Monday, October 29, 2012

Video Game Music: Player Immersion (Part II)

In Part I of this article, lead audio designer Gina Zdanowicz discusses how video game music enhances a player’s gameplay experience.  In Part II, she offers examples of diegetic and non-diegetic music in games.

A technique that is becoming more popular in games is diegetic music. Diegetic music refers to music that originates from within the game world. It’s always nice when a game score can incorporate epic music in the game world, but in real life when you are walking around in a park or on a beach, you don’t hear any music unless you have your headphones on. Diegetic music, although coming from an object within the game, can still set the mood of the environment.

Let’s take a look at some games that use diegetic music to enhance the player’s immersion into the game world.

Fallout 3 makes great use of diegetic and non-diegetic music. Characters in the game have wrist-mounted computers called the Pip-boy 3000, as well as radios scattered around the game world which play music and other broadcasts from in-game radio stations. If the player has their Pip-boy 3000 turned on, they have to be careful of the radio alerting NPC’s to their presence. When the radio function is turned off, non-diegetic background music is played through the game world.

Bioshock also uses a combination of diegetic and non-diegetic music, as well as no music, to set the mood. In the game’s opening scene, the player escapes from the plane wreckage to a lighthouse set on a small rocky island. The lack of music in this scene hints to the player the feelings of a desperate struggle to survive. After the player enters the lighthouse, music starts to fade into the scene. The music is coming from downstairs, which provokes the player to follow the music down the flight of stairs to find the radio in a bathysphere. The music plays two roles in this example: It gives the player a reason to move forward in the game, as well as sets the mood.

The use of diegetic music in Bioshock really underscores the dying city when the player enters a room with a scratchy, 60’s-era record playing. Diegetic music, which is used in place of orchestral background music, can be heard from around corners or can be muffled by doors.

Left 4 Dead allows a player to turn on a jukebox, which will attract a zombie horde. During this attack, instead of non-diegetic music playing, the jukebox music continues to play even if the jukebox is out of visual range.

Grand Theft Auto is, while cliché, a good example of diegetic music. Car radios broadcast different stations and songs that the player can choose to tune into while driving the vehicles in the game. After all, who doesn’t love riding in a car with the music pumping?

A diegetic switch is a technique which can be used to continue the diegetic music throughout the game. The music starts off as a diegetic broadcast from a radio or other source within the game, and as the scene changes, the music switches to a non-diegetic version of the same song and continues to play in that environment.

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time starts with the diegetic version of Saria’s as it directs the player through the lost woods maze. As the song grows louder, the player is aware that they are moving forward in the right direction. If they player goes off course, the song’s volume decreases, alerting the player to change direction. After the player learns the song, it becomes non-diegetic music in that environment.

As video games evolve, game music must also evolve, allowing for a cohesive integration for a seamless visual and aural experience, which will deeply immerse the player into the game world and keep them there until they press the pause button.

Gina Zdanowicz is the Founder of Seriallab Studios, Lead Audio Designer at Mini Monster Media, LLC and a Game Audio Instructor at Berkleemusic. Seriallab Studios is a full service audio content provider supplying custom music and sound effects to the video game industry. Seriallab Studios has been involved in the audio development of 60+ titles.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Video Game Music: Player Immersion (Part I)

In Part I of this article, lead audio designer Gina Zdanowicz discusses how video game music enhances a player’s gameplay experience.
Music has always been an important part of entertainment media. As gaming continues to evolve, game music is more heavily relied upon to integrate with the games visuals, to set the scene, and to evoke players’ emotions. Game music should affect the gameplay, and the gameplay should affect the music. The player’s actions influence the interactivity and evolution of the music, just as the music influences the player’s decisions during game play. This combination immerses the player deeper into the gaming experience.

One of the biggest challenges in creating music for video games is in understanding the limits of the game audio engines while trying to provide a seamless interactive experience.

