Tips for successful games audio production

Zynga, Playdom and the other big names in the social gaming environment have dominated the media headlines in recent months, and deservedly so. While writing this article, I logged on and checked the number of users who have played Cityville, one of the most recent titles developed by California powerhouse Zynga, and it was 83,039,980. That’s a bigger population than the country I live in. As a matter of fact, no country in Europe, excluding Russia, has a bigger population than the Cityville residences. Even explaining what Cityville is and how it’s played feels redundant, since probably most of you have had the chance to try it yourself or seen someone else playing it, be it a friend, a relative or some guy who wasn’t aware you were spying on him while he pretended to be busy at work.

In short, social gaming is big. Scrap that — social gaming is huge. Everybody knows it. However, what many people don’t know, since social gaming captures most of the media spotlight, is that on the other side of the gaming spectrum, AAA titles for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 thrive and seem to get bigger and bigger every year. In May of this year, Rockstar Games, the publisher that owns the lucrative IP Grand Theft Auto, launched L.A. Noire, an action-adventure title whose creation took almost seven years and required a development budget of well over $50 million. A monstrous amount of money, but L.A. Noire still looks cheap compared to Gran Turismo 5, the iconic PlayStation 3 racing game developed in Japan by Polyphony Digital, which ended up costing around $80 million. Where did all this money go? Kazunori Yamauchi, the eclectic head of Polyphony Digital, knows the answer to the question very well: “The game required a lot of people. A lot of salaries.”

Stakes are unbelievably high when you have hundreds of people involved in a game project, and the numbers can be staggering if you add the people at the studio and the ones who handle the localization at the publisher. Take, for example, Fable 3, the latest creation of revered British game developer Peter Molyneux. According to data provided by Microsoft Games, the French version of the game required over 50 voice actors. The Italian one? Another 50. Spanish? You already know the answer. In short, the international audio of Fable 3 required the work of several hundred actors. Add to that audio leads, dubbing directors, quality assurance people and the result is an army of people scattered around the world — an army even bigger than Lionhead, the development team that actually created the game in the first place. Handling all these people in different countries is not an easy task, and that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Different countries mean different rates, different regulations and different casting procedures. Producing international audio for a video game is an extremely challenging task — a task that a group of experts in game localization addressed in a comprehensive session in San Francisco at this year’s Game Developers Conference (GDC). GDC is one of the most important, if not the most important, events in the game development scene. With a Beatles-inspired title of “The Multilingual Audio Mystery Tour,” the session provided insight on the challenges involved in this part of development.

According to Cécile Irlinger, localization manager at La Marque Rose, a well-established entertainment localization company based in Paris, several headaches in international audio production could be avoided by asking the proper questions right at the beginning of the project. Irlinger explained that after a typical preliminary brief from the developers, she would immediately ask for more details on the input and output audio

specifications, volumes, timings and expectations. Gathering the maximum amount of information right from the start is also crucial for Danielle Hunt of US recording studio, Cup of Tea Productions. Basically, not only the quantity but also the quality of the data is relevant when arranging a realistic production plan for international recording. Developers can be protective about their assets and their general plans, but the only way to save time and ultimately money is to share everything with the international team. “Something that is very important is the possibility to access the relevant production resources, especially the actors since good actors are usually very busy, in a short and flexible production timeframe. Planning in advance as much as possible is of paramount importance,” concluded Victor Alonso Lion, localization consultant at Madrid-based localization company Pink Noise.

Once all the basic project information has been gathered, it’s time to choose whether to go with a union or non-union production — at least if you are recording in the United States because a totally different scenario plays out in some European and Asian countries. “In Germany, we don’t have an actors’ union, so we don’t even need to make this choice at the start of the production,” said Roger Schoenberg, one of the founders of 4-Real Intermedia, whose headquarters are in Frankfurt. What every speaker agreed on is that when it comes to voice-overs, recruiting celebrities for marketing purposes is a practice that’s better avoided. Hunt said that “unless we have a huge budget, we usually don’t go that route. This can lead to a lot of contract negotiation and requires a lot of effort. This choice mainly has a marketing impact, but in terms of artistic performance, there is already a very talented group of voice actors in the gaming industry that can offer really great performances.”

The next step in the audio production phase is a crucial one: actor casting. Given the different scope and genre of games nowadays, there’s not a general rule when it comes to actor casting, but it’s essential to focus on major voices and ideally cast them using live dedicated casting (Figure 1). The only real way to evaluate the actor performance in a certain role is to cast with a pool of sentences that represent the character’s emotional register. A more general database casting is fine for all the other minor characters. “The US reference is also really important when localizing into European languages,” says Lion. “When it comes to voices, there’s always a need to find the closest equivalent for the target country.”

