Developers, Meet Your Reviewers
There is a mysterious realm that every game must travel through on its way into the hands of the consumer: the video game press. There’s no denying the immense impact that reviews can have on shaping public opinion and influencing sales, and there’s a huge gap between the development team and the consumer’s living room sofa. Yet, as important as great reviews are to our collective bottom lines, most game developers know little—if anything—about the enigmatic processes that go into shaping a game’s final review scores.
Guiding us through this alien world will be Jeff Gerstmann, senior editor of GameSpot.com, and Peer Schneider, vice president of content publishing for IGN.com.
A Question of Fit
To begin, I asked our insiders how much time is typically devoted to evaluating a game’s audio. Both admit that audio rarely gets singled out during the review process. According to Schneider, “A trained reviewer listens to the audio the entire time while he plays through the game, and constantly notes what he likes and what he dislikes.” Gerstmann agrees, saying, “We’re really concerned with how the audio fits into the complete package, rather than taking the audio out of context.”
This concept of audio “fitting” is a common theme when talking about the process of reviews. For Gerstmann at GameSpot, reviewing audio is about “trying to start with as few preconceived notions as possible. When it comes to audio, I’m usually looking for sounds that fit the action. If they fit, are they used properly?” IGN’s approach is similar. “While a lot of games strive for authenticity, we’re also looking for originality in sound design and how well the sound effects match the actual game.”
Frequently, audio is judged on how well it fits within its given genre or alongside preceding titles in the same franchise. GameSpot has “reviewers that tend to specialize in a handful of genres,” says Gerstmann. “As such, that person is usually also familiar with the previous games in a series already.”
For Schneider, “How a sequel stacks up to its predecessor is an integral part of all our reviews. If a game is known for its grand score or amazing surround sound and the sequel doesn’t live up to those high marks, then we’ll note that.”
Speaking of grand scores, it’s a question of fit regarding a game’s soundtrack as well. “As for music, some of the same stuff applies,” says Gerstmann. “Music that loops too frequently tends to get annoying very quickly. Licensed music that doesn’t fit with the action just sucks. Ideally, music should be a cohesive part of the game, not another revenue stream.”
With so much riding on the reviewers’ subjective perceptions of the audio, the importance of aural presentation becomes paramount. As such, I asked our two media outlets to describe the environments in which our work is being heard. As it turns out, both companies have surround sound systems they use for evaluations.
At IGN, “reviewers have access to a Dolby-certified demo room loaded with consoles, PCs and a 16-player LAN room. A Denon receiver and a Klipsch 7.1 ‘Reference’ speaker setup to ensure that the reviewers get to hear the games’ full audio potential,” says Schneider. This is likely not used to review every game, though. At GameSpot, reviewers have “TVs with basic stereo speakers as well as a 5.1 setup that we can use for games that support it. It’s nothing terribly fancy.”
For both outlets, this was a primary concern. “We tend to find that the average game player doesn’t have the best TV or sound setup in the world,” says Gerstmann. “We’re attempting to mirror their experience.”
Schneider concurs. “Editors spend considerable time playing and evaluating games on smaller screens and via headphones. We take the actual player into account when reviewing audio.”
Inevitably, it all comes down to the final score. So what separates a 7 from a 10? Again, both organizations had similar ideas.
“An audio score of 7 would apply to games that have competent audio with some obvious flaws,” explains Schneider. “These flaws could include boring compositions, issues with voice acting, mismatched or delayed sound effects, or crackling audio. A 9 gets you into ‘fantastic’ territory. Things really have to come together for the high scores. Any game getting a 10 in the audio department nails all aspects of the package. The audio presentation would have to be technically proficient as well as perfectly match the gaming experience.”
Gerstmann adds, “Fidelity also comes into play. As a recent example, Driver: Parallel Lines uses pre-rendered cutscenes, but also has in-mission dialogue. In the cutscenes, the speech is crisp and clear. In-mission, it sounds grainy and lo-fi like, as if they dropped 8-bit 22KHz samples in there. That’s probably an exaggeration, but the dramatic difference in audio quality becomes quite glaring over the course of the game.”
Driver: Parallel Lines
In the end, “there’s no mathematical formula for figuring this stuff out,” says Gerstmann. “It’s really a matter of weighing the good against the not-so-good and figuring out where it falls.”
Recent academic writing on interactive audio often paints an outdated picture of the state of the industry, as one that is a fledgling art, of one that is inferior to film and one that has established very little academic credibility.
One of the main failings of academic enquiry regarding interactive media is that the industry climate changes so quickly and is so diverse from company to company, that theoretical notions which become accepted texts are practically out of date as soon as they are printed. The critical state-of-the-art for game production does not occur in academic institutions, but in the actual industry itself, creating a situation where academic work has to constantly play catch-up with the industry. This raises difficult questions in both areas.
In one of the only key texts to emerge within the last few years on interactive music and sound to receive an academic platform: ‘Harnessing The Power of Music and Sound Design in Interactive Media’ (1), Stephen Deutsch offers some enticing historical imagery with regards to comparing interactive music and sound to film sound historicisation.
The piece also serves to illustrate how attitudes have changed in game production since it was written in the year 2000, several of it’s major issues with game sound are now worthy of revisiting from an industry perspective.
“[on use of sound in games] The model is of a "filmic’ reality (which many people mistake for actual reality), a reality which seems appropriate to the user…” (1)
If written now and by examining the breadth of genres of game available and the plethora of different ways in which listener perspective is defined and manipulated, (first-person shooters, third-person RPG, variable listener perspectives) all contribute to a ‘reality’ whose scope is beyond the ‘defined’ relationship of the audience / listener in film.
