Congratulations! You are building a great game, and you’ve decided to enter it into an Indie Prize competition! While you apply, it’s important to remember that in some competitions, you’ll be one of hundreds of games that will be evaluated by judges at the beginning of the contest, and your goal is to be noticed, stand out, and reduce any friction between the judges and playing your game.
There’s no doubt that the mobile games market is growing—even before the debut of Pokemon Go. Not only are more people playing on smartphones and tablets, but they’re dedicating increasingly more time and money as well. To grab a bigger share of this growth, developers and publishers need to target the right consumers with the right content. The first step in achieving this insight is understanding the past and future landscape of the mobile games space by addressing two core questions: Where is this growth coming from? and Where will growth come from next?
With these questions in mind, Nielsen Games recently analyzed its data on mobile gamers and their thoughts on hundreds of the top mobile games to provide industry-level insight into growth patterns. Manager Julia Valchanova and Senior Analyst Ian O’Neil share the learnings.
“It was called Japan Life”, says Kristen Rutherford, as if remembering a former lover. She’s slightly embarrassed and a little wistful, but she has decided to confess: “I loved this game.”
Kristen is a TV producer and a writer and so she is articulate. This is part of the reason we invited her to Casual Connect San Francisco. She is also a mom. But the main reason we asked her along is she that she plays games. She plays a lot of games.
As evidenced at the recent Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in Las Vegas, the fast-growing, highly lucrative global gaming industry continues to expand and evolve, with tremendous creativity on display at every turn.
As our VP of business development Ben Brown observed after his inspiring experience at this major industry expo, “The place was buzzing with so many creative developers! Gameplay, sound, and visuals are all being pushed to the limit and the casino experience is becoming more competitive and exciting with all these new games.” Ben enthusiastically reported that there were signs of “innovation everywhere”, reflecting trends such as binaural sound speakers, more sophisticated game mechanics and advances in game screens.
Taking it a Step Further
One of the great highlights was connected to one of our longtime partners, GTECH, who introduced a re-imagined version of the mega-hit franchise Bejeweled as a 3D casino experience. Our creative team had worked on the sound design and music for the original mobile game, so we were particularly excited about this latest invention.
GTECH Senior Game Producer Peter Post comments that “so far, the game has been presented to focus groups and the industry, and the reaction has been very positive. Everyone for whom I’ve demoed it consistently comes up with the same word: ‘Wow.’ There are so many fans of the (Bejeweled) brand that it’s hard not to be attracted to it when it’s in real-time 3D that doesn’t need clunky glasses.”
When asked what it was like re-imagining this highly popular game with 3D graphics and sound, Peter says, “Our favorite brands are always the ones that have a natural gaming mechanic built in because it makes it so much easier to translate to the casino world, and Bejeweled fits the bill perfectly. The license has so much to work with when it comes to assets, yet there’s so much that’s yet to be explored. No one had ever gone inside the famous Bejeweled castle, for instance. The resulting visuals and audio are completely new, yet fit well into the Bejeweled narrative. PopCap®, which owns the license to Bejeweled, was totally cool with us experimenting with things like that.”
Immersed in Sound
As part of the game’s special features, the speaker set-up in the machine is noteworthy. Peter explains, “the box has two smaller speakers in front facing the player at head-level, then two more behind the player embedded in the chair. We also have a larger woofer in the base of the machine, as well as a rumble pack in the chair. We mix everything in 7.1 surround, so we have control over what goes where. It really helps us enhance the 3D nature of the visuals. Unlike most 3D gaming, which players usually experience with handhelds, we can really complete the audiovisual experience by having sound come from behind you or move past you. The rumble helps us emphasize features, too, but like any new effect, we have to be careful not to overuse it.”
The Bejeweled™ 3D machine is truly immersive from both a sound and a visual experience—serving as a shining example of how advances in technology and creativity can bring multi-sensory effects to deliver a more engrossing gameplay experience. And working with a beloved brand such as Bejeweled, it’s a BIG win.
