Music and sound in games - why don't we care?

A while ago I posted my article on graphics killing gameplay on LinkedIn and it caused a pretty heated off-topic discussion about... the sound in games! Some really great points were made and even though I am not a music expert in any way, but since I have ears and they are not just a decoration, I can have an opinion as well.

The biggest problem of the sound in games is... it is done for a selected minority of the players. When our Audio Director assesses the sound in our games and forgets to close the door, half of the studio hears the game. He needs to listen to it loudly, to hear every underlying tone of every sound, voice or tune. He needs to listen to it on a 5.1 set (most common layout for surround sound, used in cinemas and home cinema sets) to assess how the sound works in the space around the player. When I was on a sound feedback session, we had to shout to each other over the sounds of the game. 

Now who listens to the games so loud? People have kids they don't want to wake up. Parents that tell them to turn it down. Wives that want to hear their own thoughts. One of biggest fans of Dark Souls I know didn't even know a Fire Keeper in Anor Londo was a woman, because he played with no sound, not to disturb anyone. I play every MMO without music and with sound either off or muffled, to listen to my Winamp. How many people have a 5.1 set connected to their PC or console? I tried to find a number, but my googling fervour ends around the fifth site. I would guess that it is much less than 50% of the players. Furthermore, look at all these professional gamers - they are using headsets. Stereo headsets. Summing all this up we come to the conclusion above. A small minority of players will actually hear, experience and appreciate all the hard work that the sound people put in the game.

There are people who raise a point that gaming audio is some laughable variation of a proper sound engineering and that it is heavily underfunded. Whether that is true or not - why would game developers want to develop audio even further when it is already beyond comprehension of a statistical player? Take a look at Fable - guys at Lionhead hired Danny Elfman to write the opening theme. They invested cash. Did it make the game any better or make the players love it more? I don't think so. It didn't even help Elfman escape Tim Burton's clutches :)

Why is it that people don't care about the proper sound? They all want to have big screens, they all want to have better graphics, but soundwise the majority of gamers is still in the Sound Blaster Live! era ("yeah, we heard of 5.1 and it's nice, but we don't yet have it..."). We all buy dedicated graphic cards, while the audio chips on motherboards are usually good enough for us. 

It is all because of the way we perceive sound. Sound isn't as limited to screen as graphics. It is a true 3D. It actually fills the room we are in. Our brain is capable of registering much more sounds than graphical objects at once and there can be multiple sounds in one place while there can be only one graphical object in one place. It all seems pretty cool and would seem that simply sound > graphics. Well, the graphic needs us to focus. We need to look at the screen, we consciously do it while the sound just does its work whether we think about it or not. That difference in conscious usage is a reason why we are focus on graphics so much and just let the audio be or mute it when it is interrupting someone. After all, if people had to choose between being blind or deaf, vast majority would choose deaf.

To illustrate, how little the players know or care about the sound, I'll share an experience that shocked me. A few months back our game prototype went to playtests. A selected group of players and reviewers got their hands on it. The prototype had graphics and gameplay we worked on really hard, but a completely placeholder audio. Still, the audio got the highest notes. Asked about the sounds, people were pointing to the music changing depending on a scenery or action on the screen. They didn't realize there were missing footsteps or that the same crow sings over and over in the background, that all the sounds have more or less the same volume... Those were not only players. Those were also professional reviewers. People who are supposed to know at least a little about this stuff!

Take a look at the game reviews - most of them are, apart from the general score, giving notes in terms of video, sound and gameplay. Have you ever seen a reviewer that writes about sound for more than a short paragraph? What was in the paragraph? A sentence about ingame music. Sometimes they mention that the soundtrack is great. Rarely something about voice acting or whether an actor was or wasn't irritating. Are these all the sounds you hear in the game? I can certainly understand how memorable soundtracks can enrich the game. I've been listening to Chrono Cross soundtrack for over ten years now. Still, soundtracks and voice acting are far from being all there is about the sound in games.

If you don't turn the sound on during a game, you might die after about 120 seconds ;)
Jokes aside, check out the cool study I linked just below.

There are studies that show us the importance of the game sound. You don't even have to analyze it closely. The graphs clearly show that the average heart and respiration rates are always lower when playing with no sound. The player is just much less engaged without the sound. Regardless of the game type! It is obvious that in Silent Hill or BioShock the sound plays an important role. You can hear something's going to happen way before it happens. You can hear the enemies long before you see them and it builds up the tension. The linked study shows however, that even in a simple 2D shooter sound makes the game more engaging. 

