The "nice" audio setup you see in a lot of pro audio studios is not meant to be a nice system. It's meant to be an accurate, calibrated system. Most consumer sound systems are hyped, meaning they have uneven frequency response. This means bassier sounds may be boosted, higher sounds may be reduced, etc, all in the name of creating a more exciting sound. A visual analogy would be if the maker of a video monitor toyed with the color balance, brightness, contrast, etc before they shipped the thing out of the factory.
Problem #1, these frequency range boosts/cuts can't be changed. These are nuances that are inherent to the design of the speakers themselves. You may have an EQ on your home sound system, but if your speakers are consumer grade they will be coloring the sound to some extent.
Problem #2, all companies do this differently. Different speakers will have different response curves, whether they be in televisions, consumer 5.1 systems, etc.
Professional audio monitors (when audio people say monitors, we're talking about speakers) are designed to be as flat as possible. Since we can't predict what the situation will be on a consumer's system, the best approach is to get the flattest frequency response possible and work from that. I often see artists calibrating their monitor so they can "see what's REALLY there." We're doing the same thing.
Any audio guy with experience is going to test the game on as many different systems as possible. While we're working with a calibrated system, it's always a good idea to hear the game "in the wild." For example, in my studio I've got a calibrated 5.1 monitor system, a consumer 5.1 system (Creative Labs), a standard def television that I can pipe a stereo feed to, and a weak mono speaker so I can test the mix on that. I frequently check on the different systems to hear how things are coming together. I also check for differing bass management configurations and surround downmix scenarios (this refers to how a 5.1 signal is turned into stereo or mono). Finally, I can pipe the PC, PS3 or 360 build of our game to any of these destinations. It's a mess of wires, but it gives me the flexibility to immediately test a number of different listening scenarios.
A note about equipment: Mastering engineers, the people who make a living out of putting the finishing touches on professional music recordings, often spend tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on equipment, software, cabling and professional room tuning and calibration (yes people make a living doing this, they're called Acousticians) in order to create listening environments that allow them to output the most balanced recordings possible. The goal is to create optimal results on as many consumer systems as possible. The same, including money spent, can be said of audio engineers who work in the film and television worlds. Yet the average equipment spend for an audio guy in the games business is in the $10-20k range, according to stories I hear round the campfire. We are, in a sense, given nerf guns and asked to compete with high powered assault rifles.
Think I'm exaggerating? Find a pro audio engineer in the film world and get him to price out his rig for you. You'll be shocked to hear what he has to say.
So when assembling the audio and mix of the game, what kind of system should we be mixing for? The surround system? The stereo TV? It's hard to say, but there are a few things I think should be kept in mind:
First, television speakers aren't going to sound like a movie theater. It's simply impossible. I've been pushed by non-audio people to make our games sound bigger and badder, to make the explosions "knock me out of my chair." Yet the person making these demands is listening on the Aquos LCD that seems to be standard issue these days. Even Uncharted 2, in my opinion the best sounding game of 2009, loses a bit of its magic on television speakers.
Second, according to research numbers I saw recently from a major publisher (one of the top three, not the one for which I work), roughly 50% of consumers of AAA action and FPS console titles have their games consoles wired to 5.1 systems. Whether they actually have the speakers set up correctly or just piled in the corner, I can't say for sure, but they're familiar enough to say they've purchased a surround system and are using it.
So my philosophy, based on 5 years experience in games and an additional 5 in music and tv/film, is as follows:
Make it sound amazing on a 5.1 system. If half our customers have one, then give them the best show possible. They spent the money on the system, they care about sound, there's no reason to let them down.
Make it sound as good as possible on stereo, but don't compromise the 5.1 version to make minor gains in stereo. This would be the visual equivalent of significantly damaging the appearance of the game in 720p or 1080p to make 480i look a little better. If something is horribly wrong in stereo and surround has to suffer to fix it, do it. But only do harm to the surround mix when it really matters. Aim for excellence, not perfection.
If anything can be done to salvage mono, give it a shot, but accept that the majority of people aren't using an RF adapter with their 360 or PS3 and that mono, by its very nature, is going to sound poor.
Finally, if you're working on a platform with relatively fixed sound reproduction (handhelds), design your content on a professional system so you can make the surgical adjustments you need with clarity. But the final signoff should always happen on the handheld hardware. Always.
I'm sure I'll hear as much agreement as disagreement regarding my feelings on which platform should be targeted. Audio people love to argue and we all have different opinions on the matter. But don't think we're using big speakers because we just want to hear things on a big, loud system. That's not the case at all.