Given the phenomenal growth of the overall gaming industry, and particularly the social casino games sector, we’re fascinated by the new opportunities to raise the bar on sound and music for the next generation of casino games. In a future column, we’ll look at the keys to making casino games sound great across multiple platforms, including mobile, online, and hardware-based slot machines.
Look forward to finding out more in the next Game Audio Artistry article!
Adam Levenson‘s career has evolved from performing as a classically trained percussionist to overseeing the busy operations of SomaTone’s creative teams in Emeryville and Vancouver while focusing on leading the company’s growth and expansion into new arenas in his latest role as the COO of SomaTone Interactive. In this latest Game Audio Artistry article, Adam and other members of SomaTone talk about using sound to improve a game.
Great games have great audio. Developers who focus and execute on high quality and attention to detail know that audio adds high production value to the overall experience for a relatively low cost. With a plethora of choices flooding the digital marketplace, great game sound is that “secret sauce” that can make mobile games and apps stand out.
Well-conceived and expertly executed game audio contributes mightily toward delivering an immersive and engaging experience that can feel much bigger than the small mobile device nestled in a player’s hands. The name of the game for us as creative partners is to focus on effectively creating and incorporating original music, sound design, and VO into the mobile experience so that players keep coming back for more.
To this end, here’s what some members of SomaTone’s creative team have to say about using sound to make great games.
1.Understand the importance of game sound, and treat audio production NOT as something that comes last in the pipeline, but rather an important component of game design that should be thought out creatively and technically from the inception of your game.
—Eric Van Amerongen, Senior Sound Designer
2. Establish a clear idea of what the creative style and aesthetic of the audio should be and define important delivery milestones.
—Ollie Glatzer, Audio Producer
3. Pay attention to detail and keeping that in line with an overall, inspired vision.
—Michael Bross, Chief Creative Officer
4. Creative and effective integration – You can have the greatest SFX on the planet, but if they’re not playing back correctly, or mixed just right, the audio experience won’t be good.
—Ben Gabaldon, Sr. Sound Designer
5. Passion! Pre Production! Strive for a cohesive, focused audio experience. The audio should be engaging and captivate the players to want more.
—Ben Brown, VP Business Development
Sound and music truly make visual entertainment come alive. Fun, memorable moments that we experience when playing our favorite games are often tied to a great character line, or a catchy melody, or a sound effect that thrills. Savvy game makers know this, and whether the project is a new slots game or a point-and-click survival horror game, smart developers use sound and music to deliver more entertainment value to the audience.
Adam Levenson‘s career has evolved from performing as a classically trained percussionist, then serving as a composer and sound designer in the burgeoning multimedia industry in the early 90’s—“before anyone knew what a video game sound designer even was,” as he put it—followed by sound and music director positions at Interplay, Electronic Arts, and Shiny Entertainment. During his tenure as Senior Director at Activision from 2006 – 2011, Adam established and managed both the Central Audio and Central Talent teams supporting work on major franchises. In 2011, he launched Levenson Artists Agency, providing representation to clients such as celebrity composers Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe. Now, Adam oversees the busy operations of SomaTone’s creative teams in Emeryville and Vancouver while focusing on leading the company’s growth and expansion into new arenas in his latest role as the COO of SomaTone Interactive.
In this latest Game Audio Artistry article, Adam examines how new sensorial technologies can take the immersive gameplay experience to heightened and even more engaging levels of player fascination and enjoyment.
Immersification noun \i-ˈmərs-ə-fə-ˈkā-shən\: the process of creating enhanced involvement in a particular activity
In 1974, the blockbuster disaster film Earthquake wowed movie theater audiences with Sensurround effects. Low frequency sounds were pumped through big Cerwin-Vega subwoofers that sent vibrations through the seats during the film’s tremor scenes. It physically involved theatergoers in the drama and, like an amusement park ride, the result was thrilling. In some theaters, Sensurround effects sent pieces of ceiling plaster falling into the audience and shook seats in neighboring theaters showing The Godfather Part II. Sensurround was audience immersion on an epic scale, a bold experiment in producing a multi-sensorial experience.
