Some days ago I’ve been playing Battlefield: Bad Company 2. The game is really great and addictive! and the sound is also fantastic. That’s because I wanted to talk with Stefan Strandberg, the audio director on the game. We talk about the new challenges the, the recordings, dialogue, implementation and more. Let’s read:
Designing Sound: Stefan, please give us an introduction of you and your career, and tell us how you get started in the game audio industry.
Stefan Strandberg: I think the moment when I actually started in this industry was the moment when I started noticing sounds in games, and especially bad ones. The thing is, I don’t want to notice them, I really don’t. This was 12 years ago and I expected complete experiences but the majority of the games I wanted to play were lacking fundamentals in the sound department.
I really could not stand it. I wanted to play, but instead I started designing and replacing sounds in existing games. I was working with music production at the time and expanded into working as a freelance sound designer for commercials, web and games. 7 years ago I started at DICE working with Rallisport Challenge 2 and from there on it has been more or less Battlefield audio production to this date.
DS: How was the relationship with the rest of the team of “Battlefield: Bad Company 2”? How important is the sound to the other development areas of Battlefield?
SS: We created the first Battlefield: Bad Company at the same time as we were building a new game engine. This is, and as many will testify, not a sane thing to do.
Basically the majority of the production time is spent on getting stuff to work. It was a constantly broken engine and the whole team really struggled to get that game done.
When we started making the sequel things were solid and we could focus on ideas and polish rather than technological struggles.
Even though the sound team working with Battlefield is isolated in sound studios we are very visible to the team and this time around the audio production was very much a part of the game team. We are actually THE department at DICE that pushes hard for cross disciplinary actions. Sound is extremely important to the studio and we have set high goals for ourselves.
DS: You already have a lot of sound material recorded and created for the previous Battlefield games. Did you use some of those sounds on Bad Company 2? How much new material was recorded?
SS: Every project needs new content. Even though we worked hard on keeping the identity from the previous game, the majority of the sounds for this game were re-designed from scratch. We did another huge gun recording outside LA together with several EA studios. We recorded a lot of new vehicles, foley and ambients for our winter themed levels as well.
DS: There’s a marked increase of destruction on BBC2. You can destroy practically everything you want. What the sound team had to do to enhance this new destruction experience?
SS: Yes this was a team effort. I was actually surprised by the amount of destructibility and how it well it played. There were a lot more sounds that needed to be done for destruction 2.0.
We did some really cool designs with the collapsing houses. In the frostbite engine we can control the camera and the gamepad rumble for the player. I mean the sound designers can control it. When a house is about to fall down and collapse we play a setup of tormented building sounds but we also shake the camera slightly in sync with the audio climax. On top of that we increase the rumble to further enhance the experience of destruction to the player. When it plays in sync together, sound, camera and rumble you subconsciously believe it and react to it. Run out of that building before you’re being swallowed by it!!
DS: In terms of sound, what are the challenges on the multiplayer and squad modes?
SS: I would say repetition, identity and the abundance of sounds being triggered make up for a challenge on many different levels.
Let me explain. One of the first things we noticed in the internal multiplayer tests during production is that repetition and the patterns of iconic sounds are completely devastating to a believable soundscape. A gun shot might sound good when you design it and play it back in its own, but together with 50 other weapons and fired thousands and thousands of times you have to start thinking about all guns at the same time, and be very careful to treat them as individuals. All the weapons have to become one but still have identity, and they need to sit in the world.
We worked a lot with reflections layers and identity of place. We expanded on the way the weapons sounds in different environments going though urban, forests, canyons, open fields and indoor areas. It was key to build diversity on top of the identity of each weapon.
They share their footprint in the place they are fired, so in this way we could keep key signatures that built identity for specific weapons. The shared firing layers and reflections builds a believable homogenous lingering sound while the core weapon sound is there as a vital identity for players to identify.
The HDR audio mixing that we developed for the first Bad Company takes care of the abundance of sounds triggered and automatically mixes the soundscape with a fantastic transparency, you would be surprised how many sounds you can actually remove when you have something as dynamic as our HDR mixer, which selectively mixes based upon 1 rule of a dynamic loudness.
DS: What were your main tools for recording and designing the sounds of BBC2? Any special story on those processes?
SS: When we did the gigantic recording of guns in LA we had closer to 80 microphones and it was amazing to hear that cheaper recording equipment can outperform expensive gear. Because there is more to it than to capture all of the sound pressure from a weapon, and some of the cheaper portable recorders captures another side, or a different flavour of a gun. So in this particular case, the cheap and the expensive combined can create results we did not expect initially.
Every sound designer has their own preference when it comes to tools. I still believe that ideas and imagination are the best tools.
DS: BBC2 has lots of dialogue production, both in the gameplay and cinematics. How was the dialogue recording and processing there?
SS: Yes it is actually a quite dialogue heavy game. I’m not sure it is perceived like that but we have a lot of dialogue in our game.
I’m surprised by the amount of dialogue in games that sounds completely off. As in, it does not sound like it’s there. I’m not talking about performance of the actor, but the actual sound of the voice, which as much as a weapon sound, needs to sit in the world. We work a lot with that. We have created a formula that in runtime adjusts a lot of parameters to simulate its place in the world. We did a lot of research while recording outdoors and made sure we treated all studio recorded dialogue with those parameters.
We had such a great performance when we recorded the Bad Company squad with all the actors in the studio at the same time. Even though this is logistically harder the energy of just having them in the same room is amazing. Script needs to be good for sure, but allowing the actors to play with a scene is four hundred times better than anything else. It should be forbidden to do it in any other way.I can’t believe how you can afford to not do it like that.
DS: And what about the implementation? What was the audio tool used for implementation and interactive audio on BBC2? How was the audio implementation on the game?
Well, we use industry standard wave editors and multitrack tools to create the content and then a lot of the sounds are created in runtime by a set of rules or blueprints that the sound designers design. The content creation is only step one.
A sound designer using our own frostbite engine can easily create a multilayered waterfall and apply LFO triggered filters and tweak panning, mixing and many many other parameters in real time.
It can be very creative process.
The toolset that the frostbite engine provides is really powerful. It is shaped by the content creators to a large extent and this engine is very versatile when it comes to audio implementation in a game like Battlefield.