Matt and I were both involved in a music scene in Dallas called Laptop Deathmatch. In fact, that’s how we met. The Deathmatches happened every few months and consisted of around 8-12 electronic musicians wielding laptops and MIDI controllers, blasting out electronic beats of all kinds and being judged by fellow musicians and the reaction of the crowd. This went on for a few years and eventually our group of musicians grew tight. We formed bonds based on friendly competition, being exposed to each other’s music styles and tastes, and inspiring each other to try new things and act more boldly. It was amazing to watch everyone’s music and stage presence improve over time.
Apart from inspiring each other through observation, the Deathmatch champions inspired though their success. Matt had an amazing winning streak for a while which inspired us to try new things like his technique of live recording the crowd then playing it right back at them in a musical way, or the way he would stand on the opposite side of the table, his butt and his laptop’s screen facing the crowd. We were also inspired by the fact that the crowd would dance their asses off to his tracks and the judges, who were different every time, were always voting for him. This (finally) brings me to my point.
I’m not necessarily saying I want to compete with other audio departments, but I think it would help us all to grow and master our craft if there was a lot more feedback coming from reviewers, the “judges” of the video game world.
Too often I’ve read reviews that are two or more pages long without a single mention of audio. Then there are reviews that mention audio in the most offhand way. I found this review of a game I worked on in early 2011 called Red Orchestra 2 and I got excited when I saw the blurb, “Stellar audio visual presentation” at the top of the page under the “Pros” section. Digging deeper into the review, there’s one sentence at the end of a paragraph about visuals that reads, “Overall the visual presentation is excellent though, and it's backed up by a captivating soundscape.”
OK! I thought. Here we go, please tell me about how nice the maps sound. Stroke my ego! Or, tell me where I went wrong. Mention something I missed or overdid.
The whole next paragraph is all about RO2’s usage of voice over! Of course, Chris Rickwood and the guys at Tripwire did an awesome job with the voice over implementation. Really great work, but I wanted to hear about the ‘soundscape.’ I wanted to know if they appreciate that the elaborately 3D rendered piles of bricks actually make little brick tumbling sounds when a character runs over them. Or maybe that they hated the fact that they couldn’t sneak up on enemies in houses full of broken glass because of the sound of broken glass being kicked that occurs when characters move through it.
Who am I to complain, right? They mentioned the soundscape and were very complimentary. Better than nothing, right?
Some review sources give a number score to audio separately from the other aspects of the game. I think this is a step in the right direction. It gives us a little something to go on when we’re looking for feedback from reviewers, and it likely inspired the reviewer to stop and think about the audio a little more than they would have otherwise.
The problem comes in when the only thing written to back up that score is the tiny fragment of a sentence they plug underneath the number, typically a comment on the music and voice acting. Worse yet, some sources give a unique score to audio without ANY actual writing to back it up. Here’s a video clip from Anthony Carboni’s show New Challenger wherein they post this graphic of their review scores for Skyrim. Skyrim receives a 4/5 here but in no part of the video do they mention why. What can we as audio designers or the general populace as consumers take away from a 4/5 without any words to back it up? (side note: I have been a huge Carboni fan ever since he hosted the IGF Awards this year!)
This is something that could easily change for the better, but there are a lot of reviewers out there and one blog post isn’t going to make a big impact. So I’ll ask my fellow game developers of all kinds to consider mentioning this problem the next time they hang out with the games press. Not in that annoying way like when I first tried being a vegetarian as a teenager and preached about it at every meal with mixed company. No, that just hurts. Instead, try to help reviewers understand how helpful they can be by simply giving audio developers a little feedback. We often spend many months, if not years, working on making our games sound great. We just want to know if we’re on the right track.
Bobby Arlauskas is a sound designer at GL33k, a game audio company based in Austin, TX, a member of the Tiger Style Games team and creates music under the name 'Kidko'