I speak to this from my own experience, and hope that it may be helpful to other audio designers and game aficionados all around.
Audio is an integral part of a video game. In fact, even a simple score can create a very large impact. Take the classic: Space Invaders. The music is 4 tones, but is considered by many to have one of the most successful scores.
Midway imports Space Invaders from Taito. A great example of simple, effective sound design, Space Invaders owes a large part of its appeal to its menacing, paranoia-inducing soundtrack. Not music per se, the thumping audio track actually accelerates in tempo as the enemy invaders draw nearer (and move faster). The effect: sweat, panic, and increased blood pressure in a generation of gamers.
From “A History of Video Game Music” on http://www.gamespot.com/features/6092391/p-2.html
As the music speeds up, so too does the heart rate of the player; this is so much so, that if one plays Space Invaders with the TV on mute, s/he will find the game to be much easier. (give it a try! PLAY HERE).
Clearly audio has a great role to play, even on the most basic levels. Audio plays a very visceral role in game immersion and great audio will enhance your game, bringing it to the next level.
So now that the WHY is covered, we will move on to the HOW.
Using an in-house audio provider will surely create a tighter product as the audio designer is involved in and surrounded by all aspects of the game. Of course, budgets do not always allow for in-house audio, and so many game companies choose to farm out the audio to a wide slew of providers of which I am one.
From environmental sound design and SFX to custom compositions and interactive scores, there are many types of audio assets that will add to a game. What all these types of audio have in common is they are all best approached through the five guidelines below.
1) Bring the audio designer into the game development cycle early.
Audio is often thought of as something that can be dropped in last minute, and as an audio person myself, I can often tell this to be the case when playing the finalized game. If the audio provider was brought in early, s/he can give many creative ideas of how to use the audio in a game to not only react to the game, but even advance the story (such as interactive music that gives feedback to the player letting them know they are moving in the right direction). If the audio designer is made aware of the story and game mechanics nearer to the beginning of the production cycle, a more interactive, interesting, and polished sound track can be created.
2) Relate some examples of what you like via links/samples.
Producers, programmers, artists and audio designers are not always speaking the same “language.” If a producer is looking for a sound to be more “sad“, I can easily modify the sound to be so; yet, descriptions are not often that simple. The complications arise when words of more depth are thrown around, or
words are not enough. This is where audio samples are of great value. If I am able to hear the emotion via a youtube clip, I am much more easily able to reproduce/create that effect in the language of music rather than through the intermediary that is the language of words. When speaking to an audio designer, speak in audio. Ideas will come across much more clearly and the results will be more accurate and impressive.
3) Ensure that the file naming protocol is very organized.
As an outsider creating audio, filename conventions are of the utmost importance. A solid nomenclature allows for greater organization and faster implementation into the pipeline. I am sure to name my created files the exact way they have been written by the client, and as such, the naming convention needs to be very solid on their end. It will save a great number of headaches and help to identify bleep_01a from bloop_02b.
4) Understand and appreciate that high quality audio takes time.
As with any sort of design, a rushed product can often show. This is especially true for custom compositions which really benefit from having extra time to develop a solid melody to truly immerse your player into the game. A melody need not be obvious, but needs to be there to keep the brain’s attention. This takes time to create – please be mindful of this fact.
5) Use audio to create your brand.
Every explosion, voiceover, and custom track created for your game should be a cohesive whole. This will identify the sound of the game much in the same way as the visual art and code performance does. Every game needs to be held together by its design, and audio should not be forgotten for its integral role in this. Be sure to leverage your audio designer’s talents to create a cohesive audio brand for your game. It may take more meetings to solidify this audio brand along with the other design elements, but surely the rewards will be in the strength of the final product.
We spend much of our days listening and hearing. As games are in some way a recreation and/or alteration of life, this listening and hearing needs to be included in the planning and creation of a game. A game without great audio is a loss to both the producers and the players. An audio designer should be 1) brought in early 2) related to in a language of audio 3) helped to be organized and efficient through a cohesive nomenclature 4) respected for her/his talents and 5) leveraged for their creativity, talent and branding ideas.
Any feedback is welcome and I appreciate all dialogue.
Ryan Arndt is a Composer/Audio Designer at Certain Sound, a studio which operates on an innovative “Pay What You Think It Is Worth” arrangement. He has composed music and created custom audio design for 10 games and counting and is currently producing a Vancouver Game Industry Fundraiser for the Vancouver Food Bank called “Ghoulash Bash” to be held October 2009. Please feel free to follow him on twitter @RyanAComposer and @GhoulashBash.
Credits list and more at http://www.linkedin.com/in/ryanarndt