[Veteran audio designer Rob Bridgett (Scarface, Prototype) outlines how audio designers can avoid creative fatigue and deliver the most compelling audio while collaborating on large studio projects.]
There are a great many reasons why gathering critical input from trusted colleagues and other sources is of a huge benefit to improving the sound on a video game production. Feedback comes in many different ways and at many different times, but not always of our choosing and not always articulated in a way that is easy to understand.
In this feature I'll explore some of the ways that feedback can present itself, when it is useful, and some methods by which this essential process can be leveraged in order to acquire some truly valuable criticism during development.
Oversaturation, Creative Fatigue
Working on a single project, from anywhere between a year and three years, can be a grueling experience on the critical faculties of an audio designer.
As most of us are aware, hearing fatigue kicks in after around eight straight hours of working with sound, at which point the audio designer's ability to make critical decisions about a particular sound, or group of sounds, becomes severely impaired and counterproductive.
In the case of short-term hearing fatigue, it is wise to take regular breaks and to arrive all the more refreshed the next working day. However, what happens with long-term fatigue on video game productions is less understood.
Becoming oversaturated in a single IP or project can have negative effects on one's critical faculties, and it is often not even easy to be aware of this kind of fatigue or even how it manifests itself. This could be one of the key reasons that freelancers decide to go freelance in the first place, and are able to function better. Not only do they work on projects for shorter amounts of time than in-house staff, but they have the opportunity to take on multiple projects and move from one to the other to refresh when fatigue sets in.
This particular kind of IP weariness could be referred to as "creative fatigue". Some of the best ways to negate the effects of creative fatigue are to take a complete break from a project, and go back to something that really inspires you, preferably in a completely different entertainment genre, such as a favorite movie, book or album, or even some kind of side-project.
Whether you do this for an evening, a weekend or a couple of weeks is dependent on how much relief is needed, but this will begin to allow your creative juices some replenishment.
However, in most cases, these kind of long-term breaks are not practical or possible, so in order to supplement your own critical faculties, it is of benefit to orchestrate and bring in outside opinions to help you see things that you may have missed. Sometimes these are small details, and sometimes they are of "elephant in the room" proportions. Whatever they are, it is beneficial to acknowledge the usefulness of outside help and opinions to the working process.
This kind of creative fatigue that I have described is very difficult to be aware of, and difficult to combat, and it may mean several things.
It may manifest itself as an inability to hear or recognize the obvious -- mainly because you have become used to them, or their sound. For example, there may be placeholder sounds in your game that you quickly wrangled in, and that have just "stuck".
It is this inability to hear certain problems that necessitates the need for useful and trustworthy feedback from a variety of different sources, at different times and of varying degrees of focus. I am sure we have all found out how easy it is to criticize other games, movies, or any other form of art or entertainment, yet effectively criticizing and evaluating your own work is an entirely different and almost impossible task.
It is absolutely critical at some point to gather feedback and input from your clients; in fact it is the very nature of a client / vendor relationship, and therefore the very nature of sound's relationship with the game or image.
Whether the feedback is in-house, in the form of colleagues, producers and designers, or whether it is from a freelancer's viewpoint actually working with the developer as a client is in some sense largely irrelevant to the process of getting the feedback you need to continue to do your job. As a freelancer, feedback may come in thick and fast at various points of exchange, or it may not materialize at all.
From my own standpoint, I have always found it better to receive and talk about feedback with a client or team colleague face-to-face, even though it is often easier as a client to create a "hit-list" in an email. It is tempting upon receiving such a list of feedback to address those issues in the same way on paper or via email, however, if time allows, ask to go over the list in person, or at the very least over the phone, by setting up a meeting.
A lot of feedback -- particularly feedback on sound -- gets confused and is easily misinterpreted through the overuse of examples from movies or reliance on particular vernacular that is borrowed from other media.
It could be that the client is very comfortable giving feedback and has a lot of experience in it, but it is not always the case. Often times feedback can have a tone to it that is perhaps unintentional, and it is actually the job of the vendor or the audio guy undertaking the work (That's YOU!) to step back, attempt to unpick the salient points, try to remove any negative connotations or personal feeling from the text, and set up a phone call or face-to-face meeting to discuss the feedback in context.
