God of War III

Mar 1, 2010 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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“Animations are the bane of every sound designer's world when it comes to in-game sound design because animations change all the time,” adds senior manager, sound group, Gene Semel. “We try to work in parallel development [with the animators] as much as possible, so whenever an animation is coming online, we're trying to put sound to those animations so that every time the game is being played during the process of development, there's as much sound in the game as possible to give us a clear picture of the overall scope and idea of what the game is going to sound like.

“It's similar to in film where guys are seeing wire frames in their sound design on the rough cuts and they don't start seeing the final visual effects until really close to the end of the project. It's the same with games. That's one of the differences between previous console developments to what we're dealing with now because there's so much more content, so much more everything — art, animation, physics — going into it, and it all seems to waterfall at the very end of a project. We're talking thousands and thousands of changes in the animations, so you can imagine how much work that is for us on the sound side, too.”

One of the challenges of this particular game, Kovats says, was conveying the sense of scale — the way the action might shift from a scene where Kratos is battling a small winged creature, to one where he is in the frame with and/or fighting with one of the enormous titans. Every aspect of the game presents a different mixing challenge, it seems, so it's no surprise to learn that — as with feature film mixes — doing a game mix can be an extremely long and involved process. GOW3 was mixed at SCEA's Santa Monica Studios “with a keyboard and mouse,” Paul Fox says, rather than using a giant post-production console as usually happens with Hollywood films.

“We were very keen on trying to run it on a schedule where we had a full week to play through the game and mix,” Fox continues. “In our software sound system, we have 31 mix channels that we can assign sound IDs to. So we have the usual three suspects at the top: Sound effects, dialog and music each have a main ‘fader’ they're on, and then we have a bunch of other faders available for special cases and for breaking things down into smaller bits. So we'll have a Foley channel, we'll have a channel for impacts, a channel for creature vocals — as opposed to humanoid vocals — and a couple of other special cases; for instance, if we need to sidechain one thing to be ducked by another thing. We also have a dedicated channel for the soundtracks that play under the cinematics.”

“Our mixer is snapshot-based, and using those 31 channels we can have a lot of great submixes to get a lot of detail in and out of the game for certain times,” Kovats adds. “Like you might be going through this crazy fight where you really want to hear the creature vocals and the weapons; then you might go into an intimate scene and we'll bring the ambience and the music down a little bit and the dialog up because you really want to hear the detail in the story. We have a great tools and tech department up in Foster City [Calif.] and they've helped develop a lot of great tools, which is just short of having a mix board in front of us to create these really great snapshot mixes. We also use proprietary DSP technology on the output of the game to make sure we have limiting and compression on the dialog and other things.”

Fox notes, “We are also very lucky that our director is interested in and cares a lot about sound and that he wanted to sit with us and do play-throughs before our mix. We kind of had a premix, believe it or not, and that's never happened in a game I've worked on, though I've always thought it should. It was a great opportunity because he was able to listen to the game with us — just the sound team and the director — so we were able to make doubly sure we were getting things covered that were important to him. Having Stig with us listening to stuff, we could address some very important continuity-related and gameplay-relevant sound design opportunities that might not have been as easy to spot on our own given the tight schedule.”

Among the other issues that crop up at the mix stage are keeping sounds in proper perspective as Kratos moves through the environment; bringing distant sounds closer as the action moves toward what was once the far background; adjusting sounds in the immediate foreground as sound emitters are reached and then passed; retaining the ambient sound of the environment but allowing the action in the foreground to supercede other sound sources; giving spatial dimension to the scene while also letting the music track add more emotional depth to the scene; and making sure that dialog can be heard at all times. It's a long and involved process that requires the sound team to play the game over and over again to attain the greatest clarity, variety and power possible.

I ask whether the sound designers and implementers regularly check their work on the sorts of small computer speakers that most gamers still play on. “Yes, that's very important to us,” Fox replies. “We listen to it coming out of our TV speakers, too. We also get a lot of feedback from team members because during the last weeks of the game [production], a lot of people are getting locked out from making changes to the level design and visuals, so those guys are sitting playing through the game, wearing headphones or listening over TV speakers. It's a real team effort.”

The last weeks of game production are invariably long and intense as the final visual elements come in and the audio team makes its last adjustments to match the changes. It requires tremendous cooperation between departments and strong guiding hands to keep the work moving forward coherently and in a timely fashion. Semel says, “We know we're going to have a [work] spike at the end — it's the way games go. We would love to have a month at the end to finesse things after they're locked down, but at this point that's still a dream. Game development is always to some degree organic because you plan for things, you have your milestones, but you also have to be flexible and open to trying things along the way because finding the fun is a big factor in making games. You do whatever you can to make a game that people will enjoy playing.

“We're preaching to the choir here, I guess, but obviously we all believe that sound is a big part of the [game-playing] experience. Sound adds so much to the visceral feeling you get playing a game. And, of course, game scores [in game magazine reviews] now often grade for sound, as well as graphics and game-play, and those scores do affect sales, so sound is important on that level, too.”

“As has been the case for years and years, when we really do our job well, it's not usually noticed,” Paul Fox concludes. “When things sound as they should and as expected, our hard work isn't obvious. So we like to do over-the-top interesting sound design when we have the opportunity — and there were a lot of places in this game where we could do that. Honestly, though, I think some people still don't understand that there was nobody on set with a boom mic [laughs], that literally everything in that game went in there from scratch.”

Blair Jackson is the senior editor of Mix.

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