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Apr 06, 2008



In the context of WoW, I find game audio to be particularly important in raiding, and PvP combat. A lot of the decisions made in those situations revolve around knowing what is going on in an audio context. As you've said, knowing what the other player is up to is very beneficial. For many, there is simply too much to look at.

There are, however, people who leave the game sounds off while they play, and can't stand them. They prefer to listen to music, or watch movies. The way they interact with the game is probably more based on visual response cues.

It would be interesting to compare the interaction with mods and sounds in those situations as well. For instance, playing with a mod that makes a noise when you are cursed (or otherwise negatively affected) versus playing in that same situation without the mod.


Also, having different sounds for each type of action: picking an object, casting a specific spell, killing a monster... gives the impression there is always something going on.


Great stuff, Mia.

This is only personal anecdote, but I know sound is a huge part of gaming experiences for me. The theme music of various games, the victory & loss punctuations, the confirmation of actions, the ambient presence of others in the environment. I could talk about how those work well or badly in plenty of games, MMORPG and solo.

But every time I hear a sound person in the games industry talk about what they do I have the same experience of re-recognizing how vital sound is to a game experience.

For some reason, I think it isn't discussed often enough. Maybe the critics lack the vocabulary, or think the audience lacks it. But in the case of bad sound, the sound artist isn't blamed, though bad sound can ruin a game. In the case of good sound, the sound artist doesn't get the credit, even if the sound really makes the game.


For me, in a game like Warcraft (my heroin of choice) audio is really a difficult to get a handle on.

In the one hand, while soloing, I usually have all of the spells and effects and music coming through the speakers and it gives the game a strong immersive element. Game audio in Warcraft can also occasionally make an "in-game" difference. In PvP for example, you can hear a rogue stealthing around you, or as a warlock you can hear a sound effect when your Nightfall ability procs and know when to cast your instant Shadow bolt. Which again adds to that interactive immersive element.

On the other, I'm also in a raiding guild, in which I have to literally turn of the sound components of the game off to clearly hear commands from the raid leader (and having spoken to a number of players in different guilds, this is oftern the case). This is a process which indeed detracts from the immersion element, though it could be equally said that raiding and out of context interaction with other players i.e. "How's the weather outside where you are","going to the pub?", "Bio break!" is just as "de-immersing".

That all said, on a Saturday afternoon I always turn the volume all the way down anyway and put BBC Radio 5 Live on so I can listen to the football. So while I agree with the original post that audio is extremely contextual, I think it's also extremely situational and personal to the particular player involved.


Audio is of course important. I'll always have a fondness in my heart for the heavy breathing and heart-beat musical tempo of the original Quake, or Resident Evil. Heck, who doesn't immediately recognize the startup jingle of Pac-Man? In recent games, I would point to Star Wars: Empire at War and the entire Total War series as shining examples of how music and environmental audio can be used as a force multiplier to make the game exponentially better than it would have been without it. Although not mentioned yet in this thread, voice acting is also key. I love clicking on the units in the Warcraft and Starcraft titles until they tell you to piss off. That was brilliant design, and one of the things that set the whole tone of the game.

On the other end of the spectrum: There's a myth in Eve Online that says that "Eve has sound". I have not idea what they are talking about. I think Eve audio is probably kind of like Big Foot; sure it could exist, but I've never seen proof. I'm exagerating a little. Of course Eve has sound, but it's so crappy and irrelevant to gameplay that everyone turns it off. On the rare occasion that someone on Teamspeak has their Eve audio turned on and other people can hear it over voice comms, they usually get asked to turn it down or off. When running a fleet opperation in Eve, the voice communications from your fleet commander and your scouts can be far more immersive than Eve's audio. I would have to say that Eve audio is an 'epic fail', if you don't mind me using that annoying phrase.

When I think about why the Eve audio is so lacking, I notice that the important things I need to know about the game state are not tied to the audio much. Also, there are a number of things in the game that are important but have no audio cues. Since you can't play the game by ear you're forced to watch every detail of the video display, so the few things that the game has audio cues for are likely things that you are already aware of.

I think I would be comfortable in breaking game audio into two major catagories.

First there's audio that is part of the environment or sets a mood. Usually that would be music and background noises. Those sounds can be used to create strong emotions, even when there isn't much going on in terms of gameplay. For instance, in Resident Evil, walking down a hallway and hearing the music escalate in tempo could double your pulse rate very quickly.

