Putting Audio in Its Place

Having been an Audio Development Manager in a previous life, I still find myself taking a keen interest in audio matters whenever I can. Usually that’s not nearly as often as I’d like, but this story on Develop from Audio Kinetic’s VP made me remember something I learned a while ago that I wanted to share.

To cut a long story short, the article essentially says that the majority of games are only touching the surface of what it’s possible to do with the interactive audio technology available to teams in today’s consoles. He’s absolutely right. There are disappointingly few titles I come across today that are doing anything significantly more ambitious than we tried in the likes of GTA or Crackdown umpty-dumpty years ago.

However, I just want to make something clear – it’s not the technology that’s the limiting factor in this scenario. The original Xbox (and forever to Microsoft’s credit in my book) was the first console that totally blew aside any notion of the hardware being the creative limitation to ambitious audio developers. For the first time it wasn’t technology holding audio back, it was the team sizes. Most teams simply weren’t set up to supply the amount of audio resource the Xbox and its subsequent brethren could manipulate.

But now it’s not even the team sizes, because (at least the bigger) developers have audio pipelines capable of delivering the large quantity of assets required for modern blockbuster games.

Nope, it’s none of that – it all comes back to something I realised back in the late 90’s after starting work on Grand Theft Auto 3. The biggest barrier to great audio in computer games isn’t hardware, or teams, or even tools. These can all play a part, but by far the biggest hurdle is development process – or more specifically poor development process. The vast majority of developers still don’t work within a development process that properly recognises the unique requirements of audio development and prioritise it accordingly.

It will change, and is already beginning to; but not nearly as fast as I would have hoped. It’s been a decade since I left full time audio development and I see depressingly little real difference in the situation today to where it was back then. Fortunately, the average quality of audio in games has moved up significantly – mostly through better hardware, better tools, cheaper recording technology and supremely talented audio teams; but the pinnacle hasn’t moved nearly as far forward as it should have, and as someone with a real passion for interactive audio I find that rather disappointing.

Fortunately Denki’s development process does place audio in its rightful place – equally as important as every other aspect of a game’s design.

-Colin (@denkicolin)