For this month’s topic of “Psychoacoustics” I thought I’d stretch the definition a bit and finally write an article I have wanted to for a while now, and discuss the sound design of World of Warcraft. Specifically the unscientific observations of someone (me) who has regularly experienced these sounds for fully 1/3 of their life. What I would like to discuss are my own assumptions and observations about what and how they work in a constantly evolving MMO as someone who has played this game extensively. I feel I am in a semi-unique position in having played such a long-running game, while during most of that time having some amount of sound education, and I also write articles for this here site on the interwebs. This article should be viewed in an opinion or editorial context rather than a scientific or academic context.
A bit of history about World of Warcraft straight from Wikipedia. World of Warcraft is ” a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) created in 2004 by Blizzard Entertainment. It is the fourth released game set in the fantasy Warcraft universe, which was first introduced by Warcraft: Orcs & Humans in 1994. World of Warcraft takes place within the Warcraft world of Azeroth, approximately four years after the events at the conclusion of Blizzard’s previous Warcraft release, Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. Blizzard Entertainment announced World of Warcraft on September 2, 2001. The game was released on November 23, 2004, on the 10th anniversary of the Warcraft franchise.”
A bit of back story about my own street-cred: I have been playing World of Warcraft since it launched back in 2004. I started playing a hunter in the base game (Vanilla), and have played on and off all of the expansions to some degree or another, even raid healing for a guild in Trial of the Crusader and Icecrown Citadel. I have created and deleted many characters over the past decade, with my oldest still existing character old enough to enroll in 4th grade. I play WoW in spurts of non-productivity and then have to put it away in order to get work done but always seem to come back. I quit smoking successfully but not WoW!
With that out of the way: World of Warcraft itself was built on the design choices of the previous Warcraft real-time-strategy games that came before it. And ever since; one can assume each expansion in the game has been informed by what came before it for obvious continuity and consistency reasons. As such there are sound effects made circa 2003 which can be heard right beside sounds made for the latest WoW expansion Warlords of Draenor in 2014. The creative and technical hurdles of creating new assets to live next to assets now 10+ years old is a unique challenge that the Warcraft audio team has to deal with (which they discuss in this 2013 Blizzcon panel).
There are some (by now quite old) sounds that must have a built in Pavlovian reward-response to being heard so much over such a long period of time. An example of this is in the Level Up sound. This sound (as far as I can tell) is the same as it was the day WoW launched and may even be the same sound from Warcraft 3. Since the game is an RPG; this sound is linked with dozens and dozens of potential rewards. As you level up: new skills, armor, areas, quests, dungeons, items, battlegrounds, and even mounts become accessible to you. As soon as I hear this sound I know not only am I now more powerful due to stat growth and skill acquisition, but also that new and cool things await me on my journey. Similarly, when you enter an area you haven’t been before you “discover” it, earn some experience, and that area is now illustrated on your map. The sound that plays when you discover an area is also linked with that dopamine rush due to getting the reward of so many possibilities now open to a player. Positive sounds abound in World of Warcraft: be it from completing a quest or gaining an achievement. Both of these can potentially reward you something after a difficult task you had to undertake to complete it. It should be noted that classical conditioning is defined as using a “neutral” stimulus which in the case of the previously mentioned UI sounds are all subjectively positive and pleasant sounding in nature.
This article on Amplifon’s website defines “Evaluative conditioning” as “when an emotion is elicited by sound because we have heard it repeatedly in a certain setting, leading to an association between the sound and setting”. That sort of is what I am trying to get at while discussing the inherent nostalgia of listening to the same sounds for 10 years in a game. Amplifon also refers to “Episodic memory“ which is “when a particular sound or piece of music evokes a powerful memory.” I feel this is a crucial part to understanding how users can stand to hear the same level up or fireball sound with little to no variation over and over for years. We like those sounds (at least in part), because they represent super cool things. Hearing the “level up” sound or “achievement gained” sound not only makes you feel super rad because of the goal you just finished, but it also reminds you of every goal (grand or not so grand) you ever attained. Hitting level 60 in Vanilla, getting a meta-achievement in a raid dungeon which unlocked a super cool flying mount, winning a particularly brutal PVP match in Alterac Valley, or simply finishing a crafting spell on a particularly expensive/hard to make item. All of these examples feed directly from our ears into our lizard-brains to reinforce that these sounds represent “hey something cool just happened and you should feel good about it”.
Loot is also a huge part of MMOs like World of Warcraft. This article by Jamie Madigan discusses loot hunting: “…let’s consider slot machines and a type of brain cell called “dopamine neurons.” The latter are the bits of your gray matter responsible for monitoring levels of the pleasure-inducing chemical dopamine in order to regulate behavior and figure out how to get more of a good thing. It’s these cells that light up when something nice happens in your life (say a delicious Hot Pocket or a fuzzy puppy belly) and triggers a gush of the neurotransmitter dopamine. But what’s more, dopamine neurons play the role of trying to predict the rush from nice things, and they may fire before you actually encounter them. Given a couple of chances, they’ll learn to light up when you hear the microwave timer beep that precedes your delicious Hot Pocket. This is a pretty useful thing as far as evolutionary advantages go, since it clues you in ahead of time that something good is in the vicinity.”
