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Do Your Sounds Need Revision? The Iteration Dilemma
Article by George Spanos
Creating sound design for video games is hard. That is stating the obvious. Pressure to deliver high quality sounds in a timely manner, dealing with tight schedules, and a host of other issues are what face the sound designer. And of course, satisfying your own creative needs as well as those of the other audio team members is very important.
One important aspect to creating exceptional sound design is iteration. Iteration means to revise sounds until they are perfect... or as close as you can get them to perfection. Iteration is a necessity because there are times when you must get a sound into your game quickly without much time to work it to it's best form. And let's face it... not all of your first-pass sounds are going to be great. Revision is an important part of the sound designer's learning process.
But despite all the learning and revising you will be doing in a game's lifecycle, especially for a triple-A title which can span two plus years, sound fatigue can set in. Getting tired of a particular sound can and will happen.
So sometimes we find ourselves wondering if iteration is really the solution. After all, revising an asset just for the sake of it is a waste of time. Time you could spend creating new assets or out recording new sounds.
Sometimes your creative director, and even other members of the development team, will get tired of a sound you have put into the game. Often even the 30th revision of a sound (no joke) still will not hit the mark. So what do you do in this situation? You have spent countless hours revising and reworking a particular sound and it still is not right. You are getting frustrated and you are at a point where no sound you design fits the requirement.
I call this the "iteration dilemma".
Sound fatigue has set in and no matter how many times you revise a sound people still find fault with it. Sometimes this can be maddening. There are three rational approaches to combating the iteration dilemma:
Your first option is to just keep revising the sound until the cows come home. Just keep chipping away at it until they pry the game out of your now arthritic hands when the game goes to certification. This method isn't very productive.
The second option is to let another member of your audio team try their hand at it. Sometimes fresh ears and a new approach can work wonders. It also saves you from going completely insane.
The third option is to replace the sound with the very first version you put in the game. I'm not joking. While I am an advocate of refining your sound design skill-set, I am also a realist. You simply cannot keep working on the same sound forever. It can also be very counter-productive to keep bashing away at it. Sometimes your first gut-reaction to sound creation is the best answer. Maybe that first sound was truly inspired and is the most effective representation of the message that is being conveyed.
Why Do People Grow Tired Of Certain Sounds?
I believe that people on the development team (and in the sound department) can get so accustomed to a certain sound in the game that they start to think it's not good anymore or that it is "boring". This starts to draw an unnatural focus on the particular sound, and is a very deep black hole to fall into.
Sometimes you, as the sound designer, will also grow tired of your sounds. This is a natural part of what it means to be creative. If we were happy with everything we did then we wouldn't keep pushing ourselves to get better for the next task. The important takeaway from this article is that you should learn to recognize the difference between a sound that is not working in the game versus a sound that you or your team are just bored of or accustomed to. If you are having problems coming up with new ideas for sounds, take a look at our writer's block article for more tips.
This next point is really important: The player will hear this sound for the first time and does not have any preconceived notions about it. You and your team have been hearing it for the length of the production cycle so you are accustomed to it. It will be a fresh sound for the player. So you must always keep this in mind when revising sounds. Will the player find the sound distracting or accept it subconsciously and not question it?
Of course, it can be difficult to put yourself in the player's shoes, but keeping the above point in mind is crucial. If you still cannot answer that question, it might help to ponder these questions:
1. Are you revising the sound because you are trying to postpone the inevitable? Maybe there is a new task that you need to tackle but just cannot bring yourself to start it. It's important to recognize when this happens and to pull yourself away from revisions and start on that more important task. Try our Game Sound Design Strategies here for some inspiration.
2. Can you describe exactly what is wrong with the sound and why it is not working in the context of the game? Sometimes the answer will be "it just doesn't feel right". That is ok, but you should not use that as your go-to answer for every sound that does not fit.
3. What is the objective of the sound? What emotion is it trying to convey, what is it's purpose? Maybe the sound should be removed altogether because it is crowding the sound-space.
4. Has the fundamental idea behind the sound changed? Maybe the object that the sound is tied to has been redesigned from an art or animation standpoint. Maybe the object doesn't function the way it used to? If this is the case, then designing a new sound that more appropriately fits the new design spec might be the best answer.
Always remember that the function of sound is to help convey a message. Make sure you understand what that message is before revising just for the sake of it. And maybe the first sound you put in was the right one after all...