 The script breakdown (Table 1) is a tool used, among other things, to keep track of this character-actor association. The breakdown commonly used in international audio production is a simplified version of the one used in the movie industry, but it’s still a powerful tool provided you keep it constantly updated. It’s crucial to keep the breakdown up to date, said Irlinger. “And also to take immediate action locally once the breakdown changes or something happens. Is the actor ready to come record? Are there additional lines that were not present in the previous version of the breakdown? Can we record them in the same session or do we need to schedule another session?” 

An efficient communication flow between the developer (or the publisher) and the localization company (or recording studio) is vital to change the breakdown on the fly and answer all these questions. Before starting with the recording, there is still information missing. “For example, we need to understand the audio recording constraints before going into the studio,” said Lion. “These are specific to every game. The more time constraints we have during the recording, the more demanding the job is.” The preproduction phase requires careful planning. Actors not only take vacations, but they take them at different times in different countries. Since most of the biggest AAA productions are released in the September-November window, the international audio production phase happens often in July and August, when European countries such as Italy almost completely shut down. Managing the actors’ availability (and keeping the ability to reschedule them, since something can always happen at the last minute) is a Tetris-like operation where you try to assemble every piece and not make a mess. Worst-case scenario, if an actor is absolutely unavailable, you have to work with a sound-alike. “Working always with the same actor is, of course, the best solution,” added Lion. “But sometimes it’s not an option and you have to rely on an actor with a very similar voice.”

Managing the logistics is important, but it becomes irrelevant if the content is not up to par. “You can have the best actors, the best studio and the best voice director, but they are useless if the script has not been localized properly,” said Schoenberg. “Let’s take accents, for example. Many games use accents like Chinese, Arabic or Mexican in their source language and the developers always want to keep the same accents in the localized version. Most of the time we advise against this because sometimes these accents don’t exist in German, sometimes they can be unintentionally funny and sometimes they can be politically incorrect. Sorting out these issues with the development team takes time, but it allows us to start the recording with a finalized version of the script, ultimately saving money.” This is something with which Hunt agreed completely: “Taking the time to adapt the script in preproduction increases productivity while recording. You do not want to adapt it in session. That is very costly.”

Once the preproduction work is taken care of, it’s time to record. And, again, the scenario in the studio changes according to the country where the recording is taking place. The biggest difference between recordings in the country of origin — which is often the United States — and most European countries, for example, is that the game producer is a regular presence during sessions in US studios. Since the producer can’t spend weeks flying all over the world to attend all the sessions, it’s up to localization companies (specifically dubbing directors) to choose the best local take, according to the original US reference material. “We never have the producer with us,” said Lion. “But in the past we had another unique presence inside the booth with the actors: the artistic director. The idea was to have a certain level of intimacy between actors and director, but nowadays it doesn’t happen anymore.”

Another huge difference among countries is that in the United States, actors can record with video references in the booth, something similar to what happens in the movie industry. That’s not the case most of the time in Europe. “If we have them, great,” said Lion. “But more often than not we have to rely on audio references only. We receive the English audio files and use them as a reference. The actors are used to match the waveform of the source reference.” Not an easy job and all the efforts can be jeopardized if the audio specifications provided by the developers are incomplete or not correct. “To avoid headaches during the integration process, it’s essential for the developers to know exactly how they want the files to be delivered,” said Schoenberg. “This also means explaining simple things like the preferred directory structure of the files or file naming, and pre- and post-production relevant info, like volume levels, normalization levels, filters and so on.”

What’s very clear is that international audio production in the game industry requires a well-balanced mix between an artistic and technical approach. Actors are the ones who keep the magic alive, but for better or worse the game industry is not the movie industry. The development team creates the game, but at a certain point they’re not the only ones driving the creative process. You have many people in the recording studio: actors, directors, sound engineers. Each of them, with the right amount of information, can help deliver a localized version that can sometimes be even better than the original. At the least, they can give the final user a gaming experience that is highly entertaining and as close as possible to the vision of the game creators.

In other words, deliver a localized version that doesn’t break the suspension of disbelief. Allow every gamer in the target country to be completely immersed in the story, the setting and the character interaction of the game he or she has just purchased, even without knowing that maybe close to a thousand people have worked to bring that game out of the borders of its original country.