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!

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