John Broomhall discusses the challenges of creating triple-A audio for MMOs with Jagex’s head of audio Stephen Lord
You joined Jagex two-and-a-half years ago. What were your key objectives?
I came to Jagex because I saw an opportunity to make a significant difference; to bring my experience from titles like APB and Harry Potter, and help instil those high production values and that ethos in the team and our games. My remit was to overhaul our approach and I’ve been given full autonomy with strong commitment and support to do so. I have a fantastic team and I empower them with the freedom to express themselves creatively. The attitude here is excellent and there’s always been the desire and the resource to make that happen.
What are the unique audio challenges of a Jagex MMO title?
Getting my head around the sheer size of RuneScape was my first challenge. With 1,000 tracks, 5,000 characters and over 30,000 sound effects, it’s a question of how and where you start. For bandwidth reasons, the soundtrack was MIDI music unlocked as gameplay rewards, and most sound effects were generated with a built-in synth. Updating the audio is a bit like painting the Forth Bridge, getting half way across and having to start again, so we have to choose priorities carefully.
Our ambition is to stand proudly alongside the very highest standards in game audio but achieve this within the easy access environment of a browser title. Investment in dedicated audio streaming servers has been vital in allowing us to produce a high quality soundtrack.
The ultimate challenge is to keep the whole audio experience interesting and rewarding. Our players may spend many hours in-game in one geographical area developing just a single skill, so keeping the audio varied and entertaining is key.
My approach has been to produce engaging audio for benchmark content such as quests. This involves bespoke soundtracks and fully voiced characters, which re-enforce the stories being told and help bring our characters and lore to life. Another important consideration is that audio must be a functional aid encouraging players to use it for a competitive advantage or notifications.
What talents and facilities are brought to bear on Jagex’s audio?
There are eight of us in the audio department producing music, sound effects and voiceover direction and implementation. We also have dedicated audio coding resource available.
When Jagex moved into our new building we designed a purpose-built audio facility with communal areas and dedicated booths. At other places I’ve worked, sound designers have been isolated from each other. I believe our setup gives us the best of both worlds with privacy as well as an environment for collaboration, brainstorming, and building team synergy.
We also work externally now with a lot more people. Voiceover services are handled out of house as we work with studios in both the UK and US. Music is still mainly written in-house but we also use freelance composers, orchestras and session musicians. As an indication of our recent ambition, we recorded with The Philharmonia Orchestra at Abbey Road for Transformers Universe.
There’s a staggering three days’ worth of music in RuneScape. How come?
It has just evolved over the 13 years RuneScape has been around. New content is released on an often weekly basis and music is written to support that. Our new music servers remove the reliance on MIDI, but that brings the new challenge of rewriting and replacing over a thousand tracks. Nostalgia is important though and we want to be sympathetic to songs and themes that have become known and loved over the years, as well as wanting to bring a new direction and freshness to the sound.
I worked with composer James Hannigan and recorded new and reworked themes with an orchestra in Bratislava. We also brought talented classical and folk musicians in-house to jam ideas and use their musicianship to evolve much of the new soundtrack organically.
Our audio goal is to give Transformers Universe a strong sonic identity. The factions need to have strong audio signatures as well as personification bringing the individual characters to life.
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