One of the most visually striking games on the horizon is also no slouch in the audio department. Splash Damage on sound design.
Brink is certainly one of the most striking looking shooters coming in 2011, but it's also going to sound amazing. The attention to detail on the aural side of things is staggering, and the lion's share of the credit goes to Splash Damage's Audio Director Chris Sweetman, who has gone to great lengths to create a layered soundscape, as you'll find out if you read on…
IGN AU: You started out working in film – how different is the approach to directing audio in a game as opposed to film?
Chris Sweetman: If I'm honest, the process of actually designing the sounds is really no different. The big difference is the non-linear approach video games take instead of the linear approach you see in film, plus the implementation of sounds and music within memory constraints.
In film, you will generally approach it scene by scene and multiple sound editors will work on different scenes. The supervising sound editor will manage these teams and make sure that the sound is consistent through the reels in collaboration with the director. This process will normally take around four months.
AAA video games are worked on for upwards of two years, so the process is much more iterative. You might also find that certain features won't arrive until the last six months (such as cinematic or dialogue recording). Implementation is the big difference with us having to orchestrate thousands of sounds in real-time over the course of play!
IGN AU: How did the transition across to games come about? What appealed to you about working in this medium?
Chris Sweetman: When working in film during the early 90s I began to feel that the video game industry was pioneering in a lot of areas, and I figured that eventually the audio would follow a similar model to film. In my opinion everything had been done in film audio that could be done, but interactive audio excited me, and I've been passionate about it for over 15 years now.
In film you don't tend to have one person doing all the audio - you play to individuals' strengths and experience by having specific roles, such as sound designers, dialogue editors, foley editors and so on. The games industry hadn't started doing this in 1995, so there were practically no specific roles as "Sound Designer" when I began looking for a way in.
Luckily I met with a like-minded chap called Pat Phelan who was the audio manager at Gremlin Interactive. He was as forward-thinking as I was, and I had a job!
From films like Goldeneye to games such as Burnout Paradise, Sweetman has worked his audio magic on some cool projects.
IGN AU: What are the challenges of working with sound in an active soundscape where you don't have complete control?
Chris Sweetman: It can be a real challenge, but we do have control over most aspects of audio playback.
One of the biggest challenges is creating space so that every sound can be heard properly, especially in first-person shooters when you potentially have 16 characters all firing their weapons at the same time! We use many tools at our disposal to make sure that when this does happen -- and it will -- you are not faced with a wall of cacophonous sound!
One of my processes is to look at how to create harmony very early on in the development cycle by making sure that three main focus areas are all designed with that in mind. In the case of Brink, these were Weapons, Explosions & Foley:
I made sure that each faction would have different weapon sounds even if they were using a re-skinned version of the same weapon. Each faction's weapons are designed as different timbres (kind of like voices in a choir). This means that when you hear lots of weapons being fired at the same time in the game, your chances of it sounding harmonious are greatly increased.
14 different audio samples are layered together to create the game's baseline shotgun blast sound. You can hear it here.
We designed the explosions so they were different timbres to the weapons, which in turn means that they don't occupy the same sonic space as the weapons.
Each character class has its own set of footsteps and Foley. This even changes depending on how much clothing you are wearing, again meaning that the chances of the sonic landscape cluttering up are limited.
It's like betting on a horse race while knowing which horses will cross the line first.
IGN AU: In a game like Brink, where there are multiple class-types, is an effort made to make each one sound distinctive? Could a trained-ear tell the difference between classes on the battlefield just by listening?
Chris Sweetman: For Brink I decided to let the dynamic mission auto-chatter handle most of that work. For instance, the Medic is the only one who will hear people shouting for a Medic, while an Engineer is the only class who hears "I'm stuck on a mine."
Aside from that, each body type has different sets of footsteps, so it is possible to tell what size of character is coming around that corner up ahead.
IGN AU: One aspect of sound creation that is generally overlooked is Foley work. How much detail did you go into to try and achieve realistic sounding movement for all the physical abilities at the player's disposal? Are these sounds distinguishable enough to know whether someone is sliding towards you or vaulting over your head?
Chris Sweetman: I'm really glad you guys picked up on this, as I wholeheartedly agree.
For me Foley is the undiscovered country in video games. It can be so powerful in aiding the player experience, but sadly it's never given the attention it deserves in most titles. Foley was a massive focus for me on Brink; we spent three days at Shepperton Studio recording every footstep, every gun rattle, and every slide, so that we could really go to town on the Foley detailing. Each of our three different body types has its own set of footsteps, scuffs, stops and starts on every surface in the game.
Weapon Foley was another big focus, with each weapon having its own set of weapon movement. -- for example, the sounds change depending on if you are walking or using the SMART system. We also have sets of sounds for mantling, wall jumps, climbing and sliding.
I've taken an unusual approach with particular sounds in Brink. One such example would be the sliding, where you can actually hear the slide further away than you would normally. I felt it was an important gameplay choice, and made sure that even from a fair distance away you would hear it.
So yes, you can definitely hear if someone has just vaulted over your head or is sliding around a corner!
IGN AU: Your game features different ranges of sound depending on how you're shooting and how close you are to another player's gunfire. How did you achieve this and do you feel it will make the sound effects stand out significantly?
Chris Sweetman: The major difference with Brink is that we change the sound when aiming down the sights and focus more on the mechanical aspect of the weapon. The reason for this is twofold: first, it really allows the player to focus on the target without a huge weapon sound creating a distraction, and second, it also permits me to play with the style aspect of the weapon sounds. The iron sights are designed specifically for each weapon, and sit underneath the main weapon sound. When the player moves into iron sights, we lower the normal weapon sound in volume and add the mechanical layer in real-time.
In regards to the other player's gunfire, we use varying stages of distance from the player to play back different sound content. There are three distinct stages - near, mid and far - and the engine crossfades these samples depending on how far the other player is away from you. The great thing about this method is that it fills out your background ambience with an interactive battle. Every weapon sound you hear is what is happening on the battlefield right now!
On top of that, we also filter the ambience of each player through our auto chatter system, so when you get a message from another player over the radio, the soundscape at their location can be heard in the background.
Auto chatter sounds awesome, but can it also filter out foul-mouthed 12 year olds? Now that would be valuable tech.
IGN AU: How do you achieve clarity of sound when you have up to 16 players in an area, all running, jumping, speaking and firing at the same time?
Chris Sweetman: We decided early on that achieving sonic space was the most important thing for us to solve, and our Audio Programmer Simon Price and myself spent months on working out different systems to cull sounds.
Eventually we settled on various solutions. One of the big ones was Simon creating our version of HDR (High Dynamic Range) audio, which at its most basic is an automatic mixing system that scans the volume of a WAV file and decides what the playback volume should be based on the distance from the player.
Alongside HDR we also have a snapshot mixer system which ducks groups of sounds dependent on game states that we set up. For instance, when one of the commanders is speaking to the player about pertinent game information, we duck all other sounds in the world by about 30% to allow him to be heard.
IGN AU: What aspect of your work on Brink are you most proud of? What should we strain our ears to hear when the game comes out?
Chris Sweetman: I'm most proud of the Foley and sonic clarity that we have in Brink. You can hear every sound -- and when you have massive battles raging that's a real bonus!