“…But the use of sound here [in games] is often too literal, sound effects rather than sound design - a pale imitation of the sound design used in film” (1)
This statement does reflect a time in game development where little care or concern was given to sound. Around ten years ago, the sound department for a game development company would invariably be one person, someone who didn’t specialise in one particular element of sound production, but rather was ‘jack of all trades’, composing, creating sound effects, mastering, mixing, recording and directing dialogue. Film sound production relies as much, if not more, on commercial sound effects libraries (sound effects) than in the current climate of interactive media.
Budgets and particularly development time now allotted to sound design in games often surpasses that of film in terms of bespoke effects and unique methods of implementation and recording. Games such as EA’s Medal of Honor series take care to record every sound effect in the game, the level of self-criticism and dedication of those who work within the industry has forced audio to take this route, and such attention to detail has paid off.
Scarface: The World is Yours
More recently notable film sound designers such as Dane Davis and Randy Thom have now become engaged with game audio, most notably with Thom’s recent involvement in Scarface: The World is Yours. The only difference between game audio and film audio for these high-profile sound designers are technical differences, mainly relating to sample rates. These sound designers think of sound design for games from a storytelling viewpoint, in exactly the same way they do for developing sound design for a movie.
“The continuing weakness in this area [sound design for games] is due to the unnecessary constraints in the production process, based upon old methods of operation. These constraints place sound near the end of the chain of production” (1)
Sound has evolved to occur at the end of the production process in film, however in games this isn’t the case, or more accurately, is only the case for freelance contract content creators. Sound Designers, Sound Directors, and Composers all have legitimacy right from day one of an interactive project in the in-house model. This follows through audio design documentation, style guides, reiterating content, right through the project’s production life-span, right into the Alpha stage of product development. The only comparable phase to that of film post-production is the Beta phase of game production, usually at which point all assets are merely finalised or mastered.
Sound is represented and championed all through the production from project inception to gold master. Both in film and games there are a great many cases that now prove otherwise. While film learned the lessons of relying on post-production only for sound design is not necessarily a great idea, games have learned that being able to include a post-production phase at the end of a game is a good idea.
“This is why any systems which enable scripting of the sound to lie in the hands of a sound designer are highly significant — together with a wider recognition of the power and importance of sound within the rest of the development team. It is also essential that sound be placed near the beginning of the planning process.” (1)
As Deutsch predicted, scripting has now for some time been in the hands of the sound designer, and for more in-depth control over any of the game’s content there exists a strong sense of communication throughout game production teams. If access is required to any piece of game-side data, one can merely ask the audio programmer or the responsible staff member, such as AI programmer, to expose those parameters to the audio engine. Audio is now widely recognised by all other disciplines in a development team. When the various disciplines of a team are working independently on several sides of the same object there can be no failure in communication.
“It would be a wise move for games manufacturers to commission a survey as to how many users actually do turn the music off, or would do so given the opportunity” (1)
The ability to choose one’s own soundtrack has in fact become a defining feature of interactive entertainment. Games give the player a rich and independent control over the mix level of sound effects, dialogue and music independently and allow a custom mix preference. This also, of course, allows players to turn off the music and to play their own music along with the game, allowing users a hitherto unavailable degree of freedom – echoing older debates of cultural artefacts being taken out of their original and intended contexts. (2)
“There are two types of music for moving pictures: diegetic music, music which is part of the action (the characters in the film are meant to be able to hear it), and (not surprisingly) non-diegetic music, music which is in the background, part of the film making process, similar to the editing, lighting, camera movement, etc. The first type is not really an issue here. This second type is worth considering with particular reference to interactive moving pictures.” (1)
As predicted in “Harnessing…” diegetic music has since bloomed into a rich area for interactive entertainment – it features strongly in games today – Rockstar’s ‘Max Payne’ and their ‘Grand Theft Auto’ series, to name but two pertinent examples, both make innovative use of music emanating from within the game diegesis.
“…many "in house" composers simply do not have the skills (and perhaps, alas, the musical talent) to take this exciting form further” (1)
This may well have been the case as little as five years ago, however, interactive composers have earned their positions, they must achieve a high degree of sophistication and deep understanding of their project’s style and structural framework, requiring cognitive skills and ‘musical talent’ often on par with those of many linear composers.
Deutsch’s article served to highlight the shortcomings of the games industry in a period where it was embryonic, and provided some useful areas into which it could develop. It is interesting to look back now, after only around five or so years, and see how far game audio has evolved and progressed both towards and away from it’s antecedent of film sound.
Writing on Game sound, in addition to defining itself outside film, needs to also distinguish itself between academic or ‘industry’ debate and self-promotional vignettes. Both of which are very different modes of writing about game sound. The future of writing about game audio will no doubt begin to polarise between these two states even more as academic institutions do more work in this area.
There have been dramatic shifts in the importance placed upon sound and music in games over the last seven years, the industry is in better shape than it ever has been, still poised for more large-scale growth. Yet, at the same time, the vagueness of the supporting literary climate often undermines these successes. One way to open the academic arena up is to ensure academic writers become more involved directly in the development community, in addition to this stronger links between universities offering courses in interactive sound and the industry itself are needed in order to strengthen the academic standing of interactive audio. Both the Vancouver Film School and the National Film and Television School in London deserve particular mention here for already making this happen having great involvement from industry sound designers in their courses, which enable them to stay up to date with the cutting edge techniques of the industry.
Provided that recognition is given to the rapid shift of working practices since the birth of the medium, and efforts are made to build closer sinews between universities and commercial game development environments, there will certainly follow a subsequent shift in the accuracy of any theoretical writing.
(1) Deutsch, Stephen. ”Harnessing The Power of Music and Sound Design in Interactive Media” (2000) – Self Published on the Bournemouth University Website (2000)
(2) Benjamin, Walter, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" in Illuminations (translated by Harry Zohn) Fontana 1992