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All of us in the game development community know that game audio has grown considerably in the last 20 years. After roughly one-fifth the length of time that movies and television have taken to evolve, videogames are now starting to be held to the same high standards for quality. It was one thing to have a game magazine say, “This game's soundtrack would be right at home in a film,” but now that the same is being said by general-interest publications like Newsweek and Entertainment Weekly, it's clear that even the harshest critics are beginning to acknowledge the excellence of audio in games.

The game industry has exploded in the past five years, thus raising the bar on game audio quality. Now anyone who can write music and create sound can have his or her work included in a game, and in fact there is usually competition to do so. Game-audio veterans who once spent their time tweaking lines of code and writing text files to create sound and music are now obsolete, replaced by teams of savvy studio composers and sound designers with their own custom and much more user-friendly integration tools.

For the paranoid geek who grew up living and breathing the smaller, more aesthetically driven, closer-knit community of videogame development, this recent development is seen as an intrusion, a threat to what once was a small and vibrantly artistic form of entertainment. That is true, but I think the advantages outweigh the threat. Where once we were limited by memory registers and minuscule file sizes, we now can use everything from the grandest orchestra to the most advanced synthesizer as our instruments. We have the same tools the Grammy winners do. If we could create joy and pain from simple FM synthesis, imagine what we can achieve now.

With all this change, a key point to remember is that just because you can write music and create sound effects doesn't mean you can make them sound good—or, more importantly, make them sound good in a game. Simply put, it's a new kind of challenge.

Most of this challenge is evident in the adaptive nature of audio for games. These days, the score in a game doesn't have to sound the same each time the game is played. Music can follow action, or a lack of action, dynamically. Also, now when a game's objects bounce, crash, slide, or touch each other in different ways, hundreds of sounds—instead of just one, as in the old days—are being combined to simulate reality more effectively. Such capabilities are huge, but they are perhaps the most difficult of all to achieve successfully.

I was fortunate enough to have been born between the geeks and the savvy composers. I have an unusually deep respect for our beloved game industry's past and a clear and focused eye on its future. It is this unique perspective that has formed the foundation for Audio for Games: Planning, Process, and Production, which is meant to tackle the new challenge of creating compelling and unique content in the world of game audio.

Rising to the Challenge

Producing game audio once meant writing a few pieces of music, creating 30 or so sound effects, and hard-coding them. Having more than one person involved was unheard-of. Now a typical high-profile title contains thousands of sound effects, tens of thousands of lines of dialogue, and at least an hour of music, with up to a dozen people providing and integrating the content.

Postproduction and mastering are now common, and the advent of such effects as the physics system mentioned earlier and real-time reverb in conjunction with multichannel surround is making game audio more and more similar to the most effective moments you'll experience in a movie theater.

What some people tend to find boring about game audio development is something we will cover in detail: The same organizational issues that plague small and medium-size businesses affect game teams, and proper management with communication and coordination is vital.

In this book I intend not only to highlight skills and techniques important to the game-audio development process, but also to explain just what techniques will be making games an independent form of entertainment, with their audio—dare I say it?—more effective than that of film.

Wake-up Call to Developers

A couple of years ago I had the opportunity to interview a fairly well-known film composer who worked for a prestigious music production house. The production house supplies at least a third of the soundtracks for major motion pictures. The composer had recently completed his first soundtrack for a major game title, and needless to say I was excited at the prospect of the film world joining hands with the game industry. Hollywood, with all its glamour and fame, had turned an interested eye in our direction—what a monumental step!

I called up the production house and surprisingly enough was transferred directly to the composer. I was nervous as he picked up the phone. The words fell out of my mouth: “Hello! I'm doing an article about film composers in the game industry, and I have to say you're the first major film composer to have scored a game … and … and …” Before I could embarrass myself any further, I decided to dive right in. “How did it feel to work on a game?”

His answers were quick, polite, and informative. They were also a bit shocking. “I enjoyed it. But, you see, I don't do this sort of thing usually. I write music for films,” he began.

I thought to myself, Yes, indeed you do; I'm aware of that. He continued as my jaw dropped to the floor. “The last game I played, I think, was Pong in 1978. I really don't play games. Believe me, I was fascinated with how my cues were being used and the process behind it all, but I really don't do this sort of thing normally.”

The conversation continued: it was an interesting wake-up call. For the first time in my experience, production was separated from implementation by thousands of miles. The esteemed composer in California simply received screen shots and communications from developers in Japan; the developers described the scenes and situations; and then the composer wrote the score.

It was then up to me to ask myself those moral questions that often infuriate the purist and satisfy the market-milker. Was this process right? Was it a good thing to do? Well, those are tough ones. Let's make it easier by asking, Was it effective? Until now, game composers wrote for games, and movie composers wrote for movies. Today the field is more diverse, more specialized. Production and implementation are separate, giving the “one-man show” audio teams less responsibility and, some say, less power.

The movie industry, and even more so the flailing music industry, is seeing games as a major opportunity. NBA Live included a soundtrack and is reported to be the first game soundtrack to have gone platinum, since the title sold more than a million copies. The old-school, hardcore game-sound engineers and composers are a dying breed. Just what can a guy in his bedroom do with two PCs, a DAT recorder, and a few pieces of MIDI gear to compete with million-dollar production houses and mighty record companies with far more resources and marketing savvy? Plenty. There is also a lot that those million dollar studios can't do in games. That's what this book is about: bringing the old school into the present and giving the newcomers from the game community as well as from Hollywood the information they need to become interactive-audio experts.

Read on. Welcome to the new world.

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