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No More Excuses: Why quality game audio is easier than ever

Veteran sound designer Damian Kastbauer believes audio production these days is a breeze -- and that means you have no excuses not to make your game sound great.
Once upon a time, the process of recording sound and integrating it into game design was a seemingly arcane art involving proprietary sound chips and memory limitations. By comparison, veteran sound designer and PopCap technical sound designer Damian Kastbauer believes audio production these days is a breeze -- and that means you have no excuses not to make your game sound great. “Game audio should be part of your design process,” said Kasbauer in the course of delivering a talk at GDC Next on the topic of approachable audio design. “There’s no excuse for it not to be.” Game composers used to spend quite a bit of time satisfying the esoteric technical limitations of old consoles (you can read about composer Jake Kaufman's attempt to faithfully replicate those limitations in this Shovel Knight postmortem), but now anyone can produce audio that's probably ten times better with the smartphone in their pocket. “Now we’re less focused on the technical side of things, and more focused on the ‘feel’ of things,” said Kastbauer. “Now we’re trying to address a lot of the softer sides of game development; we’re evoking emotions, and we’re figuring out how to do that with sound.”

From AAA to indie, sound design is now more about heart than hardware limits

Whether you're working in AAA, mobile or indie, "it doesn’t matter what your target is – good audio techniques are all the same,” said Kastbauer, noting that nothing really changed for him between his time working on Dead Space to his time working on Peggle. The technology and the constraints changed, but the process of sound design remained the same; "It all comes back to understanding the game you’re making, understanding the aesthetic and finding out for yourself what sort of sounds will best complement it." Kastbauer also sought to reassure his fellow developers that there's no longer any reason to be intimidated by the prospect of audio production, not when there’s a diverse array of game engines and game sound software available for purchase. And which software solution is best? Whatever you have available to you. “It doesn’t matter which engine you use, as long as you like it and as long as you can do the things with it you need to do," said Kastbauer. "It seems like the Coke and Pepsi in our industry is between Wwise and Fmod – they’re both great tools, I’ve used ‘em both a bunch.” “This is a dramatic change from a time when you had to sign away your life to Creative Labs to get a copy of an audio tool, then pay a bunch of money to actually use it,” added Kastbauer. Now, developers can record passable audio with an iPhone, or pick and choose the sounds they need from sound libraries like Freesound. Also, the development community -- especially the indie dev community -- has grown to the point that even if you don't feel comfortable producing your own audio, you can probably find a collaborator to help you with relative ease. “We all know there are people out there who live to find the perfect door sound,” said Kasbauer; the trick is to find them through networking events like GDC and collaborate to get that perfect door sound into your game. And if you really get stuck (or just live somewhere without a vibrant development community) there are now online support groups like the IGDA's Audio Special Interest Group, or the #GameAudio Twitter conversation that you can turn to for help. “Communities will help you solve problems and find things you'd never know about otherwise, like NASA’s free sound archive,” said Kastbauer, closing his talk by reiterating that “really, there are no more excuses.” You can catch up on Gamasutra's GDC Next coverage all in one location. GDC and Gamasutra are sibling organizations under parent UBM Tech.

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