Elastic Audio announces Intonal, a new audio programming language for games
CEO Andrew Beck says Intonal would allow game sound design to be as reactive and adaptive as graphic design
Elastic Audio CEO Andrew Beck wants audio design to function more like graphic design.
In graphic design, he describes in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz, you can take, say, an asset of a car. As a player drives it down a highway, developers have techniques to allow the car to visually react in meaningful ways to elements such as light, shadow, dampness, frost, fire, bumps and scrapes.
But currently, he says, there isn't any way to do the same thing with audio in games. Though there are audio programming languages, the ones that exist generally focus on music or other areas of use. Which is why Elastic Audio is announcing a new programming language for audio development called Intonal, which allows developers to edit or create audio using text-based code through a web browser.
Beck compares Intonal to graphics shaders. In the same way that the code running on a graphics card is the same code for every single game, he wants to do the same thing for audio: create a common language to describe audio.
"What that means in practice is, if you take something like a car sound, you can just play a pre-recorded sound file of a car," he says. "[But] there are no animations to lean on that give it the weight and feeling and how it reacts to what the player is doing. So when you change gears, or you drive up a hill, you're getting a different type of material. All of that has to react to what the player is doing to come up with the sounds to like, make it feel like you're actually driving it, right? If you just play a sound file over it, they won't react to it at all right? So [audio that reacts appropriately] is what we call generative audio. It's thinking about audio as a system.
"It's like film. In film, [a sound is] always going to play back the exact same way, Something hits the ground, you just have one sound, because it's always going to hit the ground at the exact same way it was recorded. Whereas in the game, it could fall on any side, any speed, it can scrape.
"There's one game that I was helping out on recently, where the sounds of boxes hitting stuff was over 1500 individual sound files. Because you need to have every single variation of how it could hit, fall over, scrape. And enough of them that it doesn't get boring, and you [don't] hear the same sound again and again and again. So what we've developed is basically like GPUs for audio."
In theory, Beck says, developers using Intonal could simply pick sounds out of an asset store and tweak them using a text or visual editor just like they would an object asset, in the same way they might change lighting textures or animations. Or, he adds, designers could reuse and readjust their own crafted audio effects infinitely. Effectively, Intonal works as a middleware platform that allows all the sound in a game to work together and adjust itself based on whatever is going on in the game at the time.
Elastic Audio has been working on the core technology for Intonal for the last year and a half, now supported by Epic's MegaGrants program, and is currently looking to partner with studios who would be interested in using it for production. Beck says they aren't quite ready to let Intonal be used without his team's hand-holding just yet, and while they plan to work with AAA and mid-sized studios in a more traditional way down the line, he's considering more affordable ideas for indies as well, such as a subscription service giving limited access to content, including a visual editor to build out sounds with.
The ultimate goal is to eventually have a tool that developers can use out of the box that will work with engines such as Unreal and Unity, and will include a marketplace for developers to share and publish their own sounds. The idea is to make audio design easier for everyone from AAA studios of thousands to tiny teams doing Game Jams.
"If you just search for 'how do I make a spaceship sound?'...people get very confusing answers about how to put sound inside of the game," Beck says. "It's either like, download something from freesound.org or hire somebody. One is going to sound pretty bad most of the time, and the other one is too expensive for most developers anyway. So we want to make it easier for people to put sound [in games] and also anything that people use Unity and Unreal for even if it's beyond games -- animations and other things.
"As far as what we want to bring to professionals -- when you start a project with a big team, the first week is head in the clouds. Everybody is full of great ideas. And it's always the best week, because after that you get into the nitty-gritty of development, and you're just trying to keep your head above water, and you can't get to do the things that you want to do.
"There are all these cool things happening with audio, but it's really hard to [recreate] them because of the lack of a shared language. You can go to GDC and hear about, like, Spider-Man['s audio]. But you can't really easily reproduce that stuff, because you have to build it all from scratch yourself. So we want to make it so that it's easy to reuse your stuff, it's easy to build on previous innovations."