Not too long ago, the Computer Game Developers Conference (GDC) was a shockingly small affair. Audio vendors like Roland, Mediavision, and Creative Labs were using fold-up tables with a banner. In 2008, videogames are a $19 billion industry, and last month's show took up the entire North and West halls of San Francisco's Moscone Center. More than 18,000 game designers, graphic artists, business people, and — most interesting for us — composers streamed in to learn about the latest techniques for creating interactive entertainment. And more than a dozen companies were showing off new audio technologies.

As hardware has advanced, developers and players alike are taking game audio more seriously. The sawtooth melodies and white-noise percussion of the past have been replaced by symphonic scores recorded by large orchestras — or sometimes by individual composer/performers with "laptop symphonies." Let's hear what the experts at GDC 2008 had to say about the state of audio in games, and then dive into some of the technology advancements that are changing the interactive audio landscape.

GDC Crowd
More than 18,000 video game developers stormed GDC 2008, making it the biggest gathering ever. (Photo courtesy of the Game Developers Conference.)

Music That Listens to You

In my role as chairman of the Interactive Audio Special Interest Group (IASIG), I'm fortunate to have access to some of the best and brightest in game audio. IASIG started at GDC 13 years ago to solve problems that face game-audio professionals, and each year we return to collect more ideas and then launch working groups to implement them. The reverb design in the Xbox, for example, was the result of an IASIG working group's efforts.

But first, what is "interactive" audio? Put simply, unlike most music we listen to, interactive audio almost never sounds the same twice. The soundtrack — music and effects — changes based on the player's behavior in the game. That can go a long way toward keeping the experience fresh and exciting over the 40 hours or so a player might spend with a typical game.

Composer DS Wallace told me he sees game scores becoming much more artistic. "One positive change taking place is that in the past, programmers were the ones who controlled the music and audio," he explained. "It's not really their fault, but games can suffer without an artistic hand managing the music. Today, games like BioShock are breaking this cycle by really doing things outside of the box and having the music interact more with the player's actions."

Another well-known audio professional, Scott Gershin of Soundelux, spoke about raising the bar in sound design. He emphasized how important it is to understand timing, and how the rhythm and pace of scenes and the story affect the experience in its entirety. He said that a sound designer needs to provide contrast in sound just as one would do in picture by mixing high and low frequencies at the right time. "When a train goes by, I want to hear the subwoofers fire," he insisted.

Three Screens, No Surround
Even with three screens, video has a long way to go before it matches the immersiveness of surround sound. (Photo courtesy of the Game Developers Conference.)

Marty O'Donnell, who composed the music for the Halo games, is about as well known as it gets in this industry. During a GDC session called "Composer Tips and Tricks for Creating Interactive Music," O'Donnell urged composers to think like a composer and write the music first, and then think like a music editor while integrating the music into the game. He also offered a helpful tip for those wanting to analyze what he did in the Halo 3 soundtrack. By using the Xbox's ability to capture a "film" of a gameplay session, you can replay the same scene several times and compare how the music changes. In the live demo he played, the music sounded totally natural, stretching and flowing to enhance the character's actions.

It's important to note that the views of each of these professionals (and others) at GDC relate. They all point to the importance of having, or developing, both a micro sense and macro sense of what's happening in the game and adjusting to meet those needs. But while aesthetics are more important than ever, it's the steady advance in technology that enables composers to produce the lavish, modern soundtracks in today's games. Here are some of the audio advancements I saw this year at GDC.

D-Box
The D-Box piston-powered chair, kicking butts and playing games.

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