Crank it up! Social Gaming Needs Great Sound!

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By Nicholas Day, Creative Director, Plarium Kharkiv

Gaming audio has evolved dramatically in recent years. Audio engineering, editing, mixing and modern game composition are held to the self-same standard. Oftentimes the same folks who create Hollywood blockbusters are involved in lending their talents to AAA titles. Guys like Hank Azaria, Liam Neeson, and Snoop Dog are some of the more well-known voice talents out there.

Gaming is no longer the exclusive domain of nerds; it has evolved into a multi-billion-dollar industry. It's a fusion of artistry and blistering entertainment. The sound that goes into creating engaging social games includes high-end audio, quality vocals and awesome music. Some folks may even be anticipating Games of Thrones: Season 23 in the form of an interactive audio-visual entertainment masterpiece streaming on PS10s.

Social gaming has been hailed by some and dismissed by others. Some games even gained Grammy award nominations for their audio, including Heavy Rain, Assassin's Creed, Journey and Messy Effect. Social gaming is attempting to find a balance between profitability, gameplay and its place in the gaming world. There is no doubt that social gaming has exploded onto the scene, with mobile games and social games leading the pack.

Audio has not featured prominently in what constitutes a good gaming experience. This begs the question: is audio really all that important when it comes to playing social games on Facebook? Here at Plarium we answer that question with an emphatic yes. Our games have been jacked up to the max with the finest quality audio in the business. Stellar audio allows us to provide players with top-tier Facebook games like Soldiers Inc.

What's the Deal with Audio in Social Gaming?

Many gaming developers have not placed all that much emphasis on audio in social games. Consider the fact that most players typically play for short amount of time, with multiple browser windows open simultaneously. A lot of players actually even have their own music playing in the background. Some mobile players turn their audio off, because they are in a public setting. Up until recently there have also been loads of technical limitations on what can be done with audio. For example, mobile and browser games have to work within very narrow parameters in terms of bandwidth, hardware requirements, and storage capacity if they’re going to work on all devices and computers. If players are forced to choose between audio and graphics, the latter always wins out.

This may have sufficed for many social games, but players are becoming more demanding. Players expect high octane entertainment, and an all-round audio-visual experience. Technology is catching up too; limitations are few and far between. Broadband is quicker, hence it processing power is increasing and people with broadband connections are everywhere. Now is the time to re-examine the role of audio in social games!

Superior Sound for Social Games

Social gaming is quickly bridging the gap between traditional platform offerings, and it's important to revisit the sound issue. When we launched Total Domination back in 2011, this MMORTS game included voice-overs in 7 languages. This was no small undertaking. It wasn't great, and certainly not ground-breaking, but it was a bold move. Our game was more interactive, more engaging, and filled with humour. We wanted to drive home the message of content that was more exhilarating, and it worked. We made some noise!

The goal has always been to create and deliver an immersive experience to our players, and thanks to superior audio we can do precisely that. Audio makes it easy for us to add content; much easier than in-game animation or CGI cinematics. In Stormfall: Age of War we included a deeper storyline in the voice-over content, and we upgraded the quality of the music. Of course there were some audio bugs along the way. In spite of this, the voice-over work won the admiration of our players, as the game theme could now be tied to the storyline, and the real world. Our main TD character, Oberon, made everything more real for players as he explained the tutorial in depth. It was his performance that really elevated this game to a whole new level.

Knowing how successful the audio work was in Total Domination, we knew that Soldiers Inc could only benefit from enhanced audio. With Soldiers Inc, we wanted to maintain what we had created, and Ed music to complement the darker underlying theme of the game.

This was essential for it to resonate with its hardcore gaming audience who were used to games like Call of Duty, StarCraft in Command and Conquer. In those titles and many more like him, music is an integral part of the game. It is a complex process adding audio components to a social game. For example we needed things like streaming audio from separate servers (this is to improve quality without piling on loading time), ducking down music during sound effects, adding random delays in between song loops, and adding musical stingers in the form of in game audio queues for action scenes. We used Flash to assist us in this regard, and it's certainly more cost-effective than you might imagine.

Your Audio Team

Consider your needs and your budget before you assemble and audio team. What sort of capabilities do you need? How long do need them for? An in-house studio can easily cost $100,000. Add in the human resources necessary for staffing it, and your costs can skyrocket. Most studios can save lots of money on staffing and set up by working with outside contractors. Plarium has partnered with some of the best in the business, by soliciting advice on LinkedIn, gaming forums and other professional people. We spread our non-musical audio work between sound design and voice-over. We utilise a studio in New York City for most all of our voice-over work, and they bundle recording, casting and studio time as well as mastering of voice-over content.

It's important to work with people who understand your needs, and whose experience allows you to tap into a rich resource pool by doing this, we retain creative control, and we work with people we trust. We communicate via Skype – reducing re-recording costs and travel costs. We also experimented with local studios in Eastern Europe, with talented engineers available at less than $1000 per project. The problem was that too many iterations were required. There are quality sound studios throughout the world, not only California. For example you will find great value for money in Poland, the Czech Republic, Canada, Spain, Israel and Asia. You can have a global studio by coordinating work with technicians and in-house specialists directly. With the Internet, a global studio is certainly possible.

How to Find the Perfect Composer?

It can be quite an undertaking finding the right music for your project. The problem is not so much the budget, or your audience, but the quality of talent available. It is important to specify what you need to get would you want. We started with approximately 10 names, including Jesper Kyd. We heard great submissions, but Kyd was the best for our purposes. His sounds were unlike anything else we have ever heard and then matched our needs accordingly. Jesper successfully delivered a darker, morally ambiguous landscape with effusion of military and heroic themes.

Summing Up

Does great audio make a difference? At the time that we released Soldiers Inc, the preliminary feedback was amazing. Players agreed that the music drew them deeper into the game and it was worlds apart from the cartoon-style feel of many social games out there.

Our audio is still on, and we're adding lots more into the mix. We have the technology for the best sound, and it only gets better day after day. Social gaming is the new frontier, and players expect a complete audio-visual package. High-speed Internet, better hardware and superior gaming technology is here to stay. Plarium is ready to lead from the front!