Creating immersive sound for games

[Note: With Diana J, our blogging intern out sick this week, Eric the Intern, also known as Sound Guy, filled in for her. Thanks to Eric for that.]

Sound is often one the most overlooked components of video games, for players and developers alike. One reason for this is that when sound is done well, it often goes unnoticed. In fact, this is typically the goal with immersive sound design: to enhance the player’s experience without drawing attention to the sound itself.

Watching movies, we often get the impression that the sound we’re hearing was all captured on the set, during filming. However, in the case of just about anything you’d find in theaters (save for some documentaries), the majority of what you heard was specially fashioned during post-production. This includes everything from explosions, to traffic, birds in the park, ocean waves, footsteps, and in many cases even the dialogue spoken by the characters. And this is for a live-action film; in the case of animated movies, 100% of auditory experience is assembled from scratch. This painstaking creative process contributes to creating a fuller, more engaging experience for the audience.

With this in mind, there is certainly no reason that a video game can’t have specially crafted sound design to help bring the action, story, and characters to life. Of course, it ‘s not as simple as creating the most realistic sound design possible.

In many cases, deciding how the universe should sound in your game is the most important place to start, just as the art style defines how your world will look, you make the rules.

One crucial distinction to make between sound for film and sound for games is that, while films are entirely pre-rendered, games (save for cutscenes) are flexible and require processing in real time. This is important for two reasons:

  1. The technical constraints that come with that require selectivity and creativity in what sounds to include and how to implement them
  2. Since your sounds may play at any number of times and in any order, depending on the player and other random factors, they should be designed accordingly to function effectively in this flexible playback system.

A simple yet successful way to take advantage of this auditory flexibility while keeping within the inherent technical constraints of your game, is to incorporate looping audio (such as vague forest ambience or ocean waves) that can play steadily/repeatedly and–while ideally short in length (and small in file size)–sound continuous as opposed to repetitive. The looping audio is then combined with one-shots (like a character jumping, or picking up an item), which apply to specific and temporary actions. This basic combination can be used to maintain a fullness to the sound world without an excessive amount of audio being loaded.

In the end, there’s no need to go overboard. The most important thing is to make sure you’re using sound as a means to make the game more engaging and fun, in whatever way best suits your particular game. The sound in it should never overshadow the experience of playing it.


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