Sound Effect Design
Introduction to the subject by Bobby Prince.
Game Music and Sound Design Center.

The right choice of sounds used in a computer game can make a great difference in perceived overall quality of the final product. Studies have even shown that judgement of a game's visual quality depends on the quality of the sounds used alongside the on-screen graphics. For this, a group of individuals was asked to assess visual appearance of two different versions of a game which actually contained the exact same graphics, but in one case featured sophisticated audio, whereas the other version only offered bottom-of-the-line sound effects. Generally, the subjects fervently claimed that the first version had improved graphics over the latter.

Depending on the nature of the game in question, it is the task of the game sound designer to either choose appropriate natural sounds or to invent suitable artificial ones. The process requires a good deal of talent, creativity and inventiveness, in very much the same way a foley artist has to come up with ideas to simulate real-life sounds using entirely different means. Sound designer Bobby Prince offers some interesting insights into his work in his online article cited above.




Coin-Op Audio
Article by Chris Granner on the subject of arcade sound game design.

A very interesting aspect of sound design is the fundamentally different approach that has to be taken in arcade and home games. Whereas the home game customer invests in a game first and then wants his money to pay off, an arcade (or coin-op) game has to grasp a potential player's attention and get him to produce a coin from his pocket to sink into the machine. Also, an arcade game has to seduce the player to spending more money on a game that typically ends after a period of 3 minutes, whereas the home gamer will be much more patient and enduring in most cases trying to get the most out of his newly purchased title – even if this includes upgrading his hardware in some cases.

Another problem that cannot be understated is the disturbance that sound from an arcade machine can cause for owners of a public location (bars, cinema lounges, etc.), by playing the same teaser sequence over and over again, usually all day long. Thus, sounds for arcade games have to be designed with great care, in order to avoid sound volume being turned down by the owner of the place. A fairly successful method is to use sounds that closely resemble typical noises of the location the arcade machine is likely to be installed to. If, for instance, the game is some kind of racing simulation, it is usually wise to make it sound like TV or radio broadcast of a racing event instead of trying to reach perfection in creating to create that special 8,000-RPM engine sound. However, if the same game was to be installed in an arcade hall where it would have to compete with many other machines, it's TV-like sounds would probably not be noticed at all. In these locations, games have to create interesting and dynamic sounds to stand out from the crowd and attract attention. This conflicting situation only briefly illustrates the problems that arcade game sound designers are confronted with, for more information on the subject I recommend the excellent on-line article by Chris Granner referenced above.




Introduction to Game Music
Article on the subject by a Japanese author.

Apart from in-game sounds, music plays a paramount in computer games. Unfortunately, the hard work of game composers is not often properly appreciated by game audiences. In Japan, audio CDs containing game soundtracks as well as adaptions of popular tunes featured in video games are commonplace, whereas they can hardly be found in Europe or the U.S.



Throughout the history of computer games there are a few examples where musical compositions of popular artists have been included in a game soundtrack. Some of those had been especially created for a game, while in other cases existing pieces were used. In general, game publishers were hoping to exploit the existing popularity of the featured musicians for promotion of their game title and make it more appealing to a larger audience by furnishing it with a ‘big name’. Popular examples include the famous 3D-action game QUAKE by id Software, which featured music created by Trent Reznor of THE NINE INCH NAILS or the racing game WIPEOUT XL by Psygnosis that included electronic dance music composed by various underground acts, such as FUTURE SOUND OF LONDON, who contributed a total of three tracks.

Incidentally, the exact opposite of the former situation can also be observed occasionally. For instance, the video clip of the song “Get Freaky” by MUSIC INSTRUCTOR contained sequences from the game ABE'S EXODDUS – the sequel to the already popular ABE'S ODYSSEE which was due for release a few weeks after the song was first presented. It seems that both, the song as well as the game commercially profited from this strategy.



As already mentioned in the previous chapter, the creation of dynamic soundtracks is one of the most complicated ventures in computer game design. In a movie, all actions take place in a well-defined sequence, as laid down by the script. Music is most commonly added in post-production, when all film editing and cutting has already finished or is in its final stage. Therefore, a soundtrack can be developed that foreshadows particularily important events by increasing musical tension that will (hopefully) reflect back on the audience by causing a growing anticipation or even a feeling of fear. In computer games, the same process is hardly ever applicable due to their interactive nature – at a given point in time, it is not known what the player will do next.

To overcome this problem, a number of concepts has been developed. One popular solution involves the use of different musical pieces for each location of the game. When the player's character enters a certain area, the music associated with this particular place is played. In a slightly more advanced version of this approach, the pieces used vary in accordance with events that might have taken place in the locations as part of story. For instance, where a joyous tune was played inside a house at the beginning of the game, a distinctly darker song would be used at a later stage in the same place after the player had discovered a mystery related to the site. In addition to game locations, music could also be linked to other characters of the game interacting with the player. Sometimes the two techniques are very effectively used in combination, with a location theme playing in the background and the character theme (which is usually much shorter) surfacing in case of a possible entry of the latter.

