Co-Written by Nick Day, Creative Director at Plarium Games, and Oren Todoros, Mobile PR Specialist at Plarium Games
It’s 2013. Players Expect High-End Sound, Voiceover, and Music.
Game audio has come a long way since Pong. Modern game composition, editing, mixing, and audio engineering, are now held to the same standard – and often are done by the same people - who make our global blockbuster films and top singles. Household names like Liam Neeson, Martin Sheen, Snoop Dogg, and Mark Hamill (who we all know and love from his defining breakout role as the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series) now regularly lend their talents to AAA titles.
Gaming has officially transcended nerdom to become a worldwide billion dollar entertainment industry, often blurring the lines between entertainment and high art along the way. Stunning music, quality vocal performances, and top-end audio production are now established, expected elements in forming an emotional connection between a game world and the player. At this rate, odds are that we’ll all be experiencing Game of Thrones: Season 23 as an interactive audio-visual interactive experience streamed right to our PS10s.
And then there’s social gaming - alternately hailed as a new paradigm for gaming, dismissed as “next big thing” of 2009, or eyed suspiciously as the mainstream game industry’s seedier (and brazenly capitalist) little brother, depending on who you talk to.
While games like Journey, Heavy Rain, Mass Effect, Assassin’s Creed, Bastion, LittleBigPlanet, etc. have been garnishing international acclaim and Grammy nominations for their audio work, social gaming has still been trying to find a balance between gameplay, monetization, and its proper place in the gaming ecosystem. While enjoying incredible growth in recent years, social and mobile games are still experimenting with what is possible, while defining what a “good” gaming experience is. For the most part, audio just hasn’t been a key part of that definition.
So why the disparity and what can audio really add to social games – does it really matter if players leave the sound 'on' the next time they play a Facebook game? We think the answer is an absolute yes. In this piece we’ll address these questions based on our experiences at Plarium Games as we’ve embraced audio as a way to improve the overall quality of our games, and how we’ve tried to use it to enhance our latest Facebook title, Soldiers Inc.
Why Isn’t There Better Audio in Social Gaming?
Up until recently, quality audio has been a low priority in social gaming for a number of very good reasons. Most browser players usually play for short periods of time with multiple browser windows open, often with their own music playing in the background. Mobile users play for even briefer sessions, or while in a public setting inappropriate for audio. (For the purposes of this piece, we’re not counting that guy on the bus who desperately wants to share his Angry Birds experience with his fellow commuters in stunning lo-fi smartphone mono.)
In addition to limited practicality, there have been very real technical limitations. In browser and mobile gaming, storage capacity, hardware requirements, and bandwidth limitations have demanded strict size discipline – and if you have to make a choice between audio and graphic content, it’s usually a pretty easy call. (Before you all comment, yes - there are some noteworthy exceptions.)
For the most part, this state of affairs has been enough for most social games, but with many titles now trying to appeal to a more demanding audience, the value players place on quality content is rising. The good news is that in today’s rapidly changing technological landscape, many of the limitations have become less of an issue. Mobile broadband data coverage is a reality and is only getting faster. Mobile handset processing power and storage is increasing exponentially, the number of people with broadband connections has exploded over the past five years, and with always-online becoming the norm (like it or not), it’s a very exciting time to reexamine what’s possible.
The Case for High Quality Sound
As social gaming becomes more ambitious, and moves slowly towards bridging the gap between traditional platform offerings, it’s become worthwhile for developers to take a good hard look at sound again.
When Plarium launched its first major MMORTS (massive multiplayer online real-time strategy) title Total Domination in 2011, our company invested a lot of effort into adding voiceovers to draw in our audience, which was not an easy thing to do in seven languages. It was grainy, buggy, and not exactly a groundbreaking concept, but the bold move of mastering cutting-edge 1990s technology helped our game carry more story, humor, and emotional content than many of the other titles out at the time. In an industry crowded with a lot of competitive noise, we were able to stand out by making, well…. actual noise.
Since then, we’ve increasingly depended on sound and audio to offer more content and a more immersive experience to more players – and the fact that the technical requirements are less demanding at the user-end than graphics-intensive features has given us a lot of room to play with story and production quality while buying us time to develop new graphics and game capabilities in parallel. Audio also allows us to add content relatively quickly, especially when compared to CGI cinematics or in-game animations.
On our last Facebook release of 2012, Stormfall: Age of War, we tried incorporating more storytelling into the voiceover work, and upping the quality of the music a bit – but we still ran into hurdles with high compression and low quality, loading times, the lack of layered sound channels, and audio bugs. Despite the downsides, the improved voiceover work made an impression – users told us that it helped to tie the game mechanics to the theme, the world, and the storyline. The actor who played our main character, Oberon, made the world feel more real, and helped get new users through our tutorial (it’s a complex game, so slogging through all the mechanics can be rough for first-time players). We felt that his performance really breathed new life into what could have been just another genre title on a similar engine. As we went into Soldiers Inc., we knew that devoting more resources to audio could only improve things.
