A look at audio outsourcing’s increasingly crucial role within game development…
Legend has it that a games journalist on a high-profile publication once reviewed the whole of Resident Evil Code: Veronica with the sound on mute.
Shocking, isn’t it?
Granted, so is the voice acting in Capcom’s survival horrors, but without the soundtrack and effects, how can the game have any chance of instilling the intended atmosphere or extracting the desired emotional response from the player?
The above may seem an extreme example, yet it also gives an indication of people’s general attitude to sound in games – that it’s a secondary concern, of little importance to the overall experience. (In fact, you could bet your next production budget on the fact the vast majority of players experience their games at criminally too low a volume.)
Hearing the call
A similarly dismissive approach used to be prevalent with regards to viewing television and films in people’s living rooms, although the commercialisation of home cinema systems over the last few years has ensured many have since heard the difference. By extension, the increased audio capabilities of the latest consoles are also beginning to filter through, with consumers expecting a lot more from their game audio.
Largely speaking, it’s an outlook that seems shared within the development community, but the increased demands of producing standard-bearing audio within a studio have inevitably resulted in developers looking to specialists to handle such a crucial side of the game equation.
“When you consider the cost of a fully-loaded studio, composers and engineers in-house, being able to turn to professional producers who will create all the audio and music you need [it] makes a lot of sense,” reasons Tom Pearce, general manager of Streamline Sound (Streamline Studios). “And when we’re not working on a project you don’t have to pay us.”
Nigel James Brown of Impromptu Software agrees, and goes further, saying that such is the growth of this sector, that outsourcing audio services is rapidly becoming the standard rather than the exception.
“When I started in the industry, the developers I worked with had their own internal teams. Now it looks like we’re moving towards audio managers in charge of a small internal team utilising specialised audio outsourcing for content. “Some of the more advanced developers are utilising middleware solutions and even outsourcing the audio code, audio implementation and content solutions to third parties like myself.”
Quality comes first
But it’s not simply a financial issue. From a player’s perspective, perhaps the most significant advantage of the outsourcing model is the question of quality, not least in the creative variety that this approach affords a developer.
“All sound designers and especially composers have their own styles and strengths so, as demands for higher quality grow, so do the demands for greater creative scope. This can be better achieved by resorting to a ‘stable’ of outsource resources whose styles can better reflect each individual project,” argues Pearce, before adding that the growing complexity of projects should not be ignored. “We’re also seeing an increasing confluence of licensed tracks, original compositions and original audio all in the same project.”
Licensing is worth mentioning because it’s easily one of the biggest changes of recent years, but perhaps not in the way you’re thinking. “I think the major difference has been the embrace of licensing via independent music labels,” John Elliott of Loft Music reveals.
“The bigger publishers such as SCEE have developed very well-informed music departments, the majority of which with valid music business knowledge. This leads to some excellent choices for score and licence that come right out of the leftfield, such as Amon Tobin for the Splinter Cell games.”
In Elliott’s experience, this is entirely in keeping with the bigger US film and TV studios. “I think it’s come with the realisation that the alternative or underground music world has the artists you need to create the soundtrack you want without having to go to the bigger names and meet the prices they demand.”
Yet while there may be a noticeable licensing shift away from the bigger players of the music industry, developers have certainly remained keen on their production values. Though this wasn’t always the case, of course.
“The evolution for us is that we are being listened to more and more when we beat the ‘production values’ drum. When Outsource Media entered the industry 11 years ago, very few wanted to hear about casting a game like a film or using a specialist dialogue writer or voice director in game production,” says Mark Estdale, the company’s founder.
“Frequently, when we were told production was being done in-house it really meant that the dev team plus the girl in reception were doing the voices in the quietest corner of some office.
“What we offered was seen as unnecessary. Through a third party we produced the voices for Rage’s Incoming for a case of beer and a curry for the cast – Rage had no budget and we wanted to show that professional input makes a difference.”
THX for the music
Clearly things have evolved massively since, not least the concept of aiming for Hollywood blockbuster aural quality. “I think some of the higher budget games are already getting pretty close to that ‘filmic’ sound,” says Adi Winman at Platinum Sound. “However, some of the little nuances in ambience, localisation (positioning wise), depth and dynamics present in many films are lost in games.”
Still, it’s not a bad model to follow. “With game sound becoming much more sophisticated due to advances in technology and consumer demands with the likes of 5.1, we have found ourselves becoming much more involved in that area,” offers Fonic’s Barnaby Templer. “We approach the sound very similar to how we would with a feature or animation film [and] have noticed that foley plays much more of an important role now in game sound. This detail can really lift movement, perspective and physicality within an environment.”
