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Challenges of Mobile Audio Part 1

Developing mobile audio effects and soundtracks for mobile gaming poses significant challenges and raises several problems for developers to contend with. In this series of articles we’ll look at the main challenges of developing mobile audio and the workaround solutions for soundtrack development.

Many mobile devices simply cannot play multiple sound files at once, and are limited in most cases to playing just one sound. This can be very challenging for designing immersive games with good quality sound effects.

Audio playback on mobile devices has to be queued; this of course means that the design process needs to prioritize the choice between sound effects, or a dynamic soundtrack. The choice will depend on the nature of gameplay and the actual genre. For instance, an RPG game would be incomplete without a perpetual soundtrack. Equally, a puzzle platform type game would require more sound effects over a continual soundtrack.

Perhaps the challenge in this issue is how to combine a balance of sound effects and dynamic soundtrack that responds to player actions. If the mobile device only plays one sound at a time, the soundtrack design needs to be created using a crossfade at both the beginning and end points of the waveform so that music can seamlessly fade out and conjunctively play the next sound effect when it is called.

The next challenge of mobile audio is the technological limitation of current available devices. Not only is the playback method limited by headphones that are inevitably used by mobile gamers, the audio speakers and file formats of smartphones and tablets inevitably stunts all audio quality. Immersive audio is not possible in this situation, so this has to be kept in mind that audio will generally not be differentiated between left or right speakers for surround effects as expected in console or pc games.

The technical capabilities of headphones on mobile platforms such as Android or iOS means that many of the sound assets are simply wasted resources, as the higher frequencies are never going to be heard in this case. In essence the quality of audio will be limited by the current technology.

Device Limitations

Games developed for mobile platforms are played mainly on iPhone or Android devices, be it smartphones or tablets. The devices themselves feature limited mobile audio technology for audio playback.

The iPhone 5s supports such file formats as AAC, AIFF, WAV, and MP3. An android device such as the Samsung Galaxy s6 fares no better, but does offer slightly more file format support, including AAC, FLAC, MP3, OGG, WAV, WMA, and XMF. This makes it possible to utilize a high bitrate Flac file at 24bit encoding with manageable file sizes, still only producing one sound file at a time. There is still no M4A lossless support. The main problem with the iPhone is its inability to decode multiple sound compositions. It operates using uncompressed audio files such as WAV and AIFF formats, taking up a lot of file space in order to play audio within a game.

When developing an audio track for the iPhone, the workaround is to sample sounds at 24 kHz, this will drastically reduce the file size and not be such a drain on the battery life. If the iPhone is your primary platform for development releases, sampling all your assets at this bitrate is the way to go.

On the tablet side, the Galaxy Tab S 8.4 supports WAV, eAAC, WMA, and Flac playback, but no support for OGG, and OGG files are crucial for the most optimal file size compression with a maintained sound quality. Ultimately this means the development team needs to focus exactly on their primary choice of platform to release for when choosing the mobile audio format to encode their soundtrack with.

Perhaps the most obvious challenge of sound design for mobile audio becomes apparent here, a lack of cross platform capability. The biggest obstacle to overcome is designing sound to work on as many platforms as possible. The S 8.4 may not perform well for games using the OGG format. If sound designers want to release across all platforms, the challenge becomes one of designing only in WAV format and using limited compression for sound effects. Looping soundtracks could not make use of ogg files if the release was targeted for the Galaxy tab. This presents a difficult choice sound developers need to make when developing sound FX or musical soundtracks across platforms.

So how do developers actually create small file size dynamic soundtracks for mobile devices? To overcome this challenging limitation of developing mobile audio, the execution has to be clever and precise. Creating sound FX and longer musical scores must be done by designing small loops and using cross-fading techniques at the beginning and end point of each sound file. This duplicates the same sound file onto itself at the end point in order to complete the full sound effect before looping for constant playback. By using this method with only one file, the need for multiple files taking up storage is completely avoided.

Although developing mobile audio has its problems, using some of these techniques does provide a solution and allows indie developers to quickly gain an understanding of sound design for mobile gaming.

In Part 2 we’ll take a closer look at addressing the file size limit for audio files in mobile games.

