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Full Indie 2016 : Effective audio design

Audio can do much more for your game than giving a tone and informing player behavior. Kevin Regamy showed many example of great sound design for inspiration. He illustrated how considering audio early and often in a project can give better results – just like for user research.  Here’s some of the benefits Kevin highlighted.

Support player behavior and usability

Audio support the player interactions through cues and feedback. It contributes to making games playable and usable. Using different channels to convey information helps with multi-tasking and understanding the game. Redundant information over different sensory channels provides consistency and helps learning new things.

Reduce the need to look at the HUD

In games like Nuclear throne, audio cues are used to inform the player about the game’s state. Players learn to use those cues and improve their player performance.

Support learning and progress through levels

In mark of the ninja, sounds conveys the importance of actions in the outcome of the situation. This helps the player adapt their strategy to beat a level, by providing a better understanding of what they did wrong, and which action was important in leading to what result.

Convey important information

In mushroom 11, the sound gets more important when nearing maximum size to emphasize this key element of gameplay, without cluttering the screen with aditionnal signs to look at. The player can focus on the mushroom he’s manipulating and has a clear signal of when the growth is maximal.

In the Talos principle, musical ambiance conveys urgency in the last level of a game with no other time constrains. It is a much more immersive and emotional way to pressure the player than a big fat timer displayed across the HUD.

Highlight the importance of in game events

Kaptar revolves around a very complex machinery. The sound reinforces the visuals to convey the importance of getting it started and complexity of the machine.

Sound supports suspension of disbelief

Music and ambiance sounds can make or break a game, but wether it’s great or just good, it helps the player believe in the world and characters they’re interacting with.

Create tangible environments with audio

In Thumper, material sounds from the environment generate emergent music to create a tangible reality for players to be invested in. I’ve seen players alternate between actually playing the game as it’s meant to be, and doing runs with self made musical composition and exploration goals. On top of making the world believeable, it adds depth to the players’ experience of the game.

In SOMA, sound makes the world more tangible because each audio event is dynamically rendered based on the room size it is used in, making it unique and consistent with the player’s location. You definitely feel the room around you.

Help the player relate to the player character

Sunset’s fully diegetic music contributes reinforces the reality of the appartment the player evolves in. The player can chose wether to listen to each score or not, and as part of the gameplay, it also reinforces the player’s relation to the absent owner of the appartment. Despite my kind of critical review of the game, I do agree that the audio helps a lot here.

In transistor, humming vocals during turn based combat helps players relate to the player character : a voiceless singer.

Design games audio first is more fun

Games that start with audio and build the game design around it gives unique results.

Create memorable moments

Fossil Echo features a scene where player do nothing but climbing for the entire durtion of a song and don’t mind the least bit. This works so well because the score and level were designed alongside, rather than adding sounds on top of the compelted level at the end.

In sword and sorcery, bosses are timed to the music and not the contrary. It makes the fight kind of hyponitic and creates a similar flow state as musical rythm games, though it uses typical combat gameplay.

Opportunities for emergent gameplay from audio

In mini metro, sound design is so central to the gameplay that editing the audio settings actually changes how the game runs. I’ve played this game for hours, and although you hear the musical ambiance is highly dynamic, it changes the game quite subtly. And as often with sound, if the player doesn’t pay attention to it, but feels the result, that’s a sign of great design.

In Fantastic contraptions, the building blocks used to create the contraptions are dynamic musical instruments, adding a layer of deep emergent gameplay on top of the building game.

Tips on working with audio

DIY common mistakes

During the Q&A of the talk, Kevin shared some tips for developers who couldn’t work with a professionnal audio designer for any reason.

The first common mistake he jonkingly highlighted was not to force the audio to mono in unity. More seriously, he insisted on how not placing all sound sources in the middle, but using the whole left-right range of possibilities could make the difference between a good and a great auditive experience from the player’s perspective.

Giving feedback about audio

A lot of persons in the audience wondered if there was any basic knowledge to develop about audio, and how to better communicate feedback to sound designers.

Kevin indicated loudness as being a basic any programmer manipulating audio should know about. Too high loudness creates ceilings where sounds are cut off, which distorts the sound and usually is very obvious to players. He went as far as saying players would likely hate the game for its bad audio.

In terms of feedback, I was surprised by his response. Apparently, having no feedback at all is quite common, so he’s happy getting any feedback at all. It doesn’t need to be technical, just saying “I’m not feeling it” or “something’s off” is enough so the sound designer can try a different approach or work on figuring out wat is off with the developper.

And actually, in my opinion, giving general feedback and letting the designer dig into why something doesn’t work is usually more productive than straight out telling them “Could you should lift the gain at this particular frequency?”. If you’re no professional, you might not get the result you were hoping for, and the designer probably has a better chance to know how to reach the expected result.

 

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