DOES IT SOUND NEXT-GEN? – Jesse Harlin (February 2007)

FEW TERMS CARRY MORE WEIGHT IN THE industry now than “next-gen.” From the Wii to GEARS OF WAR’s cover mechanics, developers and consumers alike are trying to figure out what that word means. However, before audio professionals can delve into the finer points of surround mixing or user-driven content, there are still unresolved issues from the current generation of home consoles that need to be addressed.

ROBUST VARIATION

Disk space is no longer an issue on home consoles. The only things standing between diverse audio and two-footstep characters are old habits and narrow aesthetics. As games became bigger, current-gen audio strove to cover this wider game arena. The results were often little more than a sketch.

Next-gen audio should now strive to fill in the canvas. The solution is simple. If the player will hear the sound frequently, there should be five to ten randomized versions so as prevent fatigue. Real worlds are rich with variation. Ours should be, too.

OCCLUSION

It’s happened to every gamer. Their character enters a new area. There’s no map. The character’s radar malfunctions. The power has been cut, and surprises lurk in the shadows. Regardless of the visual mood, a lack of occlusion means that they can hear the signature vocalizations and foley sounds for each enemy around every corner and know exactly what to expect next.

At that moment, the lack of occlusion has completely destroyed all drama, tension, and anticipation that the level designers and environmental artists have painstakingly worked to create. To lack occlusion is to undercut the efforts of the other game designers.

DYNAMIC LOADING

There’s nothing immersive about a loading bar. While dynamic loading is a battle that must be planned for and waged across all disciplines, it’s the responsibility of the audio lead to initially request dynamic loading of audio assets.

With the launch titles on the new consoles, it’s clear that “next-gen gaming” means little more right now than prettier graphics. Eventually this will expand to all disciplines, as greater immersion is inevitable throughout the next console cycle. The ability to load and unload sounds only when needed will be vital for audio. Smarter memory management should be one of the primary goals of all audio tech moving forward.

REAL-TIME DSP

Much like occlusion, robust digital signal processing (DSP) systems speak directly to the heart of immersion. DSP effects like filtering and reverb place our sounds in the spaces the characters inhabit. Unfortunately, with surprising frequency, real-time DSP is a casualty of poor planning, poor technology, or both. Foley in outside spaces should sound different from the same foley files played inside interior spaces. If characters are grunting and groaning inside a cave, their utterances should be processed with a cavernous reverb (I’m looking at you, FINAL FANTASY XII).

ABANDONING CHIPSET MIDI

You only have to look as far as GameSpot’s review of THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: TWILIGHT PRINCESS to see that chipset MIDI scores aren’t going to pass muster with the gaming press in the next-gen age—and rightfully so. Enough game scores over the last console cycle ditched old technology and embraced digital recordings that gamers’ tastes have largely evolved.

Consumers have come to expect their epic games to have epic orchestras. It might be excusable if every game using chipset MIDI were doing so because it used an extremely interactive music system that digital recordings can’t achieve ... They’re not, though.

INTERACTIVE MUSIC

Interactive music made strides over the last round of consoles. Unfortunately, thousands of new games come out each year, only a fraction of which have interactive scores. The majority of games still have “trigger and forget” loops tied to in-game locations. This fatiguing approach leads many players to turn music off in their options menus. What’s worse, it’s led to Microsoft’s insistence that music in every Xbox 360 game be replaceable with the user’s own music files. This should be seen as a great failing on our parts as game composers. We can make music systems that don’t fatigue users. The goal of all game sound should be to become as integral to the gameplay experience as maps, NPC objectives, and weapon upgrades—music included.

VOICE

Story, characterization, and gameplay are rapidly distancing themselves from the text-scrawl days of games’ 1980s Neanderthal forefathers. Like chipset MIDI, voiceless games are already getting dinged in their reviews for their lack of dialogue. Again, disk space limitations are crumbling, and localizing dialogue for a global market isn’t only doable, it’s proven to have tremendous benefits in opening up new markets to titles. Words like “toy” and “diversion” used to describe our games in the mass media. Soon, we will be the mass media, and already terms like “art” and “cinematic experience” are replacing the labels of the past. Voice is crucial to this transition.

Obviously, not all these issues are going to be applicable to all titles, all platforms, and all audio teams. MADDEN doesn’t need interactive music any more than DRAGON QUEST IX could possibly be fully voiced on the DS. Nonetheless, this list will hopefully serve as a jumping-off point for debate and innovation.

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