Amazing Game Soundtracks Of The Last Decade

Elder-Scrolls-V-Skyrim-007

There has been a huge advance in audio production quality and game development capability over the last decade. We’ve heard the spine tingling results in some breathtaking audio production for game soundtracks in many popular titles. Sure, a few duds left us wondering what the developers were thinking, but the clear superstars are doing it right, with audio production studio software. Giving it the Hollywood treatment, here’s ten of the best soundtracks from the last decade of gaming.

Max Payne 3

The Max Payne Theme is moody, atmospheric, and has a noire feel to the environment. In 2012, L.A based band Health took inspiration from Brazilian influence and instrumentals, and combined several stems to create a synthesized ambience that fits well in the world of Max Payne.

The track entitled ‘Tears’ is where the creativity of Health shines through in audio production. The track adds beautiful electrifying vocals that taunt your emotions. Synthetic, industrial, and well scored. The album is available from Rockstar and iTunes.

Red Dead Redemption

Rockstar are known not just for their amazing game development, but also superb soundtrack audio production in all their titles. The soundtrack for Red Dead Redemption is no exception. Mostly composed by Bill Elm and Woody Jackson. Of particular note is the track by José González called “Far Away – immediately conjuring images of the Wild West as you listen to the vocals and masterful score.

The entire soundtrack is produced at 130 beats per minute in A minor. The innovative audio production process involved the use of modern instruments played in an unusual manor to fit perfectly within the game’s Western theme. The daunting task of the soundtrack was to set the ambience using 5 minute loops that interacted with the player’s actions, really pushing the boundaries of stellar sound production in games.

Red Dead Redemption was critically acclaimed for its soundtrack, and went on to win Best Original Score at the Spike Video Game Awards, and José González won Best Song in a game for “Far Away”.

World of Warcraft Cataclysm

David Arkenstone is one of a large team of composers who created orchestral music for the WoW franchise, including Cataclysm. Creating a masterful soundtrack for a large open world mmorpg is no easy task. Each zone has its own theme developed from inception and then the orchestral music is composed around it in line with the theme. Every song in each zon

e is telling a story, matching the theme. Inspiration came from exploring artwork of the old world, and the new revamped environment introduced in Cataclysm to create an epic ambience throughout a vast online world.

Creating the soundtrack required composition of tracks in such a manner that mood could easily transition into other tracks as players crossed zones and left environments behind. David Arkenstone states that artwork and sound effects best helped him choose the right instrument to score with for each zone. Some of the most recognized titles and skillfully composed rendition include Nightsong, along with vocals by Laurie Ann Haus, and orchestral performance by Northwest Sinfonia Orchestra, and let’s not ignore the Night Elves theme from Mount Hyjal.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim

The Skyrim soundtrack is inspiring, evocative and uses beautiful orchestral compositions with draconic chants, and haunting primal vocals throughout. The Dragon language developed entirely for the game’s development features heavily in the audio production, as the theme in multiple areas of the game, and in several musical scores.

To provide orchestral and majestic themes, Jeremy Soule used a Nordic choir and primal drum beats to immediately set the mood with visions of barbaric heroes, vast wild landscapes and treacherous dragons and Viking hunters. The theme continues throughout the game as the tempo increases during mounting tension and interactive gameplay.

Dragonborn is a prime example of how game design and soundtrack production should be done by aspiring game artists. The Elder Scrolls V soundtrack features 4 CDs with 53 tracks, and is available on Amazon and iTunes.

Final Fantasy X

The acclaimed Final Fantasy franchise and OST won many fans the world over. It is open to debate and highly contested between many gamers over the best soundtrack of the entire franchise, there are so many to choose from and all have merit, being composed skillfully.

Nobuo Uematsu composed the original soundtrack for FFX using piano, flute and violin arrangements in 2001. Each piece of music was created by studying artwork of each location to develop emotional attachments and tell a story. The same approach was used to create themes and scores for rich character backgrounds. The soundtrack was made available by EA in late 2004 to early 2005. The soundtrack for Final Fantasy 10 was re-mastered in 2014 and dramatically altered with the use of synthesized music, electronically enhanced with modern day music production software studios.

