Sound Design: Planning

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For how important sound design—especially sound effects and their usage, as opposed to music or voice overs—can be, it often feels treated as more of an after-thought: something to fill in the void. However, I believe sound design should be integrated into the conversation relatively early into development, first as a more abstract “what roles do sound fulfill within the game”, and later more specifically what sounds are needed.

What roles do sound fulfill within the game? Sounds do not just add to the atmosphere or make a game more vibrant and exciting, but also relay information. While this may seem obvious, video games require a player to use their eyes to follow the game, their conscious mind to process it, and their hands to control the game, so it can be very helpful to complement information with sound and in short, take off some of the pressure put on one’s other facilities.

Of course, sounds fulfill many roles within a game, but as this is just a quick glance at the topic, I’d like to talk about how we can plan our sound design. First of all, I would ask two simple questions:

– Can information conveyed through text better be conveyed through non-linguistic visuals or sound

– Can information conveyed through visuals benefit from complementary sounds

If you find the answer is “yes”, consider the usage of sound. For example: in Legend of Zelda games, low health has an accompanying sound effect that can not only add tension, but also avoids giving you a pop-up of “your health is low!” and distracting you from the visuals. It can also be seen as a motivator to restore health.

Keep in mind that you can always go back if necessary after user testing indicates a positive or negative reaction to how you convey information.

Afterwards, consider the types of situations where sound effects may help, and perhaps even map them out in detail.

– Atmospheric: for example: ambiences, sounds from creatures in the surroundings, and general environmental sounds. A low health alarm, although informational, could also be considered to be part of this (as it plays consistently and is not tied to a specific action or event), but it ultimately depends on how you look at it.

– Player Actions: when the player takes an action, use an appropriate sound effect to indicate an action has taken place. This applies to menus, for instance. In situations where the actions may seem insignificant or unneeded, such as a “blip” when progressing dialog after a button press, consider making the sound effect optional, with the default being based on user testing. In situations where the action is significant, such as jumping, consider exaggerating the sound effect, e.g. like in classic games such as Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog.

– Complementary: include sounds that simply complement actions, such as footsteps for someone walking, or a “whoosh” sound effect for a sword swing. Sometimes these can double as player action sound effects: you probably don’t need a sound effect to indicate the player is moving because you already have footsteps in general. (Also, often times the game is more immersive if you try to make as many player action sounds complementary to the action themselves, but it’s not always feasible.)

– Interactions: when two characters, objects, etc. interact, there should often be a sound. As a designer, consider all types of interactions possible within your world. Create a consistent soundscape and logic to the sounds to help make the world “make sense” and be more immersive. I consider interactions different from complementary because these sounds don’t exist in a vaccum: two cars bumping against each other in a racing game, for instance. They’re also often more involved or important than sounds that simply bring the game to life, as they can be more complicated to program (e.g. if they’re dependent on certain properties of the objects interacting) or help relay gameplay-relevant information about what has happened.

These are just some examples, but I believe the vast majority of sound effects fall within these 4 categories. Afterwards, consider if the volume, panning, distortion, or other such elements of the sound can relay more information than it would alone.

While I would consider this the start of what a game designer should know relative to sound design, the knowledge we pick up in order to help plan, give general direction, and make a cohesive game is not the same as that of an expert, and so a dedicated sound designer/audio lead can really help not only bring a game to life, but help make it more polished, immersive, and accessible.