Scoring Sanctuary: The Sound Design Of Diablo III

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In which the PCWorld Game On blog chats with Andrea Toyias and Joseph Lawrence from Blizzard Entertainment about what it was like to work on making every shout, swing and smashing barrel in Diablo III sound just right.

Game On: Thanks for joining us today! Tell us, what did you work on before Diablo III? How does the sound design in Diablo differ from those projects?

Andrea Toyias, Casting & VO Director for Diablo III: I've been in the industry for over 12 years, starting at what is now Vivendi Games, working as a production assistant in the audio department. One thing led to another, there was a crunch period on our game, they needed help and I became a dialogue editor. I fell in love with the art of voiceover, and I worked my way up in the casting and came over to Blizzard to direct their voiceover and casting efforts.

Andrea Toyias, Casting & VO Director for Diablo III

Joseph Lawrence, Supervisor of Sound Design for Diablo III: As for me, I tried just about every audio career over the years, including games and independent films. I landed a contracting job on Diablo II working under Matt Uelmen, and was later hired on Blizzard. One thing led to another, and I became supervisor of sound design for Diablo III.

Sound design in Diablo III is different from previous games I've worked on because there's so much more we can do with current technology. In the old days you only had enough memory to store a few sounds for every action (attack sounds, death sounds, etc.). Today we can create many layers of audio that randomize atop one another, so we can have 10-15 different sounds playing randomly over one another and thus the game never really repeats itself much. That way, when you’re out killing monsters for hours you (hopefully) won’t get sick of it.

Joseph Lawrence, Supervisor of Sound Design for Diablo III

Andrea: Sound design in Diablo III is really very different than other games; I do voiceover work for all three Blizzard games, and I kind of have to cleanse my palate between each one. Like, before I start work on any project I sit down and immerse myself in the media we have for that particular game; I listen to the soundtrack, look at the art and try to get a feel for the world. For example, World of Warcraft takes place in a world that's much bigger and grander and more fun than real life, and that comes out in the sound design. Starcraft 2 is a space drama and thus sounds much different than Diablo III, a darker game with much darker undertones and a darker story.

Many of the sound effects in Diablo III are familiar to Diablo veterans; how did you decide which to keep, update or drop entirely?

Joseph: We wanted to include some of the old sounds for dedicated fans, but only five or six of the really inconic sounds from Diablo II were used; the rest is brand-new stuff. We kept the “fwip-fwip-fwip” sound when items drop onto the ground, for example; I didn't make that one, I think it was made by either Matt Uelmen or Scott Peterson. We made a brand-new sound effect for gold dropping, but we kept the sound effect that plays when you drain a health well because we thought it was important to let returning players hear some of those classic sounds. But you have to remember that Diablo III is a new game, and we had to update the sound design to reflect that.

Andrea: The same goes for voicework; we brought back the same voice actor for Deckard Cain, but we also brought in a bunch of great new talent to voice all the different player characters. Like I mentioned earlier, Diablo III has the most recorded dialogue of any Blizzard game yet, and I spent a great deal of time working to make all the incidental dialogue great. Not just the male Sorcerer actor, but the guy who voices Random Male Villager #2, all the incidental people you meet in Caldeum, I really wanted to get those recordings right so those people would draw you into the story.

How do you use sound to make different environments feel unique?

Joseph: Well, we mostly let the real world dictate that. There are common elements of a desert or a dungeon that humans will associate with those environments; the desolate tundra of a desert sounds much different than the clanking chains of a dungeon. For a specific example of how we use sound to make different environments feel unique, notice that anytime you're indoors or underground you’ll hear a really lush reverb effect, a special part of our sound design that kicks in to let you know instantly that you’re inside and cut off from the outside world. We did that because I wanted a drastic difference between the two worlds; it makes the act of entering more dramatic and makes you feel like you’re in a different place.

That said, we had to be really careful about what sort of processing effects we used during production. For example, Starcraft II features a sci-fi world and thus we can get away with certain kinds of processing like chorusing or flanging (really specific sound design terms), tricks that we can't use for Diablo III because they stand out too much. For the dark, medieval world of Diablo III we have to stick to elemental sounds, like dirt crunching or fire crackling, the sort of things that exist in the real world that we can produce with minimal processing.

