How to achieve a great Game Audio in indie games

achieve a great Game Audio in indie games

A lot of game developers rather look at the visual side of arts and they don’t take in consideration the potential of a great Game Audio in indie games – which isn’t strange at all: We humans seem to focus much more on our eyes, then our ears. This quickly leads to the misapprehension, that sound is less relevant in the production of our games.

But even if visuals influence mostly our conscious impressions during playing, unconsciously the ears and what we hear has a massive impact on our overall feeling about a game. The fact, that sound and music often work subconsciously, makes them incredibly powerful – or extremely destructive for the players experience. Ears are one of the two (in VR three) stimulated senses in gaming!

In larger productions, Game Audio is often completely detached from the remaining production and handed to external experts. But if you are working in a smaller Indie Studio, you often have to take care of the audio for yourself. And even if you got someone at your side, its not easy to quality- test or even speak about audio at all.

This short article refers to all game developers, who are interested to get a bit more into Game Audio. And – of course, it is meant as a quick overview, rather than it strives for completeness.

What is Game Audio?

Game Audio in indie games

So, what exactly are we talking about? With “Audio” I refer basically to everything in your game, that is audible. This can be:

  • Sound effects
  • Atmosphere sounds (wind, water, birds..)
  • Dialog (direct & indirect)
  • Voice Over / Speaker
  • Music (diegetic / nondiegetic)
  • Interface – sounds
  • Direct player feedback (collecting, activating…)

For this time, I want to focus rather on music and sound effects, as they are often the core elements of Game Audio. It is my goal to look at them not as some necessarily to be integrated assets, but to unfold their true value for your next game. To create a meaningful audio for your game, let us start with the following question. And be aware, that the answer to this question is different for every project – I’m just trying to give you some thoughts on the way:

What is the role of sound in games?

Sound naturally exists everywhere in our world and it comes with nearly every active handling and occurs even in most passive and “quiet” surroundings. Since games often orientate on “earth-like” surroundings, we can use sound in games as we use it as humans on earth:

Information

A huge advantage of sound is, that in no time and without claiming much brain capacity, it gives information about:

  • What source it may have emitted
  • How the sound got generated
  • The position of its sourceYou can use this advantage when planning your game: Worried, that your player won’t find the church he is supposed to go to? Just let it ring!

Immersion

Besides dealing with information, a good game sound also tremendously increases the immersivity of your game world. Again, without distracting from any visual content! Generally speaking, sound has its strengths in providing:

  • navigation, distances, three-dimensionality, state of a process or event, information about virtual characters or places,
  • direct player feedback as reaction to his actions (very satisfying and important for nearby every action, a player performs)
  • live state, empty weapons, hits…

To make it easier getting an overview of the often massive amounts of sounds, a game needs, it’s good to take a quick look, in what different forms sound can occur:

Game Sounds can be divided into several categories:

Direct sounds:

  • In the scene: player feedback (collecting, activating, shooting) – extremely important for the player. Needs a lot of variation and should be highlighted in your final mix.
  • In the scene: all sounds by actual sound sources in your scene. Often draw the player’s attention and is therefore extremely important too. Can be used to inform the player about important events he is maybe missing due to his restricted field of vision. Or just to enrichen the atmosphere.
  • Out of scene: interface sounds like buttons, triggers, switches.

Indirect sounds:

  • Atmosphere sounds of your game world (wind, water, birds…). Often a combination between several longer (stereo or even multichannel) atmospheric sounds, randomly played and mixed to create an evolving soundscape –
  • Completed with single sources, placed it the scene, to enrichen your atmosphere.
    Finally, your sound should obviously fit to the other Game Audio in your game that was mentionedearlier. Such as Dialogue, (direct, indirect), Voice Over / Speaker, Music (diegetic / nondiegetic)…After dealing with the different sources of sound, let’s talk about different forms and states, sound sources can have to modify their output.

Variation

Frequently triggered sounds, such as steps, hits, little voice-overs, need different sample versions to avoid the machine-gun effect. Use more than 4 sounds for an often-used sound, such as steps, screams, hits… Even if your integration tool supports random pitch modulation during playback.

States

Especially for character movements, you need different states per source. Talking about footsteps, this can be several walking speeds, surfaces, boots and character weights. Additionally providing several variations of each sound, this often sums up to about hundred single assets for walking sounds in a medium-sized indie game.

