My name is Ressa, I’m the CEO/founder of Gameowdio. Recently, I spoke at the WN Conference in Belgrade and the Nordic Game in Malmö. My presentation focused on the most efficient strategies for game audio production when working for a client that develops both VR and mobile games. This article expands on my talk and includes some development stories as well.
With 14 years of experience in the game industry, I started as a freelance composer and sound designer before becoming an in-house audio producer. Currently, I run my own audio outsourcing studio called Gameowdio. Our focus lies in audio direction, which entails a high-level creative approach, team management, and supervising specialists, among other responsibilities. While we also handle “normal” tasks like asset creation and technical sound design, the most exciting and challenging aspects are the management tasks. These include creating an audio vision for projects, maintaining audio team processes, and even forming an audio team within a game company.
Since the summer of 2021, I have been undertaking a challenging task for CM Games. The company had no in-house audio specialists, so my objective was to build the team from scratch. Two years later, we now have a team of five people who cater to all of the company’s audio needs. As an efficiency enthusiast, I continuously strive to improve our processes.
Considering my eastern-European background, the primary concern for developers when it comes to audio is cost-effectiveness. For many years, my goal has been to deliver audio of the highest quality while keeping costs as low as possible.
There’s a well-known diagram that illustrates the trade-off between good, fast, and cheap, suggesting that it’s impossible to achieve all three simultaneously. However, I am determined to find the holy grail in this regard.
Within CM Games, I have complete freedom to test and implement what I believe to be the most effective strategies. In this article, I will describe several strategies that I have developed:
- Audio Visioning.
Creating a clear and concise audio vision for each project is crucial. This involves defining the desired audio experience and setting goals for the audio team to achieve. By establishing a shared vision, we ensure that everyone is working towards a common goal and that the audio aligns with the overall creative direction of the game.
Before diving into full-scale production, it’s essential to create prototypes to test and iterate on different audio concepts. This allows us to gather feedback early on and make necessary adjustments, saving time and resources in the long run. Prototyping helps us validate ideas, experiment with different techniques, and fine-tune the audio experience.
- Unification of the Audio Setup.
Standardizing the audio setup across projects is beneficial for efficiency and consistency. By establishing a unified workflow, tools, and processes, we streamline the production pipeline. A unified setup also simplifies collaboration between team members and ensures a cohesive audio experience across all games.
- Using Both In-house and Outsource Workforce.
Combining in-house expertise with outsourcing capabilities can be a powerful strategy. While having an in-house audio team provides control and immediate accessibility, outsourcing certain tasks allows us to leverage specialized skills and scale resources as needed. It’s important to strike the right balance between in-house and outsourced work to optimize productivity and maintain quality standards.
By implementing these strategies at CM Games, we have been able to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of our audio production. Each approach contributes to a well-defined audio vision, streamlined processes, and the utilization of both internal and external talent.
When working on a game, it is crucial to maintain a clear understanding of the audio’s purpose. System thinking can save a lot of time by providing guidance and inspiration when faced with challenges or creative blocks. At CM Games, system thinking is highly valued within our audio team. Whenever we embark on a new project or evaluate audio design for an existing one, we create an audio design document.
The document starts with a chaotic mind map in Miro, which gradually evolves into a comprehensive Confluence-based document that captures all pertinent audio information for the game.
Here are the key sections typically included:
- General Game Information: This section covers details such as the genre, platform, target audience, and expected length of gameplay sessions.
- Audio User Experience (UX): Here, we elaborate on the audio vision itself, describing in detail what we want the player to experience and how audio will enhance the game flow.
- Technical Setup and Formatting: This section outlines specifications for loudness, file weight, and overall audio formatting based on the platforms we are targeting.
- Audio Production Pipeline: We define the roles and responsibilities of individuals involved in the audio production process, including internal team members and any outsourced resources. This section helps ensure clear communication and coordination, especially when multiple teams are involved.
- Setting, Narrative, and Lore: In this part, we delve into the game’s world, storyline, and lore to provide context for the audio design decisions.
- Reference Media Research: Although this aspect may require a separate document, we include a summary with relevant links to support our audio design choices. This section helps provide inspiration and references for the desired audio aesthetics.
- Categorization: If necessary, we include a categorization section to handle specific requirements within the project. This allows us to manage and organize audio assets effectively.
