The State of the MMO: Creating a Soundscape, Part 1

Kevin VanOrd explores how MMOG developers use sound effects and music to bring persistent worlds to life.

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Game audio. You might only notice it when it’s really bad, and possibly, when it’s really good. And yet audio is as vital a part of most games as are visuals, drawing us into entire universes with the sounds of footsteps, the calls of birds, and the strains of orchestras. Last year, I explored the creativity and passion that goes into creating a massive online world. More recently, I asked several developers about the role of audio in a massively multiplayer space. In part one of our two-part feature, audio designers and composers share with us the arduous, imaginative, and rewarding process of making worlds come to life.

Unsurprisingly, it begins at the beginning.

While art directors are working on a visual style and writers are fleshing out the narrative, audio directors, too, prefer to start their work during the pre-production phase. Everyone I spoke to agreed that this is the ideal circumstance, but it was also a general consensus that we don’t live in this perfect world. Funcom audio director Simon Poole says, “There are many tech/stylistic decisions that need to be decided early on so that when full production commences everything is being produced and implemented in the optimum way for the project. In reality that doesn’t always happen, and although not nearly as common as it was 10 years ago, it can be that audio is tacked on at the last minute almost as an afterthought. Producers have really wised up in recent years though, and invariably enlist an audio director to get on board a project at the earliest stages possible.”

Michael Henry, audio manager at Cryptic, where he’s busy working on the upcoming Neverwinter, concurs. “The days of development where it was ‘OK, we have our game done, so now let’s go get some sounds for it from a contractor’ are long, long gone. If you look at any AAA title from the past few years that received plaudits or awards for its sound, you’ll find that these games are clearly designed with audio in mind. They are intentionally designed to allow moments where audio will carry the emotion of a scene, or designed with spaces for audio to breathe, shine, and do what is necessary to establish a mood or convey the necessary information to the player. Only by taking into account all of the elements--visuals, audio, gameplay, story--will you create a truly immersive gaming experience.”

'If a part of the narrative should be told through the drama of sound or music we will mix and match each accordingly.' - Stephen DiGregorio

And thus begins the sonic journey from concept to creation. The developer determines what emotional state they wish to put the player in, and sound is the primary vehicle for instilling that emotion. The question at hand: How do you want the player to feel? Poole looks at a theoretical scene as an example: “Imagine a normal suburban residential neighborhood scene at night, nothing out of the ordinary is going on, there’s a few lights on in houses, somebody’s out walking his dog, etc. By adding sound to this scenario you can completely influence how the viewer is experiencing the scene. Light music, laughter, bird song in the background and the viewer feels safe. Ominous music, a dog barking aggressively, something smashing in the background, and the viewer feels that the scene is threatening.”

Henry had similar considerations. Are you shooting for dark and dreary? Sunny and happy? What signature sounds can you create that establish an aural identity? He says, “We often will point to films for reference. The goal is to create a sonic design so recognizable that you would instantly know what game someone is playing even if you can’t see it, simply by hearing the sound.”

Planetside 2 presented its own unique challenges to audio director Rodney Gates. In an online shooter, sound doesn’t just create emotion and atmosphere--it’s an indispensable method of communicating important information to the player. What faction’s vehicles are flying overhead? What faction is shooting you, and from where, and with what weapon? And even: is there an enemy nearby preparing to murder you? “Starting off, you need to be able to move around,” says Gates, “so we began working on creating essential character movement sounds as initial character animations came online. That was closely followed by the first weapon. All of this required a first-person and third-person perspective with the audio. From there we crafted some of our first ambiences for the desert continent, Indar. Things start slow, then grow out horizontally pretty quickly as more and more resources are added to the team and direction is solidified, so we do the same. At a certain point, the tech for things we need to do catches up, and we begin tuning our sounds to that and mixing.”

And so the hard work truly begins. Sounds are assigned to key actions, and directors must decide what noises take precedence in what situations. The solutions aren't the same in each game; audio choices depend on the developer’s focus. Says Henry, “I’ve done racing games where the need for engine sounds are the most crucial thing in order to give the player feedback as to sense of speed, excitement, etc. In an action combat game like Neverwinter, we first focus on the weapon sounds and hit sounds to give people the feel for the experience of intense combat. In other words, the first things we sonify are often the actions that contribute to the core gaming mechanic.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Poole agrees. If the game is focused on combat, that’s what you nail down early on. If vehicles are prominent, you get to work on engine noises from the get-go. And if it’s the new Lego project he’s currently working on at Funcom, the sounds of little plastic figures get the bulk of the attention.

Then comes music--and suddenly audio design gets a lot more complicated.

