DRIVER: PARALLEL LINES drew some criticism from reviewers for its inconsistent audio.
THERE IS A MYSTERIOUS REALM THAT every game must travel through on its way into the hands of the consumer: the video game press. There’s no denying the immense impact that reviews can have on shaping public opinion and influencing sales, and there’s a huge gap between the development team and the consumer’s living room sofa. Yet, as important as great reviews are to our collective bottom lines, most game developers know little—if anything— about the enigmatic processes that go into shaping a game’s final review scores.
Guiding us through this alien world will be Jeff Gerstmann, senior editor of GameSpot.com, and Peer Schneider, vice president of content publishing for IGN.com.
A QUESTION OF FIT
To begin, I asked our insiders how much time is typically devoted to evaluating a game’s audio. Both admit that audio rarely gets singled out during the review process. According to Schneider, “A trained reviewer listens to the audio the entire time while he plays through the game, and constantly notes what he likes and what he dislikes.” Gerstmann agrees, saying, “We’re really concerned with how the audio fits into the complete package, rather than taking the audio out of context.”
This concept of audio “fitting” is a common theme when talking about the process of reviews. For Gerstmann at GameSpot, reviewing audio is about “trying to start with as few preconceived notions as possible. When it comes to audio, I’m usually looking for sounds that fit the action. If they fit, are they used properly?” IGN’s approach is similar. “While a lot of games strive for authenticity, we’re also looking for originality in sound design and how well the sound effects match the actual game.”
Frequently, audio is judged on how well it fits within its given genre or alongside preceding titles in the same franchise. GameSpot has “reviewers that tend to specialize in a handful of genres,” says Gerstmann. “As such, that person is usually also familiar with the previous games in a series already.”
For Schneider, “How a sequel stacks up to its predecessor is an integral part of all our reviews. If a game is known for its grand score or amazing surround sound and the sequel doesn’t live up to those high marks, then we’ll note that.”
Speaking of grand scores, it’s a question of fit regarding a game’s soundtrack as well. “As for music, some of the same stuff applies,” says Gerstmann. “Music that loops too frequently tends to get annoying very quickly. Licensed music that doesn’t fit with the action just sucks. Ideally, music should be a cohesive part of the game, not another revenue stream.”
With so much riding on the reviewers’ subjective perceptions of the audio, the importance of aural presentation becomes paramount. As such, I asked our two media outlets to describe the environments in which our work is being heard. As it turns out, both companies have surround sound systems they use for evaluations.
At IGN, “reviewers have access to a Dolby-certified demo room loaded with consoles, PCs and a 16-player LAN room. A Denon receiver and a Klipsch 7.1 ‘Reference’ speaker setup to ensure that the reviewers get to hear the games’ full audio potential,” says Schneider. This is likely not used to review every game, though. At GameSpot, reviewers have “TVs with basic stereo speakers as well as a 5.1 setup that we can use for games that support it. It’s nothing terribly fancy.”
For both outlets, this was a primary concern. “We tend to find that the average game player doesn’t have the best TV or sound setup in the world,” says Gerstmann. “We’re attempting to mirror their experience.”
Schneider concurs. “Editors spend considerable time playing and evaluating games on smaller screens and via headphones. We take the actual player into account when reviewing audio.”
Inevitably, it all comes down to the final score. So what separates a 7 from a 10? Again, both organizations had similar ideas.
“An audio score of 7 would apply to games that have competent audio with some obvious flaws,” explains Schneider. “These flaws could include boring compositions, issues with voice acting, mismatched or delayed sound effects, or crackling audio. A 9 gets you into ‘fantastic’ territory. Things really have to come together for the high scores. Any game getting a 10 in the audio department nails all aspects of the package. The audio presentation would have to be technically proficient as well as perfectly match the gaming experience.”
Gerstmann adds, “Fidelity also comes into play. As a recent example, DRIVER: PARALLEL LINES uses pre-rendered cutscenes, but also has in-mission dialogue. In the cutscenes, the speech is crisp and clear. In-mission, it sounds grainy and lo-fi like, as if they dropped 8-bit 22KHz samples in there. That’s probably an exaggeration, but the dramatic difference in audio quality becomes quite glaring over the course of the game.”
In the end, “there’s no mathematical formula for figuring this stuff out,” says Gerstmann. “It’s really a matter of weighing the good against the not-so- good and figuring out where it falls.”