How audio wizards are shaping the sound of the next generation of PC games

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Get ready, PC gamers—change is coming. With major upgrades looming for both the Microsoft Xbox and Sony PlayStation platforms, developers will no longer have to throttle game performance to stay in step with aging console hardware. That means better games for everyone, including the PC gamers who have always been free to upgrade their hardware at will.

The hidden power of sound

One area where you’ll hear—not see—significant progress is game audio. And that matters more than you might realize.

The Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 took surround sound mainstream. Aural fidelity in games is at an all-time high, and now that games have matured, audio teams are finally getting the attention and respect they deserve from audiences and from game developers. “We’ve seen through scientific research that audio can actually improve somebody’s perception of the video quality,” says Spencer Hooks, senior manager for games at Dolby.

Dolby's Spencer Hooks works with game developers to push the state of gaming audio forward.

“Try playing a game with the sound turned off. The first thing you notice is, the screen is only displaying 30 to 40 degrees in front of you,” says DICE’s Ben Minto, audio director for Battlefield 4. “If someone sneaks up behind you, you’re not going to figure that out.” Without audio, you lose half of the game experience straight away.

The hidden power of sound cuts both ways, though. Much as with acting, you often notice audio in games only when it’s poor. “If you do a bad job, everyone will notice, and you’ll be blamed for it,” says Simon Ashby, cofounder of Audiokinetic, the company responsible for the audio middleware platform Wwise. “If you do an awesome job, no one will ever talk about it. That’s the way it should be.”

But where do we go from here? Has audio plateaued in the same way some people are saying graphics have? What’s the logical progression to the next generation of audio? The answers to these questions are more dynamic than you may expect.

You’ve come a long way, baby

Video games have come a long way from the assorted chirps and bleeps of Pitfall! and other Atari 2600-era classics. Full orchestral scores, 5.1 channels of surround sound, and professionally voiced characters are as common as pocket lint now, but it wasn’t until recently that PC-game sound could rival that of a Blu-ray movie.

“Audio design ten years ago was really a slave to the hardware,” says Scott Haraldsen, audio lead at Irrational Games. “We were limited by the number of sounds that could be playing simultaneously, and most of those sounds were playing back at a quality less than half of what you hear in games today.”

Irrational Games was significantly handicapped by console hardware limits when the company developed the original Bioshock.

Developers working on games for the PlayStation 2 had access to 2MB of RAM to store all the sounds that could play at a given moment, a huge jump from the original PlayStation’s 500KB. For comparison, 1 minute of a song on a CD is 10MB. It wasn’t until the jump to the PlayStation 3 that the amount of RAM available to sound hit triple digits: Of the PS3’s total 500MB of RAM, sound has access to just 256MB. Even if you’re playing a current multiplatform game on an Xbox 360 or your PC, the fact is that the game was designed with the PS3’s limitations in mind.

“New consoles usually give you more power in sound, although there are exceptions,” says Halo 3 audio producer Matthew Burns.

Matthew Burns

The first Xbox had a dedicated sound processor that handled all of a game’s audio tasks on its own, freeing up the CPU for general use. The Xbox 360 does not. Working within common memory on Halo 3 “was a pain,” according to Burns, who thinks Microsoft skimped on hardware.

“They lost a lot of money on the Xbox. They didn’t know what they were doing hardware-wise, so they got rid of the dedicated sound processor and were just like, ‘We have six cores on the main CPU, just run your audio there.’”

That means audio teams on modern games, even cross-platform games, now have to share machine resources with every other department.

“The graphics guys want to use all the CPU. The AI wants to use all the CPU. [As a sound designer] it becomes trying to fight for your place at the table,” Burns says.

Sound takes a backseat in development

From the beginning, sound and story have always taken a backseat to graphics and gameplay in game design. Until recently, both have been implemented very late in the development cycle. Such snubbing makes a little sense: After all, audio designers need to have something on screen before they can start curating sounds. Jack Grillo, musical director on Tomb Raider, says that when the audio specialists are looking for the best time to do their work, it’s after all the other departments are done.

“Those departments often don’t hit deadlines, so we scramble at the end because those milestones don’t change. Games are hard to make, and audio is usually last in line because we can’t do anything ahead of time,” says Grillo.

Jack Grillo is a man who obsesses over making every creaking bridge and howling wolf in Tomb Raider sound amazing.

Part of what Dolby is focused on in its work with the game industry is promoting the idea that audio shouldn’t be a last-minute decision and shouldn’t be given a minimal amount of space on the disc.

“Sound is less tangible because you can’t point at the screen and say, ‘Oh yeah, see? The edge isn’t as jagged and the texture looks better,’” says Hooks.

Audio getting the short shrift is sad, but not surprising, considering the primarily visual nature of video games. “The screenshot sells the game, [whereas] a piece of music won’t,” says Grillo. And like clockwork, once a game’s announcement trailer hits the Internet or once screenshots release, forums light up with threads analyzing the graphics. No one starts flame wars over the audio in a game.

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