Last week, I waded into the waters of persistent world sound design, along with audio directors and composers consistently knee-deep in audio concerns. This week, we dive into the murky depths to discover how massively multiplayer games in particular challenge the individuals creating their soundscapes, and the tricks they use to keep your ears engaged, even after you've spent dozens or hundreds of hours in a single, self-contained world.
In fact, the amount of time players spend in these worlds might be the biggest challenge MMOG audio designers face. These games repurpose content, forcing designers to find new ways to freshen up elements players have seen before. Stephen DiGregorio, Director of Sound at Turbine (The Lord of the Rings Online, Dungeons & Dragons Online) offers the following example: "[Say you have] a boss monster made from a normal monster, scaled up and with new gear. The sound needs to be unique for that instance of the creature. Also, the giant landscape and hours of playtime make us really have to work to cover all the land with appropriate sound, environmental ambience, [and] music, and maintain a common style across a giant vast growing and changing landscape."
Funcom audio director Simon Poole (Age of Conan, The Secret World) concurs. "We want players to spend time in our games, and that means we need to pay extra attention to ensure the soundtracks don't become tiring, repetitive, or grating in anyway," he says. "The nature of MMOs is such that players can spend an infinite amount of time exploring them, yet we only have a finite amount of audio files we can actually have in the game. This is undoubtedly the biggest challenge for us; ensuring that those audio files are utilized in such a way to gain the most mileage out of them as possible. You can have the best music in the world, but nobody wants to listen to it all of the time!"
So how do you overcome this challenge? How does an audio engineer overcome these obstacles so that players' ears don't tire? If you're Rodney Gates, PlanetSide 2's audio director, you create subtle alterations in pitch, tone, and duration for each effect. Says Gates, "For PlanetSide 2, we use many variations for common sounds in the game to keep them from sounding repetitive, though due to the nature of empire-specific audio, we are careful not to alter things too drastically or they fall out of sync with what we're trying to portray for identification purposes. Repetition is the biggest offender in any game, so finding that balance of variation is key. If something is grating, we tone it down however we can. This is why our most aggressive-sounding vehicle engine audio is not on the aircraft that you fly for long periods of time as a player, but on the other aircraft you hear other people flying for shorter periods of time."
'My goal is to make the musical choices that will best support the game' - Jeff Broadbent
Poole elaborates even further on this topic. "We have many tricks up our sleeves to prevent sounds from being perceived as repetitive. Adjusting volume, pitch, position, having many variations of audio files (each monster in The Secret World has an average of 150 audio files for instance). Even the ambiences you hear in our games are comprised of scores of individual audio files to ensure our environments/atmospheres appear to be constantly evolving. In many cases though, for gameplay reasons it's important to do the absolute opposite, and ensure that it is the exact same sound being heard. Interface, game feedback sounds for instance. If we were to vary the sound that is played during those events the players would never know what was going on! So it's a combination of consistency and variation that's needed."
Michael Henry, Audio Manager at Cryptic (Neverwinter, Champions Online) shares his own approach. "In general I try never to use anything that is simply lifted from a standard sound effects library without doing something to modify it first--mix in another component, apply some kind of effects processing, manipulation, etc.--to change it enough so that it is not only tailored for what the game needs, but at the same time it doesn't sound recognizable because the same basic source for the sound effect appears in 30 other games or movies. In other words, whether we start with some stock effects libraries or record custom foley or effects, everything is taken and tweaked and adjusted to match the specific visual. We also try to avoid using library sounds that have been overused in films, other games, trailers, commercials, etc."
Music composers also have to be aware of the need for such diversity. PlanetSide 2 composer Jeff Broadbent can't fill his score with rhythmic combat music as he might for a straightforward action game, or with ambient music as he might in a puzzle game. "Often in an MMO, a large amount of music is required to fill a variety of roles," Broadbent says. "In […] PlanetSide 2, where different musical approaches are required, this adds additional challenge to the composer, as multiple musical styles and approaches must be addressed. PlanetSide 2 has three distinct musical approaches for each empire. I am currently composing music for an upcoming MMO, and likewise, different musical approaches are required for the different groups/empires in the game."
Given Broadbent's commitment to keeping the music fresh for players, I also wondered if he was worried about keeping it interesting for anyone listening out of context. How concerned is a game composer about whether his music is interesting on its own terms? Broadbent sees this as a secondary concern, since the music must coalesce with the game's overall creative vision--but it's a concern nonetheless. "I still pay a lot of attention to how the music will sound on its own," Broadbent says. "After all, when I'm composing I'm listening to the music by itself! My goal is to make the musical choices (melody, harmony, rhythm, and sound) that will best support the game but then to find the most creative ways to meet these requirements. It's like starting with basic guidelines that need to be followed to ensure compatibility with the game, but then seeking freedom and creativity within these directives."
Potential repetition isn't the only difficulty MMOG audio designers face, however. In a large open world, players are unpredictable. In linear games, you can plan design knowing where players must go and what they are likely to do. Henry tells us more: "In an MMOG, it's often difficult to predict what a player (or group of players) will do next. We often don't know how many players will be in an environment and what they will be doing at any time. The sonic landscape can end up being pretty sparse at one moment, then very cacophonous the next. Trying to balance these two extremes often involves some subtle trickery, some smoke and mirrors. Psychoacoustics will come into play."
