The Game Audio Explosion – A Guide to Great Game Sound Part II: Music, FMVs and Audio Planning
V. MUSIC PRODUCTION
A. THE UNDERSCORE – INTERACTIVE VS. FILM MUSIC
Until recently, you simply could not compare game music to film music. Every
aspect involved in their production, from budgets to performance, made it an
impractical comparison. Today, these two media have a working relationship.
Games are created to support movies and movies are made from successful
game franchises. Film composers are now writing for games, and some game
composers have made the transition to film. Hollywood orchestras and
orchestrators are now commonly used for game music scores. Why make this
comparison? Because even though the considerations involved in their creation
are different, their effect and function are relatively the same.
B. STORY-DRIVEN/ROLEPLAYING GAMES
As the name suggests, the scores to story-driven games must primarily tell a
story. To tell a story musically is a sublime art. A composer must be well
versed in the work of his predecessors in order to understand what constitutes
successful story telling using the language of music. Fortunately, centuries of
music have been written for this purpose, allowing today’s composer a
foundation for developing this art. We now associate certain sonorities and
rhythms with specific actions, emotions or locations. Compositions like
Rossini’s ‘William Tell’, Wagner’s ‘Tristan’ and Holst’s ‘Planets’ have laid the
groundwork for these non-verbal associations. Film and television composers
have since expanded on these motifs to help express the elements within a
A portion of story telling is to define the environment, both time and place.
Musically, we draw influence from folk traditions for such a purpose. Through
ethnomusicology we can effectively represent locations and time periods by
incorporating traditional instruments, modes and progressions into the score.
For instance, a tabla, tambour or sitar is appropriate for describing an Indian
location. If such instruments are not available, the music may be orchestrated
in such a way as to mimic these traditional sounds. A modern orchestra is
greatly enhanced by the addition of folk elements for the purpose of describing
a specific time and place.
Characters within a story are supported through the development of melodic
themes and motifs associated with each character. Orchestrating the motifs
throughout various instruments will provide a sense of character development
as the game progresses. In addition, varying the harmonic support of these
themes will reflect the character’s physical, mental and emotional states.
Game music for the story and role genre must highlight the dramatic events in
the story as well as drive the game-play. NIS and FMVs are the primary tools
for advancing the storyline and scoring to these videos is generally a
straightforward process. You must consider, however, that game-play is also a
dramatic event that contributes to the overall development of the story. Herein
lies the careful balancing act of supporting the story as well as the action,
without the music sounding repetitious. Cross fading alternate versions and
transitions, or layering individual tracks that are programmatically muted and
un-muted, will secure the musical effectiveness over long periods. The
programming methods of manipulating music within a game are beyond the
intent of this article. Further reading from game development resources such
as ‘gamasutra.com’ will provide a closer look at some of the programming
methods used in game music playback.
B. ACTION/ARCADE AND SPORTS GAMES
The most basic function of game music is best exhibited in ‘arcade’ style
games in which the overall gaming experience is enhanced by the addition of
adrenaline-surging music. The music helps to drive the action, thereby
heightening the intensity of the experience. For this reason, it’s very common
for these games to license tracks from well-known, marketable artists with a
track record of producing music that translates to the listener. The interactive
potential of this music, has thus far been very low. However, as many artists
are also avid gamers, they are beginning to show interest in lending their talent
toward interactive soundtrack design, if not producing tracks in their entirety.
Generally speaking, the interactivity of the music in arcade-style games rarely
moves beyond loops and stings. In many cases, this is all that is required.
However, as the complexity of arcade-style games grow, so must the level of
musical interactivity. The music for these games should support any changes in
game-play. Power-ups, signature moves and multiple damage are all examples
commonly reserved for the sound design to immerse the player in the action,
but are appropriately expressed through music as well. A deep understanding
of the game-play will reveal to the composer, new areas to interactively
enhance an otherwise monotonous arcade soundtrack.
