Tech's Files: Start Your Engines

Mar 1, 2010 12:00 PM, by Eddie Ciletti and Damian Kastbauer



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Less text-oriented than other middleware apps, the interface for Firelight Technologies’ FMOD has more of a plug-in look and feel.

Less text-oriented than other middleware apps, the interface for Firelight Technologies’ FMOD has more of a plug-in look and feel.

I have a friend whose business card reads, “If I don't know it, I know someone who does.” That's my story in this edition of “Tech's Files.” My friend and fellow geek Damian Kastbauer is an audio-for-gaming insider.


More Tips From Eddie Ciletti

We'd like to provide an overview for peeps like me who are completely unfamiliar with game audio, but who might benefit from knowing some of the nuts and bolts of the process. For example, DAW plug-ins are very graphics-intensive and look very much like their hardware counterparts, even though sliders are more mouse-friendly than knobs. By contrast, audio tools for games tend to be parameter-based, whereas a slider is a newcomer and virtual knobs don't even exist!

On the surface, game development is often compared to the process of making a film, with the need for a storyboard, screenplay, set and sound design. There is a common discipline between film and videogame creation, but some aspects remain distinctly different. While it might seem absurd to reinvent a DAW or a camera each time a new project is initiated, that's what often happens in the gaming industry when it comes time to improve upon previous technology. For each new game, the logic, visual and sonic programmers must create a brand-spankin' new engine. The insider's coding game is all about “playing well with others” — for example, sharing memory and DSP/CPU capabilities — so that the behind-the-scenes technology is transparent to the gamers.

Of course, game designers want a great first impression; the new release must look, feel and sound more realistic than the previous generation. Processing requirements, platform variations (computer hardware)and time to market are all moving targets made more dramatic by projected deadlines that don't account for the nebulous “fun factor” necessary to make a good game great.

Let the Games Begin

Anyone familiar with more than one DAW knows that each has its own feel; just like a car's engine, gear train and suspension contribute to its personality, the game engine and toolset add feeling to the creation of the game. When engineers are programming a game, a customized processing engine is built and stocked with only the tools necessary for various tasks that need to be done. Hardcore PC users take a similar approach when installing an operating system by loading only the most essential applications required to achieve maximum efficiency and speed. Understanding the needs of the game — and the hardware specifications of the target platform — allows programmers to leave out anything they won't be using.

Once everything has been assessed — software features defined and resources for the audio portion of the engine allocated — it's time to start building. Some programmers prefer to “roll their own,” but there are also several available run-time audio libraries (also known as middleware) with which an engineer can kick-start the audio development. For the uninitiated, this is the customized programming toolkit that provides solutions to game-specific feature sets, such as hardware specifications, and has the potential to meet the needs of cross-platform development.

You Want Fries With That?

The game audio engine can be thought of as a multitimbral sampler that plays back audio samples at the request of the game engine. In addition to playing back requested sounds, the engine will also be asked to do many tasks on the fly — pitch shift, volume randomizing, shuffling and sequencing of playlists — because sounds are constantly changing.

To modify and adjust the values for tasks like these, audio-specific toolsets are “created” to harness the engine's functionality. If the user interface for these tools is not given ample consideration, then control over features and functionality will be out of reach when needed; they will also require programmer assistance, which is often hard to come by.

Populating a mechanical toolbox is analogous to the task of compiling a software DSP toolset. Any tool in the box can be used, but choosing the most appropriate tool can minimize any detours to the mechanic. For example, you wouldn't open a 7-band EQ if only a highpass filter were needed.

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