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Sometimes a Fireball is Just a Fireball: The Quest for Creativity in Sound Design

Especially for newer sound designers, balancing creativity and personal style with creating believable sounds that fit the client's needs can be a journey.

My most recent sound design job has me creating effects for a lot of magical elements. Most of us, I would guess, have never heard the sound of a fireball called down from the sky by a wizard. Yet, we all have some notion of what that might sound like. We'd certainly notice if it sounded wrong.

In creating a library of fire spell sounds, I had to consider where our ideas of 'fireball sounds' come from. Films, other games, and our own fire-related experiences--from the lighting of a match to the whooshing of a gas furnace coming on.

I set out to record a long list of elements for my fire wizardry. Myself making various "whooshing" sounds into the microphone, for the incoming fireball. Sizzling eggs, for the aftermath of the impact. You get the picture. Start layering them in a DAW, adjust the EQ, try out some distortion.

But, here is where I struggled. I got a nice whoosh of fire, with a sizzling impact. It was very recognizable: Whoosh. Sizzle. It was only lightly processed. But it wasn't enough. I wanted it to be special. I wanted it to sparkle with magic and mystery.

I opened up some synths. Ring mods. Percussion samples, repitched and time stretched. I wanted it to be creative, a fireball no one had ever heard before. Eventually I scaled back the frenzy, layered together a few more elements, and launched off a magical fireball to the devs.

Their feedback indicated that it was "too arcane." They just wanted a burning ball of death.

What I created wasn't believeable. At least, not in the realm of this game. It's like I made some really nice buttercream icing, but slathered it on a steak. (Maybe that appeals to you. Even so, you've gotta admit the oddness would draw your attention.)

Here's the point. Especially as a newer sound designer, I feel a lot of pressure, self-imposed or otherwise, to have a personal sound. To bring something different and exciting to all the effects I create. And there's nothing wrong with that. The trouble is, sometimes a fireball just needs to be a fireball. I read a great article by Artur Tokhtash on the sound design for World of Warships, and he says

Sound design shouldn’t be so much ‘heard’, as it should be ‘felt.'

The magic in this fireball was definitely heard.

Of course, in some cases, the sound design may be more in the forefront. But in every project, we also have to channel our creativity into other avenues, such as knowing when to stop. Restraint can be more difficult than creation. That gentle EQ curve and subtle distortion ended up going a lot farther than my synths and effects and layering on this one.

For every project, a number of things will play into successful sound design. Your personal sound, your client's wishes, the aesthetics of the game, the budget and resources available. One of the demands for your creativity is balancing and merging all these. With these considerations, your task is simple, although challenging: Create sounds that convince the players to believe what they see.

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