Now, 40 years later, consumers of mobile interactive entertainment are also seeking deeper engagement. Giant leaps in display technology have provided intensely vivid visual experiences, but humans have five senses, and with the advent of sophisticated digital devices with built-in functionality to stimulate those sensations, it’s now up to content creators to take full advantage and rock audiences in their virtual theater seats.
The Apple iPad Air features dual microphones, Amazon’s Fire Phone sports dynamic perspective, and Samsung Galaxy smartphones include tactile feedback. These are just a few of the offerings in the development of recent mobile technologies that provide sensory engagement. Although both smell and taste are primary and essential senses, there isn’t much being done with olfactory and gustatory digital transmissions (putting experiments such as Smell-O-Vision and Nokia’s Scentsory Phone aside). Maybe that’s OK. But entertainment technologies and content designed to stimulate hearing and touch are engaging consumers, and a resurgence of virtual reality points to a trend towards greater immersification.
Dolby has always been at the leading edge of sound technologies that improve sound quality and envelope the listener. Even on smartphones, Dolby Digital Plus delivers virtualized surround sound through headphones or even with built-in mobile device speakers. This opens the door for app and video game developers to provide a more engaging experience. Realizing the potential means being creative with music and sound implementation. That starts with developing rich audio environments, including layers of ambient sound, music, voice performances, and specific sound effects to make all the game mechanics come to life.
Despite recent advances, music in games generally plays in a linear manner, just like it did when Edison invented the phonograph cylinder in the 19th century. Amazingly, visionaries in music technology have been working on concepts in “real-time composition” since the 90’s. It has been called many names like computational music and algorithmic composition, and much of this research has been academic. With vastly increased processing power, new devices may soon present an opportunity to implement fully responsive music. Music adds an emotional dimension that makes us laugh out loud at funny scenes, jump out of our seats when surprised, or get choked up during sad dialog. How much more immersive would a Star Wars game experience be if the score could build and sting with each dramatic Jedi lightsaber hit?
On one hand, the virtuality of new smartphone and tablet interfaces promotes a whole new physical language of gestures. We can push, swipe, sweep, and slide. But on the other hand, we lose the satisfaction of getting real world physical feedback when we perform the gesture. We type, press buttons, turn pages, move objects, throw switches, but for the most part, we don’t feel anything. In our mobile entertainment, explosions, cars racing by, or feats of strength that we experience visually lack any sense of physicality. Haptics technology changes all of that. Haptic effects are touch or tactile feedback events produced by actuators (a kind of motor) integrated into our devices. Video game console controllers have used haptic type feedback, or rumble effects, for years. But with newer technologies from companies like Immersion, users feel customized force or resistance as they perform virtual activities. Sensing the impact of a soccer ball kick, the recoil of a gun, or the mechanical click of a button push brings the experience to life, providing a deep level of immersification.
Although VR still calls to mind images of disoriented people at 90’s tech conferences stumbling around in bulky headsets, advances in virtual reality technology have reinvigorated consumer interest. Earlier this year, Facebook acquired innovators Oculus VR for $2 billion – imagine simulated social networking, and the motivation for the acquisition becomes clear. By combining high-resolution imagery with high fidelity sound and haptics feedback, VR has the potential to offer practically total immersion. The potential applications for VR range from therapeutic uses, to military training, to entertainment media, and beyond. Although VR doesn’t currently have the portability and accessibility of more mobile technologies, the renewed interest and innovation in the field do reflect growing consumer demand for immersification of our digital experiences.
Contemporary immersion relies on rich creative content like engaging stories, great music, impactful sound, and believable physics. Developers and publishers that incorporate those elements into their entertainment media have already taken the first step towards immersion. New technologies allow for the completed, multi-sensorial experience without the inconvenience of falling ceiling plaster.
