Is story becoming more important than gameplay?
Observations on modern game design, casual players and the future of game development.
I'm no longer hardcore
I have recently been extremely busy and as a result I do not get to spend as much time playing games these days as I would like to and as I did in the past. This means that I am now officially what marketing departments refer to as a casual gamer, although I don’t seem to fall into the usual demographic of family with kids playing tennis on the Wii. The first thing this suggests to me is that there are probably several levels of “casual gamers”.
As more of my generation get older and get busier we can no longer spend the many hours we used to invest into a game, but we have not all become what marketing people usually refer to by the casual gamer label. Sure we don’t have a lot of time to play games, but unlike many causal gamers this does not mean we want to play family orientated titles with a simple control interface. We still want the hardcore story driven immersive experiences we have played in the past, we just want them in more bite size chunks, and this is where I think there is a market that is at risk of being overlooked.
I have played several games in the last year, some which I enjoyed greatly and a few too many that I felt let down by. Because of my limited time I tend to choose very carefully what games I want to invest my time in. I love good stories, and immersive environments with both nice graphics and of course good sound. There have been plenty of titles that seem to fit this bill in the last few years, but as the casual gamer I have also discovered what I see as some serious issues with game design as well as some really wonderful gaming experiences.
The Force Unleashed by Lucas Arts
The Force Unleashed was an excellent game spoilt by what should have been the highlight of the game. As a Force user, the ability to rip a Star Destroyer out of the sky should make any fan scream with joy. Instead a clunky and confusing control interface made this the worst part of the entire game, and the point at which I gave up and shelved the game for good.
Please don’t set me up for a fail
Recently I have played three games that I think have a game-flow issue; Mass Effect, The Force Unleashed and most disappointingly Batman Arkham Asylum. The issue with all of these games was that they were so good, and so enjoyable to play, right up to where I came to a point I could not progress past, and that’s what made them frustrating. In all three there was a certain element of game-play, or a mission or a fight I was unable to overcome. Now there is the obvious response of “Well just toughen the heck up and get it done! Play that game till you conquer it” but this is part of the issue. As someone who is time poor, I choose how I spend my leisure time fairly carefully, and I want my game time to be about good story and an interactive experience, not being punished because I no longer have the reflexes of a twelve year old ninja, and more importantly the free time of that same twelve year old ninja. If I find myself with a spare hour to sit down and plug through a level or two, I don’t want to spend that time repeating the same boss fight or level I got stuck on last time, it’s not much fun and it certainly isn’t relaxing.
Of the above titles, Batman was certainly the best because each time you failed in a task it would reset and offer a hint as to how to progress, and generally it was a far more forgiving game. This I thought was excellent as it allowed me to experience the story which was why I was playing the game in the first place, and this is my main point. I think we have reached a point where modern games with stories need to allow the player to get through the story as this has become the focal point for many players. The excellent stories and enjoyable interactive experiences are why many of us are playing these games.
Rocksteady Studio's Arkham Asylum
Batman Arkham Asylum is so well designed and implemented that it was a real pleasure to play. Its forgiving nature and good control system make you feel like you are controlling a competant character. Although there is a "roadblock" section that I find frustrating and unnessesary, the rest of the game has been so well made that I will persist and spend the time to continue as I think the remainder of the game will be worth the effort. Sadly this is not a statement I can make for all games.
Batman was a surprise to me; I did not particularly want to play a Batman game as I see the character as a heroic figure, not a game avatar that bumps into walls, falls down holes and has to spend his time looking for golden keys. The game however is very little of these things. Batman is indeed heroic, if you as the player fall down a hole there is usually an escape button and his movement is generally fluid and effective; he feels competent. This is where I think games need to go. I WANT to play a hero, I WANT to feel like I am guiding a competent character through a dangerous world, I really don’t want to feel like I am controlling a bumbling fool simply because I did not press the jump button on the exact pixel between two platforms. I am perfectly capable of being clumsy in my real life, I don’t need my game characters to follow suit.