- Mix: This part focuses on how different audio categories interact with each other within the high dynamic range (HDR) and dynamic mix.
- Event List: We provide a link to an event list that serves as a draft. This list can be customized to include elements such as soundbanks, optimization rules, busses, and FX chains, based on the project’s needs.
By incorporating these sections into our audio design document, we establish a solid foundation for the audio development process, fostering clarity, collaboration, and effective decision-making.
One of my favorite visioning tips is to “describe the audio vision in one catchy phrase.” This helps consolidate all the ideas into a concise and memorable sentence. Here are a few examples:
- “You are awesome, and the game respects you” (Nitro Nation World Tour by CM Games x Mythical Games)
- “The morning after Christmas if it happened 365 days a year” (Magic Seasons by Stark Games)
It’s important to note that the overall game vision may evolve over time, and as the audio aligns with the game design, the catchy phrase can be edited accordingly.
To initiate the audio visioning process and tackle complex systems logically and technically, we utilize mindmapping. For quick and immediate brainstorming, pen and paper are sufficient. However, when more collaboration is required, we rely on Miro boards to share and provide comments. One of the significant advantages of Miro is its ability to facilitate clear communication and comprehension within the team. For instance, when I attempted to explain the generative music system I wanted to implement into one of the projects, the game designer misunderstood it. To rectify the miscommunication, I used Miro to provide a clear visual representation, which resulted in a perfect understanding of the concept.
Miro is an excellent format for conducting reference media research as well. This platform allows us to organize and centralize the information we gather during the research phase, enabling us to utilize it effectively in our work.
For example, when we started working on Nitro Nation World Tour, the sound designer responsible for the project selected the most relevant reference and conducted a thorough analysis of it. In Miro, we dissected Forza Horizon 5, examining its mix, music system, engine sounds, UI communication, and other relevant aspects. This comprehensive research served as a valuable resource and provided us with insights and inspiration for our own project.
We followed a similar approach when working on NFS Most Wanted, leveraging Miro to deconstruct and explore the game’s audio elements in detail. By studying these reference materials, we gained a deeper understanding of successful audio implementation and could apply those learnings to enhance our own work.
Absolutely, it is crucial to synchronize the audio vision with the entire team, including game designers and product owners. They provide valuable feedback and insights that can greatly enhance your ideas. Furthermore, in teams with a research and development (R&D) mindset, the game vision may undergo frequent changes. By maintaining open communication, you can stay informed about any shifts in the game’s vision and adjust the audio vision accordingly.
Recap of Pros and Cons of Audio Visioning:
- The “vision bible” to refer to
- Easy syncing with the team
- Real time-saver during the production stage
- Takes time at the pre-production stage
- Junior/middle specialists might get frustrated (mentorship needed)
When it comes to game audio, prototyping is a vital part of our creative process. Thankfully, our audio team has emerged from the R&D department, so we know the taste of prototyping like the back of our hands. Let me walk you through a few approaches we employ during pre-production:
- Prototyping with video footage.
Imagine this: raw gameplay footage, unpolished and rough around the edges. But hey, that doesn’t stop us! We take that footage and dive into the world of audio wizardry. We layer in some captivating sounds, automate them, and present the result to the team.
This technique allows us to showcase our audio designs in the context of the game, giving the audio director a clear vision of how it aligns with the overall audio user experience. It also empowers our sound designers to experiment with various textures, styles, genres, and approach asset creation from different angles. And let’s not forget the technical audio designers who work hand-in-hand with programmers. By looking at the footage, they have a flawless reference of how the system should sound when fully assembled.
Here’s an example of interactive ambient for Nitro Nation World Tour, prototyped in Ableton Live.
- Prototyping with audio middleware.
When you have the power of audio middleware integration, such as Wwise or Fmod, at your fingertips, the possibilities are endless. Here’s a nifty prototyping technique that will make you say, “Why didn’t I think of this before?”
Picture this: You’re working on a project, and the game designer has a brilliant idea to add comic word bubbles to explosions. You know, those classic “BOOM” and “BAROOM” expressions that bring a touch of whimsy to the chaos. Now, instead of diving into scripting within the game engine, we take a different route.
With Wwise or Fmod integrated into the project, we have the freedom to unleash our creativity. We can do whatever we want and use controllers to emulate the system. In this particular case, I added an additional voice layer to the explosion sound event. But here’s the cool part: I linked the real-time parameter control (RTPC) for explosion size, which was already used in the game, to the pitch of the voice layer. The result? Instant comic word bubbles that synced perfectly with the explosive action.
