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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