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Industry Insights: How to Ace Your Game Audio for an Alpha Launch

9 Jul 2024
This has been reposted with permission from IGDA Studio Affiliate Unlock Audio. The blog was written by Jon Ruse.

Alpha releases are a vital opportunity for developers to put their gameplay through its first big test—and no alpha gameplay is complete without a decent degree of sound design to draw players in and set high expectations for the game’s full release.

As impressive as it would be to have full and flawless audio at the alpha launch stage, reaching that level of polish depends on the finalization of other aspects that are typically still being created or optimized, such as key animation timing. Our discipline requires ongoing collaboration to meet developers’ evolving needs. That said, we do have several methods at our disposal to design and deliver an impressionistic audio mix to satisfy the needs of alpha demos that spill with style.

Step with me into the world of alpha-level game audio drawing on examples from our Unlock Audio team’s explosive work for Studio369’s open-world FPS mech battler MetalCore, which made its demo debut with a live tournament at Gamescom.

 

Prioritize Essential Sounds

In its finished form a game might require thousands of unique audio files to fill out its soundscape, but these libraries take shape over the full development cycle. At an alpha stage, the game is not yet complete, but key features and functionality are at a playable point where feedback from audiences outside of a QA environment would be incredibly valuable for pre-launch optimization.

Of highest importance are early player impressions. Does the gameplay meet their expectations of challenge or ease? Are the sample story elements grabbing their attention or lacking impact? How immersed could they see themselves in the experience when the full game releases?

Baseline immersion is crucial even for an alpha release—and audio plays an ever important role in the player experience. Essential sound design provides key sensory feedback where visual cues alone could be overlooked. Here’s where we as sound designers can help prioritize what assets are necessary upfront to meet the basic, multisensory needs of alpha game testers.

Consider the primary points of interaction throughout your demo. User interfaces are often unavoidable, whether they are menu screens or HUD controls from the pilot seat of your in-game mech, so make those a top priority for even some simple sound design to start. Then take stock of the core elements of the world inside the game, from environments to items and materials to key gameplay interactions, and determine how to first fill the awkward silence before getting overly detailed in your mix.

 

Limit Your Variations

Once you’ve outlined the primary instances where sound would be sorely missed, it’s time to assign selections from your library to fill in the gaps. Here’s where developers can take advantage of certain efficiencies and allow sounds to carry their weight where nuance is a nice-to-have rather than a must.

 

Cover your bases first so that pistols don’t sound like rifles and vice versa.

The gunplay of MetalCore is a great example with its massive variety of weapons to choose from, both manual and mechanized. Addressing every variation of pistol, rifle, or cannon upfront is a lot of unneeded stress and would likely require more widespread adjustment as developers work through playtester feedback prior to beta or full release.

While keeping the full variety of later sound needs in mind, an alpha release won’t suffer from its  full arsenal of pistols sharing only a couple of firing sounds or a mid-size mech cannon sounding similar to a large. These will all get their own unique treatment in time, but alphas require just enough variety to build a sense the game is headed in the direction of being something really special when it reaches launch.

 

Prioritize initial categories before spending time on variations (e.g., main weapon types before scaling their sounds for different mech sizes).

In a similar sense, we also took a simplified approach to MetalCore’s environmental audio for the alpha. While the completed game will feature an immense amount of sonic detail that is perfectly placed throughout its open-world environment, for test purposes we filled the silence with general ambients and sounds of nearby battle in stereo. This way players can experience a consistent sense of space as they play while not being bogged down in every little sonic texture or feeling like they’re playing in a void.

 

Our use of rising Shepard tones helped energize certain loops. 

In instances where sounds might feel distractingly repetitive such as short walk cycles, automatic weapon fire, or tight rhythmic loops, minor variation can help fight the sensory fatigue. We looked to other sources of inspiration to introduce subtle dynamic effects where repetition was a risk, including the use of Shepard tones to give a constant illusory sense of upward sound escalation—a tactic used heavily by Hans Zimmer in his score for the movie “Dunkirk.”

 

Pursue Personality Over Polish

None of what I’ve shared is an excuse for shoddy sound design. It’s all about pouring the right energy into the right elements at the right time. The phase after alpha testing leading up to the full release is critical for delivering the finesse that solidifies a studio’s creative vision, so it’s important to not spend all that collaborative fuel too early and cause a disconnect in our final products.

Where early effort counts most is in elements that lend originality to the game. When prioritizing your alpha audio mix, pay special attention to the features that could benefit from extra creativity or ingenuity to instill that special something that grabs playtesters’ intrigue.

For example, Metalcore features many weapons that are standard to first person shooters, but it would be strange to reinvent the sound of something already so familiar. A rifle should sound like a rifle, and there are plenty of sound libraries to draw upon for quick treatment. Unfamiliar elements are our biggest opportunity to be inventive with the original nature of any game.

The real world doesn’t have a ready supply of building-sized mechs or plasmoid laser weapons to capture sound samples from, so it’s on sound designers to compose larger-than-life effects from whatever sources we have available. These are the kinds of assets that have us throwing our all into experimentation to create something new and give a unique sense of personality to the game. For MetalCore’s larger-than-life mechs, we leaned heavily into pitch-bending and copious reverb atop samples of various metal stresses to sell their sheer scale by sound alone.

 

 If it looks big, it should sound big, 

and Metalcore’s mechs needed to sound massive.

We also honed in on original elements of MetalCore’s in-game terrain. The world of Kerberos features areas with large crystalline deposits which make for really cool looking battlefields. While we made sure the more earthen battlefronts sounded earthen, we got to explore more unusual sources and effects when it comes to fighting for factions among these glassy mineral deposits. Where many FPS games feature the sounds of shattering window panes, here we dove into a far denser palette of glassen impacts to amp up the game’s original and otherworldly feel.

 

Keep Your DAWs Primed

Once your release has conquered its alpha test, it will be high time to fill your sound library with the full range of sounds. Player feedback will precipitate a range of creative changes, so be ready to fire up your DAW and dive back into your samples and stems for the final sprint to the full release.


By applying your efforts strategically in the alpha production as suggested above, you’ll have plenty of creative fuel left to pivot alongside any new creative direction and polish up anything current that sticks. Once your initial concepts are validated, this is when variation will come into major play as well as any extra production to naturalize any abrupt sounds with reverberation and more organic fades.

Once you’ve sufficiently filled the sonic void and honed in on elements that help your alpha release stand apart, then you can consider your initial challenge aced! The pursuit of ultimate sound design perfection picks up when your alpha concludes.

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