A Wwise choice

A Wwise choice

By John Broomhall

June 11th 2010 at 8:30AM

CCP on why it upgraded its audio tech to Audiokinetic's offering

EVE is more than a game – it’s a worldwide phenomenon. Set tens of thousands of years in the future, critically-acclaimed EVE Online is a breathtaking journey to the stars for adventure, riches, danger and glory.

The game features a vast player-run economy where your greatest asset is the starship, designed to accommodate your specific needs, skills and ambitions. EVE offers you professions ranging from commodities-trader to mercenary; industrial entrepreneur to pirate; mining engineer to battle-fleet commander – or any combination. From brokering business deals to waging war, EVE provides a diverse array of sophisticated tools and interfaces with which to forge your
own destiny.

EVE stats are mind-blowing – over 300,000 subscribers (and still counting) and at peak, more than 50,000 concurrent players co-operating in their thousands to undertake huge group battles, vying for control of EVE’s 5,000-plus solar systems. A typical player might be a 27-year-old male college student or white-collar professional, logging 20 hours’ play per week. An impressive 20 per cent of all EVE subscribers become ‘life-time’ players.

EVE’s developer and publisher is industry-leading pioneer of single-server persistent universe architecture, CCP. Privately owned and founded in Reykjavik, Iceland (whose population size is about the same as EVE’s) in 1997, CCP has over 400 employees with satellite offices in Atlanta, Shanghai and London. Audio director Baldur Baldursson sums up the mission: “Utilising a cross-discipline approach, combining cutting-edge technology and artistic excellence, CCP is dedicated to providing vibrant, compelling products that transcend the boundaries of conventional MMOs and facilitate social networking through virtual worlds. EVE Online is designed to foster experiences unattainable in any other form of media, where true human interaction and human emotions can be shared and experienced in a living and evolving world.”

MIDDLEWARE TECHNOLOGY

Part of CCP’s modus operandi is to strategically tap into middleware technology with a view to keeping more in-house time and energy available for game-making and caretaking their massive virtual world. Baldursson explains why a switch of audio technology had become necessary and why the team chose Audiokinetic’s WWise: “We had a mixed bag of technologies handling audio and it required a clean-up. As part of that process, we needed to find a solution that could serve all our audio needs. Rather than bear the cost of considerably enlarging our audio department to write a brand new audio engine, we quickly realised the middleware path would work well. We looked at various options and when we researched Audiokinetic we liked what we saw. Meeting and working with them, learning first-hand how knowledgeable and responsive they were, served to assure us they were the best choice for EVE.

“It was very useful to be able to download Wwise and have a play with it. Having the complete tool enabled me, as a content creator, to see exactly what it was capable of before making a commitment. I would even go so far as to say it was a prime factor in our decision to go with Wwise – alongside comparing notes with other audio professionals. The first thing that caught my attention with Wwise was the slick interface and how cleverly everything seemed to be laid out. Somehow it felt very familiar. After experiencing the demo, we set the requirement that other middleware had to at least come close to this.”

Audio programmer Andri Mar Jonsson takes up the story: “The migration process went fairly well. Of course there were a few kinks, but overall it’s been an enjoyable experience. At first, when I heard the sentence, ‘Oh, we want a new sound system in EVE in three months using only two programmers and two sound engineers who had never used Wwise in a production environment I wasn’t very optimistic – so I’m very pleased how quickly it all fell into place. There were a few, mostly architecturally-related problems since Wwise abstracts things a lot better than our previous solutions. For example, the minor but surprisingly difficult problem of trying to convince our programmers they would no longer be playing files – they would be sending events and that would be the only thing they needed to worry about.

“Email support from Audiokinetic was very good and the software stable and bug-free. I have never had the authoring tool crash on me, for instance. Once things are up and running, it works without a hitch and takes almost everything we throw at it. This has built up trust with the programmers, meaning they waste less time searching for a bug in the engine – experience has shown them that in 99 per cent of cases, it’s in their code.

“We found Wwise was struggling at high load points to start with but that was before we read about stuff like virtual voices. After discovering and implementing some of those features, along with limiting sounds in a certain group or bus, things improved a lot. All-in-all, after discovering the tweaking knobs of Wwise, we have been very pleased with its performance.”

MMO HEADACHE
Clearly, audio is a vitally important part of the EVE experience but MMOs provide some specific audio development headaches as sound engineer and composer, Jon Hallur Haraldsson explains: “Being a somewhat young genre and, in the case of EVE, very open and non-linear, there are quite a few challenges for us. As we use over-the-internet delivery of the content, we have to be very selective of each kilobyte we ship. Also, with the sandbox nature of the game, a player might find himself spending a lot of time in the same place, repeating the same actions, seeing the same atmosphere. The human ear is very sensitive to repetition but the content has to be kept relatively small. This is also an issue with the music. The nature of the game makes it hard to determine danger levels and the length of conflicts, so creating a concrete system for music playback that underpins the experience can be quite difficult.”

Baldursson continues: “For regular single player games you can design audio almost without worrying about repetition – most people play the game only once and for those who keep on playing for two or three months, it’s no big deal hearing the same sound a few times. In an MMO we have to be careful in designing sounds in such a way that people don’t get too tired hearing them over and over, month after month. We may have to sacrifice some cool sound effects created in the design phase simply because they don’t stand up to repetition. Wwise makes things a little easier by allowing us to randomly select a sound say, from a list of eight sounds, and then randomly alter the pitch and high-pass filter.”

On this note, Haraldsson said: “The ability to randomise  almost every parameter in Wwise is awesome – also the logic system used with the state engine, blend containers and so on. The internal logic part of Wwise enables content creators to do extremely complex state management without using any code. If used properly, the event and logic system can become a programming language of sorts, accessible by the content creators. Also, being able to test things without having to actually integrate them into the game itself is immensely helpful.”

Faced with their perennial repetition issue, the team have been exploring SoundSeed, an interactive sound generator for Wwise which uses innovative DSP technology to greatly reduce memory usage while facilitating rich dynamic audio content. By creating an unlimited number of variations from a single ‘footprint’ sound, SoundSeed Impact enables audio developers to get tons more variation for resonant sound effects in a memory-efficient and cost-effective way.

Baldursson: “So far it looks like SoundSeed can make a lot of difference for us. It may actually add a new layer of creativity, allowing for a new type of sound design – a design that happens within the tool itself. This will benefit everyone, especially the end user who will experience more variety. If we didn’t have to worry about memory usage we probably wouldn’t have noticed SoundSeed in the first place. Its main advantage for us is technical and concerns the use of RAM.

For example, we can use only one gun sound waveform for a particular type of gun instead of five to ten. Multiply this with all the sounds where this is possible and we may be saving huge amounts of precious RAM. It looks like SoundSeed can save us some considerable time and money once we get it up and running in EVE, and our sound design methods are geared towards the use of it.”

For Baldursson and his team, choosing Audiokinetic’s technology has clearly been a positive experience, with the promise of it yielding yet more production efficiencies and benefits in the months to come.

The investment in Wwise has been well worth it as he concludes: “The first phase of implementing the tools and technology into both our own systems and way of thought has required some extra effort. What this means though is that from now on we won’t have to rely on a programmer for almost anything we do for audio in our games. This was one of the main reasons we decided to go this route in the first place and we are already using Wwise on