The thrilling part is, it all just keeps getting more and more immersive.
Our Creative Audit process was spawned through our involvement with Chartboost University, which brings in eight of the most talented Indie developers from across the globe, with the philanthropic goal of helping these devs learn and grown in a mentorship environment.
SomaTone’s role was to serve as the creative auditor of the audio in these games, and to provide an expert perspective on the tech, creative, and overall experience of the audio within these games—and to do so with zero bias. The response from the indie community at CBU was a combination of gratitude, excitement, and relief that there were creative experts, with hundreds of games to their credit, who could evaluate and constructively critique the quality of this aspect of their games. Questions were answered and the end result was a clear understanding of the “temperatures” of their current audio, with a clear road map on what could and should be done to bring their game from passable to excellent.
Not Only For Indies
It turns out that it is not just the indie community who finds this service useful. In fact, indies arguably have a more advanced sense of how to approach audio in games and what sounds good, what tech to use, and how to make their game sound like an excellent product. Established mobile game developers and publishers have also found that the Creative Audit provides them with an invaluable opportunity to gain a critical, objective perspective on the relatively subjective world of game creativity (including design, art, and audio).
While it’s always helpful to get feedback and fresh eyes and ears on any project at various stages of development, gathering input, insights, and ideas from experts and specialists can make a big difference toward enhancing a game. So here are five key reasons why all game makers should seek out a Creative Audit for their games at some point along the way:
5 Reasons for a Creative Audit
1. The Creative Audit leverages the experience of experts. No single game designer or producer can be an expert an all aspects of game production. While some experience may lean more towards visual design, others have an audio background, and some specialize in analytics. We’re in an age when specialists, not generalists, are key players in the fine-tuning process. Experts often have a highly focused set of expertise, so there is wisdom and benefit derived from seeking creative assessments from a range of seasoned and skilled industry pros representing different disciplines.
2. It’s all in the polish, and a Creative Audit takes you there. Candy Crush is one of the most polished games I have ever seen in the mobile games space. All aspects of the art, programming, design, and even audio have been scrutinized with granular precision. In today’s crowded and highly competitive gaming ecosystem, there is no room for a marginal or even just good product. It must be excellent. The Creative Audit offers an opportunity to bring a product to the next level by offering qualitative assessments that spring from solid experience and expertise, coupled with actionable recommendations for improving and further polishing a game.
3. Even experts need an outside perspective. Even if you have hired the most talented art director, composer, artists, level designer, (whatever), there is simply a human limitation to what comes with an inside-only perspective. After 6-12 months of looking at only one product, and doing so intensively, it is practically impossible to avoid tunnel vision. By giving fresh perspective, a creative audit can do a lot to re-inspire and re-invigorate a game and identify key opportunities that may have been missed by those so intimately (and exhaustively) familiar with the game. Different minds see things differently, and these kinds of divergent viewpoints can really enhance the creative levels of a game, often in unexpected ways.
4. Asking the right questions leads to interesting answers. It takes a level of humility to admit that we cannot know what we don’t know. It can be vexing to attempt to evaluate a game’s creativity level without knowing the essential questions to pose in this analytical process. When the right questions are asked, some interesting answers and realizations can be unearthed that will amp up the degree of originality and excellence in a game.
5. No harm, no foul. A Creative Audit is a free, or at most, a very inexpensive way to benefit from an outside perspective from a team of experts. This process can serve as the catalyst for key tweaks, improvements, and embellishments to correct aspects of a game that need some work and catapult good games to a higher level of creative excellence.
Asking questions is widely considered to be the single most important habit of innovative thinkers, so naturally the Creative Audit process is bound to lead to higher levels of creativity and innovation within a game. What do you think?
Check back next month for the next Game Audio Artistry article!
