The Back Story
I’ve been in some form of perpetual crunch for nearly my entire career. Since I started GL33k in 2006 I’ve pretty much gone from one fire to the next with a few escapes to Mexico here and there. GL33k has been active for about five years and one thing I’ve never really had the pleasure of dealing with is Pre-Production.
For those of you in game audio that work as contractors- I’m sure you can relate. We are never called early enough. Developers can stand to save a lot of money by waiting to pull the trigger on audio. Unfortunately, waiting on audio ultimately costs the developers more in the long run (not only in cash but also in quality.)
Most of my experience at GL33k has been either supporting in-house audio developers, or being the audio department remotely for a project. We have been lucky to work with some great audio directors and those projects with in-house muscle have always had a lot of ground work laid out. When we are called in to be THE audio team, we’re usually called in when production is in full swing and the developer feels that there are enough things for audio to do.
In fairness to our many fantastic clients, it’s hard to justify contracting an audio team during pre-production, especially if they work remotely. Those one-off meetings in the hallway or after work beers can really go a long way towards fostering some awesome, out-of-the-box ideas. When your audio team is working at a distance, it’s incredibly easy for those formative conversations to never happen.
The point is, we’ve recently been very fortunate. One of our clients has afforded us the opportunity to be directly involved with pre-production. At first, I was incredibly excited and overwhelmed. I've never had the opportunity to truly lay solid ground work and potentially change the way we, as a team, operate. What I have discovered has given me significant insight into the flaws of our internal processes and the shortcomings of myself as a director of game sound.
Pro-Active Vs. Reactive
I’ve always prided the team at GL33k for its pro-active nature. We’re the first people to come up with ideas, the first people to learn a new engine, and the first people to get in the mud when it’s time to do the job. I love this about our team; however what I’ve recently realized is that all of our training and experience comes from a different phase of development. It’s the time when memory is already getting tight, the game is pretty playable, and when production is already concerned with how we’re going to hit the ship date.
This training has been great. I wouldn’t trade it in for anything. Our team is fast, no one needs to be told specifics, we can all design and implement, and we always get the job done in an autonomous way.
What I’ve recently realized with this new reality called Pre-Production (some might even consider it the concepting phase) is that our training is completely rooted in a reactive approach to game audio. We have recently been forced to rethink how we do things and relearn what it means to be a contributing force to a team even at an early stage.
What To Do About Them?
The following items are things that I have found useful for the concepting phase of audio development. Many of you have most likely already discovered or do similar things in some way, shape, or form (especially in house folks. A lot of this effort is to help audio drive the design of the game and be considered as a more effective feedback tool than many designers inherently consider it. It's from this perspective that I find it extremely important for our sound designers to have a solid knowledge of game audio technology and some instinctive amounts of salesmanship.
The first thing we did was simply learn the engine. I didn’t just want our team to just learn the new tech from a sound perspective. I felt it was more important to learn the technology from a designer’s perspective.
- Build a playable level!
- How do artists get textures in to the game?
- How do animators get their assets in to the game?
- What does it take to control them from script?
- How does the camera work?
- Console Stress tests!
What’s important is not only that we understand how to get sounds to play, but that we have the knowledge and skill set to prove out our own ideas independently to help audio drive the design of the actual game.
I know we’re going to need this
There are certain things that you, as a savvy designer and audio slayer, will know when you’re given the title and subject matter of your new project. In the past, we’ve normally never mocked something up until the core idea was in game. In the concepting phase this is much different.
This idea derives from working with known variables. We can know from the subject matter that we might need things like explosions, room tones, chains snapping, massive metal scrapes, and epic door sounds. We’ve done this before, so let's create it now while we have time to get our own source and mock up some awesome stuff!
This concept has been huge for us recently. It allows us to create a custom library of material that will most likely be used in some form or fashion in production. The fact that we have our own custom, well-thought-out library to work from can keep the sound consistent and keep us from halfheartedly doing the same type of material when we’re strapped for time during production.
A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
This is another one that should’ve been obvious to me. CONCEPT ART! Yes a lot of these things change, and the end result is sometimes much different, but I’ve found designing soundscapes and imaginative scenarios to concept art really challenges the team and helps to create a wealth of cool source material. It’s this freedom and this divorce from the “game” component of our craft that has let our imaginations really soar. There is a great chance that much of this material will not be used but the absolute worst case scenario is that we’ve spent a lot of time simply being sound designers and forcing ourselves to use our imaginations.
Beyond putting our elements in WWise ready to go, we’ve also been categorizing and building custom Kontakt and Sculpture patches. These patches consist of our processed elements from our “Known Variables” category, as well as our sonic concepting practices.What these are ultimately for is to provide ourselves a quick and easy way to get instant inspiration during the heat of production.
Many of these sounds might not be used for what they were originally intended for but we’ve got and excellent source point from a time when we were nothing but sound artists. It represents material that is unhinged from time and budget restraints and has proven to be very useful already. In fairness there is a certain magic in having a ton of pressure but I’ll opt to have the best of both worlds.
I rarely read articles this long, so I’m impressed that you’ve finished this one! I’ve managed to stay late enough where the crazy guy that walks below my balcony starts cursing at all of the cars (he would make most stand-up comedians blush.) There are quite a few things I didn’t mention, but as we explore this further I’m sure we will not only learn more but become more and more proficient at this process.
Matt Piersall is the founder of GL33k, a game audio company based in Austin, TX