What makes a sound effect satisfying?

J: I think you have to design a sound effect to be as satisfying as an explosion or other visual effect. We play a symbiotic role with the visual designers; they can’t work without us, and we can’t work without them. When we create a sound for a skill, for example, I want players to click that skill over and over because clicking on it looks so great and sounds so good. I want people to break every object in the game because it sounds so satisfying to break things; not because you might find great loot, but because it’s just fun to break things.

I think a sound effect can be satisfying when it provides instant feedback; when you click on something in Diablo III it sounds like you’re actually physically hitting or breaking something with your mouse, and that feels good. If a sound effect doesn’t sound that way, if it takes too long to play or just doesn't sound powerful, that's not satisfying to the player. I don't want that.

Diablo III Sound Interview
A: I agree, and when you suggest that some Diablo III voice actors have gravitas (I did actually suggest this -- Ed.) I think that happens because we work with the actors to figure out how the characters would feel. To make VO satisfying and believable, we had to be cognizant of what was happening across each act and tailor our actors' performances to match the story. As the plot of Diablo III grows deeper and darker, the VO actors had to grow deeper and darker as well.

The gravitas of a character like the Female Monk or Deckard Cain is brought out because we talk to the actors throughout the reocrding process about what’s happeneing to their character in the game. We didn’t want to get a voice actor in and bang out a thousand lines; we actually sit down over tea and talk to the actor about say, the Female Monk, where’s she coming from and what she’s going through. We go over her backstory, where she came from and how she came to Tristram. The more we can flesh these characters out and make them believable, the more the actors are able to flesh these characters out in their performances.

For example, we got to work with the amazing James Hong (known for his work in films like Big Trouble in Little China), who plays the jewler Covetous Shen in Diablo III. He’s quite comical, very quirky and very funny when you first meet him, but by Act 4, he becomes very dark. I think listening to a character adapt to the emotional beats of the game draws you into the world, and that makes playing the game a much more satisfying experience.

What was your favorite thing to work on?

J: I love getting out into the field and recording stuff that I’ll use in-game; it’s the accidental stuff that happens out there, the stuff that we end up bringing back and finding a use for, that's sometimes the most fun. We end up setting stuff on fire, dropping rocks on stuff, that sort of thing, to capture the elemental sound of Diablo.

For example, there was this llama I was recording while he was chewing hay, and he suddenly just spit up all over me and my equipment, covering me with a giant llama loogie. After I finished swearing I went back and listened to the actual cough he made, and it was so great we actually ended up using it for one of the monster effects (I won't tell you which one, you'll have to listen for yourself).

A: I know it's kind of a cheesy answer, but getting the chance to craft really full-bodied characters with 1,200+ lines of dialogue is really rewarding. With 1,200 lines you really have a chance to decide who your characters are, and sometimes you discover hidden parts of a character's personality you didn't expect. Like, while recording combat lines for the male Witch Doctor our voice actor expressed a surprising (and somewhat chilling) love for the enemies he was slaying. We discovered that when he (the Witch Doctor, not the actor) kills zombies and demons, it's not out of bloodlust; it's out of compassion and the desire to send his enemies to a better place.

What would you tell players to keep an ear out for?

J: Throughout the game I’ve sprinkled a lot of stuff for dedicated players that only plays back very rarely. I don’t want to say what those effects are, but they’re mostly environmental stuff; so if you’re standing by a river while searching your inventory, for example, you might hear monsters from a different zone far ahead start yelling to announce their presence. Even if you did hear that, you wouldn't get how cool it was unless you'd played the game before and knew what was coming. We really wanted to support the designer’s credo of replayability, so we built in a lot of little effects that dedicated players should listen for.

A: Talk to everyone! If people take time to click on the incidental characters, there’s all kinds of side stories and little vignettes all over the place for players to discover. Take the time to click on these people, hear their stories; they’ll say different things as the game goes on, and you can learn a lot about the world of Diablo by talking to these incidental characters and poking around in the corners of every level. We put these little touches in on purpose, to help dedicated players really fall in love with the world.

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