Avoiding a barrage of overlapping sound effects is another challenge MMOG developers in particular face. The audio director must decide: who hears what in the game, and when? Says Cryptic's Michael Henry, "Your player character sounds are of course most important, and therefore must be heard at all times in order to give you the feedback you need. But if you are playing on a five-man team with other players, you might not need to hear the other player's jump grunt sound, or other sounds that are unimportant as far as providing information to you to play the game. So there are areas where we can thin out the density of audio by determining what is absolutely necessary to convey information to the player."
PlanetSide 2 presents its own audio challenges. Not only is it an open-world game, but it's also a shooter. Players want to feel as though they are engaging in a large-scale war, but too much audio feedback is unpleasant. SOE's Rodney Gates says it's all about balance: choosing the right volume, determining how large a specific sound's radius should be, deciding at what distance a sound effect should be replaced with a variant, and so forth. At first, the team tended to be too aggressive with their approach; fortunately, play tests helped them learn some important lessons relatively quickly. Says Gates, "MMOGs are huge worlds, so having a hundred or so players all clashing together in a tight area can get terribly messy, so we integrate various methods to mitigate that as much as we can. Your player weaponry, when firing, ducks other weaponry sounds from your same empire. Your vehicle weapons that you fire duck your engine audio, things like that. We try to do this all without the player noticing, and hoping that what they do notice is an improved, cleaner mix of the most important events going on around them."
Clearly, audio doesn't exist in a vacuum--and in fact, it is often the last thing to be added to a game, and so takes its cues not just from the game design, but its visual art as well. Audio engineers exhibit a great deal of flexibility in this regard, creating noises and sound cues that have the same "look" as the visuals. Funcom's Simon Poole explains: "The size of the reverb/echo, for instance, has to match the shape/density of the visual space. Otherwise, the location would just seem wrong to the player, even if they can't quite put their finger on exactly why it seems wrong."
'All of these objects will be producing some kind of audio that complements the visual look and style of the location.' - Stephen Poole
But, says Poole, it isn't just audio designers that take inspiration from their colleagues' work; sometimes, those roles are reversed. "I know that many of the artists tend to listen to music cues from the game whilst producing their work," he says, "to get them in the right mindset for what they are creating. This also goes for the writers. Ragnar Tørnquist especially will often listen to the game's music when writing dialogue. Audio can also have a great influence on gameplay. There are many missions in TSW for instance that rely on audio in order to be solved. Audio puzzles for instance where players have to interact with objects, which produces a sound which needs to be used at a later stage of the mission, etc."
Cryptic takes a similar approach to Funcom's. According to Henry, "We start thinking of the game sound design even before visuals exist. Once they begin to come on line, we take a look, play what is there, and continually re-evaluate our audio design. Often by simply looking at an object in the game or some typical gameplay, a sonic design will just pop into my head. The same goes with the art team here--they often get ideas of what they think an object or environment they are working on should sound like, and we take their input. While in the end the sound designer usually has the final say (just as the artist has the final say with the look of their art), we both feed off of each other during the development process."
And so these MMOGs take on a particular color of their own. Such games often get called out as being too similar to each other, yet many individuals who have played them would be able to identify them based on sound and music alone. As Broadbent reminds us, "Listeners have a great identification with melody--this is what is most often remembered and associated with the gaming experience. It's interesting because I was reading online how gamers noticed brief melodies from the original PlanetSide that I incorporated into some of the Terran Republic ambient music. These were very brief motifs, yet the gamers recognized and remembered them even though the original PlanetSide was years ago. This is a great example of melodic identification and the power and emotion it can add to the gaming experience."
The Secret World players, too, are likely to distinguish the game based on audio alone. That game has a hard-to-miss aural uniqueness that comes from the game's use of in-game radios, overheard chatter, and so forth. "Artists and gameplay designers played a major role in determining where these speakers should be placed out in the game world, in order to maximize the impact of the audio," Poole says. "You enter a wonderful looking 50s diner in Kingsmouth, for instance, and you hear authentic rock 'n roll music emanating from a speaker placed behind the counter. Alternatively, we have many shops and social areas in The Secret World where there may be a jukebox or PA speaker placed out. All of these objects will be producing some kind of audio that complements the visual look and style of the location. This is one of the wonders of working on a game set in the present day, encompassing so many real world locations. Not only does it have to look true to the real world environments we're reflecting, it also has to sound like the real world, and that meant lots of sound coming from lots of different places!"
And thus, Poole and his colleagues point out a vital aspect of great sound design: an identity so clear that you can distinguish a game in a few simple notes, or with a few simple noises. You may not consciously notice fantastic audio even when you hear it, but the next time you play an MMOG, listen more closely. Does the thought of logging into your favorite virtual world or playing your favorite game fill you with thoughts and feelings devoted to that particular experience? There's a good chance you have an audio design to team to thank for that.'