HEARD ABOUT: LittleBigPlanet

HEARD ABOUT: LittleBigPlanet

By Develop

February 17th 2009 at 4:04PM

Media Moleculeâ??s Kenny Young talks to John Broomhall about designing the audio for its bric-a-brac world adventureâ?¦

Developer/Publisher: Media Molecule/SCEE

The Audio Team:
Audio design: Kenneth Young
Audio programming: Matt Willis
Original music: Mat Clark (Sonica Studios), Kenneth Young, Daniel Pemberton
Additional sound implementation: Dominic Smart
Tutorials recorded and mixed at: Side UK

The numbers:
• Sound FX: 1225 files
• Music: 133 minutes – 21 licensed tracks, nine bespoke interactive tracks, five bespoke linear tracks

The hugely anticipated LittleBigPlanet presented a fascinating but challenging brief for its key audio designer, Kenny Young. Essentially a physics-based platformer supporting up to four players, it features a sandbox/level editor for players to create and share levels with a global community. Young’s main concern was facilitating good-sounding user-generated levels, striking a balance between automatic audio handling and player control.

“If a child makes a pretend aeroplane out of random bits and pieces, Blue Peter-style, the sounds of the engine obviously don’t come from the model but are added by the child either in the ‘mind’s ear’ or by realising sounds vocally,” he explains. “We connect with this intuitive concept in LittleBigPlanet so that similarly, whilst we automatically score all the ‘real’ game events with sound – background ambiences and physics audio, for example – we leave the player to add sound and music to their ‘imaginary’ self-created worlds.”

Of all the automatically handled sound, physics audio attracted the greatest development effort. The team abandoning a look-up matrix approach in favour of a rule-set which determines what sample to play when two objects collide. It takes into account relative velocity, size and ‘hardness’ of materials in collision.

“An unspecific, generic set of physics audio samples would normally be insufficient to deal with the vast number of meshes in a game, but the amorphous nature of the craft materials in LBP really lends itself to this method,” he says.

“It increases the perceived plausibility of the physical interactions in the game and also informed the creation of the samples themselves. For some of the more exotic meshes I did have to create more specific sample sets – there are 30 different physics audio material types in the game.

“We also deploy material-specific ‘group behaviour’ loops, the volume of these being analogous to the number and persistence of a particular material’s on-screen collisions. These are rather abstract sounds given what is happening on-screen, but successfully score chaotic scenes by adding the stressing sounds of deterioration. For example, large numbers of wood impacts will result in the addition of a splitting, tearing wood sound.”

Despite the focus on content generated by its users, players are unable to import their own music or sound files into the game, Young adds. “In addition to serious copyright concerns, we felt there was also a quality bar to maintain – a factor that’s strongly influenced the design of the audio objects. For example, we keep control of the fall-off, trigger zone and volume of sound objects.”

Instead, players select from several preset sound FX categories, each represented visually by a little sound object which they can just stick into their level. Playback can be triggered by proximity, switches, impact or when destroyed. “It’s just as easy to add music,” he adds. “Put down one of the little ghetto blasters and the music will start playing when a Sackperson walks past it. Simple, effective and flexible.”

Surround sound is used subtly with stereo b/g ambiences and interactive music phantom-surround panned. Distant spot effects are increasingly panned to the rear, attenuated in volume and low-pass filtered as they get further away providing a world-wrapping immersive effect.

Music-wise, the brief for original music was to provide the player a library of reusable bespoke tracks taking in key influences from world music through mash-ups to seventies kids’ TV shows. “Perhaps the most significant constraint placed on music composition was writing and producing music to work with, and take advantage of, the layered interactive music system – effectively handing over control of the mix to the end user is a brave step.

“A significant part of the the LittleBigPlanet sound is the use of great instrumentalists. All the interactive tracks feature live performances to some degree, and composer Mat Clark’s confidence in the players to improvise has resulted in quite a jazzy score – there’s some hot playing on some of those tracks.”

When it came to licensed music, Young says that he was determined to hunt for something fresh, taking his cue from the ‘journey-around-the-world’ nature of the game. “It gave me the excuse to dictate that the music must come from specific countries – no exceptions. This forced us to evaluate the music purely on its chemistry with the game rather than allow choices based on emotionally charged, subconsciously-biased personal opinions and tastes. I’m thrilled that reviews and fans alike have highlighted the role that this eclectic music mix plays in their love of LittleBigPlanet.”