It’s important to recognise that looking to Hollywood shouldn’t simply be in terms of fidelity, which some games already deliver on impressively. “In my view, games still have more to learn from film in terms of craft/artistry in the creative use of sound – what you might call true sound design,” says Pearce, though he clarifies this is not necessarily a question of throwing more money at the production of content.
“For me, it has more to do with unleashing the existing ‘power of ideas’ amongst practitioners working in game audio by providing the programming resources and implementation tools that will enable them to realise their existing visions so often thwarted by a lack of tools and time.”
And money, too, of course. Costs have risen, says Earcom’s Paul Weir, but not substantially. “I can’t speak for other outsource companies but it’s almost always cheaper working with us than having in-house as you only ever pay for what is needed and we’ve even been known to come in under budget.”
What does need to be factored into costs and very rarely is, warns Weir, is the time necessary to consider the design and implementation of the audio as part of the game design process. “Much of the work I do for games is no different from the film and TV work yet it should be – there should be a sensible amount of time and budget to work out just how the audio is going to work in the game.”
“The sad fact is, however, that audio still comes almost last in many budgets and schedules and this is unfortunately reflected in the audio of too many triple-A titles,” laments Big Bean Audio’s Chris Vernon. “Putting sound on the back burner (or indeed treating it as separate from the main production) is something Hollywood has learned not to do and the incredible importance of music and audio is generally well understood.”
As, again, is budget. Media Mill’s Jerry Ibbotson remembers giving a talk entitled ‘Games Audio: Hollywood sound for Cricklewood money’ at a conference for film and TV audio experts. “They were amazed at the kind of technology involved in bringing a game to life through sound […] but they laugh when I say we get around two to three per cent of a total game budget to play with – in their industry it’s around 20 per cent. That’s an acknowledgement that we can get pretty damn close to that all important ‘film quality’ sound on the kind of money that Hollywood sound designers spend on Crispy Crèmes and Starbucks.”
Vernon does admit audio budgets are getting bigger as the quality and scale of work has increased, but so has the marketplace. “There are so many hungry composers and engineers out there (we have around 20 job applications a week for non existent positions) that we see people with ‘bedroom recording’ equipment and no studio, or professionals having to quote ridiculously low prices for work. This is very unhealthy for the industry and will neither encourage good audio practice nor be sustainable.”
Practice makes perfect
More crucial, argue others, is the need for the industry to get its working practices in order. Things are improving, says Andy Emery, MD of Side, but it remains a long way from ideal. “The perception that game audio is post-production – a legacy of linear mediums – still means that often we’re not brought in early enough to consider or realise the audio potential from creative, gameplay and the technical requirements.
“Audio is still seen as a bit of a black art. Some developers approach it with caution and some embrace it whole heartedly, throwing pre-requisite time, money and audio programmers at creating a seamless film-like surround sound experience.”
But as projects become increasingly demanding, no one should doubt the necessity to outsource the audio. “We have probably reached that time,” says Pearce. “There is an old saying in the music industry that if you want to make a small fortune, start with a large fortune and invest it in a studio. Audio studios are expensive to set up and more expensive to maintain and keep competitive.”
But it’s not just the financial responsibility that is daunting. The expectation of gamers, those that are paying attention, is such nowadays that elements such as scripts and voice acting have to be left to the experts. Even musically, many argue it also makes sense to employ an external specialist. “An in-house composer can be great if the company always has similar requirements. However, if this is not the case, then the composer has a very difficult job to keep the same quality in lots of different styles,” says Tim Bartlett of The Audio Guys, who also warns of the peaks and troughs such an individual would face in their workload.
Nevertheless, composer Richard Jacques stresses the importance for developers to maintain certain audio roles in-house. “This is particularly relevant to sound design and implementation, since all aspects of audio now take longer to produce for a major next-gen title. An outsourced team can be brought on halfway through a project but it makes financial sense to get things started with in-house personnel, even if only for creating temporary assets that can then be replaced at a later late. This also helps the production pipeline, where milestones are expected with full production audio, even if the product is at a very early stage.”
Generally, though, the feeling is that possibly only a minute number of development studios are likely to wish – and be able – to keep all audio production in-house. The move to outsource, as with other areas of development, is widely regarded as the model forward, the natural evolution.
“I do see a point when the growing diversity of games content will make it impossible to produce audio without some form of outside input – even as a professional, you can’t specialise in everything, it’s not practical,” reasons Adam Chapman, Babel’s audio manager. “By all means keep some form of creative control internally, but learn to use outsourcing specialists to your advantage so you can concentrate on what you do best.”
Because however good your graphics and gameplay, they are of little use without great audio. If in doubt, try playing Resident Evil Code: Veronica on mute.