Here at MMORPG.com, we often talk about a number of different aspects of the games that we cover. We talk about graphics, animations, gameplay, combat and more, but rarely, if ever, have I had the opportunity to spend an entire article talking about sound.
Fortunately for me, during my recent trip to their studios, the folks over at The Chronicles of Spellborn were kind enough to grant me some time sitting down with Matthew Florianz, the game's Sound Designer who was kind enough to talk with me about sound's contribution to their game.
Florianz himself is friendly, knowledgeable and has a real passion for what he does. Occupying one of the few personal offices (a necessity when you're working with sound) that I saw on my tour through their studio, Matthew is responsible for the overall sound of the game.
Present, but not irritating
The most important thing, I was told, is that players should be able to ignore the sounds in the game (or any game, really) if they want to. According to Matthew, sounds in a game should be, "present, but not irritating".
It's happened to all of us at one point or another, we've been playing a video game and the sounds are jarring enough that you're always aware of them. Not sub-consciously, but right there, annoying us and tending to force us to turn the volume down or off entirely. It can be a frustrating experience for the player.
So, how does Spellborn handle its sounds so that they are "present, but not irritating"?
TCoS uses non-looping music. That means that any song in the game is going to play through once and then, stop rather than looping endlessly as you make your way though a zone. As a default, music is set to play when you first enter a shard. Players will also be given the ability to control when the music plays. If they so desire, they can set the music to play at specific intervals. Really,TCoS puts the sound choices in the hands of the players.
"An assumption that we make," says Florianz, "is that games have to have music playing all the time."
Instead, The Chronicles of Spellborn uses their music more sparingly to set the tone of their game, while it's the ambient sounds that really pick up the slack in terms of audio.
According to Wikipedia, a man named Brian Eno was the first to use the term "ambient music" to describe music that "would envelop the listener without drawing attention to itself, that can be either 'actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener'." The same description can easily be applied to Ambient Sound. The goal, is to provide sounds from the world around the players that will either, blend seamlessly into the background ("easily ignored") or be "listened to with attention."
Anyone taking the time to listen with attention to the ambient sounds present in The Chronicles of Spellborn will, I think, be pleasantly surprised. The sounds are crisp and vibrant and really do help to make you feel as though you have stepped into Spellborn's game world.
From all of the sounds that I heard while sitting on the couch in Matthew's office, I think that my favorite, and the one that made me realize just how intricate a sound design for an MMO can be, is the sound of rain.
The thing is, rain is a sound that we often take for granted. We all know what it sounds like, and often that sound is what we get in games. Spellborn goes the extra mile. When Matthew first showed me the rain, I thought "yup, that sounds like rain". Then, he moved underneath a tent that had been set up along the road. The sound changed. Instead of just hearing the sound of rain outdoors, I actually heard the sound of rain hitting the canvas. It made me think of spending nights laying in a tent, listening to that sound, hoping my cheap Wal-Mart tent would last the night (it didn't).
You can find an exclusive video that highlights this point here. This video was created by Florianz specially for this article.
The point is that the ambient sounds in TCoS are very well thought out, created and implemented. According to Florianz, there is currently over eight hours of ambient sound, gathered through either physical recording, or sampled from a sound library.
Each zone in the game contains somewhere between 700 and 3,000 individual sound sources, placed strategically to create and maintain the atmosphere of that particular zone.
As has been reported, the music for The Chronicles of Spellborn was composed by Jesper Kyd. For anyone who might not be familiar with that name, Kyd has worked on games like: Freedom Fighters, Kane & Lynch: Dead Men Unreal Tournament 3, Hitman, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and more. He has won awards such as: IGN.com's 2006 Best Original Score Award and The 2005 BAFTA Best Original Music Award. From what I've heard, his contribution to TCoS lives up to his resume.
Kyd's music for TCoS has an almost Celtic kind of feel to it, and makes frequent use of single instruments that seem to represent the players and the people of the world.
The design of the game is such that many conventions and expectations are being innovated upon to create something familiar to MMORPG fans, but not the same. Kyd's music is no exception to this.
When they were looking at composers for the game, they were looking for someone to create a "unique sound for music", and Kyd didn't disappoint, presenting wonderfully rich music that makes use of a number of different instruments to capture the essence of the game, of exploration and adventure, discovery and danger.
As mentioned before, while sound is an important part of any MMORPG, it is often overlooked in discussions of development. I was once told by a technical theatre teacher at my University that you can always tell a good sound design by whether or not it was mentioned in the reviews. If a reviewer brings attention to it, there was probably something wrong. If nothing was said, then the job was done perfectly.
In the case of The Chronicles of Spellborn, the music and the sound are such that they blend nicely in with the game world that the developers have created; present, and actually quite pleasing.
As an added treat, the guys over at Spellborn have released a video and a number of sound tracks for our listening pleasure:
|Video Diary: What Lies Beneath Must Be Sound
In this video diary the developers of The Chronicles of Spellborn talk about sounds in their upcoming game.