Jamie goes on to explain how in video game loot systems and slot machines; this is even more effective by having the reward be unexpected, which causes even more dopamine to shoot into our brains than if the reward were expected. For sound design the outcome is the same whether it is expected or unexpected: the player forms an attachment to the sounds that correlate with these cool, good, fun, and rewarding things. Millions of people who play the game have heard these sounds over and over and get a positive feeling from them, not only due to the design choices of the assets themselves but more so from the events that these sounds are tied to. It is a testament to the sound team (and the development team as a whole) for creating assets that are still satisfying, rewarding, and anticipated by the player after so much time has passed.
World of Warcraft’s soundscape in my opinion is not without its flaws or potential areas of improvement. Over the course of 10+ years there are bound to be situations where a few sounds out of thousands and thousands do not keep up with the evolution and increasing quality of World of Warcraft. I think unfortunately that audio in MMOs (especially long running ones) suffer a bit from “When you do things right, people won’t be sure you did anything at all” syndrome in that players take the sounds for granted. Players typically don’t say “that is a really cool sound when I turn into a burning demon of immeasurable corrupted torment” and instead they say “yea, that is what Metamorphosis sounds like.” An example of a somewhat flawed sound that the sound team themselves have finally addressed are the gun fire sounds for the Hunter (which you can hear about in the same Blizzcon 2013 panel linked previously). The gun sounds play very often for the Hunter class and with only a few variations gets tedious fairly quickly. To sum up the anecdote in the video: In a more recent expansion (Cataclysm) a feature was added which allows players to change the appearance of one item to look like another. This Transmogrification feature has been used by players of the Hunter class to turn their gun weapons into bow weapons which changes the loud (and now 10 year old) gunshot samples into quiet bow thwips. Senior Sound Designer II Brian Farr in the Blizzcon 2013 panel mentions this and how they revisited these sounds in Warlords of Draenor. I can testify that these new sounds are really quite a step up! They are super satisfying, powerful, not too invasive, and did I mention satisfying? They have a punchy amount of low end that at least on my computer’s 2.1 setup feels really good. Its a bummer though that I won’t use guns very often because of these super-rad bow models.
One sound I personally have an issue with is this sound a Voidwalker makes. The Voidwalker/Voidlord is the blue pet above that the Warlock class uses as a “tank” to soak up damage while the Warlock hurls demonic magic at the enemy. This pet is a very common choice out of the various possible Warlock pets to use while questing, due to its durability. Unfortunately this constantly swirling sound loop always heard panned to your left leaves you unable to clearly hear some truly fantastic ambience like Ashran, Black Temple, and Forest (to randomly name just a few). Taking a look at the frequencies of this loop inside RX, we can see how much of this breathy white noise is taking up the low end (which is where a lot of interesting material in the above linked ambience lies).
That is not to say the sound itself is bad! It makes perfect sense for this creature made out of pure dark nothingness to emit such a sound. However it detracts in some small way from many other well designed and approriate sounds I would also like to hear.
An aspect of playing a game and hearing that game’s sounds for many years brings with it the issue of attachment (which may be due to Evaluative Conditioning). While attachment in terms of nostalgia and super-good happy feelings is positive, there are potential negatives to attachment to specific sounds. A sound I wanted to make sure to discuss in this context is the stealth spell sound that plays whenever a player/NPC enters invisibility or whenever an enemy player/NPC is discovered while in stealth. Stealth is a special invisibility spell that allows characters to move around unseen and set up ambush attacks. Stealth itself represents sneaking and not actual invisibility, so it is possible to see a stealthing character if you are a higher level than them, collide with them, or they stand in front of you for too long (and the stealth sound would play when discovered in these situations). As you can hear here, the stealth sound is a weird growly sort of sound that slides down in pitch. I would argue the sound is a bit dated and could be redone to have more going on. However the sound is so iconic and so well-established as “the sound of sneaking” that changing or updating the sound would undoubtedly result in some amount of friction with the player community. The Stealth sound also plays an important role in Player Versus Player combat in allowing allies to know you have gone stealth (which will allow the sneaking rogue or druid to unleash powerful attacks and stuns on the enemy) or it informs players than an enemy was discovered sneaking close by. Owing to the sound now having been established over the course of 10 years as an important indication of a very useful or very dangerous action in PvP combat; the same psychological component that makes a sound comforting and rewarding to hear after a long period of time works against the sound designer if they would ever want to redo a sound.
The world of Warcraft is now 20 years old and World of Warcraft is 10. That is a relatively short amount of time by many definitions, and an absolute eternity in video game terms. Add on top of that the fact that WoW is using assets developed 10+ years ago alongside assets brand new and it is absolutely astonishing the level of quality, consistency, and skill involved has simply gotten better.
I plan on streaming World of Warcraft on Twitch.tv on Sunday, December 14 at 3:30pm EST. Drop in and we can have a live discussion about various aspects of WoW’s sound design and implementation, with real time demonstrations of the sounds we discuss.. You can follow my feed and I will also broadcast on Twitter when I start. Here is the archive video.
At the time of writing Blizzard Entertainment is selling an adorable in game pet for $10. Through December 31, 100% of the sales go to the American Red Cross in support of ebola relief in Africa. If you play World of Warcraft or plan to start; please consider getting this pet!
Super special-thanks to Wowhead for hosting all of the in game sounds I have linked to in this article.