Another, more complex approach is to change the instrumentation of a piece of music without altering the underlying score, based on in-game events. If, for example, the player's character is confronted with some kind of danger, the orchestration of the main part could change from the soft tones of a flute to a harsh brass instrument, like a horn. This procedure can be extended to form a fully dynamic soundtrack by also changing the musical arrangement itself in real-time. This is by far the most complicated and also most debated approach, but can sometimes lead to an amazing feeling of immersion and sympathy for a character's situation. However, very much the same effect can be reached with considerably less effort through careful application of the two other methods mentioned above. In order to achieve a fully dynamic composition, a number of small patterns and motifs are created that can later be arranged into a theme. Great care has to be taken to provide for smooth transitions between the single snippets, which can be a complicated task if compositional freedom is not to be overly constrained. As mentioned, the whole approach is seriously questioned by many professional musicians and one can only guess what the ultimate outcome will be.




3D SoundSurge
Interviews with game designers.

While the effectiveness of a good soundtrack in an adventure game is rarely disputed among gamers, the situation is entirely different for action games and simulations. In this paragraph I will present quotes from a number of interviews with game designers conducted by people from 3D SoundSurge.

Tim Ebling, DRAKAN interview:

Obviously most of us don't have personal soundtracks following us around, creating music for our daily lives (unless you're Jim Carrey in “The Truman Show”), so turning the music off reduces any game to its most realistic state. However, as anyone who's muted the musical score from a Hollywood movie knows, having a good musical soundtrack is essential for providing an emotional context within any interactive experience. Everything else in a game (graphics, sound effects, etc.) provides the rational part of the brain what it needs, but leaves the emotional part of the brain out completely - that's the basic purpose of the musical score.

W. Scott Snyder, sound designer, in SLAVE ZERO interview:

Scott: Soundtracks aren't as unconventional as you might think. It's true that we don't have personal soundtracks following us around everywhere we go, but we all accept the soundtrack in a movie without questioning it. Generally, we don't watch a film and get distracted by the music because we can't tell where, in the world of the film, it's coming from. The gaming world borrows heavily from the conventions of the film world, so really, it's not that large a leap.

Now, making that soundtrack part of the immersive experience is something else entirely. I think the gamer is demanding more from a sound track these days than they used to. It used to be just having some looping music playing under the action was good enough (and was about all we could accomplish, technically). But now, with the latest advances in technology – both hardware and software – we are capable of much more, and slowly the gamers are realizing what kind of impact that has and are demanding it more and more. Soundtracks must become interactive if they have any hope of being an integral part of future game play. The line between “music” and “sound effects” is becoming more and more blurred, as the two formerly separate areas become bound together in interactive ways. “Effects” that blend in with, and compliment music. Music that is dynamic, constantly changing its feel based on player actions. Game designs are going to have to be made with audio in mind from the very beginning in order to accomplish audio that not only enhances gameplay, but becomes an integral part of the gameplay. I point to Looking Glass Studios and “Thief” as a great example of this. There's a game where, if you turn off the audio, you can't be successful.

Rick Overman, programmer, in STARSIEGE interview:

I have also found myself turning off the game sound track more and more frequently the last couple of years. I think there are two major reasons for this. First, game graphics have become drop-dead gorgeous now that virtually all simulations support 3D graphic accelerators. Second, the quality of PC sound cards and speakers has also risen greatly and developers are spending more time on their sound systems and quality effects, including 3D audio. Put these two things together with a great game and you're in an incredibly immersive experience. I find that sound tracks reduce the immersive quality of a game because they have a tendency to dominate the subtle environmental sound effects and queues. Or even worse, they ruin the suspense because the music - like so many implementations of dynamic music tend to do - tips me off to the fact that there's an enemy waiting around the corner. I still find Redbook distracting but not as much as dynamic music. The nice thing about Redbook is I can take the CD and listen to it anywhere I want. It's kind of like electronic manuals vs. printed manuals.

Franck Sauer, sound designer, in OUTCAST interview:

[...] I donít thing we are trying to create real-life situations here. If it was the case, it would be as boring as real life. Have you ever heard of Augmented Reality, the science that enhance human sensing or power capabilities. What we are trying to do here is create a kind of drama-augmented reallity that the player can immerge into.

Second, with the movie industry, it has been established during one full century now that images of adventures were backed by music to enhance the experience. Itís now hard coded in human brain, if i can say so. So I donít think there is a con of using sound tracks, except that it has to be well done.

Lennie Moore, music composition, in OUTCAST interview:

First, we should define what a soundtrack is. In film a soundtrack is music syncronized with a set picture. Conversely, in a game soundtrack music can be syncronized to a set movie segment (cinematic); it can be an ambient environmental loop for a particular location, or it can be attached to a particular event (like dying!). The challenge is not to write running music for a situation where the character can run, walk or stand still, but to write music that depicts the feeling of the situation the character is in. This way you create immersion as you use what music does best, which is connect us emotionally. The soundtrack bridges the gap between the cinematic and the human experience. Each situation is accompanied by a musical statement that is emotionally attainable by the audience.