My second catagory of audio would be informational. Like when your character says "ouch" to let you know that you're being bitten by rats on the floor that you may not see. Perhaps a heart-beat sound to let you know you're near death, or a chime to tell you that you gained a level of experience.

The MMORPG's I've seen are miles away from where they could be when it comes to audio design, but that's just my opinion. It seems that single player games do a much better job of setting a stage and placing the player where they want you to be, and audio is a big part of that. It's obvious that sandbox games like Eve could use a lot more work in the area of audio design.


SVgr: good points about the difference between informational and environmental (be it music or SFX).

One of the tricky aspects of sound design is that it's so subjective. What's soothing and serene for one person is grating and annoying for another.

In making our proof-of-concept demos for The New Nexus Project, I think we haven't paid enough attention to sound, and it's making me squirm...I feel like I should go back and improve them!

And then there's the "celebrity voice actor" trend - is that annoying or cool? (I find it annoying if I keep picturing an actor when I hear his/her voice, but I definitely appreciate GOOD ACTING no matter who it's from.)


"And then there's the "celebrity voice actor" trend - is that annoying or cool? (I find it annoying if I keep picturing an actor when I hear his/her voice, but I definitely appreciate GOOD ACTING no matter who it's from.)"

Kinda depends on the context. The Star Wars:Empire at War title I mentioned above has some superb voice acting, but they had only one of the real actors from the movies (of course). So, when you hear "Han Solo", and you can tell that it's not Harrison Ford, it's very distracting. Celebrity voice-overs in Pixar annimated films are usually quite entertaining, and I'm sure that the real Harrison Ford would have been a huge help in the Star Wars game. Michael Biehn has done some great video game voice acting, and who will ever forget the briefings given by James Earl Jones in Command and Conquer? Maybe it's the person rather than the game? James Earl Jones has done tons of video game and annimated film voice acting, and he always sounds great to me. (After looking up his history, he has done a lot more Darth Vader voices in video games than I would have expected him to)

But you mention a good point. Good audio can surely help to make a game great. However, bad audio can make a good game suck too. The bottom line is that video games are experienced by players using only two senses. 1-Vision, 2-Hearing (I guess you could include tactile if you think force feedback controllers are significant, but I don't). When you only have two ways to get to your audience, you must pay close attention to both of those methods of communication. It would be interresting to find out what % of a person's perception of a movie or video game are visual vs audio. I would assume it would lean towards visual, but that's purley a guess.


Eve has excellent music, but the sound is really awful. It has about 50 tracks, which means you do hear them repeatedly but not too frequently, unlike in Warcraft which seems to have only about 8 zone musics; if you don't like the barrens music, tough, it turns up in all sorts of other zones too.


Yeah, Eve has some great music. There are a couple of tracks that I really enjoy enough to listen to them in an MP3 player. Unfortunately, it's like listening to a radio station when you listen to Eve's music. They are totally missing the point that their music could enhance gameplay in a more meaningful way. As far as I know, the only time Eve's music follows the game state is when you first enter an NPC encounter. That's more than a little lame, especially since they have had over 4 years to do more with the game audio. Heck, they re-wrote the entire graphics engine, but the audio remains largely unchanged.


Why hasn't some audio track from a MMO made it into the mainstream charts?

I know at times I have heard some techno remixes that incorporte Final Fantasy music - but if 8 million people play WoW - why isn't there any Warcraft music on the charts?


@ thoreau

It's actually an interesting question.

I listen to Classic FM in the UK where modern day scores from movies are continously hitting the top of the classic charts (indeed, if I have to listn to Hans Zimmer one more time....)

I think one of the key things are with Video games though is; who'd buy it? Well, probably not the sort of people who listen to scores and classical music as their age demographic is very different from the people who'd play the games, and they are probably, in the main (though I'm sure theres exceptions, as indeed I'm one of them) completely unaware that good computer game scores exist.

The other issue is purchasing. I've just quickly scanned Amazon and I can't see easily any "computer game" scores or soundtracks to buy. You're question is: "Why hasn't some audio track from a MMO made it into the mainstream charts?" well, a simple answer might be, as no-one has marketed it and is selling it as a product. It needs to have actual sales to show up in the charts.

Which nicely brings us to the last issue, file sharing and usage. I own the entire Warcraft Sopundtrack already, indeed, it's encoded on the hard-drive of the computer I'm typing this message on. Why would I need to buy a CD of it? I can very easily burn off a CD or covert to MP3 format and play on my ipod any of the music I already have paid for. In other words, at the very least a possible "target market" for computer games scores, no matter how good they might be, probably already owns them.

