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The Future

What can we expect to see in game-audio development in the coming years? I decided to ask three high-ranking, seasoned game-audio industry professionals their thoughts on the future of game audio. Their responses follow.

Interview: Guy Whitmore

Guy Whitmore is the technical editor of this book for good reason: He has executed some of the most advanced techniques in adaptive audio for recent games across multiple genres. Not even the ex-LucasArts audio team could boast that, as all of its games were graphic adventures.

AB: What do you think the largest advancement in game audio will be in the next five years?

GW: I would like to think that a big advance in adaptive music will happen, and I'm sure such steps will be taken. However, it may be closer to ten years before highly adaptive scores become a wide reality. There are three limiting factors, or hurdles, that I see before us.

First, composers must be willing and excited to take on the huge challenges of actually scoring a game. Currently most game composers don't score games as much as they create music to fit the general moods of a game. That has to change if significant advances are to be made in adaptive music for games.

Next, there is a complete vacuum of tools for creating adaptive scores—particularly tools that are available to the public. Composers are forced to reinvent the wheel each game, even to gain very basic adaptive features for their game.

Last, the industry, namely publishers, must be convinced that highly immersive game scores are a positive trend, and that it will make gamers more excited about spending money on their games. Currently the focus has been on overall audio fidelity, and that's a great thing, but I believe that trend has temporarily cooled publisher interest in more adaptive scores.

In the next five years the most significant audio advance will likely come in the area of advanced mixing of SFX. There's already a keen interest in getting game SFX as intense and powerful as in blockbuster movies, but there's more to it than simply making great individual sounds. The current limiting factor for SFX is how they're mixed in the game.

I believe we'll see more real-time intelligent mixing in games. Tools like Xact for the Xbox and Scream for the PS2 are leading the way and will make huge leaps in the coming years.

AB: How do you see licensed music working in games compared with movies and television?

GW: Licensed music is already a fact of life in games, and I'm sure the trend will continue to mature. As with movies, there will be good artistic use of licensed content, and there will be examples of blatant abuse of it by marketing departments; for example, “What is this Eminem song doing in my kid's alphabet learning game?” Differences in how the game industry uses licensed content may appear in coming years when gamers get tired of linear songs being stuffed into their interactive environment. Special licensing deals may be made to create adaptive versions of pop songs, such as in the game Frequency, so that they may be an integral part of the gaming experience. Currently, licensed music is simply aural wallpaper in games.

AB: What is the ideal sound setup you can imagine for games, whether it exists now or whether it could be built in the future?

GW: Well, let's go to fantasyland: Start with surround outputs from the game machine being converted with Apogee converters and played through Genelec speakers. Make sure the room is a theatrical space at least 15 feet by 15 feet.

Perhaps the surround sound could add an “above” speaker and a “below” speaker. That would make dogfights and helicopters more intense. May as well go with 24-bit, 96 kHz sound, since fantasyland has no memory or processor constraints. The real-time DSP (digital signal processor) would be on a par with the best Lexicon and TC Electronic algorithms. The adaptive score would be accessing a GigaStudio-type sampler and the finest software synths, all mixed in real time. Ah, just a few short years away…

One of the best-known game composers in the industry is Tommy Tallarico. His company, Tommy Tallarico Studios, has developed audio for more than 200 games. Tommy also wrote some excellent old-school soundtracks including those for Earthworm Jim and Cool Spot.

In addition to all that, Tommy is the founder and president of the Game Audio Network Guild, the game-audio industry's largest professional organization. He also hosts two television shows devoted to videogames: Judgment Day and The Electric Playground.

AB: What do you think the largest advancement in game audio will be in the next five years?

TT: On the music side I think you'll see the production quality go way up. More people will start to use live musicians and orchestras. More composers from film and television will start to cross over as our budgets get bigger, and people will start to mix and master their music professionally as opposed to doing it in their own studios. 5.1 surround-sound mixing will become very popular, and the use of more in-depth, powerful streaming will allow for all of this live music to be implemented in a more interactive way.

I also believe that as story lines and game plots get more compelling, you will see us moving away from creating music based around what “level” you're on or what the “environment” is, and more toward motifs centered and triggered around the characters. Because of all of this, you will see a lot more videogame soundtracks hitting the market as well.

From a technical standpoint you'll see a huge jump in the audio tools available to sound designers and composers that allow them to infinitely control the sounds in an environment. This will take more of the integration element away from the programmers and put more of it into the audio designers' hands, where it belongs.

AB: How do you see licensed music working in games compared with movies and television?