You don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out that with this state of things, sound in games will be constantly underfunded. Evolution of sound effects will be slow, painful and very hard to notice. Mostly, because we - the players, don't encourage any developer that this evolution is necessary or even wanted. I rarely appeal to anyone with anything, but making my own rules has an advantage of bending them to the needs of a certain moment :) This will be one of these rule-benders:

Dear fellow gamers! If you are at least half-serious about your hobby, get a 5.1 sound system. It's already a 20 years old technology and it's really affordable now. Without it, you cannot experience the whole game. You are paying $60 for the title and are depriving yourself from a part of its value right away. Check out what cool things the sound guys can do with it. Turn up the volume, enjoy. After all, playing a game without proper sound is like eating a pizza without tomato sauce. When you look at it, there's everything you normally see on a pizza - cheese, ham, mushrooms and veggies, but it doesn't really taste as it should, does it?

Dear reviewers! If you want to just assess the game's music, just name it music, not sound or audio. If you wanna review audio, review all of it, not just the catchy tunes. Know your shit, guys - your readers depend on you!


Evoland - the study of game design evolution

When it comes to this game, I am probably in the most biased group that exists. I am completely aware that it is made exactly for people like me. The ones that can't decide whether they liked Final Fantasy VII or The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time more. I am pretty sure the guys responsible for Evoland are sitting on the same fence and hell, we are all feeling quite cosy here. 

Evoland is a game about games. To be more specific, it is a game about evolution of two brilliant series of jRPG - Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda. It borrows almost everything from these games and as a huge fan, I was enjoying every tiniest bit of it. Every gag, every little mechanic, every little reference made me smile or straight out laugh and run to my wife to first explain the background to her, then tell her the joke and then get angry that she doesn't get it.

Guys from Shiro Games came up with a really cool mechanic: opening chests rewards you with new game features! You start in black and white 2D world where you can only go right and evolve it into a 3D world that gets textures, prerendered backgrounds, higher resolution, better music. But the evolution isn't limited only to graphics or music quality. You get awarded such things as enemies, inventory, health bars, breakable pots and pushable crates or random encounters and turn-based battle! You get all kinds of game elements that upgrade your experience from earliest 80's to the first decade of the current century.

Almost all the mechanics that you can uncover are taken straight from either FF or TLOZ, and later a bit from Diablo. Since it is a game about game evolution, it wouldn't make sense to add some new revolutionary mechanics that didn't exist before. The designers decided that there's no use hiding their fascination with the two titles. They even went a step further. Everything in Evoland reminds us of two studied series: names of characters, shape of an airship, sword design, mood of a town, battle menu layout and color... All these are an honest tribute to the two great series.

Putting aside my undying sentiment to last century RPGs, Evoland does one thing that I am not sure it intended to do, but it does it extremely well. It actually teaches the player a lot about game design. Every new element that you discover in Evoland gives you new ways to interact with the environment. When someone plays a regular game, he is given a series of mechanics that are usually complimenting each other in a fluent way. He rarely analyzes how they affect the general gameplay and interact with each other. In Evoland you never get two new mechanics at once, letting you focus on one element at a time. And it shows you, how this element changes the game. How adding NPC's adds a dialogue option. How placing a key in a chest forces level designers to place an unlockable door somewhere and how it affects the level design options.

One other aspect that is just exemplary in Evoland is the learning curve. It introduces every single element separately, starting from scratch - moving right. Every time a new gameplay bit appears, you get to use it right away. You get a key - you open a door. You get a bomb - you blow up a wall. You never have to wonder what, when and how to do. And you are never attacked by tutorials or popping up hot tips.

The game is short - only a few hours of gameplay. But also, it's 10 worth of a game design analysis of two greatest jRPG series. There's no denying Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda series, at least in the last century, were all very good games. Seeing them broken down to single pieces introduced one by one is of indisputable value for every designer. I would be in a pickle if I were to choose between spending $10 on a book about game design or on Evoland.


Jobs in gamedev: Producer (part 1)

Just lately this noob has been promoted to an Associate Producer (yay!). After nine months on the job, doing my best to coordinate the production tasks I think I can fairly certainly say... Damn, I still don't really know what being a producer really is all about. Therefore, I am putting "part 1" in the title, but part 2 won't follow straight after it. I will probably write part 2 in a year or two, just to revise and maybe contradict the statements I will make today.

