After many, many years of doing audio post-production for film and TV, as well as music recording, I entered the world of sound for games just over eight years ago. Starting at LucasArts Entertainment (and now continuing at Electronic Arts), I quickly found game development to be completely different than anything I'd done before. The audio skills I had spent years honing turned out to be less than half of what I needed to do the job.
Now, being somewhat more experienced, I mulled those differences as I slogged my way through another massive work crunch in preparation for the all-important E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) trade show, held each May in Los Angeles. E3 is the primary U.S. trade show at which every game company tries to get the press and public drooling over the games they intend to ship at Christmastime.
The fact is that making games is more difficult than all other audio tasks I've ever undertaken, which, in addition to studio work, have included live sound, retail sales, and even being a bench technician. I have several times seen film audio people try their hand at games and tell me, “Holy cow! This is hard!”
What makes audio production for games such an imposing challenge? There are many factors: first, games are software, so game development is actually software development. Second, unlike for film and TV, game audio is not a post-production process; it is part of production, because the audio is designed and built at the same time as the game. Third, game play is real time and, to a great degree, unpredictable. Fourth, regardless of the quality of the production facilities, playback of the finished product must be accomplished with an extremely limited set of resources. Adding to this last fact is the economic necessity for many game developers to deliver a title on multiple platforms, each of which has its own unique set of extremely limited resources.
Starting at the top, that games are software introduces elements of unpredictability. That is because one can't always predict bugs and how long they'll take to fix or whether a projected strategy will have a major flaw that materializes only after considerable time and effort has been expended.
The aspect of game audio being production instead of post-production means that the task is often undefined at the point that audio production needs to start. It's difficult enough to have to make sound for picture when there's no picture; worse, it is often unknown which sounds need to be built. Furthermore, things keep changing until the product ships.
Unlike an album or soundtrack, the real-time nature of game play makes it impossible to create a static mix because the sounds that are playing at any given moment will differ every time the game is played. Mixing is an iterative process of successive approximation: changing an element, playing the game, changing it again, and doing that for each of the many hundreds of elements until an acceptable compromise is reached.
Very limited resources force the game-audio designer to be a MacGyver of sound, using clever tricks, resourcefulness, and arcane knowledge garnered only through hard experience to surmount or work around the limitations. My great friend, game-audio pioneer Clint Bajakian, says, “When I go to parties and people ask me what I do for a living, I tell them I do sound and music for games. But what I really do is overcome obstacles to doing sound and music for games.”
In the liner notes of Little Feat's album Feats Don't Fail Me Now, the late Lowell George wrote, “Do not be deceived by, nor take lightly, this bit of musicianship that one describes simply as ‘bass.’” I certainly agree with that statement as it stands, but I also find it equally applicable to game-audio production. I have not even touched on music composition for games, which is a whole different kettle of impossibly difficult fish. Keep that in mind as you put James Bond through his paces in the next game title bearing his name.