First, the studio needs to find a composer (or multiple composers), and as Turbine’s director of sound Stephen DiGregorio explains, that can mean distributing the work to multiple individuals, some in house, and some not. “We have in-house composers and outsource some work,” says DiGregorio. “We work extremely closely in all aspects of the sonic landscape to fill it with a balance that emotionally taps the player and brings them deeper into the gameplay. Considerations when balancing music and audio are mainly taken from where we want the effectiveness to come through. If a part of the narrative should be told through the drama of sound or music we will mix and match each accordingly.”

The challenges when adding music to the audio mix are many. The soundtrack and individual musical motifs must match the visual tone, and must be mixed in a way as to not overwhelm important sound cues. Too much music is just as bad as inappropriate music, as Funcom’s Poole explains. “Often the absence of music is more effective at enhancing the narrative than music itself. Often some simple sound design (or silence even, don’t go underestimating the power of silence!) can deliver the emotion required a lot better than soaring strings can. One of the problems I feel with many video games is that music is so often used as 'sonic wallpaper,' something to smear over the whole experience, rather than using it carefully and smartly to enhance the player’s reaction to certain situations and events.”

General audio comes into play early in the development cycle. But what about music? When does a composer begin work in earnest on a game with a massive persistent world? For answers, I turned to Planetside 2 composer Jeff Broadbent. And as it happens, he joined the project fairly late in the development cycle. “I came on board for PlanetSide 2 when the game was fairly well progressed in development--I actually began first composing in March of 2012. The developers had a strong sense of creative vision for the game, including the musical direction.”

As Planetside 2 development continued, the musical direction took a number of twists and turns. Early on, the New Conglomerate empire was associated with a heavy metal sound, with heavy distortion guitars and aggressive bass. Later, the music took on a blues rock sound, with acoustic guitars and even fiddles taking center stage. And that wasn’t the only change. Says Broadbent, “When composing the main theme for the Vanu, we went through a few iterations to explore different ways of presenting the melody, and how to strike a balance between the ambient and more rhythmic sections of the piece. This was an example of making slight modifications and refinements that eventually resulted in the final form of the piece we have today.”

’It’s very interesting how the choice of harmony can influence the mood of the music.’ - Jeff Broadbent

The composer creates the tunes, but it’s up to the audio engineers to fit it into the game, and balance against ambient sound, vital audio communication, and, of course, voice acting. SOE’s Rodney Gates takes Broadbent’s work, and incorporates it into the overall production, adjusting volume when necessary. But how do you make a game do this automatically when there is so much action happening in a single space? Says Gates, “We have certain dynamic mixer presets that get triggered on specific events. One example is the overall soundscape of the game quieting down by a few decibels when the nearly-captured combat music comes in. This is usually a raucous moment in gameplay on a busy server, where everyone’s frantically battling to prevent the loss/capture of the facility, so it’s a little noisy and the music would have a hard time competing otherwise. It generally goes unnoticed by the players, and creates the space we need.”

At Funcom, Poole faced similar considerations when incorporating Marc Canham’s music into The Secret World, and Knut Avenstroup Haugun’s score into Age of Conan. “Certain elements need to take precedence over others depending on the situation,” he says. “It’s not much good if you can’t hear the dialogue for instance, so other audio elements will be attenuated to allow it to cut through. Alternatively we might pump up the volume of the music during certain combat encounters to get the adrenaline going.” Turbine’s DiGregorio, too, takes special care to ensure that central sounds don’t get lost in the cacophany. “It is a delicate balance for the music to rise as key parts of a game's story develop, and for voiceover to not be distracted with screaming hordes of battle. Sound helps reinforce the feeling in the game. As you bring your sword into the skull of an orc, the sound needs to make you feel like you really hit into something, the music needs to show you have triumphantly defeated a great foe, the death cry of the slain warrior needs to clearly inform you your hit was critical.”

As for Broadbent, he seems perfectly content to know that his music won’t always be the primary sonic focus. His job is to use the game as a canvas, and use orchestration to paint upon it, though instrumentation isn’t the only way he manipulates the player’s state of mind. “Harmony plays a large role in the ambient/travel music of PlanetSide 2. Ambient music, for non-combat situations, needs to have less rhythmic activity, and consists primarily of sustained tones. This allows the music to not become distracting yet also immerses the player in the game world. It’s very interesting how the choice of harmony can influence the mood of the music. For example, if primarily minor harmonies are used, emotions of solemnity, darkness, and weight will be conveyed. Mixing in major harmonies at times can give brief moments of heroism to the music. In composing the travel music for the Terran Republic, for example, I chose the harmonies carefully to give both a foreboding yet hopeful sense to the music.

And this is only the beginning: MMOGs come with their own specific audio challenges. How does an audio team keep constantly repeated sound effects from wearing thin? How do you merge the visual arts with the musical arts to create a single, cohesive experience? Next week, audio directors and composers get into the nitty gritty, in part 2 of our in-depth look at creating effective audio in a massive persistent world.

