Mike Drummelsmith is the Director of Audiokinetic, the company behind Wwise, a feature-rich interactive sound engine for games. He talks with us about how games today are integrating higher quality audio to add to the overall player experience and why it’s so important.
Audio in Games: AAA VS. Indie
In the bigger games now, people are very aware of the requirement for high-quality audio. You take Batman that came out last month, they were very meticulous about the audio design. At Develop last month in Brighton, Martin Andersen from Playdead gave a talk about their next game INSIDE. Everyone in the room was just amazed at his thought process going into the audio. He was in a very fortunate position. His management understood the importance of good audio. He would say he needed to do certain things and that it would take some time and resources, and they would say “absolutely” because they know the importance. For other less fortunate teams, the sound designer might say that he wants to do this awesome sound thing, and they would say no it’s too expensive and that they need to get the game out the door right away. That’s disappointing.
On the indie side that still does happen quite a bit where a team will have aspirations, but they just can’t meet them because of the lacking budget. They hire a contractor, and instead of getting the contractor involved early in the process using a software like Wwise (which the contractor knows very well) and really working with them and letting the sound designer do his job, they will call them a month before finalising the game and ask them to improve the sounds. After that, a programmer has to integrate the sounds and mix it, causing poor results.
Hopefully now, slowly but surely, even the indie scene will say, “we’re in 8 month development and during prototyping, let’s figure out who we’re going to work with on sound. Let’s get them involved in knowing what events are driving the sound engine, what variables he needs to make the scenarios that really make an interesting soundscape, an interesting interactive score, and then let him go do his work.” And he might have 10 other projects but he’s going to be able to make something specifically for that game, instead of being told vaguely to make a wolf howling, trees rustling, and footsteps. You need to know what the game is and what the context the sounds are being built in. The sound designer then gives the sounds and never tells anybody that he worked on it.
It’s important that you can use it to convey a message to a player. Like right now, in a shooter there’s a red halo of the screen that collapses as you take damage. A player immediately knows he is in trouble and about to die, rather than in the past he had to look at the health bar to know how close he was to death. Having something where you’re shooting your gun and you’re down to your last 5 bullets, having the sound cue change with little sounds, the player knows to reload without having to look at the ammo counter on-screen. This way they are more efficient during gameplay.
In an adventure game, you can make the music get more complex and more interesting as you head in the right direction. Having a big flashing sign saying “go here!” makes the game a little easy, but hearing sound cues with the music changes the whole experience.
With the rise of VR over the next year or two years, you’ll see a lot more focus on audio because with a properly designed VR game, you can’t control where the player looks. If you try to, the players are throwing up all over the place because as soon as you take camera control away from them, that’s where disorientation and motion sickness comes in. When something happens off to the right or behind you, you have to have a proper 3D position for the sound to alert them to look in the right direction where the enemy is or where they are supposed to look rather than moving the controller moving around confused.
Right now it’s available from our website. I’m not sure if Unreal Marketplace has opened the technology store, but they have assets. For the Unity Asset Store, we’re thinking about the best way to put ourselves on there. It’s confusing because the integration is free when you download Wwise from our store, you say that you need the Unity integration as well, and it’s free. So we could put that on the Asset Store, but Wwise is only free sometimes. So do you say free?
Our licensing model is if you have a game on what I call the open platforms (Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, and Windows Phone), and you have 200 sound files or less, you can use Wwise for free, you come to our site and create a project, I approve the project, you have a license key, and now go ahead and release your game and have fun.
If you need to go beyond those 200 sounds, then you have to license. There’s two paths for that. One of them is you pay up front, which is based on your production budget. So small games will pay in the hundreds of dollars per platform, bigger games like The Witcher will pay a lot. The software is the same, you can do everything with it. Basically, that small indie team cannot pay what Metal Gear Solid can pay, so we don’t make them pay, whereas a game with a $50 million budget can pay $10,000 per platform with ease.
If the team doesn’t have a budget, or a cash flow, or maybe falls in the cracks of our three tiers where they’re a $300,000 project but they want to ship on 7 platforms. It’s going to be much more expensive than you want to afford. We also have a royalty model as well now. It’s not up on our website but we’ve signed almost a dozen teams on it already even without telling anybody out it. That’s nothing up front for as many platforms as you want, and then 1% after you ship.
Available for Indie and AAA
Well that’s our goal. With all these different models, small games, simple games, free. Low-budget games: either cheap or free until they ship, and if they happen to not make a lot of money, then they’re not going to pay very much for it, if anything at all.