Video game industry veteran, Nick Thomas, and CEO/Co-Founder of SomaTone, Inc., has been through 10 years of creative kick-off meetings, both productive and unproductive. In this month’s Game Audio Artistry column, Nick highlights 10 tips to make the most out of your creative meetings.
One of the most daunting stages in the collaborative process relates to how and where to start with the creative and logistical partnership with a game developer or publisher.
Approaching a new game or, even more so, jumping in on a live product, can sometimes be an overwhelming experience. We have participated in more than a few meetings with game developers, producers, game designers, programmers, and creative directors wherein time was spent in discussions, but at the end of the call, we are no closer to understanding what is needed, or what the vision for the game is. This phenomenon birthed an approach for us that works well for all stakeholders in the project.
Developing a Process
Over the years, we have developed a tried-and-true process in which we lead these creative meetings and drive the conversation forward to a successful launching point for the collaboration— rather then squandering that key opportunity to drill down and get to the core of what is needed. We seize the moment at the outset to ask the key questions, explore the possibilities, and develop ideas that will help us realize the vision.
To this end, here is the SomaTone process for leading a creative kick-off meeting, along with key questions and discussion points that are often forgotten, but should be standard in nearly any creative partnership. These suggestions are outside of the obvious discussions on the scope, technical requirements, and timeline for the partnership, which are (of course) necessary details, but they do little to define the goals for the game or the vision of the game designers and producers.
Creative Kick-Off Playbook
1. No Surprises: It is amazing how rarely meeting agendas or creative summaries are provided from our clients prior to a meeting. So our standard practice is to take the time internally before the kick-off and create a list of all the key questions that need to be addressed in the meeting (many of which I will share with you below). Simply laying these key discussion points out in a format that is easy to edit or notate is a very helpful exercise, and provides structure and clarity to a meeting which can otherwise often feel loose and sloppy. Better yet, send these questions to the meeting partners in advance so they can prepare answers prior to meeting, and not be caught off guard and left thinking on their feet.
2. Creative Mind-Meld: The kick-off meeting is the best opportunity for a creative mind-meld. Getting inside the developer’s head and establishing the baseline for a collaboration are key to a successful outcome. Having access to and reviewing the GDD, concept art, or, best yet, prototype of the game build itself are highly important to clearly understand the vision of a game. Ask for these materials before the meeting, not after, so all questions can be understood inside a clear picture of where the project is heading, not on guess work and assumptions.
3. Use Existing Samples in Your Discussions and Don’t Forget the Love-Child: Looking to existing games, mechanics, art, animations, and musical scores is a great way to help frame a creative discussion. This is often confused as a process of cloning, which is quite different. It is amazing how often Candy Crush is referenced in a creative meeting (or Hay Day or other hit mobile games). However, 9 times out of 10, these titles are not referenced in an attempt to replicate the creative style, but rather to point to other aspects of the game, such as the mechanics or production values. To say I like ___ aspect of Candy Crush really helps communicate the vision without asking for the aspect of said game to be copied. Another tried-and-true method is the love-child analogy. “I’m looking for Clash of Clans meets World of Tanks” is a very helpful way to communicate the game style, mechanics, and production values, and gives us a very clear idea of where the project is headed.
4. Get the Vision: Who is the visionary of the project, or do they have a “vision” for the gestalt of the game? Often times, we find this is a role that developers are looking to outsource, while their primary concern is on the mechanics and technical execution of the game design. The exact look, feel, or sound of the game is generally a 50/50 split between the internal game producers and designers knowing what they want, or asking for outside assistance and leadership in helping to define the vision. Either way can lead to a successful outcome, but it is best to specifically address this early in the process so if a vision is not being provided, we can create one.
5. Know your Audience: Who is the audience? Sooner or later, all game developers learn that making music/SFX/art for an ultra-wide demographic means you make no one very happy. While it is tempting to say I want 5-80 year-olds to like my game, the reality is that this strategy is rarely successful, and if so, it’s often by mistake rather then by design. So, defining the demographic you are appealing to is key to the approach taken. A Pokémon-style card game is quite different from a slot machine in its demographics, and the creative conversation should leverage that key point, not hide from it.
