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Chicken, Egg, and the Perpetual Suck Machine: Why Mobile Game Audio Matters

This blog sets out to dispel industry-wide stereotypes about mobile game audio and outlines compelling reasons why audio has a serious bearing on a games' overall perception, and can elevate or pull down that perception.

Guy Whitmore, Blogger

April 13, 2015

7 Min Read

"Nobody listens to audio in mobile games anyway, so why bother putting much into it?"  


Boy, if I had a dime…  Interestingly (and sadly) I hear this sentiment as much from audio professionals as I do from producers, designers, and managers.  


Before proceeding, I should note that I have (and have had) the truly good fortune of working with companies and game teams that understand the power of music and sound and how it deeply affects their games. But that luxury has come with time and investment spent educating, convincing, and demonstrating that power and potential to anyone who will listen.  So in that spirit, this blog sets out to dispel industry-wide stereotypes about mobile game audio and outlines compelling reasons why audio has a serious bearing on a games' overall perception, and can elevate or pull down that perception.   Games are definitely more than the sum of their parts, and only as strong as their weakest link. 


I readily acknowledge that a certain percentage of players will play mobile games with audio off a percentage of the time (and some may never play with audio), but that doesn't change the fact that a good percentage of players will listen to audio much of the time, and most all players will experience it at some point along the way.    Whether gamers choose to return to the game with audio on largely depends on the quality of the audio design and its integration within the game as a whole.  If a mobile games' audio is sub-par, then people will turn it off and leave it off.  If people turn off their audio because they don't like it, it feeds the anti-audio sentiment oft quoted above, which leads to less time, care, resources, put into mobile audio.  Wash-rinse-repeat a few thousand times and that sentiment grows into an industry-wide given and creates a debilitating stereotype.  And despite the many mobile games that have quite excellent audio experiences, this larger stereotype looms like a dark cloud.


The Ghost of Audio Past

 If I played you a video clip of PacMan without sound, you'd still hear the 'wakka wakka' sounds in your head.  If you saw a soundless clip of an old Mario game, you'd be humming his tune almost instantly.  This is the power of audio and its ability to transcend the moments in time in which it was actually heard by the ears.  Even hearing something once, leaves you with a lasting impression, positive or negative, about the experience overall.  So when a gamer plays a mobile game with audio on a few times, then with it off the next day; that impression, that ghost of yesterdays audio, will still be there, making an impression, …positive or negative.     


The Stealth Sense Perception

Part of the reason people often give audio short shrift is precisely the same reason it contains such immense potential in any medium, namely; you don't overtly notice sound much of the time.  Sound sneaks under the radar of your waking consciousness, bypassing your frontal cortex (logic center) drilling directly into the lizard (fight or flight) and mammalian (core emotional) parts of your brain .  You react to sound and music before your logic circuits have a chance to think about or assess it, if you think about it at all.  This stealth, heard but not heard, phenomenon of audio is a powerful tool for heightening the players' affinity and emotional attachment to your game.  (read This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Leviton for more on this specific topic)  


Aiming for the status quo of the present, dooms you to live in the past

We all know that this industry moves at the speed of light, and if you only target what today's hits are doing in terms of production and design, you will miss the trajectory of progress and potential in mobile games by the time you ship.  Areas that are generally weak in the current crop of hit games should be considered opportunities for differentiation, growth, and innovation for up-and-comers.  A paint-by-numbers approach to game making may bring in short term gains and profits but is very unlikely to spawn a long-term IP that lives beyond current industry trends.  Audio is notoriously underutilized in games across many platforms and genres, and thus is one of the most cost-effective investments game makers can make to raise the overall perception of their game.  


Side-By-Side We Live and Die

Mobile user scenario #1: You pull out your phone on the bus, don your earbuds/headphones and listen to a podcast, followed by 15 minutes of playing your current favorite mobile game. Later, waiting in line for lunch you play the game for 10 minutes with sound off.  On the evening commute, you check out a few new Radiohead songs on iTunes then play a few more levels of your game before flipping over to Netflix to catch the an episode of House of Cards the rest of the way home..  

  This example is to point out that there are many audio-media experiences on smart phones, and game audio will be heard next to content from all other mediums; TV, film, music, etc.  Audio in most of these mediums is created and mixed to a high level of quality, so it's important to remember that game audio is heard side-by-side with and compared to these mediums (consciously or not).  And our games, and game audio, need to hold up against those other mediums.  From a marketing perspective, we're directly competing with those other mediums for the mobile users' time (and money).   Listening in Extremes:  Silence, Tiny Mono-speaker, or Intimate Headphones "Phone speakers sound crappy anyway, so why bother…?"  First, those tiny speakers, though limited, actually represent audio pretty well for what they are.  But more importantly, phone users very often have earbuds or headphones on, which is the most intimate listening experience there is.  Ear buds are literally two small speakers nested in your ears, where every detail is heard.  So why would any game developer knowingly allow garbage to be shoveled directly into their customers' ears?!  If your audio is grating, down goes the perception of your game, your IP, and by association your company brand.     IP and Audio Branding The experience your game presents to players creates an affinity for that games' IP.  Affinity for your games' IP creates brand image and company loyalty.  That affinity, starts with an emotional response to a game, and emotions are influenced by all the senses.  Audio is a huge part of a brands' impression.  Advertisers know this (Intel, etc.) Film makers know this (Star Wars etc.)   Conversely, sub-par audio can drag the overall impression of an IP right down to the basement, impeding that IP's chances of longevity and sequels.     Smart Audio Design Finally, excellent game audio is much more than quality audio assets.  The design and integration of those assets play an equal role in the overall audio experience.  Ive played games where the mood of the music perfectly suits the game but has absolutely no connection to the game design.  This generic type of integration may leave a good first impression but will likely be turned off over time.  Sound and music work best when assisting the game design, following the ebb and flow of the gameplay session and its range of moods as well as its function.     Breaking the Cycle To begin breaking down mobile audio's chicken-egg conundrum, I believe the responsibility begins with game audio professionals, working to raise the bar while nudging and encouraging their development teams to strive for better, smartly integrated audio in their games.  It continues with development teams and leadership realizing the tangible and substantive impact audio has on any game.  For mobile gaming, sound and music holds a potential that's just waiting to be tapped. 

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