"Fallout: New Vegas" – Exclusive Interview with Audio Director Scott Lawlor
I love the Fallout franchise. The gameplay style is fantastic, the technology is top notch and all the places and stories are really unique. After the success of Bethesda with the great Fallout 3, now the turn is for Obsidian, who released “Fallout: New Vegas”, a new installment of the game which bring us to a journey through the world of New Vegas, a post apocalyptic interpretation of Las Vegas.
Below you can read an interview with audio director Scott Lawlor, who tell us how the audio team created the amazing sound of New Vegas.
DS: How early you started to work on “Fallout: New Vegas”? How was your relationship with the different dev teams on pre, pro and post stages?
SL: Back in early 2009, only a few months after the release of Fallout 3, we started to get the first inclinations that we were going to be working on the next installment of the Fallout franchise. Needless to say, everyone was excited to have a chance to work on the game. From the many ex-Black Isle vets who worked on Fallout 1 and 2, to those who were new to the series, we all felt that this game was going to be something special.
Bethesda was very forthcoming with any information we needed, and helped all of us get up to speed on the new toolsets. From here we were able to help solidify the plans of how we hoped to move forward and what technologies we wanted to improve upon for this project. We set out four major goals for the project; realistic and open sounding weapon fire, dense and creepy ambiences, deep and well-acted dialogues, and reactive and adaptive music. In the preproduction phase, we laid the groundwork to make these things technically possible by updating aspects of the engine and planning out the systems.
For the music and dialogue in New Vegas, it was important that we begin working with our external partners as soon as possible. We started working with Inon Zur for the game’s music and with Blindlight for the voice over production. Early on, it was important to make sure we were defining the style of the music and dialogue that would best match the change in setting to the Mojave Wasteland. We drew heavily upon Southwestern and rural influences but always tried to keep an updated, sci-fi feel in mind. This is the Southwest of the future.
At Obsidian, the Audio department supports all projects simultaneously. Over the course of the development of New Vegas, we were also finalizing Alpha Protocol and beginning work on Dungeon Siege III. By February of 2010, New Vegas became the number one priority. It was at this time that I would say that we fully started production in earnest. At this point a lot of work had been done on the global systems – including creatures and weapons – but little work had been done on the locations in the game. Once we really started to dig in, the scope of the game started to become apparent. It was a real eye opener. No one in the Audio department had worked on a game of this scale before. To give some idea of the scope: there are over 55,000 lines of dialogue in one language (a quarter million in total with all translations included), hundreds of uniques locations, countless miles of open wasteland, hundreds of quests and unique NPCs and a ton of weapons and creatures to support.
The final stretch of the project came in July and August of 2010. At this point, all of the dialogue was being recorded, the music was mostly complete, and the majority of the global sound effects assets were created. It was time to make sure that we covered the huge expanse of the game. I can’t say enough about what an amazing job my Audio team did during this time. Andrew Dearing, Justin Bell, Mikey Dowling, and Jonathan Pendergrass gave their all to the project. It meant long hours and a good amount of stress, but in the end, we all felt that we accomplished all of the goals we had set out for on the project. So far, the reviews of the game have seemed to agree. We are extremely happy to see the positive reception that Audio has had on this project.
DS: In terms of sound… what are the new features and differences in Fallout: Vegas compared to Fallout 3?
SL: In Fallout: New Vegas, we set out to focus on a few specific features in the game; weapons, ambiences, music, and dialogue. Almost all of the changes we made to the engine were done to support these goals.
For weapon fire, we wanted to portray a strong sense of space and distance. We wanted to hear the sound of the weapons reflecting off of the distant rocks and reverberating through the open desert. We added functionality to have layered weapon sounds based on distance, and designed the weapon sounds with this in mind. This also meant going back to all the weapons from Fallout 3 and updating the sounds to reflect the new direction and add the distant sound layers.
For ambience, we mostly used the existing systems except for one key addition. We added the ability to attach sounds directly to the art objects that the designers would place in the game. For example, when we added a wood creak sound to the wooden telephone poles in the town of Goodsprings, that sound would automatically propagate to all of the telephone poles in the world. This was a key feature for us. We added subtle sounds to anything we could from broken down cars to piles of dirt. The more subtle sounds we added on the objects the more the ambience would come to life. Every fence, billboard, water tower and sign has sounds attached to it, and really pulls the player into the world. We also changed the physics system to respect the velocity of the objects and change the volume and pitch of them as they fell. This really helped the rooms where the player could interact with a lot of objects.