I am certainly not asking or expecting games in overall to be made easier, but considering the focus of many modern games is a story line, I would like to know that I can see this story through to the end. If for whatever reason I find there is a point I cannot proceed past, then the game should allow me to either progress anyway, tell me exactly what to do, or lower its difficulty level so far that I cannot help but get past the obstacle. It is extremely difficult for a developer to predict every possible way in which a player may approach their game, or the potential issues they may have with it, and this is not referring to any bug or design flaw issues, it is just looking at the vast difference between how people think. Because of this it seems to make sense to have an escape key that allows the player to always progress.
Mass Effect by Bioware
For me, Mass Effect is probably the most dissapointing as it was such a good game. To place a boss fight directly after an unskippable cutscene of a few minute long is capital crime number in game design and should NEVER happen. It's bad enough that you might have to fight a certain boss over and over. To place it directly after a cutscene so you can't save, and then make the cutscene unskippable, sorry you deserve to rot in gaming hell with only copies of ET on the Atari 2600 to keep you company.
The better you make them, the pickier your audience will be
I consider Mass Effect to be the perfect example of why this is relevant. I had waited for quite some time before I purchased an Xbox360, when I finally did I was really looking forward to Mass effect. I had always enjoyed Bioware games and this looked very promising. I was really happy to find it lived up to my expectations. The game-play and graphics were excellent, and the general feel of the game was good, but the story and acting was where I really believe the game shined, it was excellent, and made playing the game a real pleasure. That is until I got stuck on an annoying boss fight and couldn’t progress. I was not far into the story either. As a result, Mass Effect 2 which has just been released is not even on my consider list, as I see no point in buying the sequel to a game I couldn’t finish. Now again, whether I should have been able to get through the game or not is not the point, if I had issues with it then it’s almost certain other people did as well.
Five or ten years ago this situation was less relevant. Games with good stories have been around for a while, but in my opinion we are only just reaching the point where games are getting the budget to make really good use of the story elements. “A” list voice actors, well written scripts and story elements and current generation graphics and animation have resulted in a generation of games that are viewable for their own sake. My wife and I often take it in turns to play through the games we purchase. Often I won’t have time to play a game at all, but I still enjoy many current games as a spectator while I do other things and this is primarily because they have good stories.
But when it's right it's oh so good
2K's Bioshock 2
I don't have a paternal bone in my body, so any game that can make me protective of a young child and send me into a rage if she is threatened has really pressed the right buttons as far as story and atmosphere.
Bioshock 2 has so far been one of the most enjoyable games i have played in a long while.
At the time of writing this article I am several hours into Bioshock 2 and it is incredibly enjoyable. The graphics and sound are excellent, but I find it is the story elements that I am enjoying most. The little snippets of people's diaries presented as recorded logs, and the dialogue of the main characters add so much to the game. I am fairly confident I am unlikely to come across a show stopping issue as I played through Bioshock 1 completely and had no issues; in fact many people complained that Bioshock 1 was too easy. Bioshock 2 allows you to switch off the ability to simply respawn from the resurrection chambers and with this one simple adjustment they can cater for both a player who wants a challenge and a player who wishes to be able to complete the game for the sake of story like myself. I think this is an excellent compromise and something that should become standard for all games.
The points I raise are more important for a game with a heavy story element than a more simple action game. If the fun is in action and destruction then I can understand that there is less need to progress to the end of the game, but for story games, please give us all a chance to see the fantastic work you have put into the entire game rather than risk your audience giving up half way through frustration.
There are numerous ways to set up equipment when recording either in a studio or out on location, how you set up your gear is as important as choosing the right microphone and knowing how to edit your sounds afterward. Personally I find that how I setup my gear is a constantly changing part of the job. Experience counts for a lot and often you won't know if something is going to work until you've tried it. New gear will often need new solutions, and recording material you have never encountered before will almost always challenge your current approaches to setting up for a recording session.
I don't believe there are any perfect solutions that work for every situation, I try to approach any session with an open mind and see if I can learn something from it. These are some of the solutions I have used and how I found working with them.
Using Multiple Microphones
Before I go into the various setups it might be worth explaining why I would want to use more than one microphone to record something. There are a couple of reasons why this might be desirable.
