We’re excited to bring you an interview with Rhonda Cox which was originally slated for March 2015 during our “Women in Audio” theme. It had to go though some PR approval and we’re now thrilled to be able to share it with you. Rhonda has been in the games industry for over a decade and is currently an Associate Producer at Blizzard Entertainment where she oversees task management, scope and schedule needs for the audio, music and voice over pipelines. She currently works on World of Warcraft, which like her, has been active in the game world for over a decade!
How did you find yourself working in video games and audio specifically?
Rhonda Cox: I grew up as a gamer, and it’s always been something I’ve been extremely passionate about. In fact, I still own all of the game consoles and most of the games I grew up with. I began my career in the gaming industry nearly eleven years ago in Quality Assurance at Activision. During my five and a half year tenure there, I served in several roles ranging from QA Tester to Microsoft TRG Project Lead on more than 50 titles, including several award-winning Call of Duty and Guitar Hero games.
I joined Blizzard in November of 2010 as a Senior QA Analyst, working on Diablo III, then as Lead Tester on Diablo II patch 1.13d before becoming a Production Assistant on the World of Warcraft audio team, where I’ve spent my career since and currently hold the title of Associate Producer.
What does an audio producer for Blizzard do?
RC: An audio producer really isn’t much different from other production roles. We’re project managers who facilitate for the team in any way possible. I am responsible for overseeing task management, scope and schedule needs for the audio, music, and voice-over pipelines. I work closely with the core development team to determine project requirements, create and manage the project schedule, identify and mitigate risk, document changes, and communicate regular project updates to relevant stakeholders. In addition, I work very closely with the tools and engineering teams to improve our development tools and audio tech.
How large is the audio team on “World of Warcraft”, do you work with all the audio elements or do you focus on one such as dialog?
RC: The World of Warcraft audio team is made up of a mix of several producers and sound designers, as well as our Lead Composer/Senior Audio Director Russell Brower. I help manage our team of sound designers with a primary focus on game objects, dungeons, and raid content. I also manage the majority of the voice-over pipeline, from script consolidation to ensuring all recorded dialogue gets processed and makes it into the game. Additionally, I work very closely with a few members of the tools and programming team to help drive tech needs for sound design, music, and voice-over.
What is it like continuing to work on a game which has been around for twelve years which means so much to so many players?
RC: I find the work I do for World of Warcraft exhilarating. The development team has grown considerably over the last few years to continuously support the game’s large player base. Working with such a large team has its challenges; however, it’s awesome working with such talented individuals who are extremely passionate about what they do. I’m truly honored to work with such an amazing team, and play even a small part in a game that has made such a huge impact on the gaming industry, as well as popular culture around the world. World of Warcraft truly set the standard for the MMORPG market since its launch, and over ten years later it’s still the most popular and successful subscription-based MMORPG today.
Are there any specific challenges you encounter when working on a game that has its roots going back over a decade?
RC: As the World of Warcraft development team has grown, that’s introduced some interesting new challenges for the audio department. Typically, sound design and music implementation comes in toward the end of the development pipeline. As a producer, one of the primary facets of my job is communication, and due to the nature of audio work coming in hot near the end of an already tight deadline, communication is even more important. I need to be on top of the current statuses for all art, animation, and design work so that my sound design team is less at risk for missing deadlines. Furthermore, there is a bit of a learning curve for newer people joining the team. This is especially true for people who have been brought on from other studios that use different tools.
When work started on WoW, was there an expectation that it might last this long?
RC: Having only worked on World of Warcraft for about five years now, I can’t really speak on behalf of the team who has been here since the beginning or their expectations. That being said, the World of Warcraft development team working on the upcoming Legion expansion is very passionate about delivering players the greatest massively multiplayer online gaming experience ever.
How do improving system specifications, new technologies, and new expansion packs affect the work that the audio department does?