Techniques such as varying tempo, genre, instrumentation and musical notes can set the perfect mood for each area of the game and tell the player exactly what emotions they should feel in those areas.

A layered score is a technique that has several streams with different instruments on each. Those streams should be composed so they are strong on their own and work well with the games visuals, but also be able to be mixed together with the other streams to evolve the music as the game play changes.

Music that builds to a crescendo can signal to the player there is danger just ahead. A boss battle may require more intense music with several layers of instruments and heavy percussion. After the boss is defeated, the music slows down in tempo and the instrumentation thins out, signaling to the player that the danger is no longer imminent.

Super Mario Brothers utilized increased tempo to signal to the player that time is running out, which evokes a sense of urgency to complete the level before running out of time. Dead Space 2 uses ambient soundscapes and a large orchestra to create an eerie, yet larger than life feeling. A small string quartet was used in the game to contrast the large orchestra and to portray the vulnerability of the main character.

Both music and visuals must be well thought out and tightly integrated to create a cohesive and ambient environment. A game’s pace is just as important as the musical build up that allows the player time to feel safe in order to deliver the next tense moment with impact.

When you take a look at how far music in gaming has come, it speaks volumes to its importance in the game industry. Music is no longer just set in the background of the game. Rhythm genre game titles such as Rock Band and Guitar Hero offer a twist on standard game play and offer music as the game.

Gina Zdanowicz is the Founder of Seriallab Studios, Lead Audio Designer at Mini Monster Media, LLC and a Game Audio Instructor at Berkleemusic. Seriallab Studios is a full service audio content provider supplying custom music and sound effects to the video game industry. Seriallab Studios has been involved in the audio development of 60+ titles.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

What is a Game Designer?

In this article, MMO developer Brian Green explains what exactly a game designer does in an organization and why a variety of skills is required for game design.

So, let's start with the basics: What is a game designer?

A Communicator

The primary job of a designer is communication. This means you need to get used to doing a lot of writing, meeting, and explaining. Really, your ideas are actually secondary to the main focus of explaining those ideas. A designer with mediocre ideas and great communication skills is better than a designer with super ideas and no communication skills.

Why is communication so important? If the designer cannot communicate their ideas, then those ideas are stuck in his or her head. Without good design, it is harder for implementers to coordinate and plan the project. The designer should also be able to identify details that the implementers might not consider.

Not Really the Idea Person

So, what about ideas? Most aspiring game designers are disappointed to learn that they won't get to be the "idea person" on a project. In fact, the direction of game project is usually already established by someone (maybe a senior designer), approved by executives (sometimes approving his or her own flawed idea), fleshed out in high level meetings, then passed down from the lead designer to a junior designer. Note that you will still have a chance to be creative, but you won't necessarily be suggesting sweeping changes and directly choosing which games will be made. You will probably be working on a smaller portion of the whole project. This is still an interesting job, however, and you should take the opportunity to learn as much as you can while doing your work.

Also note that most new designers are going to be working on the "second tier" type projects. These games include ports, sequels, and other games that aren't going to be as interesting to work on as the hot new high-profile brand. But, you have to start somewhere. As you gain experience and work into higher positions, you will generally be able to work on higher profile games and get more creative freedom, but will not necessarily call the creative shots. Even a lead designer will see many of the details about the core gameplay already decided for them. So, what does a designer do if he or she is not the "idea guy"?

An Organizer

One major responsibility of a designer, particularly a lead designer, is organization. A lead designer organizes the different thoughts that everyone has come up with prior to starting on the project. He or she has to consider how these different systems work together and organize them into a series of documents. The lead designer also evaluates all the ideas and offer feedback based on my experience, particularly the parts dealing with online-specific aspects. The lead designer will also organize documents for the Creative Director, Executive Producer, and other designers to review and work on. After all this organization, the lead designer will still have to work on the details of some of the documents themselves along with the other designers. Eventually the design documents will be handed to the implementers to make early versions and prototypes of the game.