Firstly different microphones are made for different purposes and they all have an area where they will be more suitable. The sensitivity and pickup pattern will both influence what a microphone is able to record, while its design and construction will influence the quality of sound it will capture. Words such as warm, crisp, clear and full are all used to describe some of the sound characteristics of different microphones, often it is just a personal preference but sometimes there is a very clear choice of which mic is better for a particular situation. Sometimes it is worth using multiple microphones to try and capture all of these sound characteristics, this allows you to mix the various recordings together later and create a final sound that is warm, crisp and clear. The more material you capture, the more options you have to work with.
The second aspect is physical ability to capture certain sounds. If I place 5 different microphones at the muzzle of a canon when it is fired it is very likely that some if not all of them will not be able to capture a clean recording. Microphones have limitations to how loud a sound they can capture as well as how fast they respond. A gunshot is a very loud very fast impulse so a suitable mic is needed to capture those elements. The after shock and echo however have different qualities so a different mic might work better. This is less about what might capture better sound characteristics and more just capturing the sound at all.
Multiple mics on a single sound source
Finally there things that are just so complex that you need more than one microphone to capture all the sounds. A car is the best example of this. A Hollywood sound team would use at least half a dozen mics to record a car driving. usually you would place at lest one microphone near the exhaust, one int he engine bay, one or more inside the car and then have several others being carried and pointed at the car from a distance. In extreme cases you might then add another to capture the tyres on the road, one near the suspension and several in the engine bay to distinguish between piston noise, fan noise, and pre exhaust output. Each of these microphones might be a different type to bets suit its purpose.
Boom Pole Setup Japan
The main reason why I adopted this setup in Japan was because it was the gear I had with me at the time. I had previously used a Rycote windshield and shock mount system, but that belonged to the studio I was working for so it stayed with them when I moved to Japan. Initially I had just the mic a basic plastic clip and the boom pole which I had purchased in Australia. A trip to Tokyo allowed me to buy a simple but very cheap suspension system and a fluffy cover to keep out the wind. Now at least I could do some decent outdoor recordings.
The way this setup is designed it allows for the boom pole to be extended with the mic on the end. This would allow me to get the mic closer to birds in a tree, or lower the mic down a hole or maneuver it under a vehicle. It greatly increases where I can position the mic. The suspension system stops vibrations from traveling to the mic and corrupting the sounds it records.
The Zoom H4 has been mounted on the boom pole by attaching the head piece of an old broken camera tripod. The thread mount on the Zoom is designed to screw directly into a camera tripod, so customizing the head pieces to fit on the pole allows for the zoom to be easily screwed on and off. This means my entire recording setup is mounted on pole and so is light, easily portable and makes it much easier to get the mic into unusual locations. I would usually have headphones attached to the Zoom H4, but once I have set levels I can use the setup with nothing else attached to the pole but my hands. I have recorded thousands of sounds with this setup over a 2 year period and it is a very flexible system. Most of the other setups I use are adaptations of this first concept.
Boom Pole Setup
The current version of the boom pole setup is essentially the same. The basic elastic suspension system has been replaced with a Rode Blimp system. This works much better at isolating the microphone from vibrations and suppressing the effect of wind noise. Wind is probably the biggest issue with outdoor recording so having an effective measure of countering it is well worth the time effort and money to find.
The H4N has a screw thread hole in its body case so it doesn't not need a separate mounting plate like the H4 did, it just attaches directly to the tripod head piece mounted on the pole.
This system is slightly heavier than the setup I used in Japan because the H4N is heavier than the H4 and the Rode Blimp is slightly heavier than the simple shock system. But overall this extra weight is very slight and the advantages of the new setup are quite considerable.
The lessons I learnt adapting the boom pole setup to be practical and easy to use made the tripod mount a natural progression of the idea. Essentially I like the idea of having self contained gear setups without cables getting in the way or getting damaged. The main recurring issue I had with the boom pole was the inability to use both hands when I was recording. On occasion I would prop up the boom pole, or tie it to something so i could work hands free, but these were always less than ideal solutions.
