The Bridge Between Game Audio and Audio Branding (Pt 1)June 16, 2022
Reaching 180 billion dollars in revenue in 2021, video games are one of the biggest media money makers. This increased attention has also increased the awareness and technology of interactive audio, something that is used quite extensively within video games. Interactive audio (or adaptive audio) means that the game sounds react to the user/player depending on their choices.
Let’s have a look at how game audio principles can be used in conjunction with audio branding.
Having A Clear Strategy
When producing audio for video games, you sometimes have to create thousands of individual audio files. These are audio files for footsteps, gunshots, ambiences, music and much more. The reason why you need so many files for these, is because you want a lot of variation in each sound to make sure that the listener never experiences any sort of auditory fatigue while playing the game. The ear is very good at recognizing audio patterns, so if you’d play the same footstep sound every single time, the player would easily recognize that pattern within the first couple of seconds – thereby making the world feel less immersive. If you instead have different sounds depending on the surface you walk on, type of shoes you wear, your walking/running speed and the difference in sound between the heel and toe – that will result in a much more immersive and realistic experience (but the scope would also be vastly bigger, in terms of the amount of audio files).
You can imagine that keeping structure over so many sounds can be really difficult (and it is!), but what is even more challenging is making sure that all sounds are coherent and sound like they come from the same universe. Therefore, it is vital to have a clear audio strategy and guidelines that can be referenced throughout the entire process. Think about games like Overwatch, Super Mario, Halo and Half Life – how they have very clear audio identities, resulting in a situation where most people (who have played these games) can easily recognize them.
You might not know these sounds, but to those who have played the game, these sounds are iconic.
Creating a solid brief or style-guide will help make sure that everyone is on the same page.
This brief will contain guidelines, references, processes and everything else to make sure that everyone understands the game (or brand) and knows which auditory styling is expected and wanted. It explains what the audio is supposed to achieve and how it will be achieved, along with the functions of each sound.
This is something that is vital in the branding of video games as well. While we might not need as many sounds, we still want all the sounds for a specific brand to be aligned, sounding like they come from the same family. Everything from the audio logo, to the music, to the UI sounds need to immerse you into the same universe. In traditional branding, most of the time the audio logo will dictate how the rest of the audio assets should sound, as they are derived directly from it in some form or another.
Take a listen to the examples below and notice how each example sounds like they come from the same auditory universe.
Guiding The User With Sound
One of the main functions of audio in a game is to guide the player. This is done in a variety of different ways that we can apply to branding as well. Let’s take a look at some examples:
UI sounds communicate navigation
Video games use a lot of UI sounds. Because most games have some sort of menu that you have to navigate through, these can get quite complex in some cases. Therefore, having UI sounds to signal where the player is navigating is crucial.
Here are some common (and not so common) things that you have to think about when creating these sounds for video games.
- Are we going “into” or “out of” a menu?
- What sort of menu is it? (Settings, Main Menu, Level)
- Are we going sideways or up and down?
- What is the urgency?
- Is it reactive or proactive?
- Does it need variation?
- Is this button negative or positive?
- Which kind of material are we pressing? (wood, metal, tech)
This is a mindset we can apply to branding as well. Stop thinking about UI sounds as something that is just there to give feedback when pressing a button and start thinking of them as navigation pillars that will make the user’s interaction with your product much more intuitive and pleasant. Something that makes sure that the user never gets lost in a stream of communication.
Video games are, at their core, interactive, meaning that whatever the player does, the game will react to it in some way. This applies to audio as well. Let’s take a look at some examples that we can correlate to today’s branding world as well.
Electric cars are on the rise, which gives us a unique opportunity to shape how they should sound as well. One of the challenges is the sound of the engine, as it doesn’t inherently have a sound in the same way as a traditional car. We still expect the engine to sound realistically. It needs to react to the speed of the car and also the input of the user. So how is that done?
In video games you would often have some sort of parameter that you could attach the sound to, something like a “Speed” parameter could be something that we would use in this case. We would then program the sound to increase or decrease in pitch depending on the speed, and maybe also crossfade between different intensity layers and so forth – it can be done in a multitude of ways depending on what sort of sound you want. This is also how it’s done in electric cars today. A computer in the car reads the “Speed” output and then tells the sound to react to that parameter.
Take a listen to some games like Forza Horizon 5, Grip: Combat Racing and Wipeout to hear this in effect.
This way of utilizing interactive audio is used in a variety of different ways, like changing footstep sounds depending on surface, changing weapon sounds depending on its attachments and changing the ambient background audio depending on the time of day.
All of this is something we can use in branding to create even more meaningful interaction with an app or a product. Maybe the sound design changes depending on your age, accommodating hearing loss? Or maybe your exercise app changes reward sound depending on how well you’re doing? Maybe your favourite weather app changes its ambient sounds depending on upcoming weather (a cool idea is just playing ambient sound in the first place).
Repetition and consistency is also vital. The listener needs to hear the sound a lot to be able to remember it and associate it with the brand, and in the same vein, the interaction needs to be consistent – so that each time you interact with the product in a specific way, the result is always the same. If consistency is lost, it will result in a confusing and frustrating experience. Therefore, it is also very important to test your sounds before launching.
If we take a look back at the audio examples in the strategy section, the reason these have become so iconic is because they have been heard a lot during a play session. Also, they signify a very specific interaction, so you learn the meaning of the sound over time, thereby giving you a connection to the sound.
Melody Is Vital For Identity
Video games have a rich history of incredible music. Games like The Elder Scrolls, Halo & Uncharted all have unique soundtracks that are synonymous with those franchises, allowing listeners to instantly recognize that specific game or series, when not playing.
One thing that they all have in common, is that they all have a very strong main theme with a strong melody. Melody is usually utilized throughout a game in many different ways, exposing the listener to the game’s audio identity many times throughout the experience. This is what we call a “Leitmotif”. A leitmotif means a “short, recurring phrase”. These are not only used for the main theme, but also for specific character themes, area themes and so forth – giving each character or place their own unique identity. So, each time you enter an area, interact with a character and so forth, you hear their respective melody. This is a technique that is also used in movies quite frequently. A really good example of this is James Bond, or the Star Wars franchise movies, where each of the main characters have their own unique melody.
What we can learn from this in terms of branding, is the fact that utilization of the same melody for a long period of time is highly effective. Even more so, introducing the melody to the audience in different ways, can help engrain that specific melody into the listeners mind, helping establish a solid brand recall.
Interactive music is also very important in video games. Just like with sound effects, music often changes depending on the state of the game. We can utilize this in branding as well. “State of the game” basically just means that the game is listening to certain parameters that tells it to adjust certain audio elements. An example could be that the player is underwater, therefore the sound should be muffled. Or maybe, the player has low health and therefore we need to turn up a heartbeat sound to signal some urgency to the player. This is exactly how it could be used in branding as well.
For music specifically, you could do subtle changes to the music in a meditation app depending on how far you are in your meditation, to make the user feel a sense of progression. Or maybe your metro card could play a different melody depending on how close it is to needing a refill?
This is of course not something that is inherently understood by the user when first using the product, but something that is learned over time. In turn, it makes interacting with the product or app much more engaging and fun. It also ensures that the interaction never becomes boring or annoying.
- Have a clear strategy from the beginning. Knowing what the audio should do and how it should sound from the start, will help establish a clear auditory identity.
- Having a melody associated with your brand is very effective. Introducing this melody to your audience in different ways can help establish brand recognition quicker.
- UI sounds are more than just button clicks. They are essential for navigating an app or a product and makes the user feel more comfortable in that process.
- Using interactive sound design can create more meaningful communication to the user.