We completely redesigned the music system into a location based and layered system. The intention was to create a musical experience that sounded more intentional and composed as the player roamed the Wasteland. For more information on the music system, please see the article I wrote on the subject over at Gamasutra.
The game design team rewrote the dialogue tool with a hierarchical, tree-like structure that allowed them to create deeper dialogue structures. This allowed the conversations to have a more natural flow, which ended up helping the actors’ performances. We also tried to make sure to increase the number of actors for the unique characters and the generic voice types.
DS: Players have a lot of freedom on this game, You can make many different choices in every moment. How this affect the way you design or implement the sounds in the game?
SL: Yes, the amount of choice the player has affects us directly! It is a real challenge to address this. I’m not sure there is any sort of “magic bullet” solution. Communication with the design team is key. We had to keep in direct contact with the designers about all of the quest details. We also needed to rely heavily on the QA department, both internally, and at Bethesda, to let us know if sounds were missing from certain portions of the game.
One thing we did to make dealing with such a large scope more manageable was to make templates for music and ambience that could be shared throughout some of the locations in the game. We then had to play through every location in the game taking notes on what type of ambience, music, reverb, and emitters we wanted in each location. Each location then had a template assigned to it. This was a good way to get a quick first pass of music and ambience. The next step was making sure the more important unique locations in the game had unique music and ambience set up. The Strip and the casinos are a perfect example of this. We relied heavily on walla and off screen one shots in these locations to give the impression of a living and breathing city that exists in the middle of this post-apocalyptic desert.
The use of the templates allowed us to cover the scope of the game relatively quickly. Playing through the critical path and focusing on the unique locations in the game is what gives the world its charm.
DS: How much field recording was needed? Could you tell us about the sources you recorded for the different sounds of the game?
SL: At Obsidian, we try to record as much of our own source material as we can, utilizing a Sound Devices 702 and a Sanken CS5. For New Vegas we went on a number of field recording trips:
- Anza Borrego State Park – We traveled out to the desert and camped out, getting all kinds of sounds: rocks slides, digging, brush footsteps and whatever we could find.
- Weapon Shoot in Piru, CA – We were able to tag along with a friend on a weapon shoot. We were able to capture the distant sound of the weapon fire which was a perfect for New Vegas, since our goal was to add an element of space to the weapons we created.
- Tumbleweed – We wanted a real tumbleweed for the physics object in the game. We ended up finding one on the side of the highway, bringing it back to our recording room and dismantling it. Authentic tumbleweed!
- The quest for the perfect wood footsteps – the wood footsteps in the game are from a number of sources:
- Trip to Panamint City – a ghost town in Death Valley National Park. We found a bunch of abandoned structures and odd sounds along the way.
- Trip to Paramount Ranch – an old Hollywood movie set out in the Santa Monica Mountains.
- Multiple other attempts at finding just the right amount of creakiness.
- Physics sounds – Almost all of the physics objects in the game were recorded in the booth at Obsidian with objects found around the office or our homes.
- Walla – We wanted the walla in the Strip and the casinos to set just the right mood. This meant a bunch of searching for the right place to record walla.
- Newport Beach bars last call – the bars at Newport Beach had the right type of environment for the type of walla we were after. The drunken screams reflecting off of the building were a huge part of the sound on the Strip in New Vegas.
- The Outdoor Mall across from Obsidian – perfect for the daytime ambience of the Strip.
- Various hotel lobbies – great for casinos.
- Recording in the Obsidian Lobby – we got a group of 15 or so developers together in our lobby and directed their performance. This is a big part of the sound of the casinos in the game, especially the Gomorrah.
DS: In the tech diary we saw that the developers did a lot of work on the weapons, giving all kind of details, different performances, many different types of weapons, etc. How was this handled on the sound design side?