Listening to sounds or music in the context of the gameplay is crucial here, as listening devoid of context will not give either the client or the vendor any idea of whether the direction is working with the gameplay and visual direction -- so be sure to ensure that any review takes place with in-context sound and visuals.
Setting Up Feedback Opportunities During Development
I have found that people on a game team usually always have feedback to give on the audio. However, the timing and the context in which they give their feedback is usually less than ideal and they may actually need encouraging to step up.
For example, a first iteration of a feature will go in and require audio support. First pass audio support and implementation goes in, and then the feature is reviewed again. There will often be a list of improvements and sometimes they will not include audio because it is assumed that, as this is first pass, that many things will improve. It is essential here to try and encourage some initial feedback for the audio in the feature, as even the smallest of comments can be taken on board to improve the audio with the next iteration, and so on.
At other times feedback will come in the form of impromptu visits from designers, which should always be welcomed. Again, these visits and the free flow of feedback should be embraced and encouraged.
Once a dialogue is set up it is so much easier to keep it going. You could also get emails from designers or producers which require several back and forth emails before a face-to-face meeting is finally required.
The thing that concerns me most is that more people on the game teams aren't giving feedback more often via either email or face-to-face with audio designers, either because they assume that something is going to change about the sound throughout production, or that they aren't actually listening to the game during review sessions.
Bear in mind, this feedback -- while of course invaluable -- will usually be coming from the same team that has also been working on this project and IP with you for the last two or three years, so it must also be considered that the critical faculties of those team members are also potentially skewed by their proximity to the project and could also be tinged with creative fatigue as described earlier.
In order to get around this, and potentially gain some meaningful feedback from a completely fresh outside perspective, it is time to take some wider opportunities to leverage various forms of structured feedback.
The Audio Director's Role
I realize that the role defined above sets the audio designer up as a vendor, much like a graphic designer, whose role it is to interpret a creative brief for the client. However, this is actually somewhat of a disservice to some audio personnel who actually have a role that far is greater than that of an implementer and designer -- those who are in fact the holder of the audio direction itself.
Where an audio director's role is somewhat different from the audio designer's client / vendor role is that they have the power and accountability to say "no" to ideas and suggestions, be they from designers, producers, or executive producers. At the very least they have a responsibility to address issues in different ways than those suggested.
This is often a difficult role to reconcile when many audio designers have come from a "client pleasing" non-directorial background in film, TV or media and now find themselves as the owner of creative vision as well as the implementer and designer of effects, music and dialogue. It often comes down to being able to take on board all feedback and suggestions and to know what is worthwhile and what is worth discarding.
This role actually includes, in my opinion, the ability to be able to schedule and solicit good opportunities for feedback from key stakeholders, and from fresh outside perspectives at key points on the project.
These wider opportunities for feedback, rather than the usual day-to-day feedback that is available from your natural working relationships, present themselves only every so often during the production of a project, and if an audio director is organized enough, they can be used to leverage and act on feedback in time to provide vital quality improvement or even course-correction as required.
Wider Opportunities for Feedback
Receiving feedback from a much higher level, and from entirely new and fresh sets of ears is a golden opportunity to gain some real insight into how the game really stacks up to competition and if it is really doing what is intended.
There are a couple of logical times to bring in "third-party" opinions on a game's audio. If you are completing a Vertical Slice Demo, it more often than not will be a reasonably polished piece of work that has had some considerable attention put into how it sounds, and will hopefully be somewhere close to how the finished game will sound.
Feedback acquired at this stage will allow for some major course corrections to be made prior to hitting full-scale production; when all the mighty resources of voice-over recording, composition and sound effects creation are put into action. These forces, once committed, are very difficult to stop or even to have change course, so this is perhaps the most fundamental time at which to gather controlled, specific and open feedback from as many different perspectives as possible.
Another great time to gather feedback is for any other demo build that is being produced, perhaps specifically for a trade show such as E3, anything that gives someone a finished and polished slice of the game to go away and play.
By far the best feedback you will get will probably come as part of your Alpha or Beta build of the game, and unfortunately it is at this stage that very little can be done to affect things like the creative direction of the voice-over or the style of the music, however, any feedback at this stage can be appropriated and taken onto the final mix of the game.
