VOX POPULI – Jesse Harlin (August 2007)

What players think of game audio 

LAST YEAR I SPOKE TO GAME REVIEWERS regarding their thoughts and opinions on game audio (“Developers, Meet your Reviewers,” June/July 2006). This year I decided to broaden the scope and hear from the gaming public at large. They’re the consumers of our products, and the engine that drives word-of-mouth sales. I wanted to know how gamers—both casual and hardcore—perceive game sound.

I created a short online poll which ranked the importance of sound effects, music, and voice as parts of the consumer’s overall gaming experience. Then, in order to cast the widest net possible, I enlisted a small army to disperse the poll through MySpace, Facebook, and the blogosphere (special thanks to Kotaku.com).

Here’s the fine print—I’m not a statistician and I make no claims that this is the most scientific polling ever conducted. It should also be noted that specific market research conducted by large companies such as Microsoft, Sony, or EA may be completely different from the results my poll collected. However, with nearly 2,000 responses, these results should offer an interesting cross-section of how the public regards game audio.

CRASH

Of the three audio categories, sound effects are the most well-received. 63 percent of respondents had never turned the effects off while playing a game. Additionally, 87 percent of respondents felt as though they had played a game that could not possibly be completed without sound effects. Unfortunately, this means that 13 percent of the respondents have never played a game where they’ve viewed sound effects as an essential part of their gaming experience.

In the comment threads that sprung up in response to the poll, effects were by far the most highly-praised of the three audio disciplines. First-person shooter fans often attributed their elite skills in large part to audio design. One MADDEN fan noted an inability to play defense without audio turned on. Not surprisingly, sound effects were cited as contributing to the immersive atmosphere of games like SILENT HILL, BROTHERS IN ARMS, and BURNOUT REVENGE.

Praise for the transformative experience of a decent surround sound system was the most overwhelming. Interestingly, 5.1 systems were repeatedly mentioned as being more important to next-gen gaming than a high-definition television screen. Those who left comments that most enthusiastically praised sound as a fundamental part of gaming were also frequently those touting 5.1 as “the new standard” for game audio.

POP

Music proved to be significantly more subjective. The numbers were exactly flipped from those of sound effects when it came to tuning out—63 percent said that they had turned off the music in the past. Surprisingly, even with the success of games like GUITAR HERO and DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION, or the inclusion of music-based puzzles in best-selling titles such as GOD OF WAR or THE LEGEND OF ZELDA: THE WIND WAKER, only 56 percent of the respondents felt as though they had ever played a game where the music was absolutely necessary for its completion.

Like sound effects, music was commonly cited as a major contributor to a game’s mood. A “good soundtrack” was often credited as being a leading factor toward immersive gameplay. Licensed music, however, was a frequent target of criticism. Most respondents who expressed a desire to hear a song-based soundtrack as opposed to a game- specific score mentioned that they simply turned the game’s music off in favor of their own external playlist.

That said, for Xbox and Xbox 360 users, only 56 percent of those responding said that they had used the custom soundtrack option to add their own music into their games. At the same time, 58 percent said that they wish more games offered the option of adding their own soundtracks. This was also a common topic in the comment threads. Rather than poorly composed or produced music, the biggest complaint was a simple lack of enough music to cover the ever-expanding scope of today’s games.

BANG!

Admittedly, voice was the smallest portion of the poll. As dialogue can rarely be turned off separately from the sound or music, my main concern was with the public’s perception of an often-maligned aspect of audio by game reviewers: repetitive dialogue.

Happily, when asked whether they find game dialogue to be engaging, too repetitive, or downright obnoxious, 72 percent of the respondents felt that voice acting is either “entertaining” or “worth listening to.” More encouragingly, 70 percent expressed a wish that more games contain recorded dialogue.

IN THE END

What is evident from all these responses is that gamers recognize and largely appreciate the strides being made across the industry to continually raise the quality of in-game audio. Regardless of the successes, however, the realm of game audio remains one in which users are commonly altering the originally intended listening experience, either by changing our mixes via in-game volume sliders or replacing our soundtracks all together. Whether they like everything they hear or not, it’s clear from these 2,000 responses that THX is correct: The audience is listening.

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