This departed from the classical piano and violin composition so many loved about the original. Nobuo Uematsu’s original score remains one of the greatest video game soundtracks of all time. The four disc album features over 80 tracks, including Yuna’s theme, Besaid, and To Zanarkand.

Portal 2

Mike Morasky, lead composer of the Portal 2 music soundtrack created a truly spectacular dynamic soundtrack that reacts to the players actions like never before.

By designing the music into the interactive mechanics of the environment itself, players experience positional music relative to their movement and objectives. Morasky implemented both musical sound effects and scored music into the game’s audio production for unique experiences different in each individual player’s session. Indie game developers and aspiring music composers really should take note to step up their game, as Portal 2 has set the benchmark incredibly high.

Music from the soundtrack was created to suggest dramatic and cinematic themes that match a puzzle environment perfectly. Both melodic and synthesized electro-pop genres play heavily throughout the game soundtrack.

Dragon Age: Origins

The title track I am The One, written by Inon Zur and performed by Aubrey Ashburn won the Hollywood Music in Media Award for the “Best Original Song: Video Game” category in 2009. There are two soundtracks available, the Lelianna’s song 8 track DLC soundtrack, and the Official Soundtrack album featuring 35 tracks.

Inon Zur captured the essence of the entire game by using soothing string music, accordion compositions, and captivating vocal accompaniments to compliment the mood of gameplay. If a game designer wants to learn music composition within gaming, they simply must study each of the tracks from this esoteric compilation.

Shadow Of The Colossus

In 2005 Kow Otani composed this orchestral soundtrack that was purely poetic and moving. Kow Otani sets the mood during gameplay perfectly by composing a variety of slow melodies that meander throughout the game as a character wanders, and skillfully weaving transitions into speedy battle encounters so smoothly that your emotions react before you do.

Nothing speaks more powerfully than the fast tempo of Kow Otani’s orchestral production of the Battle Theme. It appropriately matches the mighty awe inspiring and yet terrifying battle against a huge colossus, urging the player to think and act fast, as well as instilling fear and urgency within the listener. The soundtrack is a perfect example of matching gameplay mechanics with musical scores.

Journey

This is like drizzling yourself in honey while you explore your favorite open world. The fact this composition was nominated for a grammy illustrates how intricately woven into gaming music soundtracks have become, and how intensely they affect emotion and experience just as much as any motion picture cinematic release. Journey delivered recognition for gaming soundtracks and drove innovation forward. Austin Wintory composes profound music for the game using flutes, harps and cellos across 18 tracks of somber, ethereal and lonely pieces that match the theme of Journey well. The music tells a story beautifully, subtly hinting that it’s not the destination, but the journey that matters. Journey won awards for Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media, and won Best Original Score at the Spike TV Video Game Awards.

 

Civilization IV

An actual Grammy win for Christopher Tin’s Baba Yetu goes one step further than Austin Wintory’s Journey composition. Christopher Tin composed Baba Yetu originally and exclusively for Civilization IV. Several years later it won recognition through inclusion on a compilation release, to win a grammy for best instrumental arrangements accompanying vocalists. Technically it was an indirect win, but I’m sure any gamer would agree, this was a win for a song created solely for a game environment. It worked well thanks to Tin’s choice to use a gospel choir to sing through the rise and fall of settlements and civilizations, the score is operatic, inspiring, and humble at the same time.

 

What’s your favorite video game soundtrack of the last decade? Got questions about audio production? Let us know in the comments.

 

Communicating With A Game Composer Pt.2

In our post last week, we discussed some of difficulties in communication that can arise between a game composer and the dev team.  We also talked about the importance of defining the purpose for music used in your game.  This week, we will talk about the remaining elements that will allow you to get the best work from your composer, namely:  Emotions and Feel.