I needed two things to make this setup work. The first was easy, I went to the hardware shop, took the H4 Mounting plate with me and found a screw that was the right size to screw into the plate. The second thing I needed was a little harder to find. I wanted a screw adapter that would go between the thread size of a camera tripod to the larger thread size used for microphone clips and stands. Thankfully my local pro audio shop has a large range of various adapters and after 30 minutes of looking through catalogues we found what I needed. I just had to wait a few days for them to order it in.
The end result is a screw mounted on one of the tripod legs, this allows the H4 or H4N to be mounted onto the leg of the tripod. The screw adapter on top allows me to mount the Rode Blip (or any microphone clip in fact) to the top of the tripod. This creates a totally independant hands free recording unit which I use very regularly. It also very conveniently attaches to the tripod carry straps on the back of my gear bag, another advantage of buying a bag designed for camera equipment. If I was going to do a large scale project that required a large number of microphones I think I would just replicate this setup over and over rather than have dozens of cables running everywhere.
Single Hand Setup
This setup came about from a desire to be more mobile and have the option of adding an extra microphone. The boom pole was a very useful setup, but it relied on the pole itself to hold all the components together. This became an issue when I was in a situation where the pole itself was not only not necessary, but actually got in the way. My visit to HMAS Castlemaine was a good example of this. A typical warship does not have large open spaces and nice wide doors that make wielding a big pole practical, so I needed to work without the pole.
I had experimented with making various hand grips with thread on both ends so I could attach mics, it generally was more trouble than it was worth. Eventually I used the Rode blimp and screwed a short piece of threaded rod into it that allowed me to add a second mic to the bottom of it. This would allow me to hold the blimp as usual but have an extra mic attached. It was occasionally useful, but became less useful after I lost my Shure Beta 58A as that was my main secondary mic. (It was great for recording animals)
The system now is quite simple. I attach the Zoom H4N to the Blimp by wrapping Velcro straps around them, this allows it to be removed quickly and easily and does no damage to either piece of equipment. It allows me to utilize all four input channels of the H4N, 2 leading from the Blimp with one of my shotguns inside and the two built in mics on the H4N. The Redhead wind shield blocks the wind on the H4N mics and means I have a stereo backup of everything I record. When using a single microphone into a stereo device like the H4 or H4N I set the left and right channels to different levels. By setting one channel at a lower input level it covers me if there is a sudden loud sound. Anything on the main channel that peaks is usually captured on the lower channel without peak distortion.
The Blimp setup is a suspension mount and wind jammer, it is one of the most important pieces of equipment I use, but perhaps its worth explaining why and showing how it works. Essentially it is designed to isolate a microphone from vibrations and wind noise. These two factors can be responsible for making recordings completely unusable and so it is worth the effort to mitigate them as much as possible.
Close up of suspension system
The initial part of the system is a pair of clips that you attach to the microphone you wish to use. There are various brands of blimp system available and each will come with a series of different sized clips to allow you to use different sizes and shapes of microphone. The most common mics used in blimps systems are hyper cardioid or "shotgun" mics, but it is possible to use any microphone that will fit into the clips. The clips themselves have small hooks that are attached to special rubber bands. These bands are then attached to the suspension mount. When in use the rubber bands isolate the microphone from vibrations caused by user handling or the environment it is being used in.
Mic mounted in suspension system
The microphone can be used in the basic setup and is often appropriate for inside close micing. This setup allows the user to handle the mic by holding the pistol grip or mounting it on a boom pole or tripod. Using it in this way allows the mic to be very close to the sound source without the wind cage getting int he way. At this stage the microphone has no protection from wind and so this setup could only be used out doors if it was a very still day. This setup is also slightly lighter than when the cage and fluffy are added.
Wind cage added to system
The wind cage is designed to slide onto the pistol grip and lock in place. The two half sphere ends can both be unscrewed to allow for easier access to the microphone inside. Once the cage is correctly positioned the ends screw on and it is ready to use. The cage is designed to protect the microphone from low level wind and prevent sounds from popping the microphone diaphragm in a similar way a foam cover does. The cage also offers some protection against rain and moisture getting to the mic. It will not protect a mic against a lot of water but it will generally keep light rain off. The disadvantage is that the cage can be a slight barrier if you need to get the microphone very close to a sound source.
