[Written by Rodney Gates for Designing Sound]
In early June of 2010, I became Sony Online’s Audio Director for San Diego. So how has this experience been so far? I’ll dive into a few points.
A Delicate Balancing Act
When I started working at this company, my primary focus was as a Senior Sound Designer on “Clone Wars Adventures”. It was very different for me as I was initially the only person working on the game, especially after coming from High Moon where we had a 6-member team for one console title (and needed every person).
There were two other people in the San Diego audio department, one Audio Manager overseeing the ongoing maintenance of some of the older titles, and another Sr. Sound Designer working on the maintenance of Free Realms. There were also two Apprentices working on sound for the expansions of both EverQuest and EverQuest II, and that was it. Our boss was in Austin with his team, busy with “DC Universe”, so we were pretty much on our own.
Although we didn’t have enough people to cover all of the games properly (in my opinion), it didn’t seem right to me that the older games’ teams were solely being supported by the greenest guys on our team, working late or super-early hours that barely crossed paths with the rest of us.
Eventually, the existing division of our team began to run up against newer projects that were either starting up or had been moved to San Diego and weren’t being covered at all, while I was getting quite busy myself with “Clone Wars”. The decision was made to split the leadership duties, and I was put in charge of the San Diego headquarters.
As I mentioned in the previous article, from day one I immediately reorganized everyone on my team to jump in and start working on “Clone Wars Adventures” to get it ready for its September launch. It was definitely the big-ticket game happening that year. I also began to have meetings with the other teams to find out where they were in the production of their titles or expansions, to try and work out a schedule to finish out the year. Most of our work was unfortunately reactive at this point, as things were coming up quick. Fortunately, we were able to hire on another experienced senior-level Sound Designer as well. One of our apprentices left and we let the other one go, as I preferred to have more experienced hands on the games going forward.
With the team reorganized like this, and remaining fluid throughout the coming months as we adjusted to the schedule, we squeaked by 2010 managing to cover everything without killing ourselves.
It’s funny. Back when I started in games, I got to know almost all of the SOE audio team circa 2004 through a friend of mine at High Moon. A large group of them were colleagues that had come from Colorado after their studio closed, as did the Audio Programmer I worked with at HMS.
Over the years, some of them had left SOE or moved to the Austin studio to work on “DC Universe”, so by the time I came on, only one person remained in the department from that era. So as we began digging through the tools of the older titles, I likened it to “audio archaeology”, where we were trying to discover how things worked from existing members of the game teams who knew very little about the audio systems.
I would send out messages from time to time to some of the former and existing employees I knew to try and find out what happened with pieces of audio equipment that the department used to have, or come across audio equipment in storage that was still useful and I didn’t even know we had (a keyboard synth / controller and some cool effects units / sound modules).
I also learned there used to be a full-blown, built-out audio studio in a different building than we were in, but it had been repurposed years back for another use while we worked in noisier, square offices not ideally set up for sound.
Interesting things have happened here before, and some of them didn’t make any sense, but I don’t dwell on it. I prefer positive energy, and there is definitely enough to think about and plan for looking forward.
One of the best things I was able to do in my short time here is hire on an experienced Audio Programmer. Like so many studios, if there isn’t an audio programmer working on the technology needed to bring current game audio standards into a project, the department will absolutely suffer and end up at the bottom of the list of game technology that needs to be developed, often near the end of the project if at all, or with little time to work out the kinks.
Programmers are very smart people, but it doesn’t mean they understand the science and nature of sound all that deeply. It takes a dedicated specialist (that quite frankly should exist for many of our ever-growing, complex disciplines in a game development environment) to completely understand how to build an audio engine and toolset within a game engine that minimizes risk and maximizes capability and value.
With the majority of our newer games either being on the same game engine or being planned for it, it’s essential that we now have our “ace in the hole” to help bring up the capability of what we can contribute to the projects.
Having come from a studio that not only valued the contributions of audio in a game experience coupled with the top-notch audio programming work on a mature engine, I had definitely “seen the light”, and want to help bring it here as well.
With recent personnel loss, my goal is simply to continue moving forward. I’m striving to improve our planning, generating ideas to improve the fidelity in our existing games, while maximizing efficiency and quality of the department and making sure we can hire on the right resources that we need.
Continuing to build solid relationships with the teams is of vast importance, as there is really no other way to build respect and allegiance for our part in the titles we produce. We are all in this together, striving to make our games better and better each year, and I firmly believe that with a little bit of time we can help turn the flat reputation of “MMO’s just sound OK” completely around. There is absolutely no reason this cannot be the case.
Game sound alone has brought metacritic scores UP in the past, and it can again!
I truly care about the quality of the audio in the projects that we release. In many ways we are limited simply by the technology created for the games at the time they were launched, and since they are supported by much smaller teams nowadays, it might take a little while to refresh their audio systems and bring them a little closer to current standards. Little changes here and there, improving fidelity and capability over time, will help contribute to this, and it will improve the experience overall and help keep players coming back to the games.
It may not be 100% true, but it definitely feels like sound in games is treated with less importance that it should be. Being an “invisible” art, it definitely doesn’t garner the attention it deserves since it’s not the shiny thing on the screen that everyone can easily “see”.
This disparagement seems true to me in both games and film, and while there are game studios and film directors alike that absolutely value the craft, it is usually a bit of a battle to try and get people to understand the value and role that sound can play.
When you think about the amount of audio work that goes into any game, it can easily exceed much of what some of the other disciplines contribute. With every sound you hear (hundreds or thousands), and every bit of music with how it is written, edited and where and how it is played (hours of material), along with all well-performed dialog telling the story (hundreds or thousands of lines), it all has to work together to help bring our game worlds alive.
In short – what’s a quick and easy way to understand all of this? Shut the sound off when you fire up the next game you play. Literally do this, and see what it feels like. It will make you a true believer!