6. Identify the Game’s “Wow” Moments: What are the key moments of the game? Game design and audio/visual supporting elements often have wow moments, or payoffs for the player at key times within the game play. These can be moments such as level up or quest complete, or are used to support other Free-to-Play elements to encourage the player to pay for features. These key moments are great to identify, so they can be given special attention and help brand the game. Internally, we call these “signature sounds”, which are the key branded SFX in a game that help brand the experience.
7. Factor in Time Expectations: What is the time play-length expectation? Is the game designed to support long play sessions, such as an RTS, or are they usually short and dynamic play sessions, such as Casino? Again, understanding the tempo of the game helps define how to support the game play sessions with impactful or more subtle audio. Long sessions, for example, call for more ambient, less thematic music that is not intrusive, with subtle sound design. Short game play sessions, such as in casino games, tend to really pop.
8. Think Ahead: What is the plan for new content support? Setting up a pipeline for new content is helpful to discuss up front, while still in the pre-launch production mode. Many game designers have not thought much beyond just hitting a code lock version of their games and successfully launching on the app store. An important comment I have heard many times is: “releasing a game is the easy part, growing your audience and supporting the live product is the real challenge.” Assuming this is the case, creating a plan for ongoing support is a good idea to discuss so all parties know how best to support the game post-launch.
9. Identify the Lead: Who is the ____ Lead, (in our case audio lead)? In AAA/Console gaming, there is almost always an internal lead who is tasked with managing the creative pipeline for whatever is required, such as audio. However, in many small studios, and even in larger mobile publishers, there is often no dedicated person assigned to the audio, or even the art. Many mobile producers wear many hats and as such, they are responsible for overseeing a variety of the creative aspects of the game.
10. Find the Fun: What makes this game fun? That is a tough question to ask flat out— it’s almost like asking on a first date why you should spend your time with someone— but ultimately, that’s what we are all trying to figure out. If you can navigate that key question, and help the game developer identify what is inherently “fun” about their game, that can often be the building block for the vision of the entire collaboration.
Admittedly, this is not such an easy task. As a self-professed Candy Crusher, I have a very hard time communicating exactly why that game is, in fact, so much fun.
However, when I stop and think about it, I realize that the fun is not just the matching of items (after all, there are hundreds of games that do that); the fun has to do with the overall creative experience of the game, with its delightful glossy candies, trippy dreamlike music, and the saga aspect of the game, which compels my curiosity to need to know what is behind curtain #348.
Exploring these fundamental questions and ideas at the beginning of the collaborative journey assures that the process will lead to the best possible outcomes and rewards for all.
Look forward to next month’s installment, when Game Audio Artistry will share lessons learned from an indie collaboration.
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!
Nick Thomas, CEO and Co-Founder of SomaTone, Inc., is a video games industry veteran and thought leader with 10+ years of proven executive leadership results with a focus on developing strategic industry partnerships, innovating creative outsourcing solutions and managing talented teams that contribute to more than 100 games annually from nearly all major publishers and developers, as well as independent developers. He discusses the transformation occurring in the industry in this article.
It’s happening again, right before our eyes; we’re in the midst of yet another era of redefinition and reinvention in the ever-evolving gaming industry. While the landscape is changing dramatically, history shows us that something new and good will invariably emerge. After all, (and despite many attempts), you cannot own or control creativity, or predict the future of gaming.
We at SomaTone are ten years deep as a leading provider of creative content for mobile, social, and casual games, working at the forefront of gaming over the last decade’s explosive growth. Having produced audio content on hundreds of games for many of the top publishers as well as for the indies, our vantage point gives us a sweeping perspective across the landscape of the games industry– from AAA console games, to MMO’s, to Social/Mobile, to Casual, and beyond.
