The beauty of a video game or the fluidity of character animations are often the first things that players will notice in a massively multiplayer game. That’s not entirely surprising considering the world you wish to explore and the character you want to be are fundamental to the experience. Alongside both of these components, sound plays a major part and it’s a part that’s often overlooked. I’m often guilty of taking for granted the noise my character makes when she walks through grass or when she battles certain creatures and yet without sound, no visual effects or animations would ever be truly satisfying. We don’t often learn about this unique area of the industry and so it’s with great pleasure that this week, I had the opportunity to speak to two of ArenaNet’s Sound Designers: Jerry Schroeder and Drew Cady.
In the video that ArenaNet have released today, they provide a fascinating look at not only how sound is recorded in Guild Wars 2 and Heart of Thorns, but how they go about creating them: all from within their very own recording studio. Whether it’s drawing fingers across the back of a bass guitar or using a bass bow across a wind chime, to create the ethereal sound that forms only part of the ambiance in Tarir, the video highlights the length the team is willing to go to to allow players to truly feel part of Guild Wars 2’s world.
I asked both Drew and Jerry why ArenaNet felt now was the time to show behind the scenes the work that they do. Drew answered.
“We really wanted to shine a spotlight on the work that we’ve been doing for two years. There has been lots of creating synthesis, stitching sounds together and iterating on skills. It’s a good sum up of what we’ve been doing” and what about Jerry? “I think visuals get a ton of attention - naturally - because it is the main thing you’re aware of when you see a game but bringing attention to the work that goes into sound design that goes into the game is important.”
It’s not surprising that Jerry should mention graphics being the first thing players notice and as I noted above, it’s also often touted as the main attraction to any product. Is sound considered the “silent partner” in the industry, due to the emphasis consumers often place on animations and flash effects? He thinks so.
“It’s kind of the back door. We can make games believable and people might not necessarily realize it. Sometimes an animator can work on an animation and might say to themselves 'It’s just not working' but we’ll say, 'let’s get a sound on there and take a look at it with the team.' Drew interjects. “I think as a sound designer you learn pretty quickly that no compliment is the best compliment on what you’ve done. It so naturally fits with what you’re seeing that the eye and the ear confirm they’re the same thing.”
Something that I’ve always found so appealing about sound and certainly a feeling that’s shared by my brother (he regularly keeps a Dictaphone in his pocket to record interesting sounds) is exactly how sound designers go about discovering a specific sound, for a certain thing, when it isn’t anything of this world.
“We always have our ears on” adds Drew “Even outside of work we both have our recorders with us - I think that’s important.” Jerry jumps in with his thoughts. “Heart of Thorns in particular from the very beginning - so many creature sounds and monster sounds in games - you’re tempted to go to the toolbox and say ‘Oh, I’m going to use a Bear sound pitched down or a Walrus'. We really made a point of trying to create these sounds as pieces you wouldn’t always associate with a monster. I found myself scraping objects together - things in the house that you’d never think about using."
Unsurprisingly, some of the most interesting and unique sounds in Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns have come about by accident and in one scene, early on in the video, you can see Drew using a cardboard box.
“I used a cardboard box that was a happy accident. Taking the recycling out and the lid scraped on the side of the box and it made this sound. It was screechy, had an energy to it that’s hard to get but it was papery and woody. That’s a Vinetooth - that was a heavy component in their layers.”
One of the larger 'Chak' creatures
Now picturing a Mordrem Vinetooth as a snarling cardboard box, I wanted to ask about how they know when they’ve found the right sound. Where an animator can utilise their own body to articulate a gesture or movement, it’s an entirely different process for a Sound Designer. What they want a creature to sound like could, potentially, be a lengthy pursuit of a sound that might not yet exist. To Jerry, where do you even begin?
“When we get an animation or we see concept art of a creature, people coming into the room probably think we’re really weird because a lot of the time we’ll act out. What would this thing sound like? We’ll experiment with our voice or an object and you kind of try to become that creature. You have to think abstractly and then begin to hunt.” and what about the Chak, one of Heart of Thorns most prominent creatures? “I ended up using these goofy mouth calls that hunters use to simulate injured animals. They worked great for some of the small Chak in particular.”
Is it always a case that you find the sound you’re looking for? “I think it’s about being OK with something that’s not entirely what you set out to get. It might not be relevant at the time but you’re building up a backlog for the next guy.” Drew steps in. “I’ve been here for 10 minutes making sounds - OK thirty-five minutes later you hit stop and you’ve got 20 different, unique sounds. Three of them I knew that I wanted, 17 I have no idea. Jerry will be like ‘Dude! These are great for this creature’.
Do either of them consider that sound design is different in a massively multiplayer game to that of an offline experience?
“You want to build that experience” says Jerry, “you spend so many hours and days of your life in this place, I feel it’s important to give the players something new whenever you can, even if they’re intimately familiar with the game. That makes us design with that in mind, as far as the number of variations and the number of ways things can be played back or how we adjust the mix based on what you’re doing. A lot of none-MMO design you’re giving the luxury of designing on rails to where you’ve got a very orchestrated experience where people will go in and you know pretty much what people will do.” Does Drew feel the same?
“Finding the balance between the super detail of ‘I’m just walking around the world and experiencing it’ or ‘I’m going to battle a dragon.’ - how can that be an epic experience, to make it visceral and compelling, whilst still having a level of detail right down to the footsteps.”
Don't Starve and The Maze Runner Concept Art .Two examples that make excellent use of sound.
Finally and before I finished talking to both Jerry and Drew and conscious of the fact I’d already taken up plenty of their time, I wanted to ask two quick questions: what games or films past or present have influenced their pursuit of sounds and how do they know when a sound might become annoying. Jerry took the lead.
“I’m really impressed with the sound design that I heard in Maze Runner. The creature sounds in that film were really good and I believe it’s the same lady that did work on the latest Godzilla. The mandible clicks. Game wise, a lot of indie games such as the simplicity of Don’t Starve. It’s really interesting to hear how they use musical gestures for the character.” What about annoying sounds? How do you know if a sound will eventually wear thin on players and is there room for going back and addressing them?
“Before I had my first child I said ‘OK, pick a name and you need to repeat it outside 50 times, really loud.’ I think a lot of it is that we have an open enough culture here and we play the game a lot so if people don’t like something, they let us know. You’re doing something you love and you do it for fun anyway and you want it to be right and something to be proud of.” To end the interview, Drew shared his thoughts.
“It’s working with the other team members in an open forum and that’s part of the fun of it. Iterating and working through the experience together to come up with something even better is more satisfying as an artist.”
Ten Ton Hammer would very much like to thank Jerry Schroeder, Drew Cady and Elizabeth Stewart for organizing and taking the time out of their very busy schedules to chat with us.
Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns is available now and alongside this, the soundtrack is yours to have.
To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Guild Wars 2 Game Page.