When our team took on Soldiers Inc., we started with the simple idea of keeping what we’d done so far, and adding music that both complemented the game’s darker theme, and would resonate with a hardcore audience that grew up playing Call of Duty, Command and Conquer, Starcraft, and other titles where the music is an inseparable component of the setting and emotional feel of the game.
In the process of getting in touch with our composer for Soldiers Inc., we contacted outside musicians, developers, and audio studios, all of whom offered great (and in retrospect, kind of obvious) input that hadn’t occurred to us – live streaming audio from a separate server to improve the quality without adding to loading time, adding random delays between song loops, ducking down music during sound effects, adding musical stingers as in-game audio queues to complement game actions, and adding more sound effects to both the game interactions and the voice-over performances.
Ultimately we found that Flash, despite its limitations, can do a lot more than we had been using it for - and that putting together an experienced audio team is easier and more budget-friendly than one might think.
Finding the Right Composer
Finding the right music for your project, budget, and audience can be daunting – but mostly because of the staggering variety of quality talent out there. The field is so large and varied you absolutely need to have an idea of what you want before you go in, and the more specific you are, the better your odds are of finding what you want. Our team started out with a wish list of roughly 10 names, with Jesper Kyd being one of them.
As we went through the list, each composer had great strengths, and we heard some incredible submissions - but Jesper had an amazing ability to tap into the setting of the game, the time period, the surroundings, and incorporate it into his music in a way that it simply comes out sounding unlike anything else. We needed someone who could offer that to us in order to bridge the gap between military and heroic themes across a darker, more morally ambiguous landscape, and he completely got it, a perfect match.
Building an Audio Team
Before starting to assemble a team, you need to realistically think about your needs and budget. What kind of capabilities do you need, and for how long? Will you need Voiceover (VO) recording facilities, environmental sounds, and unique effects? Do you have enough content to justify building a full in-house capability, or will you just need periodic work for individual content or title releases? Creating a full-featured in-house studio can easily cost $100,000. Factor in the cost of staffing it with an experienced audio engineer, licensing services, software, and sound libraries and that number will go up very quickly. For most work we’ve done, we found that you can save on staffing and setup costs by working closely with outside contractors and still get the quality you're looking for.
All our non-musical audio work is split between voiceover and sound design. While there are some companies that offer to do all of this, we’ve found that usually the quality of one ends up suffering. We have a very close relationship with a great studio in New York for virtually all of our voiceover work, and they bundle all casting, recording, studio time, and mastering for our VO content. Since we’re supporting multiple games simultaneously, working with one person who knows our needs, is familiar with our projects, and whose location and casting experience allows us to tap a huge pool of talent in multiple languages is a huge advantage. We looked at working with several different localization companies that offer comprehensive voiceover services, but couldn’t justify the management overhead with the quality we were seeing. Most of our projects are long-term and ongoing, so with this relationship, we don't have to reinvent the wheel. We still have direct creative control, and the fact that we can link performers directly with our in-house creative and localization teams over Skype cuts down on travel and re-recording costs. Find a great small studio you trust, and stick with them.
For much of our early sound design, we used online pre-licensed libraries and had some of our programmers doing double-duty with off the shelf software. Some people have been able to get great work from “Our designer’s cousin’s former bandmate Jeff. He’s got ProTools!” If this works for you, go for it! This approach was barebones, but worked well enough when we were getting started and only cost a few hundred dollars. If you want to get it right the first time, spending the extra to work with someone with experience in the game industry is worth it – but don’t limit yourself to California or major industry centers. There are great studios in Spain, Canada, Israel, Poland, and all over Asia that will offer excellent value for money if you’re prepared to invest the time into a close working relationship across time zones. In both VO and sound design, we’ve found the biggest savings in keeping project coordination and oversight in-house and working with the technicians directly. You’ve got the internets – use them to give you a global studio.
So, did all that audio work really make that much of a difference? At this stage Soldier’s Inc. has only been up for a short while, but the preliminary feedback is pretty positive. Our players told us that the music helped to draw them deeper into the game story, and countered that “cartoony” feel that many social games seem to be unable to shake off. Will they keep the audio switched on a month from now? We certainly hope so – as we’re in the process of adding a whole lot more.
The technology to add great sound is here, and is improving every day – along with player expectations and standards. Social gaming is evolving so quickly that staying ahead of the next trend in this industry is as much a matter of survival as anything else, and as users grow accustomed to free-to-play models, they will rightfully begin to expect more quality for their money, and have access to an ever-increasing array of choices. With faster connections, better engines, and increasing hardware capabilities, the sky's the limit.