VI. FULL MOTION VIDEO (FMV)
Since the FMV is a controlled environment, it is tempting for the sound
designer to elaborate on the sound effects. While in some cases, it may be
appropriate to heighten the dramatic impact of the story; great care should be
maintained to be consistent with the in-game sound design. An incredible-
sounding FMV is surely a joy to behold, however, if the in-game sounds do not
hold up to the FMVs, the playing experience will be diminished. The purpose of
the FMV is to dramatically move the storyline, and to provide a break in the
action. Since Most FMVs occur after completing a level, there is an inherent
sense of reward when viewing the FMV. The sound design should pay respect
to this as long as it doesn’t stray too far from the in-game sound. The FMV
should act as a seamless transition into and out of the game play. In my
opinion, it is best to use in-game sounds within the FMV wherever in-game
movements or actions are present.
The second consideration for FMV sound is the mix of all the sound elements.
All dialog, sound effects and music should be mixed at comparable levels to
the in-game mix, unless there is a dramatic motivation for stressing one over
VII. SOUND REVIEWS
The Beta date is just around the corner. Your sound team has worked countless
hours, and is nearing the finish line. You might think it’s time to examine the
sound for any necessary revisions. Well by this time it’s probably too late. As
mentioned earlier, the sound team is generally the last in line to begin creating
their content. Add to this, the fact that all previously missed deadlines
becomes their burden to make-up. Your sound team will likely be delivering
content right up to the last minute. You will need to have in place a regular
and effective reviewing mechanism to stay on top of the direction of the game
Using the same group of reviewers used for the demo phase (part 1 of article),
create a questionnaire that rates the general aspects of the sound. Rating each
individual sound would be time-consuming, so use categories of sounds and
include room for comments or explanations. By assembling the various
questionnaires, you will be able to develop a consensus opinion that will reveal
spots that need further attention. If this is performed in a timely and periodic
fashion, your sound team will be best able to manage the revisions, as they are
VIII. GOT YOUR SOUND BUDGET? …USE IT!
A. YOUR SIMPLE CHECKLIST
Today’s games are competing with each other on every level. Sound is no
exception. You must secure the best resources possible for your sound team.
This will require that you use your budget wisely, and use all of it.
Prior to beginning the sound effects production, ask yourself the following
1. Is your sound team complete? (i.e. sound designer(s), supervising/Lead
sound designer, composer, audio director and audio programmer)
2. Is each member of the sound team assigned a specific task uncompromised
by additional or overlapping roles?
3. Is your sound team assigned only to your project?
4. Does your sound team have enough time to complete your project?
5. Does your sound team have the adequate resources necessary for your
specific game? These include sonically treated work spaces, equipment,
software and sound effects libraries that are compatible with the needs of your game.
6. Does your sound team have a demonstrated track record of producing
sound within the style and genre of your project?
If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, your sound design team is
properly equipped, prepared and ready for production. Answering “no” to any
of these questions will tell you where you will need to focus portions of your
If the sound team is incomplete or in any way compromised, you should
consider outsourcing an appropriate amount of the workload to game audio
specialists. Look for companies and people that have a strong resume of
interactive sound production, and have successfully produced sound for “high
profile” titles. If your game has special stylistic needs, then consider companies
that have a track record of producing sound for similar titles.
The overall ‘theme’ of your game will help dictate where you may need
additional resources. A historically based game will require authenticity;
therefore consider obtaining fresh recordings of historically accurate weapons
and vehicles. If your game focuses on destruction, a sizeable Foley session may
be appropriate to produce original content unencumbered by overused sound
effects libraries. A small but well organized recording session can give your
game a lot of fresh spark without breaking the budget.
IX. MARKETING YOUR SOUND
Game marketing has typically focused on the creator, developer or the voice
actors within the game. In many cases, sound can be used as a marketing tool
as well. For “The Incredible Hulk – Ultimate destruction” we hired some of
Hollywood’s finest sound recordists to coordinate a Foley session that would
produce the raw destruction sounds we needed to create the sound effects
necessary for this game. Our session took place at an auto-dismantling yard in
a southern California desert. A giant forklift and bulldozer were used to drop,
drag and tear apart cars, vans and trailers. Multiple video cameras captured the
session for future use on the “Behind-the-scenes” reel. The added benefit was
the marketability achieved by everyone’s dedication to producing the most
destructive sounding game to date. Your ability to market your game’s sound
will also help raise any additional finances needed to bring your sound up to
the next level.
The Game Audio Explosion – A Guide to Great Game Sound Part II: Music, FMVs and Audio Planning
Steve Kutay is the co-founder of Radius360, an award-winning audio post production company, specializing in sound for film and games, located in Los Angeles, California. You may contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org
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