John Broomhall talks to audio director Stefan Strandberg about his work on Battlefield 3
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Battlefield: Bad Company 2 deservedly scooped a BAFTA for ‘Use of Audio’ – a popular win with practitioners and punters alike.
For audio director Stefan Strandberg, and the respected DICE audio team, BF:BC2 had proved a solid, stable technology platform upon which to craft and finesse something rather special. The end result was sound poetry in motion.
Compare and contrast with Battlefield 3 and the challenge of creating another hit game whilst also concurrently building a brand new game engine. Level technology ground gave way to shifting tectonic plates.
Many basic audio features were missing or late whilst nascent graphics and streaming bandwidth issues demanded a serious data management re-think.
Evidently it was a tough journey through heavy weather, over which a compassionate veil may be drawn.
CREDIT WHERE IT’S DUE
All credit then to the intrepid audio team for not disappearing into a black hole of coding and memory hassles with a weary shrug of the shoulders. Strandberg and the team kept an eye determinedly on the creative ball, keeping true sound design and aesthetic considerations to the fore, and proving again that it is, first and foremost, the power of ideas rather than technology feature-lists which lead to cohesive sound entertainment experiences. For them, close collaboration with other disciplines to create a conceptually consistent world was of the utmost importance.
“There’s a lot to say about this game in terms of aesthetics and the philosophy behind it,” explains Strandberg.
“Our fundamental vision was to create the impression of unedited war. One thing that makes our game perceived as sounding right is that we continue to hunt down all those other disciplines that affect us. This time we worked even closer with the animators and effects people when it came to camera shake and re-coil.
“It’s super-important that we collaborate and help drive analysis, so we captured a lot of explosions footage and examined it closely. Sound designers are the disciples of timing issues - they have a rhythmical sense which other disciplines don’t necessarily have.
"We noticed that in order to fit together, animations had to be as snappy and short as our sounds in so far as they expand over time. It took several weeks to get this timing right. We noticed that in the effects artists might have twenty frames of fire, whereas for real world explosions the fire is consumed within around three frames in many cases.
“Even in massive explosions which propagate slowly when it comes to the outer rims, the actual core of the explosion happens so fast and expands so quickly that Hollywood slows them down. But we want our game to be real so we needed that snappiness and punch in the visuals. Four things work together – sound, camera shake, effects and rumble – it’s really powerful and a key factor in the perception of our sound being right and having impact."
THE HIT FACTORY
“It’s the same thing with hitting a character," he continues.
"We had big discussions about putting the hit detection in multiplayer on the client side because the animation system for smoke and blood effects should react instantly. I’ve said many times – ‘if a game plays good, it has a greater potential of sounding good’. As to the sounds themselves - we are on a quest for consistency of approach with every sound fitting in a balanced way in the universe. So there are no super-designed weapon sounds.
"Individually, our sounds are not that impressive, but it’s our consistency in how we treat them that counts. It’s the sum of the parts that is impressive, not each individual component. We build the blueprint on how they’re supposed to be used, rather than focusing on making the best individual effects. Sure, you can always create a better sound but if you go down that path, you produce an ‘inflation’ – but we’re more focused on asking ‘does it fit in context, is it part of the world’?
“The combination of sounds works – kind of like record production where things combine to sound good. You carve out a space for each component – even though the drummer wants the drums loud and the bassist wants bass in your face. It’s so tempting sometimes to do that individual big super-mega-sound, but actually it will push everything else over the edge.
“It’s the rule-set and the thought process behind it – and really staying true to those concepts – that makes people think the game sounds good. It doesn’t have to be de-codable for the average user. There’s a depth there that you could argue no one would notice, but the fact it is there, and that it’s followed through, proves the opposite.”