SL: In Fallout: New Vegas there are a ton of new weapons. Andrew Dearing worked with every single weapon sound in the game. All the old Fallout 3 weapons were reworked to account for our goals of making the guns sound more distant and “live.” Andrew would do a pass and I would review the results along with our Project Director, Josh Sawyer. Josh was focused on making sure the guns were represented as accurately as possible. He drew upon his extensive experience with the weapons to guide the sounds toward something that was appropriate for the caliber of the weapon as well as how powerful it is in the game. We also recorded the shell drops for each of the different calibers and made sure that the physics sounds for the shells hitting the ground were accurate to the gun.
One of the troubles we ran into with weapon sounds was a limitation of how the engine loads sounds for an open world game. New Vegas uses a loose file system. This means that sounds are loaded on an “as needed” basis. This means that the system gives priority to sounds that are already loaded and it meant that the weapon fire sounds would sometimes not sound as random as we would have liked.
DS: Being post-nuclear Vegas, with lot of desolated areas and desert wastelands… What kind of sources you recorded for recreate those places? What were your goals on the sound of backgrounds and different ambience of the game?
SL: The ambience, along with the music in Fallout: New Vegas is largely responsible for the atmosphere of the game. There were a large amount of locations in the game that relied on Audio to sell the experience to the player.
In the open Wasteland we put a lot of work into making sure the transitions between the times of day were fluid and seamless. In order to do this, we added two more times of day for the ambient loops, dusk and dawn. The background loops themselves ended up being fairly static, without a lot of motion. We did this to keep repetition to a minimum. The more noticeable and recognizable sounds are called through the one shot system. This also allowed us even more flexibility with the time of day. We could start to call the one shots of a single bird waking up before dawn and the one shots of the wind gusts could peak in frequency and intensity at different times throughout the day. It kept the entire ambient bed in the Wasteland feeling dynamic and fresh, no matter how long the player is listening for. The Wasteland also needed a sense of danger in its ambience so we added plenty sounds of distant screams, glass breaks, and muffled explosions.
In certain ways, we also treated the music as part of the ambient system. We never wanted them to be fighting each other. For this reason, there is a very minimal music layout in the open Wasteland. When the player is out in the middle of the desert without a town in sight, the music plays in a matter that is similar to the one shot system described above. Bits of music come and go in small bursts and blend with the sounds of the Wasteland itself. The music also builds upon itself as the player moves towards locations of interest in the Wasteland. Hopefully the experience is all very seamless and natural to the player and it just feels right.
DS: How was your approach on the mix? There are a lot of desert scenes and all kind of perspectives for the events… How you dealt with distance and perspectives in the interactive mix?
SL: The overall mix of the game is a very iterative process. It isn’t like a movie where you sit down after everything else is complete and mix the game. It is important to make sure you are setting up a baseline early in the process and mixing to it. Sometime back in the Spring of 2010 we sat down with a couple of other games and got a few reference levels to make sure were weren’t coming in too quiet or loud. We then set the main menu music of the game at a level that sounded appropriate since that is something we will be mixing against every time we launch the game. From here, ambience was next. We had to make sure the levels of the ambient beds were set just right. From there, the game largely mixed itself. The game’s engine doesn’t have a ton of bussing control or mix snapshots so we were mostly just focused on making sure we had one good solid mix. The guns should be loud and satisfying and you always need to hear the dialogue. It is a delicate process but it something that happens over many months as sounds are added to the game. Each one us on the Audio team was responsible for mixing our own assets as we added them and we would constantly adjust as we did our playthroughs and as we took notes on our experience.
Part of what helps make this process go smooth is that I stress that everyone at Obsidian does their sound design over video captures of the game. When we design to video, we are subconsciously making those mix decisions as we design the sound itself. It is easy to make a sound that sounds good on its own, but to make it fit in with the environment as a whole; it is another issue all together. This is especially true when designing sounds that happen at a distance. Perspective in this game is important because of the vast space that it covers. Altiverb was a huge part of how we were able to make sure that the distant sounds had the right perspective and designing this in relation to video was crucial.
Overall, the combination of setting strong reference levels, and working to video plus endless hours of playthroughs, and note taking made the process go fairly smooth. This project had its share of stresses, but in the end it is a complete soundscape that we are all proud of. We hope everyone enjoys it as much as we loved making it.