Wind jammer 'Fluffy' added to system
The wind jammer is essentially a large fluffy sock that slips over the cage. Strong wind is countered because the wind moves the fluffy fibers rather than blowing against the microphone's diaphragm. Because the fibers are so soft they make no no noise when they are moved by the wind. There is still a limit to how much wind can be managed but generally I find this system can cope with very strong winds.
As I mentioned in the section about using multiple mics, vehicles are often so complex that they require a completely different approach to record. Capturing engine sounds can be difficult because they are often very loud and finding secure, safe places to mount microphones on a moving vehicle can be a challenge.
While there may be some locations on a vehicle that are generally the same like the exhaust, the engine and the interior it is rare to be able to use the same setup each time. I have found that the higher quality finish and aerodynamic designs of sports cars often mean there are few places to attach microphones to and if you are dealing with an expensive car you are going to be far more conscious of marking or damaging the car in any way. For this reason the best car to test on is your own, get used to the process and experiment with the best positions for mic placement. Things will change when you work with different vehicles, but the basic principles you pick up from your own tests will be helpful.
Boingy Boingy Boingy
Why I hate repetition and what can be done about it
I suspect it is the time I have spent in the video game industry that is the main cause of my hatred of repetition in audio. PCs and video game consoles have always had limitations. The amount of storage space on a disk, available memory, seek and read times of disk media (CD, DVD and Blueray) are all examples of some of the many issues developers need to deal with when producing games. Because of the limited resources and the need to share these resources amongst all aspects of the game, usually it is necessary to design a project that can cope with resource limitations. For game audio this often meant less variation than might have been desirable.Ever since I started working on games I have been aware of their limitations and that sometimes some repetition is unavoidable, however far too often I have played games that do not seem to be pushing the resources of the relevant console and yet still have overly repetitive sound design. One of the worst instances I encountered was a PS2 game that literally only had two footstep sounds, and the developers had also implemented them too loudly, so the entire game was accompanied by this clip, clop, clip, clop, clip, clop of the main character. For me it made the game unplayable after only a few hours. I am happy to admit I am pretty fussy where game audio is concerned, but it really spoilt what was otherwise a fun game.
So why am I so distressed by a little repetition? Think of any sound that might repeat itself, and then think carefully about that sound. A dripping tap, bouncing a ball and footsteps are all good examples of sounds that repeat cyclically, but if you really listen and analyse the sounds themselves you realise that they are not exact replicas of the same sound. Bounce a ball sometime and see if you can get exactly the same sound twice in a row, let alone for longer. Each bounce is subtly different, the downward pressure you apply to the ball, the angle on which it might land and the surface on which the ball bounces will all alter the sound, they may not alter it much, but it doesn’t take much variation at all to break up a repetitive cycle. In fact it’s the super subtle differences that really make the difference. If you isolate a single tic toc from the sound of a clock, loop it and listen back to it, it does sound like a clock, but there is something about it that just doesn’t sound quite right.One of the issues with modern video games and CG films is that they are becoming very close to being indistinguishable from real life; close, but not yet completely there, and that’s one of the problems. The closer you get to making something that reflects reality the more the subtle differences stand out. So with audio, a bouncing ball or ticking clock sound that repeats is pretty close to how a ball or clock may really sound, but the subtle difference tells the listener that what they are listening to is not the real thing. In this case and to help create many other types of repetitive sounds, subtle variations can go a long way to convince a listener they are listening to the real thing.
To use the ball analogy lets assume we are creating a basketball game. One of the main audio elements we require is the sound of the ball being bounced. With sound files time equals memory, at 44.1 KHz, 16 bit mono, a ten second long sound is 860Kb, this is almost a megabyte of memory for only ten seconds of sound. So we would not want to record long samples of someone bouncing a ball to add to the game as we would quickly run out of memory. Alternatively if we use a recording of a single bounce it will result in very obvious repetition.