This gives you a hit-list of areas to downplay, or areas to push forward and bring to the foreground during the critical final mix, or even a hit-list of a handful of weak sound effects whose replacement would benefit the game as a whole can be attempted during post-production.
These times are all ideal opportunities to employ one, or several, of a few different methods of collecting feedback...
The Mock Review
This is a common approach used by most publishers and marketing departments in order to get sales estimates, however it is a technique that can also be used to the advantage of the team, particularly if the reviewer is asked to comment specifically on several areas of the game such as sound effects, music, and dialogue.
If you know your company is planning to do one of these, I strongly suggest you get involved and make sure that the reviewer is encouraged to write a few words on the audio. Simply being relieved that the audio wasn't mentioned in the review isn't really enough to know that you are doing the best job you can.
This allows you to outline your audio direction, your intended effects on the audience, and also to ask very specific questions in relation to the sound of the game. You may also use this to gather less specific, or "open", feedback, such as likes or dislikes about the sound in the game.
This method is a generally a more useful method for gathering and concentrating attention on a few key areas that you may have already flagged as in need of some thought.
For quicker feedback sessions, it's often good to schedule a meeting, get a whole bunch of people in a room and to play through five to 10 minutes of the game and have a roundtable-style discussion about it at the end of the session. The downside of this is that not everyone will get their hands on the game and be able to feel how the sound works while they are playing, but it will allow for much quicker feedback.
The big advantage to this is also that it is a face-to-face forum and that people can think about what they are going to say out loud in front of a group, which allows them to prioritize the stand-out points, rather than making a larger list of smaller less relevant items.
These roundtables can be done with members of the team, with out-of-house game testers, or with a handful of other audio guys from within the same publisher (if you are able to get them together in the same room).
Sending builds out to external third-parties isn't going to happen very often due to NDA and non-compete clauses, so unfortunately the people whose opinion you really want may work for another publisher and therefore are not legally available to listen to your game.
One of the best ways around this is to conduct and organize a peer review with other game teams' audio departments who belong to the same publisher, or if you have a two or more team model in your development house, to arrange this with those teams. This will often be the most detailed, and audio-centric feedback you can get, and it will generally be respectful and of a caliber geared specifically towards audio, using a lot of your common vernacular.
This is something that is now commonplace in the industry and is set up and run often without the knowledge of the audio team. Where possible, try to get involved in the playtesting planning, ensuring that the audio setups that the players are using give the best sound.
Also, try to get some of the questions geared towards the audio style, mix, likes and dislikes. This is a free and objective source of feedback that can easily be piggybacked by audio to get valuable pointers on how well the sound is doing its job.
Structured Regular Reviews
Aside from the above rare windows and opportunities for planned feedback, there is a great deal of benefit, and indeed necessity, to having regular audio reviews with key members of the team and including all members of the sound team.
This allows everyone to regularly touch base with what has changed in the game, to review and present new feature work that has recently made it in and to provide a platform to give the producers and designers a regular way to stay in touch with the progress made with audio.
This also allows them a specific time in which to think and focus more on audio, and also an area to address issues, talk about problems, present solution ideas and also to praise and motivate the audio team on a weekly basis.
I've found that smaller weekly review sessions among the audio team work well, and that bringing in some key stakeholders to larger monthly audio review showcases allow these personnel to see the bigger changes in the audio design, while feeling like they don't have to constantly be forced to listen to the game all the time and provide ongoing feedback.
Providing a forum like this for the team actually takes pressure off the audio department in having to pester the entire team for feedback, and asking them to play the game all the time while listening to the audio... I wouldn't really wish that on anyone working in game development.
On a final note, I would suggest seeking feedback from trusted sources, even non-audio folk or non-gamers. These sources will be able to tell you a lot about your work and will absolutely pick up on things that you have not considered, whether good or bad. The only challenge really is an administration issue, in getting an NDA appropriately signed and agreed upon, but if it is considered under the same notions as play testing, then it can be handled more easily.
Above all, as audio designers, we need feedback to do our jobs, at almost every stage of development, and at every professional level. Ultimately the more in control of the process of receiving feedback we are, the more useful it will be to us as sound designers, and the greater benefit it will be to the game and the team in the creative and iterative process.
[Photos by Pedro Ribeiro Simões, vagawi, and Neil T, used under Creative Commons license.]