Good organization makes it easier to collaborate on the design. For example, there may be the design for a general advancement system in place in addition to a general quest system. A designer should be able to point out that some concept prevents them from working together, or that the advancement system expects players to gain X experience per hour, but that the quest system states it will provide Y per hour. Good organization skills to understand the systems are what make this feedback possible.

A Researcher

When it comes to the creative part of the job, a designer has to evaluate and flesh out ideas already presented. If the game contains RPG-style combat, for example, a designer needs to evaluate ideas for viability. If the ideas are not feasible, he or she must bring up these issues to managers and perhaps even suggest a way to alter the idea to make it possible. Once the idea is determined feasible, the design team needs to fill in details. How do you do this? Research!

One of the most useful skills a designer can have is knowing how to find information. In this day and age, that means knowing how to use search engines, online encyclopedias, and wikis; of course, you need enough basic knowledge to know how accurate the information you find really is. However, don't be afraid to go to the old-fashioned physical library in your town as well.

It also means having an extensive knowledge of other games, and that means playing lots of games! You should play major games in the genre as well as a few offbeat ones and a good selection outside your project's genre. Having a grasp on other genres can help give you inspiration for design problems you will encounter. Just be careful not to fall into the trap of trying to copy existing systems wholesale without understanding the design choices that went into that work.
If you don't enjoy reading pages and pages information, synthesizing data to present to other people, and playing games, do not become a game designer.

A Jack-of-all-trades

Okay, so now we know in general what a designer should do, what does a designer do on a day to day basis? Well, this is harder to define because it depends on many factors, including the project, the designer, and the organization. Unfortunately, the industry really doesn't have standardized titles or job descriptions. So, you get a lot of specialized titles that may mean different things at different companies. The skills required for a "systems designer" (which is my strength) are very focused on math. A level layout designer (which I am hopelessly terrible at), on the other hand, should be much more visually-orientated and able to visualize things easily in his or her head. Note that some companies might expect a "designer" to encompass many different disciplines.

It's not unusually to think of a designer as a jack-of-all-trades, especially as many designers have worked into a design position from another discipline. A designer with an art background might be assigned to develop the user interface, or work closely with the Art Lead to develop color schemes. Designers with a mind for programming might dig into the scripting system and help with implementation. However, a truly great designer should have at least a working knowledge of every aspect of game development. Even if the designer can't draw detailed pictures or make a 3D model, knowing how these tasks are done can help them communicate their ideas. Many designers also come form the QA department; this can be very beneficial if the individual had exposure to multiple elements of the game. And, knowing how to write test plans can help make sure that a design can be adequately tested.

In addition, knowing the different areas of game development helps keep the project possible. I've heard numerous stories about designers with no programming ability making designs that cannot possibly be implemented within a reasonable amount of time. Aspiring designers should get involved in multiple aspects of game development in order to make sure their designs are actually possible.

Putting it all together

If you want to be a great designer, you will need a variety of skills. This is one of the reasons why it's so hard to really write an exact description of what a designer is, and why it can be very difficult to teach game design in a traditional structured setting of university classes. On the other hand, it's hard to have the resources to train someone on the job. Which is why it's important to be self-motivated to learn all you can about game design, because it can be hard if not impossible to learn any other way.

Brian Green, known by the pseudonym Psychochild, is an experienced MMO developer. He's the former developer of the classic online MMO Meridian 59 and a developer for Storybricks. More of his writing can be found on his professional blog.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Game Designers are Artists and Technicians – Because Life Requires Both

In this article, creative director Chris Swain indicates that game designers should have technical proficiency and creative storytelling skills in order to design successful entertainment games and other interactive experiences. 

Much has been said (and debated) about the “active” and “passive” nature of gaming and game design. Certainly, relative to storytelling in films and documentaries, the gamer takes an active role in the story outcome. But the game comes with a premise, characters, landscape and overall structure baked in. This then makes the gamer a willing participant in a scenario that is fully given to him or her from the game designer, who clearly works with a full cupboard of creativity.

