Audio specialists Side on sound design for the next-generation.
Responsible for sound duties on some of the biggest games in the industry - from Tomb Raider and Dragon Quest to Total War and James Bond - Side has been at the forefront of audio, dialogue and in-game music, sound are the go-to guys for many leading publishers...
Most recently the BAFTA-nominated outfit has joined forces with composers and sound designers Bob and Barn to expand their remit and offer everything a development project could want in the area of audio.
Gamesindustry.biz spoke with Side's Andy Emery and Bob and Barn's Andrew Barnabas to discuss this often-overlooked side of game development, why voice acting in games gets such a bad rep and how audio can improve next-generation gaming.
GamesIndustry.biz:Now that the two companies have joined in partnership, how will this improve your output overall?
Andy Emery: Bob and Barn bring a hefty CV of professional experience to Side, from music composition to supervising specialist recordings, audio implementation and foley work.
Side's expertise is predominately in dialogue production so integrating the two companies means games producers can come to us with any scale of project and be fully assured of getting every aspect of their game audio co-ordinated under one roof by the best in the business.
How are the next-generation of consoles affecting the work you do - how can audio be improved for the next-generation of gaming?
Andrew Barnabas: Next-gen is a huge leap forward in storage capacity, RAM and processing power from the current generation. Whereas before we were limited by the hardware which, in the case of the PS2 was designed seven or eight years ago, everything's now in software. They're far more complex beasts which is why it'll take a year or two for developers to really get to grips with them.
The level of detail and nuances that can be imbued aurally come far closer to what we hear in film and TV. Musically, a far greater range of musical cues can be written to synchronise more accurately with on-screen action. Sound effects can be varied, dynamically and organically without being restricted to RAM limitations. Sound design can be used to really ride the emotional wave and become a far more potent weapon in the armoury of a games designer as it does with a horror film. Repetition in music, dialogue and to a lesser extent, sound design, has plagued creatives for years. Hearing the same line of dialogue repeated is a constant reminder that we're playing a game. This is the first generation of hardware that could overcome this.
This will all require a far greater emphasis on producing in-house tools or using middleware to implement the sounds properly. Dubbing, a process where all of the sounds are brought together to form an aural narrative, needs to be handled in real-time using clever code and specialised skills to mimic the creative job a good dubbing engineer can do in his sleep. It'll also require creative input for a lot longer on the project since the amount of content required in all three disciplines of music, sound design and dialogue could and probably should increase.
How has audio in videogames changed over the past years, and where do you see it going in the future?
Andrew Barnabas: When I started, it was in my mum's front room on a Commodore Amiga back in 1990. This was, essentially a four-track sample sequencer and I used to take samples from tape. Now we're working with film and TV veterans recording orchestra's and choirs in some of the world's finest studios, having albums released and hearing the scores played in concert.
Production values in game audio has risen enormously. This will reach a pinnacle in the next few years that will compare financially with hi-end TV and film. When technology and budget cease to become a barrier to creativity, the world becomes our oyster. I hope that in many ways we'd be able to make creative leaps over and above what we're currently doing in film and TV. I'd love to know what the future will bring, but it's still too early to answer. We're still catching up with our linear cousins. Only when this is achieved will we be able to sit down and work out what to do next.
A big criticism of audio in games concerns the poor quality of voice acting. Why is this, and why is voice acting seen as inferior to 'real' acting?
Andy Emery: I think historically the majority of voice acting in games has been poor but the situation is definitely changing for the better. There are many factors that contribute to poor quality dialogue in games, but by far and away a poor script is the biggest single culprit. A professional script writer is an essential part of modern game development but still we get developer written scripts with alarming regularity. Even with the best Hollywood actors on board, a poor script will result in poor voice acting.
Other key contributors are a lack of voice direction and bad casting. Some developers are reluctant to entertain the idea of a professional voice director but putting a highly skilled actor in the hands of a game developer - also highly skilled but not necessarily at the art of coaxing and cajoling performances out of someone - can lead to below par performances. The importance of good casting should not be underestimated.
A humorous cartoon-style game requires a pool of highly skilled 'multi voice' actors. However, these actors may not necessarily be the best option for a very serious title, where you need to keep the performances as real and naturalistic as possible. Unfortunately, due to a history in game audio of always having each actor voice multiple characters, you can easily end up with a bunch of rather hammy or comedic performances that are just not appropriate for what is happening on screen.
You wouldn't cast Matt Damon as the lead role in a gritty WWII film and then ask him to also play a couple of German soldiers, a French ally and a bartender, whilst keeping all performances naturalistic. Yet these are the compromises continually made for voice acting in games.
Do you think publishers sign 'big name' acting talent as a marketing move - to associate a famous name with a game - rather than concentrate on good acting skills?
Andy Emery: Most big name acting talent already have good acting skills, that's how they became a big name in the first place. The question of whether they decide to use those acting skills on a day of game recording or whether they are even a good casting for that character is another matter.
Take licensed games. The associated profile actors from a blockbuster movie will generate obvious marketing benefits for a title but it can be hit and miss as to whether they will provide a good performance on the day. Often they're contractually obliged to provide voice recording for the game as part of the original movie deal and the session may be months after filming has completed.
You can end up with a very limited amount of time, with an actor who would rather not be there and a producer who is intimidated by the whole experience - leading to a flat performance from somebody with outstanding acting skills.
Using high profile actors on games is ultimately a very positive step forward and the fact so many are now willing to sign up for a game project is indicative of how far the industry has progressed. But making those casting decisions intelligently and ensuring you have actors who are interested in the project is key.
Why should developers use an outsourcing team for audio - isn't it better that sound is developed in-house alongside a game?
Andrew Barnabas: There are two simple answers to that - cost and flexibility. Most developers do indeed have an in-house sound team of some description, whether this consists of a single sound designer or audio director, all the way through to a full team. But even they outsource certain elements, chiefly due to demand.
It's not cost effective to have a team of composers, sound designers, audio programmers, dialogue editors, engineers etcetera working full-time in a custom built recording studio which requires significant office space and expense. The outsourcing model allows the size of the team to swell according to demand and shrink when not in demand.
Bring in specialists when you need them and don't pay the overheads they incur when you don't. It's a similar analogy to motion capture - unless it's being used around the clock it's more cost effective to hire them in when necessary.
The second reason is flexibility. Each project will require a different set of disciplines and creatives, composers and sound designers have certain genres' that they live and breath for and are consequently far better at than others. Why hamper the results when it's just as easy to hire in composers who are great at the particular genre you're after?
Cars, guns and monster vocals are all sound design disciplines that freelancers can specialise in, just in the same way that you wouldn't ask John Williams to provide your contemporary hip-hop soundtrack. The sound is generally developed alongside the game and in most cases we're asked to use, or help to design, in-house tools. It's fairly normal practice to spend time on-site at the end of a project to ensure that the sound and music is implemented in game just as you designed it.
Andy Emery is managing director of Side and Andrew Barnabas is director of Bob and Barn. Interview by Matt Martin.