Emotions

Since music is the language of emotion, it is much more natural to communicate about music by speaking about the emotions to evoke than it is to speak in terms of genre (although as we will see later, genre has it’s place).  Emotion will convey to your gamer what they should feel as they are watching your cutscene or playing your level.  Much like purpose, there are many options for the choice of emotion and often, a certain musical cue may call for a mixture of emotions.  For example, motivation, determination, fear, mystery, are all emotions that a certain game may include.  However, your game level may call for a mixture of emotions such as determination mixed with fear or fear mixed with hope in order for the musical cue to truly convey what the player should experience emotionally.  Emotions are the wireframe, the base, and the foundation on which you want to build your music around.  Get it right, and the player will care about the hero of the game, cry when a side character is killed, and yell out loud when they pick up the joystick when they go to battle.  Get it wrong, and they will be unengaged.

Mental State/Mood

Sometimes, evoking an emotion may not be necessary.  For example, for a puzzle game, you may not need your gamer to be charged up.  However, there may be a mental state that you want to induce.  Using the example of the puzzle game, you may want to induce a state of focus in the gamer as they concentrate on solving the puzzle.  Other times, it may be specific mood such as tranquility or serenity.  In either scenario, you need to designate what emotion, mental state, or mood you want to induce in your player so that the music can fill it’s role.

Feel

If emotion/mental state/mood are the foundation on which to describe your music, the feel are all of the other levels, finishings, and outer trappings that sit on top of the foundation.  To clarify, when we mean feel, we mean the aspects of music that correspond to a time, location, or genre.  For example, a song with Japanese “feel” can have many different emotions, but there are certain sonic elements that would give it a “Japanese” feel such as the instrumentation or the scales used.  While the emotional elements of a song communicates how one should feel emotionally, the “feel” of a song conveys a certain time or place.  For example, the feel of calypso can take someone mentally to an island or beach.  Feel becomes important to game audio because if the feel of your audio doesn’t match the visual aesthetics of your game, the sound and graphics will be out of sync (which can be an effect in its own right but is beyond today’s blog post).

 

Knowing both emotion and feel makes it much easier to communicate with your composer and to decide on what you want.  They become two variables that your composer can experiment with to compose tracks for your game.  They also also become your toolkit for assessing what your composers provides you.  For example, let’s say your song comes back and the feel fits your visuals perfectly but it’s missing the mark emotionally.  Maybe it’s the wrong emotion, or rather the emotion is not incorrect, but needs another emotion mixed into it to make it really move the gamer. In either case, you now have an easier time communicating with he composer to get exactly what you want.

 

Purpose, emotions, and feel are the keys to communicating clearly with your composer.  By keeping these 3 elements in mind, you get to the heart of what your music is supposed to do and make it crystal clear what you are looking for from your composer.

Communicating With Game Composers

The Challenge

There’s already enough challenges in your day.  Meeting deadlines, monitoring budgets, and dealing with the countless emergencies that arrive during development all are challenging in their own right.  However, another fundamental challenge in development is communicating.  Communicating with someone that has the same role as you or background is is one thing, but communicating with someone from a totally different discipline, each with its own vernacular (Programming, Art, Marketing), is another challenge in itself.  We’re going to discuss probably one of the most challenging conversations that a game producer/developer will have, and that’s with a composer. We’ll address the inherent difficulty in the dialogue between a game development team and a composer, but more importantly, we’ll also talk about how to overcome this gap.  By the end of the article, you’ll be well on your way to getting the best fitting music from your game when working with your composer.

Why Talking To A Composer Can Be Difficult

Music, much like programming, is a language in itself with its own notation and vernacular.  Although the notation of music may only be known by those with musical training, music itself is a universal language that conveys emotion.  Regardless of background or musical training, a melancholy piece composed in Berlin will be perceived as a melancholy piece by an African audience.  Despite this universality however, there exists a large amount of subjectivity with music that doesn’t exist in programming.  Whether a song is good or bad is subjective.  Even the attributes used to describe a song can be quite broad.  Take “reggae” for example.  It may sound simple to request a “reggae” song for your track, but do you mean Bob Marley? Sublime?  Shabba Ranks?  Technically, using reggae to describe all these genres is correct in a sense, but where does that get us in terms of actual sound since each of these artists sounds unique in their own right.  However, there is hope…

Purpose

Before even thinking about music for your game, throw out any of your music-genre centric language such as orchestral or rock and challenge yourself to describe music in terms that we’ll mention below.  In fact, before thinking about music, first consider the purpose of music in your game.  Why do you want or need music in your game?  What is the function of the musical piece?  This is not a philosophical question, but rather a very practical one.  In fact, you should be asking this for every instance that you plan to have music:  the menu screen, the various levels, cutscenes, and stingers.  Asking these questions forces you to think of music as another gameplay element in your game, which it is.  A few examples are the following:

Narrative Support:  Your game is plot driven and your game needs music to emotionally tie your gamer to the events occurring in the game (the plot).

