The Audio Magic Behind the Audio Magic
If you’ve ever watched a “making of” documentary about video games, then you’ve seen how game audio engineers use fancy microphones and software to turn everyday sounds into otherworldly effects: a dropped coin becomes a laser blast, and a dog’s bark becomes a dragon’s roar.
But have you wondered how those sounds actually get into the game? A video game can have thousands of sounds – who keeps track of them all, and who hooks them into the game engine so they play back at exactly the right time, by exactly the right characters and events? Who makes sure they sound perfect, no matter what the player might try?
I’ll tell you who does it: That’s the job of the Video Game Audio Implementer.
Chase Thompson has been an audio engineer since 2005, and has worked on best-selling game series like Halo, Fable, and Star Wars. We talk with him today to find out how he got started in his job as a Video Game Audio Implementer, and how you can start your own career working in video game audio.
What do you do each day as a Video Game Audio Implementer?
In simple terms, my primary responsibilities are making sounds play in the game, and building systems that help make the game sound better.
Sometimes that involves actual sound implementation, like hooking up sounds to animations, effects, and other various game events. But most of the time I focus my energy on systems work. That includes designing, testing, and using systems that directly affect the way the game sounds – acoustic simulation, reverb, high dynamic range (HDR) audio mixing, and more.
I also manage things like our data and content structure, our audio performance (how efficiently the game audio runs on the hardware), and the pipeline/workflow/implementation systems design that helps to make the work of implementing sounds more efficient.
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How did you get started implementing game audio?
The short version is that I previously did both sound design and implementation, but eventually became more interested in the technical aspects of game audio. So I started taking on as many of those types of tasks as I could, and focused on improving the technical and implementation aspects of my areas of responsibility. I eventually transitioned into my current role naturally in that way.
But how did you start in game sound design in the first place?
I started as an intern at Griptonite Games, where I got to do a variety of things and was often dropped into projects that were over my head. That was great for me because I gained experience in a ton of different fields, and it helped me realize what my strengths and passions were.
I eventually left Griptonite to work as a sound designer at Microsoft Studios SoundLab, where I was again dropped in over my head – but on even larger projects. This gave me a chance to go deeper into the technical/implementation aspects of game audio, and culminated with my time working on site at 343 Industries on Halo 4. I worked primarily on voiceover for Halo 4, but had the chance to briefly help out on a number of different types of sounds – weapons, environments, cinematics, and more.
After having worked in those systems, I found a lot of areas for improvement in the systems design and audio implementation for Halo, and was eventually hired full time to work on Voice Over. In that role, I helped build a new, automated Voice Over implementation pipeline. After establishing that new system, I started working on designing implementation systems for other types of sounds, and eventually just naturally transitioned into a more comprehensive audio implementation role, rather than focusing on voice over exclusively.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
My favorite part of my job is how varied my work is from day to day. One day I might be implementing game music for a new multiplayer mode, the next I might be fixing a bug with one of the vehicle sounds, and the next I might be helping design new and exciting technology with our programming teams.
My responsibilities have such a wide range, which seems to be really rare on large projects. There seem to be a lot of positions that get very specialized at larger studios, and my role covers a much wider range of skills and responsibilities than most others. I love always having something new and different to work on.
What’s your least favorite part?
One of my least favorite parts of my job is when we have to make difficult cuts to features in our game. While that is necessary – and often, good – it’s also extremely difficult and can be really disheartening. It happens on every project and it’s one of my least favorite things about game development in general. I always want to build the coolest, most exciting, highest quality experience possible, and sometimes we have to make difficult decisions to remove features or aspects of the game in order to ensure we can sustainably ship a high quality experience across the board. It’s always necessary and usually good, but also always incredibly difficult.
What part of your job would people find surprising?
I think people would be surprised at how audio implementation is so tightly integrated with sound design. Implementation is such a huge part of the design of the sound that the two are really inseparable. In order to successfully do either, you have to have a really solid understanding of both, and a solid integration of the two aspects of game audio.
Another thing people might find surprising is that more complex is not always better. In fact, my goal is to always hit the quality bar with the simplest possible solution. Sophisticated systems can be very fun and interesting to design and build, but the systems that have been most successful in my experience have been the simplest ones.
Stability and predictability in game development are hugely important – a simpler system will always be more stable, and that’s especially true for audio systems. Many times when I’ve designed a more complex system, the nuances and complexities often go completely unnoticed because they’re too subtle. The simpler systems are often much easier for the player to recognize and are successful much more often.
What talents and personality does it take to succeed as a Game Audio Implementer?
- Detail oriented
- Technically minded
- Ability to manage large amounts of data and a wide variety of technologies
What advice would you give to somebody considering a career as a Game Audio Implementer?
I know a lot of people who suggest taking a job you don’t really want in order to get your foot in the door. I’ve heard a ton of people suggest getting a job as an audio tester, or a tester in general. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that, and I find it degrading to people who want those positions.
What I will say is if you find yourself in a job that isn’t your ideal role, focus on doing that job really well, rather than focusing on how to get the other job you want. I’ve worked with far too many people who failed to complete their own responsibilities because they were too focused on the job they didn’t have.
The best way to get the job you want is to do such a good job in your current role that people start trusting you with more responsibilities. If someone can’t trust you in your current position, why would they trust you in a different one? If you’re taking a job as a tester to get your foot in the door, then be the best tester on the team and find bugs that the other testers aren’t finding.
What would you recommend for education to become a Game Audio Implementer?
I’m not much of a book learner – I learn much faster by getting my hands dirty in whatever I’m learning. But if you learn more quickly from reading, then find a book that will help you learn a game engine or a recording technique. That said, I do know a strikingly large number of game audio professionals who went to Vancouver Film School, and they all speak very highly of the education they received there.
Most employers aren’t picky about what school you went to or what books you’ve read. Audio is pretty unique in that way: I’ve worked with people who have degrees that are in totally different fields than their actual profession.
My advice is to just start doing whatever it is you want to do. That may sound easier said than done, but there are tons of resources out there that you can start using right now. If you want to do sound design, buy a cheap portable recorder and start by replacing all of the sound in a trailer for your favorite video game. If you want to do audio implementation, download Unity or Unreal engine (both are completely free) and start building your own game and hooking up sounds to it.
Find local people making smaller games and ask if you can help out, or ask them if you can use their project to practice hooking up sounds. There are tons of tutorials out there showing how to use those game engines, and the best way to learn them is to start using them.
You can connect with Chase Thompson via his online portfolio. If you liked this interview, why not help spread the word by sharing it with a few friends?