The judgement predicament of audio and graphics

Originally posted by Jens.
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The answer to this blog is probably going to be that the game industry dug this hole all by themselves and that we now have to live with it.

Since we released the first teaser of Penumbra: Overture in 2006 we have always received the expected comments “the graphics suck”, “looks dated”, “hmm, is this running on the Wii?” and so on and on. This has also echoed back in reviews, only with a bit more elegant phrasing.

Now four years later, the same pattern (slightly less to be fair) repeats for the teasers that we have released of our upcoming game, Amnesia: The Dark Descent. We have upped our graphics game, not only in technical fidelity, but also tremendous efforts has been made with the design and creation of the graphics, far above any of the Penumbra games. Sure, the game industry has taken the graphical technology and fidelity even further during this period, so our efforts are minimized by this. But even so, we have at least tried.

During the same period we have also enjoyed comments such as “the voices are great”, “best music evah!”, “the ambient noises scared me shi*beep*less”… again, repeated in reviews only with more elegance. For the Amnesia teasers so far this continues, with an almost 100% successful comment ratio for the audio. This is great! But it also puts a core problem out in the bright light, how different the audio is judged compared to the graphics.

I am not going to try and come up with any ideas as to why. That would be going beyond the introduction I make in this blog post. However, as the person in charge of the audio for our games, I feel compelled to give some details about the creation and technology behind it all. How the audio is made, who makes it, what resources we have to spend and what sort of technology that is used. As an independent developer, the resources are very limited, for graphics and even more so for audio.

For Amnesia I do most of the sounds, Mikko Tarmia creates the music and a new friend of ours, Tapio Liukkonen, makes the sounds that requires more time and skill. We also work with AudioGodz to get the voice acting done for the game. The money that we spend on audio is the bare minimum that we can afford to hire these people for as a short timespan as possible.

During a whole project I spend less than 20% of my time creating sounds, this is very little when thinking about the importance of the sounds in our games. I have to cut down on how carefully I create these sounds, I have a library of sound effects that I use to mix and I also record my own raw sounds. If any professional sound engineers were to see how I worked, they would laugh and take pity on me. At times I record things in the room where I have my computer, sometimes directly in front of it, from a noise ratio perspective this is a big NO. But with little time at my disposal, that is what I do.

With this in mind, I would say that the creation of the sounds can be quite sloppy, but in my own defense, having done sounds for games since my first attempt (menu music) in 1997, I think I have some experience and tricks in my pocket to rely on for an improved result.

The main computer that I use when I work with creating levels for Amnesia, including implementing the sounds into the game, is quite old. The sound card is a Soundblaster Live! from 1998, making it similar to what a Geforce 1 is for graphics cards. It has some capabilities that could be comparable to those of graphics cards, such as hardware support for effects like EAX (echo for example) and it can do 5.1 Surround sound. Other than that it is well, pretty old.

The sound technology is rudimentary in our games – play, stop, fade, pan, output 32 or so channels and apply some basic effects (the echo, all tough this is not implemented in Amnesia yet). That is basically it. Try to sum up the graphical features of a game engine this swiftly if you can!*

I could probably go on, but I think that the picture is getting quite clear, that from a resource, effort and technology perspective we are really limited in the audio department. But despite this, the ideas, design and how we implement the audio in the game has so far been very well received. I would argue that we are doing the exact same thing (ideas, design and implementation as key) for the graphics, only with more care and resources, but to an extent in vain.

For a first person type of game it seems that the audio is judged almost purely by the effect, mood and purpose, while the graphics are as far as I can tell, almost solely judged on a basis of technology and production value. There is also a side of it where the audio in comparison to other games does not matter as much for the overall “judgement”. While for graphics, the key comparison is how it compares to other games, regardless of development budget.

Why is this? Is it like this? Does it matter? Any comments except good job on slamming the audio of your own game?

*In all ego-fairness we DO have a lot of sound effects in our engine, for example a pretty advanced system for physics sounds. But these features do nothing special to the sounds other than changing volume and pitch. It is pretty much like having cool water effects in 2D pixel graphics. Yet, since it does the job, nobody seems to bother.