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.
Video game industry veteran, Nick Thomas, and CEO/Co-Founder of SomaTone, Inc., has been through 10years 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.
Getting inside the developer’s head and establishing the baseline for a collaboration are key to a successful outcome.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Every time the industry has homogenized itself by the few having control of the many, a new era of gaming has invented itself.”
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.
“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.”
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!