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Written By

GameSpot senior editor Kevin VanOrd has a cat named Ollie who refuses to play Rock Band because he always gets stuck pla

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Discussion

41 comments
blue_powder
blue_powder

Would any of you turn off music in a movie if you could? And even worse, turn on some random pop music that has absolutely nothing to do with what's happening on screen? Why do it in a game then? Composers and sound designer put a lot of effort into their work for a reason. It is supposed to match what you are experiencing visually and emotionally. 

LordDeArnise
LordDeArnise

Some of the best music orchestration has been implanted into MMO's from my own perspective.  One of the best examples of that is Guild Wars 1 & 2.  TERA also has some nice music score for a Korean MMO, especially during major fights.

Lambchopzin
Lambchopzin

Sound design has definitely improved in the past half a decade or so. I used to almost always just have Winamp playing my own stuff in the background with just about any game. I find myself giving the in-game music a chance more and more these days, particularly since they have gotten better about syncing it up with gameplay and events going on at any given time.

Although I don't know why you picked MMOs to demonstrate this. They are the furthest behind when it comes to sound design right now imo, compared to other genres. TSW did a pretty nice job with it, but it was certainly no Mass Effect or StarCraft II, or (insert SP RPG here).

Uri-Z
Uri-Z

Hey Kevin, your audio is bad

wizardboyus
wizardboyus

I'm a game audio student myself (although I was first accepted under the pretense that I was gonna be composing for games and film). but after seeing how many jobs are available in sound design in the game industry, I changed my degree plan to chase a more promising career. writing music to visual cues is actually pretty easy (assuming you're a musician of course), at least easier to me than writing music without them XD. there hasn't been much video game music lately that has seriously "wowed" me other than Hotline Miami..

but considering how prevalent in the audio industry sample-based recording/production is, i don't see how hard it could be to do sound design for games when there are tons of high quality free audio samples available on the internet to use as a starting foundation for whatever sound you're shooting for. I guess what i'm trying to say is that sound designers don't have to  synthesize their own sounds from scratch (although that's something we learn in game audio i.e. designing footsteps on different surfaces with software synths and hardware synths), so it isn't as hard as everyone thinks..but i guess a computer programmer could say the same thing about learning C++ eh?

markosasav
markosasav

I have yet to play an MMO that used sound to any sort of emotional effect.. Why did you decide to concentrate on MMOs? Games like Mass Effect, Skyrim would have been much better examples of effective sound design.. Anyway sound design, is the least of the problems affecting MMOs at the moment..

megakick
megakick

MMORPG are the worst and MMO are all the same they are a grind its' about keeping players online and spending money.... IMO MMORG have the least amount ingenuity of any game you will ever play. .

MMO are all about the money. Music and Sound isn't going to make a MMO better.

blakeney
blakeney

Hotline Miami imo has the best "original" Game soundtrack I have heard in a long while!

gutworm
gutworm

a lot of times, i dont even turn speakers on, or another times i play other music in background. i only listen to game's sound effects when its necessary for survival. for example when its nice to hear enemy. usually in pvp but pve as well sometimes. but thats just me anyway.

SauhlGood
SauhlGood

great music and atmosphere is not a priority imo...most companies cant get gameplay down right and just make safe bets with derrivative gameplay mechanics, i certainly could care less if the music and atmosphere is spectacular but the game itself is just bland, copy cat gameplay..

psuedospike
psuedospike

Kevin, you should definitely write an article about how all MMOs aren't basically the same game over and over!  We had an argument once in a thread and it was very interesting to read your thoughts on this premise.

ElFlechero
ElFlechero

Wait, harmony can change the mood of a song? This is big news, I'm going to have to tell my choir students.

Mojira7
Mojira7

I think I would have to be games that really solidfied my admiration of orchestral music. Some movies got me mildly interested, but games I think did it for me proper. And if I recall, a lot of it was due to composers like Inon Zur and Jeremy Soule in the early 2000's that really brought a lot of emotion through orchestral pieces in some of the early games like Icewind Dale and Morrowind? I really liked this article, I hope there will be more stuff that focuses on game music in the future :)

bigruss51
bigruss51

For racing games they go thru great lengths to get the engine sounds right and yet when I'm racing it starts to irritate me even if the quality is great.

bigruss51
bigruss51

Sound is even more important then visuals imo and i'm glad more and more effort is going into it.

vadagar1
vadagar1

wow the guy with the guitar looks really lively ;)

quick1616
quick1616

Usually I mute the sound when i play MMOs because nothing is more annoying then when your in a group and all you hear is 5-25 peoples spells mixed together it just sounds like ^&*( .

hairday
hairday

I have a lot of respect for great sound design. Unfortunately, I find that video games are almost always accompanied by very disagreeable music selections. Turning music off is usually one of the first optional configurations I make. It's similar to my feelings about music in a grocery store. Just turn the shit off. You will never make me happy, I promise. But with games, the sound effects themselves can be quite interesting and enjoyable. Maybe grocery stores can take a lesson from that. Celery bag explosions and modulated can clinks. Or, better, how about the fantasy RPG obligatory background chatter at the inn, featuring loud drunk blather and even louder drink and gulp sounds? Just an idea. Thanks again, Kevin, for an interesting view into the industry.