When we played it back, it was an instant hit! The sound added a layer of fun and playfulness to the game. So naturally, we decided to keep it. Prototyping with audio middleware allows us to quickly test and implement creative ideas without getting lost in complex scripting or development processes. It’s like having a playground of audio possibilities at our disposal.
Another example of middleware prototyping is our “CATs / Creative Audio Techniques” series of videos. We take footage of a game build and create a system in the middleware solely, disconnected from the game engine. If implemented, though, it works instantly. It’s an eye-opening experience for developers as they witness firsthand what can be achieved using middlewares.
- Prototyping with middleware + game engine.
Sometimes, pushing the boundaries of game audio requires a combination of middleware and the game engine itself. While this technique can involve scripting and face resistance from programmers and product owners, it’s often worth the effort to achieve something truly unique.
Let me share a story to illustrate this. Our technical sound designer had a vision for a generative whoosh system in virtual reality (VR). Although a similar system had already been created by another sound designer, we wanted to explore its potential in the immersive VR environment.
We knew that a simple solution, like playing a single whoosh sound whenever a bat is thrown, wouldn’t suffice. We wanted a more dynamic and interactive experience where players could create a series of whooshes and even perform actions like turning around with the bat in hand.
That was the moment our sound designer, Pavel, took matters into his own hands. He created a 2D prototype using Unity + Wwise, showcasing the desired generative whoosh system. Once we realized it was perfect, we handed it over to the programmer, who further developed and integrated it into the VR game.
Here’s the video about it:
So, to recap. Prototyping, despite its challenges, offers numerous advantages. It’s a fun and cost-effective way to explore innovative ideas and demonstrate their potential impact. However, it’s essential to acknowledge that prototypes may be discarded if the vision or mechanics change. But that’s the nature of prototyping—it’s a vital part of the creative process, allowing us to test and refine our ideas before committing to a final implementation.
- Extremely illustrative
- Instant syncing with the GD/PO
- Cheaper (by audio team only)
- Reference for the tech SD and/or programmer when it gets to the implementation
- Sometimes prototypes are frozen
CM Games’ audio team has been working on various projects, most of which are developed on Unity. However, Unity alone doesn’t provide all the necessary tools for creating complex audio systems.
To tackle this challenge, we found a solution: we use two packages – Unreal Engine (UE) for UE projects and Wwise+Unity for Unity projects.
Here are the key benefits we’ve gained from this approach:
- Streamlined Middleware Integration.
Our Infrastructure Team has made integrating middleware a regular task. By working with the Infrastructure team, we developed a “Wwise integration package” for Unity projects. This means that for each new project, the assigned programmer seamlessly integrates Wwise into the Unity project structure, saving time and effort. Not to mention our collaboration with Audiokinetic, the company behind Wwise, has been invaluable. They help us troubleshoot any issues we encounter and provide support when needed.
- Reusable Tech Systems for Quick Prototyping.
With Wwise, we can take existing work units and implement them directly into new projects. This allows us to quickly set up working audio systems by simply linking them to game events and parameters. It’s a time-saving approach that we’ve successfully used multiple times.
- Flexible Team Assignments.
We can easily assign team members based on project needs. For example, a technical sound designer may create temporary audio placeholders to test new mechanics. This flexibility ensures that team members are engaged and can adapt to different project requirements.
- Cross-Platform Compatibility.
Our Unity+Wwise setup works seamlessly across mobile, PC, and VR projects. We can easily transfer audio systems between platforms, maintaining a consistent setup. Although VR projects may require some adjustments, the overall workflow remains efficient.
- Internal Guides and Naming Conventions.
We maintain internal guides on Confluence, allowing team members to stay informed and new sound designers to quickly understand our workflows. We’re also developing a simplified naming convention based on the Universal Category System (UCS) to make communication easier. Additionally, we’re creating modular templates for common systems like footstep surfaces and weapon mechanics, enabling faster integration into new projects.
So, here are the pros and cons of unification:
- Saves time for setup integration
- Saves time for tech sound design and prototyping
- Familiar to the team when a new project starts
- If combined, plugins sometimes conflict with each other
- VR is a magnifying glass for any problem or imperfection you got in audio
However, there are a couple of downsides to consider. Firstly, using multiple audio plugins in a project, especially a VR one with lots of destructions made by the player on the game level (like in Let It Boom), can sometimes lead to technical issues that require time to resolve. It’s not uncommon, but it can slow down the development process.
