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A Chat with Omni Interactive Audio's Keith "Mayson" Sarasin had the chance to ask ten questions of Alistair Hirst, Co-Founder of Omni Interactive Audio, the company that (among other things) has provided sound for the Guild Wars franchise.

A Chat with Omni Interactive Audio

Thank you for doing this interview for us! Could you please tell us a little bit about Omni, and what you do at the company?

Alistair Hirst:

Omni Interactive Audio was founded five years ago by myself and Robert Ridihalgh, after we left EA. We had both been been at EA for a long time (10 years for me), where we worked mostly on the Need for Speed franchise. We were getting pretty burned out on racing games, and liked the idea of setting out with our own company where we could work on a wider variety of games, and with a broader group of developers.

In terms of our business roles, I'm the head of the company, and do the sales and marketing type stuff, while Robert is more involved in finance and operations. Creatively, I act as Audio Director for the company, making sure that we keep our quality high, and building a strong team, and Robert and I overlap in some of these areas. I also compose on the projects where we are responsible for the music, along with Matt Ragan.


Omni has done all the sound design for all of the Guild Wars games thus far. What has the experience been like?

Alistair Hirst:

ArenaNet is a really great company to work with - they've got a strong vision of where they're going, and how to get there. They have some incredibly talented and smart people working there. We got involved on Guild Wars about a year before the release of the first campaign, and we've had a lot of fun creating the soundscape for that world. We work very closely with ArenaNet. I go to the weekly leads meeting, and we've been involved with the design of the audio engine as it evolves. We also work with the designers to make sure we're supporting their vision, and have regular contact with the artists to keep in sync with the art.

What are some of the challenges your team faces when doing a big project like Guild Wars, or even an expansion like Eye Of The North?

Alistair Hirst:

One challenge with big projects, including Eye of the North which has an enormous amount of assets, is keeping track of everything, so nothing falls through the cracks. As soon as we find out about something that needs sound from the artists, like a new creature, or skill for example, it goes into a database, which tracks it's progress through our pipeline, until it gets put in the game. Then we'll also flag it for tweaking if we notice that it needs more attention during gameplay testing.

Another challenge is getting the balance of sounds right - it's such an enormous world, that it's tough to get around everything while testing to make sure it's all working and balanced properly in the mix.

Suppose an MMO company comes to you with a new project and contracts Omni to do the sound design. What kinds of things do you look for when deciding on the creative direction an MMO would take?

Alistair Hirst:

The creative process starts with looking at the design documents, and talking with the designers to get a sense of the overall vision they have for the product, and the "vibe" they are going for. A lot of what we do supports the graphics that the artists have come up with, and then we try and extend that out to the "unseen" part of the game, beyond the screen. It's attention to details like that, that help suck the player into the world by making it more immersive.

Aside from Guild Wars, what are some other gaming titles that you guys have worked on in the past?

Alistair Hirst:

We've worked on quite a wide range of titles: The original version of Need for Speed for 3DO up to Hot Pursuit 2, NHL Rivals, Men of Valor, the cinematics on Halo 2, and a few things on Sims 2. In terms of MMO's, we worked on one of the early MMO's, Motor City Online, and Ultima X Odyssey, which was ultimately cancelled. We also did a lot of sound effects for Vanguard.

Any new products you can talk about that Omni's currently working on?

Alistair Hirst:

We are obviously currently finalling Eye of the North, getting the final sounds done and then getting it polished. We've been working on Gods & Heroes: Rome Rising, and just finished recording exotic ancient instruments for the soundtrack, which have come out really well. We'll be starting on another project very soon that we can?t talk about just yet, writing a really interesting score that will deviate from typical game music, as well as doing the sounds for the weapons and vehicles. We've been out on a number of recording sessions with guns already, and will be recording tanks and trucks later this month. We're also doing a fun little project for EA called EA Playground.

How is creating sounds for an MMO different from doing sound for a console game?

Alistair Hirst:

The biggest difference is dealing with the more limited RAM on the consoles, especially Wii. We can't go as crazy as we do on an MMO with variations on all the various sounds, and so have to use other tricks to make the most of the RAM that do have available to store sounds in. Having the hard drive available on a PC is a nice luxury too, for streaming music and sounds on demand. You have to be a lot more careful with streaming on consoles where there is no hard drive, because a lot of the time they'll be streaming art or geometry too. On the PC side, having to account for a wide range of systems means we have to pay close attention to prioritizing sounds, so that on lower end machines the most important sounds are guaranteed to play, and on higher end systems we can then add in all the other sounds that fill out the world more. On a console, the spec is obviously fixed, so we know exactly what we're dealing with in terms of performance and resources available.

Describe for us what happens in the average day of a sound designer at Omni?

Alistair Hirst:

We have bi-weekly meetings where we go over the status of the various games, and divvy up the work. We have a great team with a diverse set of skill sets, so some guys who are better at synthesis might focus more on creating magic sounds for example, and another may be out in the field recording source material for weapons, and a third might be in a studio recording voice-overs. Part of the day might be spent reviewing another sound designers work, to give them constructive criticism and feedback. Sound designers, just because of the nature of the work tend to spend a lot of hours by themselves in a room, very focused on what they're doing. You can sometimes lose perspective like that, so running your sounds by another set of ears for some fresh ideas often helps take them up a notch, or gives you an idea for a fresh approach if you're stuck.

For individuals who are interested in the area of sound design, what recommendations would you have for them to break into the industry?

Alistair Hirst:

I would really recommend getting a good education, that fully trains you in all aspects of audio, which to me would be a four year degree. Many of the one year programs are fairly useless as it applies to game audio - they cover how to use huge mixing consoles, because they look impressive, but neglect things like Digital Signal Processing, and many of the numerous interesting plug-ins that we use on a day to day basis. The other thing they don't cover is the "why" of sound design, of choosing or manipulating sound sources to get the emotional reaction you want, so there is some cross over there with film sound. Basic programming is also a must have, if you want to deal intelligently with game programmers, and for being able to understand the tools and processes used to get your audio in and working well in a game.

To break in, I'd recommend finding people working on mods, or students working on game projects and offer to do the sound for their game. XNA Studio from Microsoft is a really great thing, allowing people to get in and start learning, and with people making their own small games to break into the field, there is an opportunity for aspiring sound designers to make good connections there. Going to conferences to network can also be very helpful.

One other avenue in is to get a job as a tester in a large company, and use that to make connections with audio guys in the company, but you need to have spent the time learning the fundamentals of digital audio, sound design and programming. I've mentored two people out of testing positions, and they've gone on to very successful audio careers in the industry.

How has Omni Interactive Audio grown over the years, and what are some of the challenges you have faced along the way to the top?

Alistair Hirst:

We started with us two co-founders, and have been slowly adding people on a sustainable basis, being very picky about who joins the team. Consequently we've had very low turnover in the team. We haven't had too many challenges (yet), perhaps because we had such a long track record in-house at EA before we went out on our own, so we already had a lot of experience and contacts in the industry, and were comfortable working as a team. We've also been lucky to land some really great projects, which keeps people happy. Like any business, it's hard to cut through the media overload and reach potential clients with advertising. Our biggest challenges have been working with the occasional disorganized or poorly managed developers, but we try and counteract that by being very organized with what we control on our side, and trying to keep clear communication a priority.

Thank you VERY much for taking time out of your busy schedule to answer some questions! We wish nothing but the very best for Omni going forward.