More developers are porting [audio] to the PS3 than from it," though he said that hopefully that will change in the future and there will be significantly more machine-specific audio improvements.
But overall, in a keynote that laudably set aside platform-specific concerns to concentrate on the industry as a whole, the Sony manager agreed that there's not a lack of imagination or skill in the game audio business. It's just that "we've had many years of going down one path."
A great example, according to Page, is the use of footsteps in games. As he notes: "Everyone always has footsteps." But why? He thinks there might sometimes be a shopping list for sound effects, and things get included that may not make total sense.
He illustrated this issue of footsteps with a Star Wars movie clip which firstly ran as it was actually scored, and then, hilariously, added footsteps to the sound effects around C3PO and Darth Vader.
As Page explained, "Maybe we don't need to play everything all of the time," even though "it's easy for computers to do that... and that's the problem."
Of course, apart from simplification, there's plenty of extra sophistication going on in many games, Page pointed out -- with surround sound virtually default in next-gen titles, and lots more opportunities to use filtering and other real-time effects.
But, he noted, "Innovation has to be cost effective too," before going on to point out some more of the cliches currently endemic to game audio -- among them the epic orchestral soundtrack. (Later in the Q&A, Page pointedly said, "I want to hear more Philip Glass soundtracks in games, as opposed to John Williams.")
The Sony manager works on codecs and tools for the PS3 SDK out of the London office of the firm, and as part of his talk, explained some intriguing new tech that the company is working on.
Firstly, there's Sulpha, which should debut by the end of this year for authorized Sony developers, and is a PS3-specific analyzer and debugger for multistream audio. It shows volumes and outputs for audio, and you can capture every single function you've called relating to audio within it.
It will also capture surround sound 3D co-ordinates, and show them as graphical representation, and you can send capture data to audio support at Sony directly, which should make it much easier to debug.
Interestingly, Page also revealed early screenshots of Awesome, a Sony-authored scripting engine that detaches the audio engine from scripting. It uses the iXMF open format, and it's cross-platform using OpenAL 1.1.
The editor, which will probably come out next year at some point -- presumably for Sony-approved developers -- is aimed at audio designers. As Page noted, we "should no longer expect audio designers to become programmers" -- thus the fully featured, GUI-based engine.
The company is trying to open tools like Awesome up to be at least a possible basis for a wider, industry-uniting effort, in some similar ways to the Collada standard has been for visuals.
As Page explained by way of conclusion, standardization of input and output formats is important. Pro audio has the MIDI format, and the VST format is standard for plugins. There's no standardized sample bank format for game audio, for example. Though he's working at Sony, he's hoping that tools such as Awesome will help pave the way for such a trend industry-wide.