Secondly, when working on cross-platform projects, it’s important to note that simply copying and pasting audio systems and assets from a mobile game to VR may not work seamlessly. VR has its unique challenges, and adjustments may be needed to ensure the best audio experience.
Despite these challenges, the advantages of our approach, such as efficient integration, reusability of tech systems, flexible team assignments, and internal guides, greatly outweigh the drawbacks.
In-house vs. outsource.
Despite being a CEO of an audio outsourcing studio, I find in-house audio production more efficient in a lot of ways. Its benefits include:
- Increased control: With an in-house audio team, there is greater involvement in the company’s processes, such as daily standups and professional evaluations with HR. This level of integration allows for better coordination and alignment with the overall project goals.
- Cost-effectiveness: Hiring specialists as full-time employees can be more cost-effective in the long run compared to outsourcing services on an hourly or per-asset basis. In-house team members have the flexibility to work on multiple tasks throughout the day without constant tracking of hours or assets, resulting in more productivity without incurring additional costs.
- Professional growth: In an in-house team, there is a mix of specialists at different skill levels. This allows for a collaborative environment where seniors can mentor juniors and knowledge sharing becomes a common practice. The audio director or lead plays a crucial role in improving the team’s performance and fostering professional growth.
- Intellectual property ownership: During the game development process, the audio team creates and researches a significant amount of intellectual property. Documenting this knowledge in platforms like Confluence or a team wiki ensures that the information remains within the company. Sharing such information externally requires approval from supervisors and is protected by non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).
However, there are challenges associated with in-house audio production.
- One such challenge is the turnover of personnel, where individuals may join and leave the team.
- Additionally, certain specialized tasks may prove challenging to handle internally. For example, when we needed to record voiceovers and outsourcing was cost-prohibitive, we assigned a junior team member to handle the coordination, selection, and management of voice actors. While this approach proved to be more cost-effective, it required significant time and effort investment.
Outsourcing and outstaffing are viable options for game development companies when they need to alleviate their workload or require specialized expertise. Outsourcing and outstaffing can:
- Reduce workload: When a team is overwhelmed with work and doesn’t have the time or budget to hire additional staff, outsourcing or outstaffing allows them to quickly and easily offload tasks to external professionals. Outstaffing provides the benefit of buying a specific amount of working hours from a specialist without the need for full-time employment.
- Access exclusive expertise: By outsourcing or outstaffing, game developers can tap into the expertise of professionals with specific skills or knowledge that may not be available in-house. This could include a composer with proficiency in specific genres, a machine learning specialist with linguistic background, or a music theorist for creating a generative music system. Collaborating with specialists from other fields can bring fresh perspectives and enrich the development process.
However, there are certain drawbacks to consider:
- Higher cost: Engaging external audio specialists on an hourly basis can be more expensive compared to having full-time employees. If working with a studio that has management overhead, the costs may be even higher.
- Human element challenges: dealing with external providers may present communication difficulties or compatibility issues that require extra effort to address.
To minimize risks and maximize benefits, having a capable audio director is essential. They can handle the complexities of audio and ensure smooth collaboration.
It’s worth noting (no fingers pointed 🙂) that outsourcing or outstaffing audio directors is also a viable option. This allows game developers to benefit from the expertise and guidance of experienced audio professionals who can bring order to the audio workflow and enhance communication with the audio team.
Audio in VR games is considered to be crucial for immersion, why do we put this much effort into mobile games though? Despite the common misconception that mobile game players often turn off the sound, research and analytics indicate otherwise. More than half of users actually prefer to have the sound on while playing. This holds true even for hyper-casual games, as demonstrated by Azur Games’ article on comprehensive sound design.
Moreover, the quality of sound design directly impacts user engagement and the lifetime value (LTV) of players. According to Azur Games’ findings, high-quality sound design can increase LTV by an average of 10%. This aligns with the insights I’ve gained from collaborating with analytics teams across various client companies.
While detailed analytic reports are often protected by NDAs, I encourage game developers and publishers, especially those in the mobile gaming industry, to consider discussing the importance of audio in mobile games with their analytics teams to gain valuable insights.
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