If we use 5 or 6 different recordings of a single bounce they can be used as a pool of sounds to draw from. Randomly selecting a different recording to play for each bounce event will instantly add more variety than using a single bounce. Adding a very slight variation of pitch each time a ball bounce is played will produce more variation and represent slightly more forceful or less forceful bounces. Finally adding a very slight volume variation to each bounce will add even more variety. In the end these three simple steps can turn a selection of 5 sound files into a sound event that can play endlessly without ever sounding like it is repeating. This effect has been achieved using a small number of files that will not use much memory, this is particularly important for smaller consoles like a Nintendo DS or for iphone apps.
A single bounce sound file, looped to repeat four time
No variation in pitch, volume or time.
Non repeated bounce
Five unique bounce sound files played in sequence
Each bounce is different in sound and pitch, volume and time spacing.
When creating slightly more complex sounds there are more ways in which random elements can be added. Footstep sounds are created from the sound of the particular shoe impacting on the ground and the reaction of any materials that are stepped on. So a boot walking on short grass would only have a basic impact sound, but walking on gravel or leaves would produce the sound of the leaves being crushed or scattered, or the stones moving. Because there are essentially two layers the sound event can be created by combing two sound pools. The first would contain a selection of boot impact sounds to randomly draw from, and the second a selection of leaf sounds. If we have five sounds in each pool the number of combinations suddenly increases dramatically. This simple solution can effectively remove repetition almost entirely.
I want to return to why I dislike repetition, and look at it from a different angle. As I mentioned, initially it was from frustration at being presented games that appeared to have poor or lazy sound design. As I looked into solutions to this issue so I would not fall into the same trap I realised that the randomisation of sound might even improve the overall feel of a game. Several years ago I read an article where some film makers were previewing their latest project to a test audience. They showed the audience two versions of the film and asked for their reactions. The vast majority of those surveyed said the second version was much better, they claimed the special effects were better and the pace and editing was improved. The amazing thing was that visually both versions were identical. The only difference was the music and sound effects used. Now obviously this can be seen as a good example of how important sound is for supporting visuals, but more than that it demonstrates that sound can even alter how someone perceives visuals. It has been well documented that altering a musical score can seriously change the feel of a film, adding ominous music to a scene can make even the most angelic character seem disturbing and playing the theme to Benny Hill has the disturbing effect of making the most horrific footage feel like a comedy routine. Music affects human’s emotional state to a level we still do not fully understand, so it is not surprising that it can have this kind of influence when accompanying a movie clip, but what about sound effects?
Recently I was asked to write an article about using FMOD Designer for sound event creation. I have been using FMOD for many years as it allows me to create sounds with a large level of variation. For the purposes of the article I wanted to include a film clip of an explosion. Most people respond to visuals, so adding a film clip to watch helps convey the idea more easily. I chose a clip from a friend I have worked with of a mine exploding and added an appropriate sound effect. The effect was generated in FMOD as it would be in a game situation. I had set up the event to randomize the sound each time it played, so the explosion would always sound different. I recorded a series of this sound so I could choose which version I wanted to add to the clip. When it came to editing the clip I found lots of versions of the sound that worked really well. I added one to the clip and uploaded it for the article.
I realised that this single clip did not demonstrate FMOD’s ability to randomise the sound each time it was triggered, so I made a second clip where I edited the explosion to repeat 4 times. I added a different version of the sound to each explosion. This clearly demonstrated what FMOD was capable of, but when I previewed the clip I realised it also demonstrated something else. The sounds were different enough that they even give the impression that you are viewing four different explosions. Part of this is the way I edited the clip, but most of it is a result of the sound effects. For me this really highlighted the fact that sound and visuals are more closely linked than we give credit for and that one can often influence how the other is perceived.
For a long time I have worked towards reducing or removing repetition from game projects wherever possible, and I always try to produce high quality audio environments, but the example of the multiple explosions showed me how audio could go even further and be used to not just highlight visuals, but even alter how they are perceived. I would be interested to work on a game project where a level didn’t change visually but went through a series of transformations for the audio environment and see just how far you could alter people's perceptions without changing the visuals. Games are fantastic things to work on creatively because you can create worlds where almost anything is possible. Maybe you could even make a game where lots of repetition was entertaining, but I am doubtful.
Stephan Schütze has been recording sounds for over twenty years. This journal logs his thoughts and experiences