So many producers...
If you look at all the "kinds" of producers, you can find out such names as Producer, Executive Producer, Junior Producer, Associate Producer, Senior Producer, or even such weird thingies as Art Producer, Design Producer or Technical Producer. What is the difference between them? In many cases, it strongly depends on the company, but generally speaking, the main difference is the level of competencies and responsibilities. The core concept of the job stays the same whether you are a Junior Producer or Executive Producer. The only real difference is the number of decissions you will be expected to make and broadness of topics you will have to cover.

A producer in gamedev is kinda like a manager
In this case it means that he's as much everyone's boss as he is everyone's bitch. From all the info I've gathered so far, his role varies greatly throughout the life of the project. Producer needs to know what everyone in the project is doing and why. He manages the priorities of the tasks and is responsible for achieving the milestones within planned deadlines and budget. This part is almost like any other project management in any given company. On the other hand, however, producer can often be the guy that does things others don't have time to do. It can be anything from covering for a sick animator at a motion capture session, through attending meetings that just popped out, running the team's Twitter, helping with the game's slogan or logotype, to all the things people in the trenches don't have time to do while crunching: ordering lunch, helping QA check out the latest build or the most basic and tedious jobs, like renaming files, creating backups or watching the progress bar of the compiling build as the programmer gets his 15 minutes of rest. It is also quite safe to say that if there is a task where nobody knows whose responsibility it is, it is most probably producer's.

Job of a producer, despite its name, is one of the few jobs in development that doesn't produce any assets for the game. Producer doesn't code, doesn't animate, write, design or draw. His job is to make sure everyone who actually produces assets, does the job they are supposed to be doing. There may be moments where a producer gets to add something to the game, like a line of dialogue or some idea for a feature, but it is never in his job description.

Producer = an universal translator
You need some serious people skills for this job. It is pretty common that people involved in the project are all on the same page, all wanting the same thing, and still arguing over it, mostly because they are just miscommunicating. That's where the producer can shine, serving as a facilitator, translator or decission maker. In many cases, instead of making a decission, producer's role is to make the right people talk about the right thing and just observe the result, eventually, if it's necessary, choose one of two options that are presented.

The way I see it, the aim of every producer should be to speak as many languages as it is humanely possible. I'm not talking foreign languages, although English is a must and man, I wish I knew Chinese and Hindi. There are other, more important languages though. A producer should be able to speak business, art, programming, marketing, legal, PR, hardware, software, design, poetry, math and depending what kind of game he's working on, languages like medieval weaponry, womens clothing, dogs, space travel or alien mutants ninja hot dogs. Why? Because anyone in the team can approach the producer and everyone expects him to understand what they are talking about. So he should be the nerdiest nerd when among nerds and the most reliable business partner when with investors.

I remember when I got one of the first e-mails from a guy responsible for, among other things, compatibility of the engine with APIs. The mail was somewhere around 10 sentences long and I have spent at least an hour deciphering it with help of Google and Wikipedia. And well, I managed to reply with some moderate understanding of the subject and ask questions that actually got us closer to reaching some conclusions and - in turn - solution. Sure, I could have replied "please tell me what you mean", but then I wouldn't be a discussion partner for him, and that's probably the last thing someone on a producer-related position wants.

Knowledge isn't the key - understanding is
Obviously, it is impossible for the producer to know everything: every detail of every task and every bit of everyone's job. Producer never has the greatest knowledge in any field. In any given aspect of game development there is always someone who knows more and better. That's why the producer first listens, then listens, then talks. One great thing is - as long as you are able to understand what people are telling you, it's fine. Nobody really expects you to have the in-depth comprehension of the subject.

I think that being a producer requires as much humility as audacity. On one hand, you need to know your own limitations and be able to trust the judgement of people responsible for their parts, on the other, you often get thrown into situations or dragged to meetings where you have a really faint idea what's going on and still need to take part in a productive way. Quick learning is probably one of the most important skills for a producer.

Great place to... start?
Paradoxically, an entry-level producer is a really great position to start your gamedev career. Sure, it is pretty demanding right from the start and you most probably need some prior project management experience, but it has one great perk no other position has. You can learn a lot about every element of making games. Being in the middle of it all, meeting with all the people inside your team and outside of it, you have the opportunity to see pretty much everything there is to be seen. In a mere 9 months on the almost-producer job, I was taking part in countless visual art feedbacks, some music feedbacks, a motion capture session (also as an actor!), a creative session regarding the story, business meetings regarding the future of the project, QA tasks, focus tests analysis, cutscenes planning... And if I wanted and/or had any basic skills to do so, I could have tried out any kind of 2D or 3D software or played with the engine. I can't imagine any other position that would enable me to learn this much in equally short period of time.