Matt Bruun is the Studio Director at SomaTone Interactive. He has worked on hundreds of games, including some of the most successful titles in social and mobile gaming. He shares his ideas on polishing casual game audio in this next installment of the Game Audio Artistry series.
The Circle of Development Trends
Casual and mobile game development tends to be cyclical, with a big hit game leading developers to create games with similar themes and gameplay. In the early and mid-2000’s, we worked on a lot of Match-3 style games that followed in the wake of the success of titles like Bejeweled and Zuma. Then came a period of games with a Time Management theme, riding a wave of popularity that likely had a lot to do with the success of the Diner Dash series from Playfirst. After that came a long run of Hidden Object games that were successful in both the downloadable market and in mobile. Now the Match-3 is back, with quite a few popular titles available in the App Store, and many more in development.
With any Match-3 game, it is not especially difficult to create serviceable audio that covers the basic events in the game. However, simply adequate sound design in this type of game is not enough to make a gameplay experience that stands out from the crowd of other similar titles. While the sound design and music composition must be the highest quality, of course, it’s just as important that the sounds and music are created from the ground up, with the goal of having these elements work seamlessly and smoothly together. Then, there needs to be excellent communication and coordination between the individual(s) who will be implementing the assets into the game and the audio lead who oversaw the creation of them.
Creating Great Music
On a title in the Match-3 genre with a major publisher last year, we were able to partner with a great composer whom we hadn’t had the chance to work with before, Grant Kirkhope. From the start, we designed our sound effects to work seamlessly with the score that he would be creating, and made sure there was a cohesive overall plan for how the pieces would fit together. I really like what Grant came up with, and it was a lot of fun to create sound design around that music. His score is simultaneously melodic and engaging, while not being distracting or fatiguing if heard on a loop while playing a longer level. This combination is what makes for great casual game music.
For this project, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the development team in Seattle for a few days to assist in the implementation of the assets, once production on our end was complete. This is a luxury that time in a developer’s schedule does not always allow for, but we take the opportunity to conduct on-site work whenever possible, as the polish at that stage of implementation can make a huge difference in the final product.
Simple Steps Lead to Great Results
Until recently, most casual and mobile game developers would have considered audio middleware tools such as Wwise to be out of reach for the budget in a game of this type. Audio Kinetic, the makers of Wwise, have changed that. They now offer a pricing structure that accommodates developers who are producing games with modest budgets (more details on this can be found in this blog post from SomaTone Executive Director Michael Bross). With middleware in place, the audio team is then free to make all of the many small adjustments that are needed to get a polished result. Even without the use of a great tool like Wwise, good coordination between the audio team and the person doing the implementing can assure a good final product.
For example, at the end of a level in this particular game, there is a bonus sequence that takes over, making matches for you and adding to your score. The length of this sequence depends on the number of moves that you have left when you beat the level. At first, we had the gameplay music loop just continuing during the sequence, but for the player, it was a little confusing. The gameplay music was still playing, but the mouse would no longer respond to input, because the sequence was automated at that point. So we created a second loop just for this sequence, and then a music sting for the score count-up screen that appears as that sequence ends. Once these were implemented with smooth crossfades and sound effects to help cover the transitions between them, the problem of confusion about the automated sequence was solved. The “level complete” experience in general was much improved. These are simple changes to make – a crossfade here, a fade there, adding a sound effect to cover and smooth a transition, etc. – but they go a long way in making a polished game. It’s these many small, simple steps that add up to a quality result.
Balancing Sounds and Music for the Most Polished Effect
The overall mix between the different audio assets (the music, sound effects, and voice effects) is critical. We often need to have audio implemented into the games we work on without being able to go on-site with the developer. In these cases, providing the assets already mixed and ready to drop in the game is helpful. Getting a good balance between the sounds and the music before sending it out is the goal. Our usual process involves us making detailed video captures that demonstrate the way that the sounds and music are meant to work once properly implemented into the game, so that the person handling the integration can refer to them, sure of what was intended by the sound design team. Having the audio lead involved closely at this stage with the person doing the implementation is the difference between an average audio experience in a game, and something polished and compelling.
Knowing how much there can be on the game development team’s plate, it’s understandable to us that there is a temptation to have some of these audio implementation details made lower in priority. This is especially true at the end of a production cycle leading up to a release, which is usually when the audio team is most critically involved in the project. Considering the huge improvement in the overall experience for the player, it’s well worth the effort!
Next month’s installment will explore the role of game audio and discuss the creative journey, so look forward to it!