Audio Special: Foley for games

Audio Special: Foley for games
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

May 27th 2013 at 3:00PM

Savalas sound man Michael Mackinnon puts forward the case for foley in games

Why does foley have a place in video games today?
While I wouldn’t want to say that it has a place in all video games, certainly character-lead first and third-person games are greatly enhanced in terms of putting the player in the game space and allowing the sound to embody the character the player is being. In that context foley has a lot to offer in terms of games.

And how about the way Savalas approaches creating foley-based sound for games? How is that distinct from your work with the likes of film?
They’re really very similar disciplines. I guess it’s arguable that, for games, foley isn’t actually foley in the purest sense, because foley in the motion picture industry in its purest form is about sounds that are performed directly and in a linear way with a moving image. Foley for games is a little different because you’re creating sounds that will be then added by the games engine to the game as dictated by what the player is doing. That requires a slightly different approach in terms of the sounds you create. The process is essentially the same, but you build the sounds in a different way.

You mention games engines there. Is relevant games middleware typically open to embracing the foley process?
As I understand it most middleware is increasingly designed with those with a background in film sound in mind. In terms of audio, middleware is becoming less technical and more accessible for those of us bringing techniques from cinema and other traditional sound disciplines. That’s really important for those of us bringing foley to games.

What studios are you targeting? Is foley really in reach of anyone other than those at triple-A and large-scale studios?
Foley’s certainly accessible to everyone. Strictly speaking all you need is a microphone, a suitable space and things to make sounds. Of course, in reality it’s more complex than that, but with half decent recording equipment you could do it. Foley can be anything as simple as recording footsteps to body movements and placing a cup down on a saucer. Anybody making a game should consider it, and it’s certainly not the exclusive reserve of the bigger teams.

But if it’s so simple, why use Savalas or a similar service?
Well, the simple answer there is about experience.  In terms of what we do I keep harking back to our work with film. Recording sounds is one thing, but recording them well and bringing an understanding of the aesthetics of film audio is another thing altogether. While the games world is fragmenting a lot, across all kinds of games there’s still an interest in cinematic audio, and from a sound point of view that’s definitely what we can offer. Those big sounds and that Hollywood sound is absolutely something we can help with.

But not everybody wants that 'big' sound. Is that fragmentation of games you mentioned impacting the way you approach foley?
There’s certainly been that fragmentation, and with it a polarisation of the kinds of work people want done. We’re having to approach both the big sound work and people looking for smaller sounds suitable for games on iPhones and similar platforms.

Foley, of course, has existed in games for some time. How is it changing?
We used to have to deal with low bitrate sounds and do things like have footstep loops that used to repeat and sound a little unnatural. Now games platforms are so much more sophisticated, so there’s much more scope for foley in games today.

In today’s era of digital distribution, memory usage and compression is more important than ever. Is it fair to assume foley is especially demanding in that regard?
It can be, and in the world of foley there’s a big push for more depth to sounds, especially for those looking to meet a certain quality, so we could find ourselves jostling for memory allocation. But compression technology for audio is improving at an incredible rate today. There’s now ever more room in games for foley.

And what would you say to games developers unsure about embracing foley?
You should absolutely open your eyes – and ears – to the possibility of what foley can bring to your game. There’s a lot it can do I terms of an increased immersion through sound. In that respect foley can offer a lot to gameplay. Ultimately, you can’t beat real sound. The clichés about foley – that you make thunder sounds from wobbling bits of metal – are often untrue. They’re something of a myth, and rarely better recording the real thing. That said, the one about using celery and broccoli for breaking broken bones is true. Sometimes, trickery does have its place.