Which brings us to the importance that storytelling bears in game design. The ability to construct a creative narrative needs to be at the core of a game designer’s skill set. Just as important, that creativity has to come from the knowledge and life experiences of the designer.

As an advisor to game design schools that include the New York Film Academy and formerly with the University of Southern California and co-author of Game Design Workshop: Designing, Prototyping, and Playtesting Games (Fullerton, Swain, Hoffman, 2004), I believe that successful students and ultimately professionals in game design have to be both technically proficient and creators.

Most people who enter a game design program know they want to be game designers. But they have to have both the technical aptitude and an artistic bent. I prefer to describe the vocation as a craft, but one that should be independent of the platform. The game should be something that can be applied to a board game. What they create should be very free form.

From my perspective and experience, it isn’t all about simple entertainment. I co-founded the EA Game Innovation Lab at USC, where students explore uses of interactive media, including games. The work of the lab includes broadening conventional wisdom about what games are and can be – work that has taken some surprisingly interesting turns.

An example of how a game/learning tool can work is The Redistricting Game  that I designed. The game explains the process of U.S. congressional district map drawing. While that may draw yawns from people who pay little attention to politics, there are many who claim the greatest power in America lies with the way congressional districts are defined. 

The process can influence which party ends up with the most seats in the House of Representatives. Each state is allowed to redraw its lines every ten years following the decennial U.S. Census, which determines where populations have changed. Each district represents a set number of people (the U.S. population divided by 435 House seats, roughly), so when a state loses or gains population it can eliminate or add a congressional district, requiring that the state be chopped up differently. What The Redistricting Game does is it allows the powers that be in a state (usually, the current governor or state legislature) take into account factors of population ethnicity, political affiliation and whether political friends or foes represent an area. The redistricting is done to the political advantage of those who hold power in the aftermath of the Census, however a handful of states allow this to be handled by an independent, non-partisan panel.

It may not be as sexy as Laura Croft: Tomb Raider. But if a reluctant student of government were given The Redistricting Game to play as a learning tool, it beats reading simple, dry text. The Redistricting Game illustrates the very nature of governmental politics: it’s a game to be won or lost. This is not unlike how things work in social and community groups and in workplaces. The lines between play and reality become blurred, as they have in many other parts of our culture in the digital, interactive age.

And it’s clearly why the business of storytelling is taking on greater importance in game design. Technical proficiency and knowledge is half of it. To be a creative and a storyteller, someone who can envision actions, reactions and consequences, intended or not, completes the equation. It’s a powerful combination.

Chris Swain is a leader in the games design and development industry, with two decades experience that includes building the Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California. His tenure at USC includes serving as an adjunct, assistant and research professor in the School of Cinematic Arts’ Interactive Media Division, where he developed award-winning interactive games developed for AT&T, the BBC and PBS television networks, The Discovery Channel, Disney, Intel, IBM and Microsoft.  He is the creative director in the Game Design program at the New York Film Academy.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

October 2012: Game Designer Skills

I was reading recently about technical failures due to miscommunication.  Did you know, for instance, that the Mars orbiter crashed because some design team members were using the metric system while others were using English units?  This had led universities such as USC and MIT to highlight the need for negotiation and people skills (or "soft skills") to their engineering students.

Very often, design teams will need to reach a consensus among themselves.  Despite having the same goal (be it to design the best car or the Mars orbiter), engineers will inevitably disagree during the process of design.  They may also need to interact with or present their ideas to non-technical teams.

Working on a team is a topic in itself. (See my chapter in Professional Techniques for Video Game Writing for more thoughts on that topic!)  The very multidisciplinary nature of game design ensures that "soft skills" are necessary.

What other skills do you think are preferred or necessary for game designers on the job?

Give me your thoughts.  Or if you have something longer to say (500-1000 words), send them to me as an article and I will post it up!