Anyway, and besides. A strong product is a strong product. The day might come soon where a computer game score is so good that it stands easily besides the Lord of the Rings movie soundtrack, and then it would sell, but, to borrow a sentence from the movie itself "But it is not this day".


What an interesting discussion. I'm not in WoW but SL. I think environmental sound can also be informational, when it's designed with that in mind. It certainly should be meaningful and purposeful. In media of any sort, not to mention the performing arts, sound is a critical component.
Sound design decision in WoW are carried out by game designers, in SL by anyone.
Sound, even in RL, really impacts my experience (maybe it's because I'm a musician :))
It might also be because there are so many variables to it (volume, timbre, tone, content, etc.). It might be because we're used to having control over the sound in our lives. For those of us with sight, we tend to be more dependent on seeing than hearing, and don't think about controlling it. In one sense, it's an on/off (eyes open/shut) thing. With hearing, there are so many choices, including silicon earplugs ;).


One of the first times I realized just how much sound influenced me was while playing Shadow of the Colossus. It’s an offline game, with loads of emphasis put on the cinematics. The bosses in the game (the only things you ever have to fight) are massive creatures that roam a certain portion of the map. Usually you have to climb onto them and find a rune to cause any damage.
The game music would change as soon as you grabbed hold, when the bosses preformed his signature attack, or when you finally started doing damage to it. The cinematics were so effective that my roommates would sit and watch, on the edge of their seats, feeling fully involved even while not playing.
To make sound work effectively in the same manner, an MMORPG would have a lot of work to do. As mentioned before in any raiding situation, your game sound is muted to be able to hear the commands being barked out by your raid leader.
To the more casual online gamer, sounds totally adds to the environment and helps identify certain commands. I would like to see something much more involved, like Shadow of the Colossus, where the music changes depending on your progression into a fight.


Sorry that my only reference is Eve, but I can think of many easy ways that an improvement to the audio could enhance the Eve experience. Eve has many different settings in the "overview" (it's like a text-based mini-map) which can be turned on and off. Players decide what to see. It would be nice to have a similar set of choices for things that give an audio cue. For example, when a new hostile or neutral enters my system, it would be nice to get a little beep, or when a new message is typed in my public intel text channel. Things like that should be really easy to program because there are already visual cues for those events, such as blinking tabs and color-coded labels. To add a sound cue and give users the ability to select the sound they want for each event (or no sound) should be easy. Really when you look at Windows there are a lot of good design ideas that could be used in game design, but for some reason people don't do it.


Great discussion !

I've been trying to investigate many of the points raised here in SL for some time. I'm a media composer working in the field of games and more recently exploring metaversal soundtracks.

For me the auditory aspects of immersion are as important as visuals. In general I think music in game worlds is used with great effect, sometimes enhancing gameplay and sometimes detracting from it ( and then just gets turned off ). However virtual world platforms, and the metaversal development agencies who create content for them seem to be slow to embrace the emotional and immersive potential of music and sound design. Of course this is partially due to the architecture of a streamed world vs a large client side install pack.

One exception to this is the country of Mexico's presence in Second Life, for which I recently provided a soundtrack and very detailed environmental soundscape. This project brings the richness of music and sound design normally associated with MMO's to VW's. ( SLURL : http://slurl.com/secondlife/Visit%20Mexico%202/201/95/30 )

The use of rich audio in virtual environments poses many questions about the type of immersion people may or may not want to experience. By this I mean the various types of input people like to stream from themselves into the virtual realm, and what they prefer to receive from the virtual realm.

Just as some people may prefer an purely imagined text only metaverse, others may prefer a visual representation with a text communications system, others still embrace their voice entering the equation. In this way, I think using music and sound are always going to be elements which people will and should always be able to opt in and out of.

The other area that fascinates me in regard to the use of music and sound in multiplayer environments is the concept of non linearity in soundtracks. This has been explored relatively successfully in many single player games, but is very rarely explored in multiplayer environments.

Just as some people have mentioned here, it would be great if game music could dynamicly react to the behaviour of a group.

I recently attempted to explore this with a project called PARSEC in Second Life. ( http://parsec.wordpress.com/ ) This project linked the playback of musical elements to vocal conversation. It allows avatars to move virtual obejcts with the intensity of their voice ( through SL's inbuilt voice system ). These objects are part of a giant interactive instrument. The exhibit also contains a simple puzzle / game element with a reward for collectively exploring types of conversational patterns.