Thematic:  You want music to represent certain heroes, villains, or side characters in your game.

Mood Setting:  Your game needs something to help induce a mental state or mood.  Perhaps it’s a puzzle game where you want the music to help the player to concentrate.  Perhaps it’s a fighting game where you want the player to be amped up. Perhaps you are just setting the tone for the game at the menu screen.

Game State:  Your game switches between game modes such as exploration and action and you need the music to communicate this switch to the player.

Reward/Punishment:  Something good has happened to the player (such as victory music), or something bad has happened (they lost).  This is typically done via use of short musical compositions known as stingers.

One of our demo games on this site, Breakout, is a rendition of the classic block smashing arcade game of the same name.  Before we opened up our musical tools to develop music for this fairly simple game, we asked ourselves, what is the purpose of music for this game. We decided music would serve two roles.  First, it was to set the mood throughout gameplay.  Secondly, it was to reward/punish play depending on whether they won or lost the game.

Stay tuned next week as we talk about the remaining pieces of the puzzle: emotion and aesthetics.

 

Enhancing Your Game’s Replay Value Through Audio

Replay Value

Replay value…it’s that magical characteristic sought after by game developers that keeps gamers playing, even after they’ve completed a game before.  Non-linear storylines, secret costumes, and unlock able content are all staple ways of adding to replay value.  However, one aspect that many developers overlook in regards to lengthening a game’s lifespan is audio….yes, we said it…AUDIO.   Audio won’t entice players to play longer in the same manner of secret costumes and unlock able content, but done correctly, audio can support other game elements to enhance replay value numerous hours after the first playthrough.  However, done incorrectly, bad audio will prevent players from playing longer since at it’s worst, bad audio can quickly annoy players. Let’s looks at a few ways that you can enhance replay value through audio.

 

Sound Variations

Think about a sound that occurs frequently in your game, possibly a footstep sound or a weapon sound.  Now consider how long a gamer will potentially be hearing this sound.  Hearing this exact same sound over and over again when a  certain action is triggered is a sure fire way to annoy your gamer, and the main culprit of this is caused by using one audio sample per action.  Furthermore, having the same sound triggered is unrealistic and unrepresentative of how sound works in the real world and your gamers will pick up on this.  One technique to remedy these static sounds is to use sample variations that give the sound more variety, sounds more natural, and will not annoy the player.  Another nice touch is to add is subtle random pitch adjustments each time the action occurs.  This, combined with varying samples will result in a more dynamic sound that will sound subtly different each time it’s heard.  After hours of hearing the sound being triggered, your gamers will thank you.

 

Interactive Music

In the same vein that hearing the same audio over and over again can be frustrating, hearing a static music loop over and over again is another sure way to annoy a gamer; especially if a level is played for long periods.  Fortunately, games have a unique advantage versus tv and film, and that is interactive audio.  Interactive music not only enhances the experience (which is another subject in itself), but can extend the replay value of your game tremendously through enhancing other elements.  For example, suppose a game level can be played in multiple ways:  stealthily with a knife or a guns-blazing way with a shotgun.  Now suppose that depending on which weapon you use, the music responds.  With the knife, the music is rather ambient, putting the gamer in stealth mode.  With the shotgun however, war drums, brass, and strings are added.  Each way the gamer plays the game, the music adapts, making it not only a new gameplay experience, but a new audio and emotional experience since the music reflects how the gamer plays the game.

 

Replay value is a sought after element of many games, but do not overlook the role that audio has in enhancing the replay experience.  At best, it enhances the replay value and at worst, it can negatively impact replay value.  With a few subtle touches to a game, audio can greatly contribute to your game lasting longer.