Armed and Dangerous Designer Diary #3

Savor producer Aaron Loeb's deep thoughts on the look, feel, and sound of the upcoming PC and Xbox shooter.

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Deep thoughts on the look, feel, and sound of Armed and Dangerous or: Funny sounds good.

Aaron Loeb
Producer, Planet Moon Studios

I joined Planet Moon Studios two years ago on the day its deal with Interplay fell through and Giants for the Xbox became a dead project. It was a hell of a "welcome aboard!" We spent my first two months closing our deal with LucasArts and then the next several months figuring out exactly what our next game would be. In those dwindling days of 2001, Armed and Dangerous was born.

Before I joined Planet Moon, I had worked for much of the '90s as a video game journalist. When my last publication, DailyRadar.com, went down in a spectacular fireball of revenuelessness, I jumped into video game development with both feet and the kind of cockiness that only a complete novice can muster.

One of the many things that I had never understood as a critic about making video games is just how many people have to get involved for an idea to reach fruition. It is astonishing just how many hands touch a game these days. In the '80s, when our industry was just getting started (and several of my coworkers were making their first games), a single person could make an entire game: the code, the art, the animation, the sound, everything! These days, there are scores of people involved from beginning to end.

To illustrate this point, I'm going to focus in on the tiniest aspect of the game: a single voice line. What could be more insignificant in a game than one of the lines said by an enemy in the middle of a fight? You hear them in the background in every game you play and think nothing of them, but they are an integral part of your experience and require the work of a lot of people. For instance, would Halo be as great if you didn't get the sniveling cries of the little Covenant grunts as they run away from you? You may not consciously notice them, but they contribute to the sense of a living, breathing world and help draw you into the game--an essential part of our craft.

So, let's talk about this line in Armed and Dangerous said by the Q1-12, one of the boss enemies: "Bee dee bee dee. I am an invincible robot, model Q1-12, yup."

What does an invincible robot sound like? .
What does an invincible robot sound like? .

Early on, we knew we wanted the world of Armed and Dangerous to feel like it was alive with activity. One way to achieve that would be to have a very distinct character to all of the enemies. We decided the grunts in our game would have thick Irish brogues and complain a lot. The captains would speak in a strange mix of German and English and scream a lot. But we weren't sure what the Q1-12s would be like.

One of the main characters in the game, Q1-11, used to be a killer robot but achieved sentience and reformed due to his passionate love of tea. The new line of killer robots are the Q1-12s, and they're quite nasty. About 40 feet tall, they have huge chainguns that will mow you down if you aren't careful. The problem was, we weren't sure how they should sound. We kept coming up with sort of tired stereotypes for killer robots, and really, haven't killer robots been stereotyped and discriminated against for long enough?

One night at a bar called Valhalla here in Sausalito, as we were discussing the Q1-12s, four of us came to the simultaneous conclusion that they had to be a cross between down-home mechanic and Twiki from Buck Rogers. So, they would say "Bee dee bee dee" a lot and pepper their speech with "Mmm hmm" and "A-yup." That decision made, the Q1-12 began its long journey toward having a voice.

The first thing that happens in creating dialogue for a game is scripting. In this case I wrote all the in-game dialogue with Tim Williams, our creative director (who was responsible for the 65 minutes of cutscene script for the game, so it's amazing he was able to write anything else). Over a couple of weeks, we wrote all the in-game voice-overs for the characters, including the line above. For tracking purposes, the line was assigned the sexy resource name of Q1250023.

 Planet Moon visited several killer robot factories in California in order to get the robot sounds perfect.
Planet Moon visited several killer robot factories in California in order to get the robot sounds perfect.

We sent the thousands of voice-over lines over to LucasArts, where the voice department there entered every line into a database. Then the voice director, Darragh O'Farrell, sent a description of all the characters out to agents that represent voice talent. We then heard .wav files of tons of actors reading all the parts. Because the Q1-12 was a minor role (it has no lines in the cutscenes), an actor was assigned the role along with a couple of other roles. In this case, the wonderful Darren Norris, who also plays the lead member of the very marines-like Shrub Patrol and the world's oldest soldier, Henry, got the part.

Once the parts were cast, Darragh, Tim, and one of our cofounders and design directors, Bob Stevenson (whom you'll be hearing from next week in another developer diary), trekked down to LA for two days of recording people reading lines. Darren and the other actors got special scripts with their lines all in a row, then just read them one by one, a couple of takes each. In the studio, not really aware that we were shooting for a Twiki sound, Darren ended up reading the "Bee dee bee dee" each as a distinct word, giving the phrase a very deliberate, kind of creepy feel. We liked this very much.

Now that Q1250023 was recorded, it got shipped from LA back up to San Rafael to the LucasArts voice department where the voice engineer, Cindy Wong, broke it, along with all the other lines, into their own data files (which is how Q1250023 became Q1250023.wav). She then sent the file from San Rafael down to Sausalito, where I put it into the game with Dave Aufderheide, our sound and AI engineer. This required the two of us to figure out when the Q1-12 would say the line, why, and how often. This seemingly simple set of questions was the source of numerous loud arguments between the two of us that occasionally culminated in fisticuffs but were usually resolved by mean-spirited cracks by one of us about the sexual habits of the other's mother.

But Q1250023.wav's journey wasn't done yet! The Q1-12 is a giant robot, and the file sounded very much like a guy in a recording studio talking into a microphone. Cindy Wong and Michael Frayne, our sound designer at LucasArts, then worked up a series of voice effects that could be layered on top of the characters. In this case, they chose the "giant freaking robot" sound palette.

So, now we had a character in the game, talking when he was supposed to and saying the line we wanted him to say. But we weren't done yet! There were bugs to be fixed (the audio for the Q1-12 was too quiet compared to other voice-overs), and the line had to be translated into German ("Beedee beedee. Ich bin ein unzerstörbarer Roboter, Modell Q1-12.") and French ("Bidi bidi. Je suis un robot invincible, modèle Q1-12. Oui.") and then recorded by actors in those countries (Germany and France).

Working on the multiple language tracks was a breeze thanks to the team's multilingual skills.
Working on the multiple language tracks was a breeze thanks to the team's multilingual skills.

Multiply this by 3,000 (the number of lines in the game), and you have an idea of how much work went into just getting the voice into the game. Then there was the music, the level design, the sound effects, the special effects, and every other part of the game that helps bring the world to life, each part with its own layers of complexity.

Honestly, now that I've made a game, I am convinced it's impossible. The amount of work managed by the people I interact with on a daily basis is staggering, and the things that can go wrong and ruin everything are infinite. Making games is like the Road Runner cartoons. When Wile E. Coyote runs off a cliff and doesn't fall because he hasn't realized it's impossible for him to run in midair, he's a video game developer. As long as you don't look down and realize you're doomed to fall, you can keep running. Luckily for me, I work with two companies (Planet Moon and LucasArts) filled to the rafters with people who are used to defying gravity.

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