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Opinion: Why Audio Matters

In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, SRS Labs software engineer Jefferson Hobbs explains the impact audio has in games, how to improve audio in your games, and specific tweaks that will enhance players'
[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday-opinion piece, SRS Labs software engineer Jefferson Hobbs explains the impact audio has in games, how to improve audio in your games, and specific tweaks that will enhance players' experiences.] There are two kinds of people who are reading this article. First are the people who saw the word "audio" in a game industry site and got excited because that doesn't happen very often. And then there's the people who I am actually writing this post for. If you you fall in the first group, don't fret. You should still keep reading. I am sure you will learn something new. If you are in the second group, be brave and venture forth. This won't hurt too much. Current State Of Audio Audio is probably the most under-rated element in a game. Granted they are a few companies that value audio a lot but generally speaking it does not get the respect it deserves. More often than not audio is treated like a checkbox that you have to check before you ship. It's not something that everyone looks at with a fine tooth comb and tries to get 110 percent right. However, things are changing…slowly but surely. It's tough to quantize the amount of buzz audio is getting around the industry, but I've seen more people are starting to get into it lately. It's not over-whelming but it is increasing from the bottom up. This article hopefully will show you why audio is important and simple steps you can do to improve it in your games. The Impact Of Audio Audio has more of an impact to the game than most people think. For some reason people forget about the sense of hearing. It truly baffles me. How can someone think that the a human sense doesn't play much of a factor in a gamer's experience? It doesn't make sense (yep…that's a bad pun and you just read it. Sorry). What does make sense (sorry again) is for game developers to take a step back and look at what audio is actually doing. Below is a list of things about audio that you may not know. Hopefully, you are able to take away the point that audio is an important element in games. WARNING: I am posting some information below that are not really referenced…unless you count the word on the street as a valid reference
  • Ear Is Hard To Trick: If you have bad audio, people are going to notice. They might not realize what it is but they will feel something is wrong. One theory that I have been told by Alan Kraemer (CTO of SRS Labs), is that audio has a relatively low bandwidth compared to other senses like vision. The brain is able to do a more thorough analysis of the sound waves as a result. This makes it tough to trick.
  • Audio Makes Things Look Better: There is a famous study in the consumer electronics industry where they actually tricked people into thinking a TV looked better by only changing the quality of the sound. They took two TVs that were exactly the same except for the speakers. When asked what they thought about the video quality, more people said that the TV with the better audio looked better. I am sure that this also applies to games. Who would of thought that one could improve a game's graphics simply by improving the sound.
  • Movie Industry: The movie industry has known the value of audio for a long time now. A lot of the emotion and thrill is actaully in the sound track. Imagine a scary movie without erie sounds followed by a sudden screech. Or think about what Star Wars would be like if you replaced the sounds a crappy free sound library and generic music. The movie industry has invested a lot into sound because they know it helps them make money.
  • The Whole Brain Is Involved: Music has the ability to activate the whole brain and even trigger the production of certain chemicals. If audio wasn't important than clearly the brain would just filter it out.
  • Audio Is Something That People Need Even If They Don't Demand It: Just like with every other misconception in psychology, a person might not know what they actually need. Just because someone doesn't ask for something doesn't mean that it's not important.
  • Good Ol' Fashion Shotgun: The shotgun is everyone's favorite weapon. Why? Because it goes BOOM! QED.
How Do You Fix This First off, audio is not hard. Its not. Really. The amount of energy and man hours it takes to get good audio is far far less than what it would take to get good graphics, game play or physics. Usually the biggest road block in adding audio features is realizing that there are other audio features to add besides playback. Below I have a list of other small steps a company can do to help out their audio:
  • Get good sounding assets. You can't make something out of nothing… Well you can but it's crap.
  • Hire at least one engineer that knows audio. He/she doesn't have to work on audio 100 percent of the time, but he/she should have a knowledge of sound effects, music, or interactive audio.
  • Try to get an in-house sound designer. This might break the bank for some, but it's worth it if you can afford it. This will speed up integration time and can offer up ideas for new audio features.
  • Listen to your game's audio and critique it like you would a new game mechanic. If it doesn't sound right, send it back to the cook and have it remade.
  • Put your energy into the music first and then the sound effects. Music is played ALL the time and carries most of the emotion. Make sure that it resonates with that game and sets the environment that you are aiming for. Once you get that, you can then focus on the sound effects.
Audio Effects To Think About To conclude my post, here is a quick list of simple sound effects that you can do to enhance your game. These may be things that you have not thought of before but are trivial to setup with an API like OpenSL ES.
  • EQ of Death – Lower the 3D effect and apply a low pass filter (ie cut the treble) when the player is low on health. This will lower the clarity and disorient the player just like blurring the screen does in the graphics world.
  • Cinematic Stereo Widening – Widen the sound during cinematic points. For instance, if the player is walking down a small hall way into a big room with a boss or dramatic cut scene, you can start off with a narrow sound stage and then widen it as the room opens up.
  • Bigger Explosions – Apply a bass boost effect to enhance the explosion's boom (note that bass boost is different than just increasing the bass). Afterwards apply a low pass filter for a short time afterwards to shock the player audibly.
  • Engulfing Sounds – Apply stereo widening on sounds that encompass the player like crowd noise, fire, rain, bees, etc.
Thanks for reading! If you know of other cool things about audio, please share them in the comments. I (and others too) would love to hear about them. [This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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