John Broomhall talks to the audio ace about enlightening producers at GDC
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Brian Schmidt knows about game audio. He’s worked in it since 1987, enjoying an illustrious career covering dozens of titles and a ten-year stint at Microsoft where he helped create Xbox.
However, when it comes to evangelising all things audio, the executive director of GameSoundCon still all too often finds himself ‘preaching to the choir’.
When I saw his VGM posting calling for input for his GDC address to game producers, I was naturally curious to find out what he found out.
It seems despite all the growing-up of our beloved industry in recent years, the themes are strikingly familiar.
Arguably, it really all boils down to communication and the vital need for a dedicated, nominated ‘go-to’ audio person who, day-to-day, is at the heart – and throat – of the project investing in team relationships and proactive discussion.
Whether you’re making an iPhone app or a triple-A megagame, having a point person for audio at whose mixing desk the buck stops is not an option.
“Newbie producers don’t need detail on the intricacies of middleware, but they do need some signposts on scheduling – in particular, the critical importance of getting audio involved early,” Schmidt elaborates.
“People still need to be told, ‘You can’t schedule ‘art complete’ and ‘sound complete’ on the same day’. They need said point-person to be in the scrums and the planning meetings so they can raise red flags when a scheduling issue that will affect audio comes up.
“We need producers to think about sound assets as equal to art assets.
"Often they ‘get’ visuals and understand a lot of the work to take art from Max/Maya via programmers into the game, but they don’t necessarily quite get the audio process – the fact that game audio requires audio development time, plus game programming time, plus testing time.
"Poor implementation will make a really great audio asset sound really weak and unpolished.”
“You need to leave time late in the schedule for mixing and audio level tweaking and ask, ‘where is the bug bar set for my product?’,” adds Schmidt.
“Generally, volume level changes are very, very low risk and can be made late in the day. I realise that no change is risk-free in terms of introducing bugs, but letting the audio team adjust levels late in a production is probably going to be very well worth it.
"Then there’s the really boring – but crucial – things like asset naming conventions and the need to really follow them.”
It’s clear from Schmidt’s comments that the producer/audio relationship is a two-way street and pro-active communication and consideration of the wider game development issues by the audio team is as significant as securing the producer’s listening ear.
“The point person for audio needs to be prepared and able to investigate and articulate scheduling issues and provide realistic, good scheduling information,” insists Schmidt.
“A great audio producer should push the rest of the team as hard and as far as necessary – but not farther. Don’t roll over and play dead every time the programmer says ‘Oh, it’ll kill the schedule to get that feature in’, and the audio person’s jumping up and down, saying ‘If you only understood my audio vision, you’d work the weekends to do it’.”
Remember too, that quick prototyping in ProTools can greatly help communication of audio ideas with a non-audio savvy game dev.
“During the development of the first Xbox, Marty O’Donnell and I worked closely together – he as a launch title developer trying to make the best sounding Halo possible, and myself working trying to ship the console itself and enable as many of the cool audio features for him as possible, but keeping in mind the bug lists and schedule.
"Marty kept me pretty honest. He’d be saying, ‘We really need this’, and I’d be saying, ‘We have to launch November 15th or there’ll be hell to pay’. And he’d say, ‘I really need this feature for my game’, and I would push back – ‘Hey, I agree, it’s a great feature but it’s a risky feature’.
"Sometimes he’d talk me into it, and sometimes I’d talk him out of it. It was a pretty decent balance.
“Sure, you want to be a conservative scheduler to be on time and on budget, but you also want to challenge your team to make the game sound great.
"When you’re in the schedule meetings every day as the audio director, you can get a good feel for where there’s fluff in the schedule and where there isn’t. You have to get across that sound is one of the two primary senses you have to communicate with the player.
“Visuals matter if you’re looking at them, but sound and music have power beyond the screen. Audio has a lot of bang for buck in games and I’ve no doubt that a polished sounding game actually promotes the impression of a polished looking game.
"So the more producers and audio people understand and accommodate each other, the better our games will be.”