Hobbes444
Hobbes444

Yes, this is a great article in regards to the info and everything.

I cannot play a game with the sound muted. It doesn't matter what it is. I just cannot do it! Sound can make or break a game.

cent73
cent73

I've always had music on. I'm an amateur musician so it's an important piece of the experience. For a change I've recently tried turning it off in one game after having played it for 200+ hours. It was fine at first, but then I started missing something. The soundscape filled with nothing but assorted background and battle noise became too empty. Now I'm turning it on again, maybe a bit quieter than it was previously. And it's great.

jinzo9988
jinzo9988

I play every MMORPG with the sound muted.  I've found them all to be utterly irritating to listen to.  Stuff like PlanetSide 2 is okay.  I would've thought that horror games and the like would've made a better genre for this.

wildamnesia
wildamnesia


A great feature.  Sound design is such a vital part of creating atmosphere for a video game. 

Kevin-V
Kevin-V moderator staff

@megakick Yes. All MMOs are the same :/

Actually, if you play games in the genre, you will come to know that many of these games are remarkably different. In terms of emotional impact, focus, moment-to-moment gameplay, and core interaction, Guild Wars 2 and The Secret World are night and day, for instance. 

Also, all games are typically about money. They are artistic expressions too, but you spend money on them so that there might be more games in the future. If you come to games assuming that their makers should not make money for their product, then, well, there's not much more I can say to that I suppose.

VeeArSick
VeeArSick

@bigruss51 When I'm playing Forza, not only does the feedback in the controller let me know when my car is on the edge of it's tires about to break traction, but you can hear the slight squeal from the tires in the sounds as well. Not only that, but you can hear your rev's to let you know when to shift, your boost to let you know if you're on top of it in a corner... I don't find it irritating, it's all a need for me to play competitively.

VeeArSick
VeeArSick

@bigruss51 Sound is more important than VISUALS in a VIDEO game? I'm sorry but there is no video game without the visuals. Just like there are no Potato Chips without Potatoes. However, games may be played without the sound. 

I do find sounds very important in games. In fact, my favorite games all have great sound effects, and music. Forza Motorsport 4, Skyrim, and Oblivion, to name a few. 

Maybe I took your comment to extreme measures, just sounded funny to me that sound is more important than visuals in a video game. 

Van
Van staff

@agentmi6 Here you go: top left is Planetside 2, bottom left is Lord of the Rings Online, center is The Secret World, and right is Neverwinter.

jinzo9988
jinzo9988

@agentmi6 I'm pretty sure the chick in the middle is from The Secret World.

jonmar
jonmar

@cent73 For me it depends on the game. If I want to get immersed in a game like ARMA or Rainbow Six then I will always turn in-game music off for realism. But if I'm playing a more cinematic game or an MMO I'll leave the music on but I usually turn the volume down to about 40% or so.

Kickable
Kickable

@jinzo9988 ironically the only MMO close to horror has great non-irritating music that sounds nothing like the fantasy MMO music I usually mute pretty quickly

JSusie
JSusie

@jinzo9988 Same here.   The musical score could literally be fart noises and I'd never even notice.

petez34
petez34

@jinzo9988 I totally am the same. When I played wow and GW2 i didn't bother with sound at all. nice music and all but annoying after a while!

bigruss51
bigruss51

@VeeArSick @bigruss51 Actually Forza doesn't bother me at all and I'm only talking about engine noise. But in Shift 2 I find myself getting irritated almost like when people are having a conversation while you're trying to watch a movie. I can't lower the volume either because I need to hear the other cars. If you're playing competitively then you need a wheel, it cut lap times by 10sec in some cases for me. Idk if there are any good racing wheels for the xbox.

bigruss51
bigruss51

@VeeArSick @bigruss51 I was referring to quality sound vs quality visuals. Of course you need visuals or there would be no game but whatever, I thought it was understood. My bad. I'm a pc gamer and its always been about the most amazing graphics until people said that I should get a sound card for my pc instead of the integrated one because audio was just as important and since then I've become an audiophile.

petez34
petez34

@underoath83 @bigruss51 @VeeArSickdepends on the game, doesn't it. Imagine playing the The Walking Dead on mute.! ppl love that game because of the dialogue. Games with repetitive sounds and some background music, for me gets annoying to the point where I take off my headphones.