Creative Assembly’s Charles Pateman on how game audio differs from linear media

Charles Pateman is a sound designer at British video game developer Creative Assembly, and has previously worked on a number of award-winning titles. Here, he discusses how working in audio for games differs from linear media…

Audio production in games development is unique amongst its older more established peers. Whilst some parallels can be drawn with post production, its interactive nature turns things inside out and upside down.

The key difference? We are developers and not a service. Games are an iterative process and production cycles can run for periods of three years or more, during which the narrative and style can radically evolve. Being in the central development team means we’re part of that evolution and it increases our influence on the creative process; opportunities for collaboration are enormous and savvy sound designers are proactive enough to exploit this.

During pre-production, we’re tasked with conducting essential groundwork; planning field recording excursions and developing a palette of sound, creating previsualisations and audio concepting and devising the tools, workflows and systems we’ll need to create and implement the enormous volume of content each project requires. In this industry, our early involvement in a project becomes necessity.

Throughout production, we work alongside programmers, designers, writers, artists and animators and have an opportunity to influence their work as they do ours. In games, audio touches almost every discipline and this is especially true of narrative. Dialogue production is our responsibility and with no director in the traditional cinematic sense, our ability to influence narrative can exceed that of linear media.

Working in a development environment is not without its challenges. There’s no such thing as a locked picture and often features you thought were finalised are not so final after all. This is commonly through review or iteration, but every so often it’ll be an amendment by an eager developer with a perfectionist streak, which will upend your work.

Communication and relationships with other disciplines are critical to dealing with these issues. In games, we have the opportunity to develop these relationships and improve understanding of our craft across the wider team.

The Roles That We Play

Team sizes and composition vary between companies and projects, but will often scale throughout production, and outsourcing and contracting freelancers is common. There will always be a core team and the Creative Assembly console team currently comprises a lead sound designer, two seniors, a senior audio programmer, a sound designer, an associate sound designer and audio QA specialists.

Specialisation of roles does exist in games – evident with the dialogue engineers and music designers on our Total War team – but sound designers are usually proficient generalists. We need to be able to tackle anything thrown our way including field recording, shooting Foley, and working to picture as well as having some technical skills, implementing our own content and fixing bugs.

Audio programmers are an essential component of our team, but aren’t necessarily found at every studio. Working on features which require code support, bug fixes, developing tools and even plugins for middleware; they tackle the more technical challenges in code which sound designers cannot fix in the game engine’s toolset and audio middleware.

While Audio QA aren’t as common in the games industry as they arguably should be, it’s a role I’m happy to say we have at Creative Assembly. QA play an essential role in games and specialists who understand the intricacies of audio as well as the specifics of implementation are critical to creating a mix which will stand up to the stresses the player might put it through.

Designing Something That Mixes Itself

How games are mixed had long been a mystery to me before entering the industry. The mix happens in real time during gameplay, so how can it be done competently when you yield control to the player and the game unsupervised?

It isn’t necessarily about what we can control though, it’s about what we can harness. A game can produce oodles of data during gameplay and this is what we use to drive mix decisions. The distance between an object and the camera will drive volume attenuation, dynamic EQ or apply filtering. Priority systems can dictate what sounds play and which are culled and the number of a particular object on screen at one time could dictate whether an individual or group sound is played.

With content added throughout production, regular mix passes are required and in this sense the nonlinear nature of games is reflected in workflows.

You can find some parity with post production workflows in content creation, but only on a micro scale. Each game feature has its own little production life cycle; from concept to design to art to animation to VFX to audio and review. This isn’t to say that everything is developed in isolation as what matters is how features work in context with everything else, not just creatively but technically too.

The limitations of the intended platform or the consequences of a game mechanic may force you to make tough decisions about your designs, but I find that this is where some of the best creativity happens. Maybe I’m just weird, but for me the constraints are part of the appeal and I like a technical challenge as much as a creative one – especially where the two meet.

Charles Pateman is a sound designer at Creative Assembly who has worked on titles including Halo Wars 2 and Total War: Warhammer II, part of the multi-award-winning Total War franchise.

Richard Beddow, Creative Assembly’s audio director, also recently put together a video on the range of specialisms within game dev audio, which includes Foley footage from a number of blockbuster titles. The video can be viewed here.