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Soundscapers for a $100 Billion Dollar Industry

Being a specialist in today's gaming ecosystem has gone from being an asset to a liability. To be successful in today's game industry requires creative versatility, technical diversity, and most of all, leadership within a wide range of game genres.

Soundscapers for a $100 Billion Dollar Industry 

There is no denying the massive growth of gaming as the #1 choice of popular entertainment for kids, teens, and adults in nearly every developed country in the world.  Long gone are the days in which “video games” were the subject of fascination for just acne-ridden, pasty teenagers and college kids playing World of Warcraft and Halo in their basements.  With the explosion of mobile gaming and the mass popularity of games like Candy Crush and HayDay, gaming is not the industry it once was.  The lines are blurring, the tides are shifting, and the once-iconic titans of gaming, companies like Electronic Arts, Activision, and Ubisoft are now in serious jeopardy as a new era of gaming has emerged.  The rise of King.com, and its now-famous IPO and valuation of billions based almost entirely on the success of a single, simple, match-3 candy crushing game, is the best example of how the gaming industry has fundamentally changed, forever.

It is obvious that gaming is on the rise, but not as you might have imagined.

With the #1 demographic of these “casual games” being female players between the ages of 35-50, and with an entire new crop of “mid-core” mobile and tablet games targeted at the traditional male audience, we are heading towards a $100 billion dollar gaming industry by 2017, as the venerable Dean Takahashi predicted recently in Venture Beat: venturebeat.com/2014/01/14/mobile-gaming-could-drive-entire-game-industry-to-100b-in-revenue-by-2017/

And with the increased revenue that is being generated, a massive herd of developers and content creators is rushing in to try and stake their claim to the gold now clearly flowing from them there hills.  With increased volume, comes increased pressure, competition, and challenges for success as the flood gates have opened and the perceived accessibility to entry into the mobile games market.  

One of the consequences for this change in the gaming ecosystem is that the skills for success and the creative requirements for audio producers in the gaming industry are now based on a broad range of skills and creative requirements, rather then a narrow set of expertise.  Being a specialist has gone from being an asset, to a liability in the current climate.  A single developer or producer of games (read as client) may easily be in development on a virtual slot machine, a Real Time Strategy fantasy game (RTS), and a farming sim game.  Having a great understanding of weapons and spell design does you little good when trying to design a “harvest corn” sound effect, or a big win in an Egyptian-themed casino game.  Similarly, composing an “epic” cinematic orchestral score for a FPS (First Person Shooter) is of almost zero value when competing to be the composer on a match-3 puzzle game.  

To be successful in today's game industry requires creative versatility, technical diversity, and most of all, leadership within a wide range of game genres and needs.  This is no small feat.  Imagine asking a technically trained fine artist to produce an amazing oil- based portrait, street graffiti, a black and white landscape wide format photograph, and sculpture in bronze, all for the same client.  There is a very small population of artists who could deliver quality results in all of these categories.  Fewer still are the number of artists who could lead this process, offering a vision complemented by technical and creative suggestions, and be excited about the results.  This is essentially the task before the creative audio community in games.  Composer, sound designer, VO director/producer, and technical integrationer are all in demand, ideally from the same multi-talented individual or production team, and all these skills are needed across a wide range of musical and sound genres.

The tools we use to provide this level of diversity range dramatically depending on the requirements.  There are, of course, the standard DAW tools, such as a Protools rig with a wide array of plugins, Logic Pro, a handful of super high-quality microphones for VO, Foley sessions, and field recording.  Beyond these tools, we start to segment a bit into composing, sound design, VO and implementation, most of which fall into the software camp.

SFX design is a combination of asset management, sampler/laying tools, and DSP signal processors.  Abelton Live, NI’s Kontact, and Sound Miner are all indispensable tools with a very powerful feature set.  These, in conjunction with synthesis and processing tools such as S-Layer, Acustica Audio’s Nebula, and the Waves plugins, all chain together to allow for some very creative audio design that can be applied to a wide range of projects and content needs.   On the composing side, it’s a bit harder to create a must-have list, as composing tools are so personal.  The Vienna Ensemble Pro, great processing plugins and excellent reference monitors are all essentials.  Beyond these, the UAD Neve 33609, Brainworks EQ, and multiband compressors are great, as well as the FabFilter Pro-L and Sonnox Inflator for the master buss. 

Implementation tools are another conversation altogether, so stay tuned for future installments from me on this topic.  Suffice it to say that 50% of great audio in games comes from the implementation of the content into the game engine, or middleware tools such as Wwise (by Audio Kinetic) fMOD (by Firelight technologies), as well as the native audio management tools kits in development platforms like Unity. Unreal, and RAD.  Game audio is not a linear process, like records or film.  The code of the game determines what sounds and music cues play when, and there are many possible combinations of SFX, VO and music, based on events determined by the game player.  So, managing all of these interactions, and the mix of these elements becomes as crucial as the design of these sounds themselves.  This is a very important technical, and yet still creative, process which is key to a high-quality result.

Mastery of all of these technological (and primarily software-based) tools is important in the final quality of the game content. Moreover, mastery of a variety of styles of composing and sound design is equally critical to provide the diversity needed in today's game ecosystem.  This dual expertise, on the back of technical knowledge of audio middleware and implementation tools, makes for an extremely powerful combination and paves the path of success in the current game industry.

For a sampling of the wide range of sonic styles and  genres spanning the world of gaming, check out this reel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jhvQw7uHmGc&sns=em

 

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