Audio Design


Without proper audio design, many games would feel flat and lifeless. I’ve been told this story many times, by multiple sources, but it’s always left an impression on me. During testing for a popular shooter, the developers noticed that one of the weapons was not being used often and testers told them that it just did not feel powerful compared to the other weapons. Now there are countless balancing issues that could come up with tweaking the damage or any other number of parameters to make a weapon feel more powerful. However, this isn’t the route that was taken. The bass was turned up on the weapon’s firing sound, without any other gameplay changes. This weapon then became many player’s favorite weapon. You cannot underestimate the impact of proper audio design. There are many common pitfalls that games make with audio, and some truly revolutionary uses of audio that react to the current game world.

Truly impactful audio will leave a lasting impression. The Mario games are an excellent example of memorable sound effects and music. The iconic noise of collecting a coin or one up successfully brings joy to countless people even when hearing it out of context. Investing time in audio design can often make a game more polished feeling than any other aspect. Another excellent example of audio design is the game Bastion. Some of the audio tracks in Bastion were created before the levels were finalized and their impact can be felt in the level design. Application of 3D sound can really improve immersion in a game. When used properly in horror games, the audio alone can be the primary driver of fear and unrest. No matter what type of game you create, carefully created audio can create positive memories.

Improper and under-designed audio can truly destroy a potentially great game. Repetitive sounds that grow to be irritating can cause one of the worst possible user experiences. This is often seen with lack of unique footstep sounds. An example of this can be seen in Range Man, a game I worked on. There were countless cannons that all fired cannonballs with a single audio clip throughout the majority of the levels. It’s so repetitive that I cannot play the game without muting the sound effects. Variation can really help with these type of audio issues. An excellent technique to apply is finding a musical scale to vary repetitive sound effects around. You will see this used in many games that have plentiful collectibles. Another common problem is unfitting music. One of my first games ended up having very serious sounding soundtrack that many users stated that it felt depressing. This did not bode well for a casual flash game about penguins. Additionally, proper audio level balancing can really make or break the overall audio experience. Make sure that no sound overpowers all of the others, important sounds aren’t too faint, and that the music doesn’t drown out all of the other sound effects. Avoiding common pitfalls in sound design is integral in creating a polished feeling game.

Many games are moving beyond static background music such as seen in other mediums. One example of this is the rhythm game genre. Games such as Guitar Hero and Audiosurf revolve around creating gameplay that is intertwined with the music. Many games are exploiting the game states to change the music dynamically. This can be achieved with layering of multiple tracks that fade in and out based off of how intense the gameplay the player is experiencing. Another technique that can be effective is creating short chunks of a song and fading between them based on the game world. Application of these more dynamic solutions can greatly reduce the repetitive nature that is often experienced in games with a limited audio soundtrack.

By creating impactful audio design, avoiding common pitfalls, and perhaps applying more dynamic designs, your game will feel truly polished and memorable. Truth be told, I have no musical talent myself, but I really appreciate games that invest in their audio design. Audiences are greatly affected by a game’s audio whether they realize it or not. A complete game has thought put into its audio.