Playing Lord of the Rings Online, I've had trouble commanding my character as effectively when the sound is on the fritz. This was particularly bad with my bard (whose sounds are very easily identifiable as particular spells; the sound also helps one to aurally estimate the cooldown time on some spells), but also made playing my champion more difficult as I couldn't tell how much she was being hit (and thus had a harder time estimating her morale without looking). My experience in WoW has been similar; when my sound is off, playing gets weirdly difficult.

I should note, however, that I don't use the voice chat, mostly because I spend the majority of my time running solo or grouped with my husband, whose computer is in the same room. (Well, that and the fact that I seem to have plugged my front panel wires into my motherboard incorrectly and haven't bothered to fix the problem.) The few times I have participated in a group with other folks not in the room (5-man or fewer), the voice chat has been immensely helpful. Not having the time to raid, I can't really comment on that . . .


@ thoreau and David Grundy:

NPR's All Things Considered today (Saturday 4/12) had a segment on video game music, including a mention of the Video Games Live concert tour. It's pretty interesting-- a good critical piece in which they discuss not only the development of game music, but also inspirations and context, interview game music composers, and sit in on the rehearsal of an orchestra that's recording music for Bioshock. They actually hit on some of the complexities and uses of music that are being discussed here; if you want to listen to it, the show will be available for download this evening (it took place during the last 10 minutes of the show).


Regarding my last comment, here's the link to the story, complete with audio of the segment and of the music played.


@ N.M. Thanks for the link-- I heard part of that show this weekend, and it's definitely a good addition to this discussion.

Regarding remarks about the potential market for videogame music/soundtracks, I'd point out that such a market definitely exists- at least in Japan. When I spent time there, I wandered through various media stores, and in the CD section, there was always a fairly large collection of videogame soundtracks. I purchased (for way too much yen) soundtracks for Final Fantasy XI as well as Okami, both of which are beautiful. I wonder if the market is akin to those who liked Metallica working with a symphony orchestra-- too small a demographic in the US to make it go?

Lastly, I wonder why we continue to see/need audio as optional. Does this say something about our need to control input, or is it about shortcomings in what game audio has been up until now that has made it something optional?


On the subject of game music, I saw a game music concert ("Play!" http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Play!_A_Video_Game_Symphony) last year, and it was phenomenal.

There were some of the obvious arrangements based on the old, hoary Super Mario theme etc, but some of the music sounded almost exactly the same as it did in game - and sounded fantastic.

Some of the highlights:
- World of Warcraft
- Final Fantasy
- The Legend of Zelda
- Halo
- Kingdom Hearts
- Shadow of the Colossus

Now if only they'd gotten hold of a moog synthesiser or something and tried Thief :)

On a related note, Thief is the best game to be using as an example in this conversation, as one of few games that's made sounds made by the player the core of the gameplay. The sound tells you whether you're moving too fast, what surface you're walking on, how close a guard is, how alert a guard is, etc . . . critical stuff!


I was working as game designer for a smallish game project some time ago. Small enough that we didnt have a sound designer or musician on the team. Ends up having me make the music and soundFX myself...

The tremendous importance of the sound design in games struck me while working with it. Improvements made to the game score and overall audio experience struck through the whole experience and improved the feedback data from our testing significantly.

This experience has given me a totally new perspective on what a powerful tool sound and music is in the hands of the developers. And its got more to it than that. ^^

If you want to make a sticky product make sure to use sound and music to hook the user fast. Easy to do and easy to forget.


I think that the audio is a very important component to games. I remember playing a young rogue in EQ and NEEDING surround sound to survive (it was a good reason for the expense, anyway). More than being able to hear my teammates, it was about being able to hear when something was going on that my narrow scope of vision couldn't detect. I can't imagine playing any of the FPS games without sound.

I think that it is also important to note that certain popular MMO sounds have come to symbolize similar events in different MMOs- with different sounds- and even portions of RL. The leveling "ding" from EQ has carried over into every MMO I've played since, and I've seen numerous forum posts where people celebrate their RL birthday by posting that they've "dinged".

As far as the music goes, I have a friend who was inspired to take his piano lessons seriously in order to be able to play the music in FFIII. For myself, I never even considered playing EQ2 until I heard the music and it reminded me of how much fun I had playing EQ.


I too non-WoW player. I was honored to be asked, and the conference was great, featuring not only research talks and research-in-progress discussions.

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