Richness

To create beautiful atmospheres, its useful to combine different indirect and long stereo ambiances (crackling wood, wind, distant birds) with shorter, direct mono sources, like singe bird screams, which you place at different spots of your map. The more variety your atmospheres have, the longer your player wants to spend time in your scene. Think also about a change in your atmosphere during day- or nighttime – often, in reality, they differ quite a lot, depending on traffic, animals, people…

Organization

Especially for larger project it is essential to divide your asset list into different categories, such as: character movement, character voice, ambiance dungeons, fight, user interface and so on. In my experience, medium sized indie – projects often need about 1000 sounds.

If you have all this in your mind, its time to start an asset list for the sounds you need for your game. If you want me to help you out for free with an audio concept, just get in touch at WeLoveIndies.com

The following chapter only deals with Game music – if you aren’t interested in that at all, just jump to the next chapter: “Source your assets”.

What is the role of music in games?

Where visual arts and sound often focus on information and simulation of reality, game music has completely different and very important roles – which none of the other art forms can express so convincingly. Most of them deal with the emotions of your player. To use the magic, a good game soundtrack can unfold, it is therefore important to have a musical and emotional idea in your mind. Other than most visual stimulations – and other than sound effects, music doesn’t add necessarily more information to your game – but feelings. And that is good, if you know how to use it! Therefore, think about:

Storytelling and drama

  • Often games have overarching narratives of several hours. Music (as a time – linear art) has the power to connect, design and shape this long dramaturgical storyline.
  • Good music brings a lot of different emotions – making the game diverse and deep, prepares and processes happenings and leads the player emotionally through your game. With music, you have a great influence on your players mood while playing your game.
  • Music often settles the speed, behavior and mood of your player. For every short event, as well as for the whole game itself.

Introducing characters and scenes

  • If your game has a variety of characters and places, it may be difficult for the player to remember every and each of them. Better than names or cloth, character-based music helps your player to remember, differentiate and evaluate things. Also, you can use slowly changing motifs for developing characters, to give them a deeper personality. (compare: leitmotif technique by Wagner)
  • You can use strong musical themes to tie your player emotionally to specific characters or places. (Who will ever forget the leading music themes of his or her childhood-game?)

Showing progress

  • As mentioned earlier, music is always time – linear: it only exists through time passing by. This is a strong parallel to your player, who will also experience your game only linear, even if it’s very interactive. Use this connection to bind your player to your game. To let characters and happenings unfold and develop. Music is incredibly strong supporting and leading every progress, your game may have.
  • Of course, music is also useful to underline faster changes in your game, such as player state changes (losing live, took a potion…) or scenic changes (appearance of a boss…).

Audio branding

  • There is little in games that sticks longer in your brain than a good theme. Use your music to build up a signature for your game, that stays as an iconic brand.
  • Live recorded music is often the only not digital/virtual element of a game. It can be live performed by real musicians and adds as a franchise an enormous external value to your game

Having this in your mind, you can start making a list of music tracks, you may need for your game. If you like, we at WeLoveIndies.com can help you for free with this asset list!

Game Audio in indie games: Source your assets

Asset sourcing can be an annoying topic for every developer. Especially for sound and music there are endless providers online with different ups and downs and most of them are rather somewhat of a compromise. This is, why I decided to develop a Game Audio platform exclusively for Indie Game Developers. Check it out: WeLoveIndies.com

In this chapter, I’m listing the things you should take care of when sourcing – and what I tried to make better on my platform.

Quality matters

Few things make a game unconsciously feel as cheap as bad sound or music. Our ears are extremely well trained and notice small mistakes or an overall bad quality in no time. And your player will often hear the same sounds for several hours – don’t let him suffer! We at WeLoveIndies.com only provide selected sounds and music proven in the worldwide creative market and handcrafted from Dynamedion (Europes largest game Audio Studio) and BOOM (one of the world’s largest sound effect libraries).

 

Don’t pay too much

Establishing a creative product in a strongly fluctuating market can be a hit or miss endeavor. Tight budgets are a critical factor and often the reason for decisions made at the expense of the overall quality. Nobody pays back your expenses when your game did not succeed. And at subscription-based payment providers you should be careful, how long your license lasts after your subscription expired. Often, these providers impress with a massive amount of assets, but with rather low quality. Within my platform you can choose between four different licenses for your project, starting with 0.5€ per sound– at full quality. You can also use all assets for free for your unpublished pitches and prototypes – without any financial risk at all!