TT: I think it will work in exactly the same way, and I think we are already seeing that now. As in films, some artists will be contracted to create an original song, and some popular music will be licensed for certain scenes, cinematics, or levels. Just like the movies, games can have the original soundtrack and licensed music work well in certain areas. Some games, like Halo, will never need licensed music—similar to, say, a Star Wars movie. Yet some games, like popular sports and driving titles, will only need licensed music. Both kinds of games can coexist happily just as they do in film and television.

AB: What is the ideal sound setup you can imagine for games, whether it exists now or whether it could be built in the future?

TT: The gaming experience is all about 5.1 right now and in the future! Consumers are making videogames the center of their home theaters. Systems like the Xbox and the PS2 support digital audio output for true 5.1 sound. Once you've experienced a game like Halo in 5.1, there's no going back! A great subwoofer is key to a 5.1 videogame experience. Motion pictures sometimes use back channels and the sub for certain explosions, pass-bys, et cetera, whereas in videogames 5.1 helps engulf you entirely into the experience and is constantly being used when traveling around a 3D environment.

George Alistair Sanger, aka The Fat Man, and his Team Fat company have been responsible for a good deal of some of the most cinematic-sounding games in the '90s, including 7th Guest and Wing Commander. The latter title in particular was the first game that players described as “feeling like a movie,” which was a rare feat in that era of games.

George has written music for more than 300 titles, and he wrote a book on game audio that I highly recommend: The Fat Man on Game Audio: Tasty Morsels of Sonic Goodness.

AB: What do you think the largest advancement in game audio will be in the next five years?

GS: The thing that most needs to be overcome is the repetitive nature of game audio. Basically the problem can be seen as a mathematical one: A game will play for 40 hours. What game company in history has had the foresight or the wherewithal to set aside enough budget, disk space, and attention to make 40 hours of interesting audio?

Although some hold great hope for algorithmic audio engines, I see these as Band-Aid fixes that are at best helpful for only some situations. An “autocomposing” program or even a clever “variations engine” may be capable of filling a hotel with wallpaper, but not a museum with art. My experience tells me that there is a direct correlation between the amount of care a composer spends on audio and the artistry of what results.

This leads me to believe that there might be two ways in which the problem of repetition might be approached over the next five years. The first approach would allow the composer to put more artful care into the audio. That would likely happen when we finally get nonproprietary cross-platform authoring tools—tools that will allow a composer to control how his linear sounds sit in the interactive context of the game. Such tools will be massively useful and really start leveraging off each other when they can speak to a common file format, the way MIDI-enabled tools can speak to MIDI files.

The second approach to solving that [repetition] problem would likely involve a radical rethinking of the relationship between sound designer, sound file, game, time, intellectual property, and such. In other words, rather than responding to the need for more work and more care from the composer, one might examine the problem with an eye on distributing audio more efficiently.

I would look at a model in which the rich library of sounds and music that have already been created for published games and then lost in the ether of game history are reused from game to game. They then are carefully channeled and filtered so that they give precisely the desired auditory effect in a given game situation. As an alternative, I would suggest that a game not use a specific sound or even a pool of sounds for a given event, but rather produce audio by tuning in to a specific Web- or disk-based radio station with a very narrow stylistic range.

AB: How do you see licensed music working in games compared with movies and television?

GS: Why, I think the use of licensed music in games is just super, just like in movies and television.

Except that it's a likely sign that the game's developer is so totally insecure about his own ability to be an entertainer that he has hired another [failing] industry to act as entertainer for him, in hopes of having better odds at “safer” sales numbers.

And except that people who buy games have come to distrust any licensing as a cheapening and selling-out of the value of the game in favor of associations with famous people.

And except that the very “safeness” behind that decision betrays the fact that the game is probably based on a mentality of “playing it safe to please the investors” that runs exactly opposite to the risk-taking aesthetics that underlie all of [game development] itself.

And except that it squanders the budget and disk space on audio that will become sickeningly repetitive the very second it repeats.

Other than that and a bunch of other things, it's super!

AB: What is the ideal sound setup you can imagine for games, whether it exists now or whether it could be built in the future?

GS: Stereo is fine. The attention given to all this technology is inappropriate to the return on investment. Surround is nice. Bass is overrated but OK. More speakers is better but quickly becomes expensive and extravagant.

You know, a little force feedback, some stereo or surround, and you're just fine. Today's “ultimate” system is ultimate enough for five years from now. If your system is accurate enough to make you think somebody's in the same room with you, and that's not hard to achieve, then you're at or near the level of sound system that [anybody] can appreciate.

I would encourage all gamers to take that extra $100 a year that they might spend on “ultimate” sound systems and write a letter to their favorite game company. The letter should offer that company $25 if they will put $75 into composing ten seconds more original music for the game. I think that would be a great sound system!



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