Archives for the month of: January, 2014

While the arms-race of each successive console generation offers and tantalizes consumers with higher quality entertainment experiences, defining quality itself has started to get more and more tricky. Is it simply a case of (for sound at least) higher sample rates? More fidelity in the surround field? Playing back more voices simultaneously? Higher resolution DSP effects? Consistency? Less glitches and bugs? More convincing (and convincingly captured) performances from actors?

It does begin to blur around the edges as you realize that this is perhaps one of the broadest and most subjective categories to talk about. Yet, it is fundamental to how we navigate, describe (and judge) increasingly expensive (and often complex) entertainment experiences within our industry. Quality is also something that, you soon realize, doesn’t only apply exclusively to big budget games, but also something that applies to much smaller titles, and even down to simple interfaces. Perhaps it helps to think not about the end result, the objective final output of the game, but about the overall experience, and to that end, perhaps the ‘quality’ of processes that go into creating the experiences themselves requires more examination and investment (beyond the unsatisfactory notions of ‘quality’ simply being a shaded area occupying the intersection of features, budget and time).

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately (too much, hence the overflow into the written word) and, my own ad-hoc definition of “QUALITY”, in a game production context, might shed some light (or maybe raise more questions) on how to evaluate (and produce) the ‘intangible’ notion of ‘quality’ (note: this is not really about ‘polish’ which I consider to be an endeavor almost exclusively achieved and performed in post-production) – and it is actually informed and tracked across several quite different areas.

1) Quality of Interaction (Communication and Collaboration) Ensuring collaboration is happening at the high level (between leadership/studio culture/project management) and at the low level (between coders and implementers) and is both happening vertically (intra-discipline) and horizontally (inter-discipline)

2) Quality of Implementation (use of, and access to, material, ease and speed of implementation (tools & pipelines), expertise, iteration time (refinement and enrichment)

3) Quality of Input (Source Assets) and Output (Signal/Data Path): Correctly isolated (or environment specific) recordings (or synthesis) at the highest sample rates and bit depths + I/O signal path (easily re-configurable mixer hierarchies and parametization of sound), controllable, carefully measurable, predictable and trackable output levels. Having this I/O in place allows both upwards and downwards SCALABILITY to different (or newly emerging) platforms.

In combination – I reckon these three areas invariably allow the delivery of refined ‘high-quality’ features and experiences. I’d also like to imply that these areas are not limited to console development (although it is the source of current questions about what ‘next-gen’ actually is/means), but can apply to any technical system whereby the delivery devices are cyclical and incremental.

Perhaps quality is more simply about how well we are able to convey an idea and an experience to a user, and making that distance between the user and the experience as small as possible, such that, in the end, the technology all but disappears completely.

The day to day work of audio can be very detail oriented, and it is easy to get lost in this forest of sound molecules. Solutions to many day to day issues often rely on decision making of a broader kind, and often audio work can be as much political as it is creative, social or technical. Wrangling resources, ensuring that important production information and risks are on everyone’s radar, selling features, ideas, haggling for more time or budget and communicating across disciplinary voids can require a fair degree of entrepreneurial flair.

I’ve been thinking about some general audio pillars within game development a lot. I thought I’d have a go at throwing together some very high-level pillars for game audio which read, to all intents and purposes, like a kind of manifesto promise. The thought here is to provide high-level transparent goals for the audio department within a development environment, and to serve as a series of checks and balances by having a longer term strategic outlook (without that we are marooned in the reactionary, short-term and arguably heading in no direction in particular). This also serves to hold audio accountable to some tangible realities and deliverables, if things aren’t moving in the direction outlined, then, during regular check-ins, course correction can be applied.

Four Strategic Long-Term Audio Pillars

A Focus on Polish is a Focus on Solid Communication.

Whatever the project, polish is one of the most fundamental areas of audio work (it is the reason we focus so much on having good quality source assets and geek-out about microphones, and also why we focus so much on the idea of a ‘signal path’ ). Call it post-production, or mixing, or whatever, the process of removing any unwanted jagged corners, cuts, glitches, sounds that grab the attention at the wrong time, or don’t help the experience is an aspect that is universal to every single sound project. This can be an emphasis on being visible about and scheduling audio Post-Production time, or a familiar and contributory appearance at scrums. But, in order for sound to actually effectively polish something, the work in other areas of production (animation, scripting, world building etc) has to have been somewhat ‘locked down’ – This is an increasingly difficult subject in today’s fast-moving, ‘never-finished’ digital production domain, but one thing that these changes have emphasized over all others is that communication is critical. Iteration, visibility and ‘connectedness’ to the team’s thinking and planning is important to providing polish in the digital production domain. Using continual verbal, visual, and written comms is absolutely essential to keeping everyone in the loop on what is happening. Polish is as much co-ordination, as it is technical or aesthetic choices, and co-ordination is a political endeavor.

Grow, Nurture, and Invest in the Audio Team

Audio teams are often the smallest in the building. They are outnumbered by Art, Design and Tech departments. They can appear to others to be a black box, where no-one understands the processes and voodoo that goes on in sound-proofed rooms. But, we are just like any other department. There is nothing special about team audio; we may see things differently, and have different connections to the team, we have different needs and different skill-sets, but fundamentally, we are exactly the same. In the early days of game development (which these still are) audio often needs to shout that bit louder for equality and representation on the team and to get a seat at the table as a ‘principle collaborator’, rather than an end-of-production ‘service provider’. Everyone on the team will be trained in, and versed in the language of collaboration and innovation. They will know who to go to, how to present, how to prototype an idea and set goals, they will have resources at their disposal, and they will be encouraged to push forward and improve every aspect of their craft and process – removing every element of drag, friction and resistance from their work. Career paths will be clear, transparent and on par with other disciplines in the studio culture. Members of the team will have autonomy to control their own growth and path. The audio budget will always be discussed and adjusted to fit the requirements of the project, with a focus on VALUE.

Early (and Continued) Involvement for Audio

Involvement in earliest genesis discussions of a project. Early involvement with script development, pre-vis work and prototyping as well as with early scheduling and budgeting. Simply put, “Audio is another Art Department.”. The sound team will be able to participate in design discussions, or be empowered to create those opportunities and discussions where they do not yet exist.

Tools & Tech: Put Designer/Implementer UX before Player UX. (Player comes 2nd! – The only way to truly put the player 1st) –

Push the Technology and pipelines in a meaningful, useful and positive direction. Alleviate the designer/implementer’s struggle. The primary goal is to support the person using the tools and enable them a frictionless experience (alleviate enormous fatiguing or repetitive/heavy lifting tasks) when integrating audio into the game. (From small standalone batching scripts and tools, to game engine and audio engine tools & pipelines – the experience of integrating sound should be simple, straightforward, painless and easy to communicate to others) – focusing tools and processes on the user, allowing audio designers to quickly implement assets, switch them and tune them at run-time is a priority for changing the collaborative nature of review sessions etc. This in turn allows the audio designers to focus more clearly on the ‘player’s experience’ rather than wrestling with their own technical issues.

Every studio culture is different, and has a unique approach that solves design and production problems for a unique product line-up. Also, for some audio departments these are problems that are already long-ago solved, while at others, the problems are so much worse (no audio tools, no audio programmer support or resources, and woefully underdeveloped pipelines) – yet every time, audio finds a way to struggle-on, smash through that which resists and make things work and happen. This is really a hopeful push for a broader, more long-term strategic vision – to build resourceful and confident teams with an elevated view of what is in front of them (and behind them), rather than teams fixated on the short-term problems immediately in front.