Avoid file hussle

Especially sound sourcing quickly ends up in a terrible mess of different file types, bad naming, missing meta data and missing files. Also, some providers deliver in not seamlessly loopable formats like .mp3. At WeLoveIndies.com, you can create scenes for your sound and music categories. Everything will be in the right place, perfectly tagged, named and formatted as 16. Bit, 48kHz wav-file. Audio middleware loves that!

Mix stock assets with custom made ones:

Use rather unobtrusive but necessary stock assets to pull the heavy load, and combine them with unique and branding custom-made ones, to lace the perfect game audio bundle. I’d love to help you out with a good audio concept for your game – as you see, I really love talking and writing about game audio!

Integrate your assets

Getting the audio assets into your game, can be a quite tricky task. Integrating sounds or music comes with different difficulties:

  • Sounds often come in a massive amount. Be organized, think about a good naming convention, and make a lot of folders. As mentioned earlier, sources often need several variations and states – all of whom want to be triggered in different ways. This makes integrating sounds often very fiddly. Therefore, especially for sounds audio middleware is a massive time saver. Check out the next chapter for a quick overview of different integration tools.
  • Music is a time-linear medium – unlike games. To fit the music to your game, there are different integration methods for different situations. Since that’s less a problem of tools and more a topic for you to work through, the most important integration methods will be discussed in the following chapter.

Methods to integrate music into your game

Game Audio in indie games
Game Audio in indie games

Layering: “adaptive audio”

The musical arrangement is separated into different layers, which can be played separately or together.

  • Good for slow, unconscious changes in your game
  • Very musically
  • Higher effort for the composer
  • Doesn’t give immediate player feedback

Fading: “dynamic audio”

The music is divided into different blocks, which can be used as modular elements.

  • Allows quicker changes
  • Useful to underline sudden scene changes or to give player feedback
  • Less effort for the composer
  • Not very musically, most likely used for rather rhythmical than melodical music

Stinger: “interactive audio”

Short musical interjections, often an about 2-15 seconds long-phrase.

  • Usually lays somewhere between sound effect and music
  • Gives instant player feedback on his actions
  • Immediately applicable for very sudden events (player dies…), where you can’t waitanother second for the music to fade between layers or change block.
  • Low effort for sound designer / composer
  • Can conceal clumsy music transitions

Tools to integrate audio assets into your game

Choose your tools Wwisely. Depending on the size and type of your project, I’d recommend different ones for your audio (but always the same on one project):

Your own audio engine

For true indies. As much as we love the idea of from-scratch-development, audio engines have gone a far way to be as efficient as they are today. If you really plan to develop your own audio integration tools, we strongly recommend checking the documentations on the audio engines and middleware mentioned below first, to get an idea on the functionality, your audio tools should provide.

Game Dev Platform internal

A reliable base. Game Development platforms such as Unity or Unreal already provide really strong tools for audio integration. You have easy access to 3D placement of music sources and even ways to modify the playback for sounds to avoid repetitiveness and create a lively sound. However, to take full advantage of the possibilities of truly interactive and lively Game Audio, we recommend using a professional audio middleware.

FMOD

Quick and efficient. If you worked already with any DAW (Digital Audio Workstation), FMod will be easier for you to understand. FMod works very straight-forward and has amazing possibilities when it comes to interactive sound elements. For most game productions, especially those with audio- integrators coming from DAWs, FMod is the perfect audio integration tool. But FMod comes in my eyes with one weakness: The easy and clean FMod looks at the beginning, the messy it can get during massive projects, since it has a very additive behavior. If you plan a huge project with several thousands of assets, you maybe guess our next and last recommendation.

Wwise

Massive and powerful. We don’t want to fool anyone here: Wwise doesn’t come very light and easy. It rather behaves like an elaborate asset organization tool and takes time to be understood. But if you use Wwise on really huge long-term projects, you will love its ability to structure everything. Wwise looks complicated at the beginning of a small project, but if the project grows, Wwise stays the same – organizing all interactive or related functions, asset versions and platforms intuitively and smart.

Finishing touch

After having integrated your music, you will have to test, mix and balance all sources to create a realistic and well sounding game world. For this last step, it’s helpful to have a fresh pair of ears, since working on the same game scenes for hours ruins the necessary objectivity. If you want me to make a quick audio quality check of your game for free, just get in touch with me!

I hope, my small guide was somewhat useful for you! If you have any further questions, don`t hesitate to contact me – we love talking about sound and music – We Love Indies!

 

Andreas Hammann
Composer and Indies Project Manager at Dynamedion WeLoveIndies.com

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