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Industry Insights: The Heart of Better Game Audio Collabs by Unlock Audio

30 Apr 2024

This has been reposted with permission from IGDA Studio Affiliate Unlock Audio. The blog was written by Elliot Callighan.

Relationships can be everything, but pay no mind to the heaps of romantic gifts filling store shelves. We’ve got a special kind of relationship on our mind—one that chocolate and roses can’t buy.

We’re talking about the creative connection between game developers and game audio experts and sharing a few game-changing recommendations for strengthening that bond and, in turn, the rewarding quality output for studios and gamers alike.

As a collective of studio veterans from across all game audio disciplines (sound design, music, voice, and implementation), Unlock Audio’s team is all too familiar with the many dynamics at play for both internal and external collaborations. Whether you house your own sound department or forge a partnership with an outside audio source, the “relationship advice” we have to offer you now may go a long way to fuel stronger, more impassioned collaborations and produce even more impactful and engaging games.

Drawing on our team’s wealth of collaborative experience, here are some timeless tips for developers looking to improve the way they incorporate sonic specialists (among other creatives) into their fold and propel their productions forward into inspiring and creative new territories.

 

Make Time for Mutual Onboarding

As with any good relationship, the seed of a strong creative connection is sown at project onset. While you can “speed date” your way through first meetings with potential audio producers, if you leave the seed of collaboration too shallow at the start, it will quickly grow parched for nourishment under the pressure of today’s intense game development cycles. Because of this, it’s important to deepen that connection early on, even prior to contracts being signed.

One way to achieve this is by taking an expanded view of project onboarding—one that aligns the ambitions and cooperative influence of both parties both early and often. By treating onboarding as a continuous, two-way street, developers can set clearer expectations before paperwork is signed and chart a roadmap for their audio hire’s own motivations as they relate to overall product development beyond just technical skills filling an assembly line of organizational needs.

The same two-way principle applies whether the relationship is struck at the start of development, when your sonic operatives have the standard-setting sway over the foundation of your game audio systems, or when parachuted in on a mid-development rescue mission to supplement creation, organization and implementation to meet your evolving audio needs.

Mutual onboarding can help establish preemptive contingencies should you, for example, later require your team to transition between audio engines (which is no easy feat). If you know ahead of time what other tool sets your sound designers are already familiar with, you can lean on that background for making pivotal leaps mid-stride.

When bringing someone on later in development, mutual onboarding can set clear expectations of what more a new collaborator is capable of and even create the opportunity for them to improve the course of development, whether that is through better processes, untangling disorganized assets, or even influencing a character’s expression or script to ensure an overall better, more optimized game product.

As an outside audio partner, we find these upfront considerations incredibly useful for going beyond the transactional nature of business without also stepping on any toes. Beginning a collaboration with this important interchange upfront sets a meaningful and more equitable standard that rises above a limited employee-employer or client-supplier relationship and opens doors for a more rewarding engagement for all involved.

Smite the Separation and Silence of Silos

Distance may make hearts grow fonder, but endless longing to be included makes the soul grow tired. Audio specialists are no strangers to being overlooked in pivotal discussions about ongoing creative development. This seemingly stems from an unfortunate perception that our role is on-demand, e.g., to record new voice lines, to check boxes of sound asset lists, or to assign paths for in-game playback wherever preordained.

Audio expertise extends beyond the assigned capture, design, composition and installation of game sounds, and our inclusion in development discussions early on can lend important perspective that inspires proactive, creative decisionmaking. If siloed off in our soundproof studios until called upon, we’re left only to react to decisions made without our cross-functional insights that could otherwise help navigate a sea of inopportune implications, either creative or technical.

Whether you work primarily with internal teams or engage an outside audio partner, both relationships stand at risk of being creatively stifled when the flow of constant communication breaks down. While internal audio departments may be close at hand, proximity alone cannot solve the creeping compartmentalization that occurs when organizational perspectives around productivity shift toward staying in your own disciplinary lanes.

This is something we have grown ultra cognizant of as a remote and widespread team of game sound mercenaries, so we arrive at the table with zero hesitation toward combating both physical and virtual divides to keep the flow of collaboration open through regular check-ins and more.

 

Raise Everyone’s Stakes

All this relationship advice boils down to one crucial factor: the rewards of shared creative work are greatest when made with a clear and common purpose. If contributors have no stake in the performance of our games and what they mean to our players, relationships become little more than transactions—and we believe that gamers can tell when a game is cobbled together through transactions instead of continuous, constructive, exciting collaboration.

But it’s not simply enough to align your many forces around one shared vision and leave it at that. Every contributor also has independent stakes of their own to take into account as well. These motivating factors should be easy enough to surface if onboarding works both ways, allowing independent goals to play an important role throughout product development while still centering the pursuit shared by all.

Whether it’s the ambition to incorporate new and innovative technology, contributing extra perspective to steer the story or representation in a more uniquely resonant direction, or simply having an original 8-string guitar solo make the final cut on the game’s soundtrack, game audio pros all want to be able to claim a meaningful influence on making games sound great and play even greater. All it takes to channel that energy into something we can all be proud of is prioritizing two-way communication at every stage of our creative collaborations and relationships.

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