John Broomhall talks with BioWare’s Michael Kent & Jeremie Voillot about the audio design for the latest space adventure
Andromeda’s story is set in a new Mass Effect galaxy, focusing on characters facing the unknown. The game takes place 600 years in the future, when a set of ‘arks’ departed the Milky Way during the Reaper invasion. You play the role of ‘Pathfinder’ facing the challenges of finding a new home for humanity.
For Kent and Voillot, as well as maintaining Mass Effect’s respected high audio standards, Andromeda presented the challenge of audio for an entire new galaxy of races, technology and locations. Kent: “The scope is unbelievable - hundreds of hours of content, tons of weapons and customization choices, numerous planets and hubs, hours of cinematics. Achieving consistently iconic audio throughout is challenging in itself.
“Regarding combat, we really admire our sister team at DICE, emulating their systems to achieve a similar quality whilst modifying them for ‘sci-fi’. On narrative audio, Naughty Dog always inspires us - very polished, detailed experiences that connect you with characters. We aim for that - and I think we achieved it.”
With Andromeda, the team took music interactivity to ‘the next level’ by developing a highly flexible system that facilitates a hybrid of traditional music scripting with a completely parametric and contextual procedural system. Voillot explains: “It detects you’re in combat, aggregating the total ‘CombatStress’ and transitioning to the correct intensity music. On top are ‘Combat Overlays’ triggered and layered in sync reflecting e.g. a headshot kill.
"These mix perfectly with ‘Ambient Overlays’ when the action dissipates and you resume exploring. When the player enters conversation, we auto-switch to the ‘Conversation Mood System’, which uses the writing tools to pick a conversation ‘Mood’– line-by-line if needed. “The great thing is we got the writing team to help set this up as they knew the context best. So that’s the procedural system – but at any point we can override it with the ‘Scripted’ system - more akin to what we’ve done previously.”
Another smart development has been applying the in-game procedural Foley system (vital given the game’s scope) to the 500+ cinematics. “Our system uses physics-generated events and parameters to appropriately play back loops and one-shots to emulate movement and footfalls,” says Kent.”Foley is THE thing that grounds these characters in the world, so we take it very seriously. Using the system for cinematics has essentially removed our dependency on the Animation team, meaning they can continue to iterate without blowing out our stuff. Everyone gets along more now.”
“Our planets are massive. Implementing sound by hand is impossible,” Voillot adds. “The resulting dependency on art and design unrealistic. Instead we have our cool Procedural Locator Object Placement System, which allows flagging of specific objects in the game (i.e. a flag, fire) and association of a sound with it.
"These assignments live in a single PLOPS asset, and we can easily populate a whole level with correct sounds at correct locations – thereafter level designers can move stuff around and we can simply update our sounds to match. We can also pass in parameters to playing sounds, and control the playback of specific sound groups. We also sample the local WindSpeed at the location of the sound and pass that value in to modulate playback.
“It sounds great when the wind picks up and a tree, flag and fire all react together. It creates a very detailed ‘bubble’ around the player which constantly updates as they traverse the world.
The key lesson learned is trust, says Kent. “We simply had to delegate to and trust our incredibly talented team throughout. Andromeda was simply too large and complicated for any one person to have complete ownership. The end result is astonishing, and we couldn’t be prouder.”