RC: We are always looking to improve audio quality, for both min-spec and max-spec machines. For Warlords of Draenor, we worked with the programming team to auto-update the player’s in-game audio quality settings based on their PC’s specs. In the past, the default audio quality would be set to low regardless, and it was entirely up to the player to change these settings. Now, if your machine can handle it, the settings are automatically changed to high.
Additionally, we added a flavor ambience system to Warlords of Draenor that periodically plays extra one-shot sounds to add a bit more variety to the background ambience. Furthermore, we had the entire sound bussing system revamped, meaning all audio is now better prioritized for the player’s ears. This has helped clear up much of clutter and surrounding noise, particularly when raiding.
Coming up, we’ve got some special audio revisions in the new Legion expansion to accentuate much of the new combat system. I think players are going to love it!
Do you go back and revise existing assets that were created for the original release to improve them?
RC: Absolutely! The art team has been creating higher-resolution versions of several creature models in recent expansions, and we’ve subsequently created newer creature sound kits in most cases to go with the new art and animations. The new sound kits usually contain a wider set of exertions to add more variations, and are typically rerecorded to obtain a cleaner performance. We also expanded upon the original player character exertion set while working on Warlords of Draenor, adding more variation where possible.
Oftentimes, as we’re playing through the game we’ll take note of sounds in older content that we think could use some improvement, and whenever we get a break in our busy schedule we’ll consider revising those assets.
What are some of the most significant improvements that have been made to the audio since the original release?
RC: We definitely make an effort to set the bar higher with each World of Warcraft expansion. In recent years we’ve partnered with SAG-AFTRA in order to access their pool of highly talented voice actors. One of the benefits of working with SAG-AFTRA is that we can engage professional creature actors such as Fred Tatasciore, Dave Fouquette, Jon Olson, and Debra Wilson. We cast all of them to bring many of the game’s diverse creatures to life.
We’ve also made an effort to increase the number of variations for many creature exertions, adding more depth to the game. There are also many nuances we’ve added in recent years such as saddle foley that plays when riding many newer mounts.
Have there been any updates or changes in the audio that resulted in a backlash from the players?
RC: One of the most common complaints was the repetitiveness of the Hunter gun sound. A couple years ago, we decided to completely improve it by adding more detail and variation. To our surprise, the new sound wasn’t as popular as we’d hoped. Despite all the complaints, it turns out a lot of people had gotten used to hearing the original gunfire and were sad to see it go!
How do you manage consistency in such a large game world with a large audio team that must have seen some new members over twelve years?
RC: The team relies heavily on the Audio Lead/Sound Supervisor for guidance when it comes to sound design as well and staying consistent with “the sound of WoW.” All assets are typically iterated on to keep with a consistent vision, then sent to the Audio Lead for final approval before making it into the game. Additionally, we make an effort to set aside time to play through the newer content as it’s released. Oftentimes we’ll run dungeons as a team, or even quest together. We all lead pretty busy lives, so it’s nice to get together as a team every once in a while and just enjoy the game the way it’s meant to be played.
What games have you been playing in the last year?
RC: In addition to Blizzard games, I’ve recently been playing Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn and Batman: Arkham Knight. I’ve also made my way through Destiny, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Life Is Strange, Remember Me, Her Story, Project X Zone, and a few other games this past year.
What advice do you have for those aspiring to work in a production / management role within video game development?
RC: Networking is an absolute must. Find ways to meet other individuals who work in the industry, express your interest in learning about their role and see how you can best learn from them. GDC is a great way to do this! I’d also recommend things like participating in a Game Jam, working on your own indie game, or picking up some design tools—Unity, Unreal, RPG Maker, etc.—and messing around with them on your own.
Furthermore, look for ways to expand your project management knowledge or gain project management experience in other ways. Many colleges now offer certificates in standard project management. Also, spend some time researching and learning about various production methodologies such as scrum or agile as many software development companies now primarily use more iterative forms of project management.