We’re seeing the cyclical pendulum swing of innovation, homogenization, and reinvention continuing to keep the publishers of gaming content guessing as the smaller, faster, and more creative start-ups are yet again redefining the gaming industry.
The Ripple Effects of Converting Players into Users in Mobile Gaming
Casual games continue to go through a familiar pattern, and we are currently emerging from a decline of the smaller “Mom and Pop” game developers, who have been squeezed out by the realities of mobile publishing and the dominance of Free-to-Play (F2P) games. This economic model has sought to systematically convert game “users” into a currency that has been hoarded, sold, and traded in an effort to control access to “game players.”
As a consequence, the industry was stratified into large game publishers–who controlled the access to “users” and thus the majority of the market–and new start-ups and Indies, who were either being gobbled up by these same publishers, or self-publishing and hoping for a Flappy Bird-style anomalous hit.
The middle-class of game development–studios of 20-50 working on games that were sold via standard pay-to-play standards with supportive publishing partners–has suffered. With limited access to users, who are carefully controlled by game publishers, it was nearly impossible for mid-sized independent game developers to make and sell their own games and support their teams. The result was a polarized and stratified industry in which a small fraction of game publishers own the vast majority of market, making it extremely difficult for small game developers to independently make and sell their games without yielding to the requirements of the publishers, who will own the IP, take the lion’s share of the revenue, with no clear obligation to bring “users” to their game.
Now while all publisher models attempt to control access and distribution to customers (this is in fact what publishers are supposed to do), there is a dramatic new variable at play, with the F2P economy. This “race to the bottom” business model, which has led to disruptive game-play mechanics designed to extract fees from “users”, in their efforts to enjoy a fully featured game-play experience and be “players”, is highly dependent on publishers’ access to users, and their ability to monetize these users. Those “old school” game designers, who sought to develop great games, that offered fully featured immersive game-play experiences at the outrageously expensive price of $.99, never stood a chance against “free” games, which are developed by game publishers and promoted to their “users”, requiring players to pay for the features included in a 1-dollar competing title.
This Latest Cycle Will Induce a Painful Rebirth
This cycle of innovation, homogenization and reinvention is not a new trend. We have seen this same cycle in gaming in the past, with Big Fish Games‘ consolidation of the PC Downloadable market and subsequently, Zynga‘s dominance of browser-based Facebook, and in both cases, there was a painful rebirth of the industry. Those fastest to adapt to the new ecosystems survived, and those who could not evolve, died away.
However, it is also true that every time the industry has homogenized itself by the few having control of the many, a new era of gaming has invented itself. Just after Big Fish unequivocally took control of PC downloadable, Facebook came along and completely disrupted their reign. A few short years later, the kings of Facebook (Zynga, Playdom, Wooga) have been dethroned, only to be replaced by the current leaders of the mobile industry. With each successive attempt to control and “own” the industry, new life has begun.
This reminds me of Jurassic Park. Life finds a way. In this case, creativity finds a way, and despite the attempts of the current reign of publishers to own and control this inherently creative marketplace, they are discovering, just as all others before them have, that you cannot control game players or “own” creativity.
A new era is currently percolating under the thin crust of the mobile/casual games ecosystem, and by my observations, we are onto a new dawn of gaming. One in which King.com, and Kabam, or perhaps even the Apple Store and Google Play store, will soon find themselves trying to catch up, and wondering what happened as the world they felt so sure of has shifted beneath their feet.
“Mom and Pop” developers, take heart. The pendulum swings both ways. And from our vantage point, which reaches from the largest publishers to the smallest indies, the playing field is leveling.
2014 will be a year of reorganization and consolidation, as the bubble of Mobile/Social games refocuses its efforts, and quality will retake its place as the leading factor in a company’s success, rather than simply a publisher’s control of access to users. And developing innovative and high-quality games has always been what the “Mom and Pop” game studios have done best and are continuing to do.
Look forward to the next installment of this series next month, a case study on Zynga’s Puzzle Charms!