May

11

Sound and Social Gaming: Is the Volume About to Be Turned Up?

Mark Stephens

The annoying kid on the train who has the volume on his iPad way too high, as he slingshots some angry birds towards innocent pigs; the incessant refrains of ‘sweet’ or ‘tasty’ when the colleague sitting next to you in the lunch room gets a combo in Candy Crush Saga. Sound is clearly a part of social gaming, but how important is it to the gaming experience? Where would we be without the little jingles, the voiceovers, or the old skool rocking soundtrack?

Sound Effects in Video Games

When Atari released Pong in 1972, so began a long relationship of sound with gaming. The monotonous, metallic beeps as the ‘ball’ hit the ‘bat’ are etched in the memories of anyone old enough to remember the game. Or maybe Pac-Man if you are a little older.

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Since then, sound has played an integral role in gaming, as video games developed, then PC games became ever more popular and consoles brought the dedicated gaming experience to a harder core of gamers around the world.

As graphics got more serious, sound became more sophisticated and those melodic few seconds in Super Mario Brothers soon became outdated… the ‘art’ of designing and developing games went to another level with cinematic-quality sound at the forefront.

Nowadays, where would Winning Eleven be without the great commentary or Medal of Honour without the score? In the last 15 years, console games have regularly featured full-scale orchestral pieces specially written by professional movie and game music composers, as well as licensed pop music. The big games also feature voiceovers by actors and celebrities, as they have the budgets to pay big.

When it come to social and mobile gaming, the audio possibilities have expanded since smartphones and tablets started improving sound quality. But sound has largely played second fiddle to other factors during the growth of social games, despite the recent recognition and awards for games like Journey, Heavy Rain, and Mass Effect for their audio.

Generally the sound effects on games like Candy Crush Saga are still very basic compared to the sophisticated console games.

Why is Sound so Important?

When I hear the chicken clucking in Hay Day I know not to bother my wife for 15 minutes, while she’s tending her farm. But sound plays a more important role too in gaming.

Audio is used in games to welcome players; to help them celebrate when they achieve something; to let them know when they’ve lucked out; to warn them that they missed something; or to flag other important information. Much of this goes relatively unnoticed to the game player, because it is just a part of the overall experience – but switch it off and then it gets noticed.

‘…designers have used sound and music to make games into the immersive and emotionally-charged experiences they are today.’ -Amplifon, UK

Just like with a movie experience, audio is increasingly used in games to create moments of drama and reflect emotions. A lot of the time you don’t notice it’s there – it’s like ‘background filler’. But just like with movies, music and sound effects play a critical role in relating happiness, success, tension, fear, failure, relief or other strong emotions.

In social games these are often based on simple scales or jingles, rather than the dramatic scores of console-based games. But they can still reflect what the player is experiencing and represent the important emotional link between the game and the player.

Without it the game suffers a disconnect. That’s why, when the sound is turned off, something seems ‘wrong’. The player may not realise it, but sound is expected. People often have to play social games with the sound muted because, unlike the boy on the train with his iPad turned up too high, they are conscious of disturbing those around them.

Some feel that playing a social game on mute is like watching a movie with the sound off, and that the full sound and visual experience is needed to enjoy the game to the max. But the depth of relationship between sound and social games is generally not yet that deep…

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Finding the Balance Control

The challenge for social gaming is to strike a balance of resource utilisation with the need to make money. Social and mobile games have traditionally faced challenges that PC and console gaming haven’t, with device and bandwidth restrictions especially.

As a Gamasutra contributor recently wrote:

‘Social gaming has still been trying to find a balance between gameplay, monetization, and its proper place in the gaming ecosystem. While enjoying incredible growth in recent years, social and mobile games are still experimenting with what is possible, while defining what a “good” gaming experience is. For the most part, audio just hasn’t been a key part of that definition.’

Most social game developers seem convinced that audio has an important role to play, but it hasn’t been the focus in recent times. Is that set to change? Is the volume about to be turned up on social games?

With more bandwidth and more sophisticated mobile devices with more memory, storage and processing power available, the technical restrictions are becoming less of a hindrance, and the technology to up the volume on sound is already available.

More social games are aiming at more immersive experiences, where players are drawn in to the game by voiceovers and higher quality scores, rather than just ‘jingles’. As well as enhancing the actual gameplay experience, voiceovers may assist in making tutorials easier to follow and in offering in-game hints.

The balancing act is being played out right now – and it will be interesting to see in the coming months whether audio takes on a more prominent role in social gaming.