It's no secret that the gaming world has changed by leaps and bounds over the past decade. We've all heard the comparison: With today's high-def consoles, games are moving closer and closer to having the same look and feel as big-budget feature films. And at the front of this burgeoning entertainment revolution are the minds behind the massively successful Halo series for the Microsoft Xbox 360 — and soon for Windows Vista. Even if you're not a hardcore videogame fanatic, you're probably familiar with the Halo name — the omnipresent media campaigns have made it pretty hard to ignore. With a storyline that rivals the best parts of movies like Aliens, Terminator 2, Independence Day and the like, the series has garnered legions of devoted fans and is easily one of the most successful video game franchises in history. So when it came time to start work on the third installment of Master Chief's epic battle against the evil Covenant, the development team at Bungie Studios knew that they had their work cut out for them. (Note: Although Halo 3 was originally expected out this spring, the release date has been pushed back; the current release date, according to creators, is “sometime this year.” Consider this a “sneak peak” window into the game development.)
Begun as a basement operation back in 1991, Bungie Studios (www.bungie.net) has been responsible for some of the biggest videogame titles of the past decade, including Marathon, Myth and, of course, the original incarnation of Halo: Combat Evolved. The team got its start creating titles for the Mac platform, and after a number of successful releases, the company caught the attention of Microsoft, which acquired Bungie to create titles for its then-forthcoming Xbox game console. Though still a boutique operation, Bungie is now a full-service game development house with a complete staff of programmers, artists and sound designers. Heading up the audio group at Bungie are audio director and composer Marty O'Donnell, audio lead Jay Weinland and engineer C. Paul Johnson. The members of the team are all accomplished musicians, composers and sound designers. O'Donnell, for instance, got his start writing commercial jingles, including the classic theme for Flintstones Vitamins.
TURN AND BURN
Nearly all of the audio content development for Halo 3 took place at Bungie headquarters in Kirkland, Wash. The audio department is housed in a recently completed custom facility, which comprises three Pro Tools HD-equipped studios and a centrally placed voice-over booth. “We went strictly for functionality as far as games go, so we're similar to a music post house or anyone that does commercials,” says Weinland. “We've tailored our stuff to what really works well for games. So we're all surround sound. We're all running Genelec speakers of varying sizes. We're all on Pro Tools HD rigs, one HD3 and two HD2 rigs. We use Peak heavily, and we're all about Waves Diamond.
“We also have some unique pieces of gear that aren't present in most people's studios, including a Dolby DP564, which is basically a multichannel audio decoder,” Weinland continues. “It allows you to take the optical output of the Xbox and bring it into Pro Tools as six channels of AES/EBU. So that's a piece of gear that you don't find in a normal music studio. It's the linchpin of our rigs, as it allows us to monitor the Xbox digitally. Other than that we look like a normal post house. Right now I'm looking at a straight-up 2-channel Avalon mic pre. We're recording voice-over. We're sometimes recording instruments. We're doing Foley. We're doing all the same kinds of stuff that commercials and movies are doing, but we just happen to then have to take it those extra nine yards to get it into the game engine.”
“We have three full-blown, nicely isolated 5.1 recording studios, one for each of us,” O'Donnell adds. “I have some extra music gear here, so I can compose music and get it ready. Sometimes I do all of the music here, and sometimes I just get it ready for taking out to a live orchestra and recording that in the Seattle area. Jay and I both have studios that are similarly equipped, and from the way our desks sit, I look one way out through a window to our voice-over isolation booth, and there is a studio on the other side of that, which is Jay's. So he can look into the same booth. We can run Foley and voice-over and individual recording sessions using that booth. And either one of us can run the session from our individual rooms, so we can work pretty independently. It's a pretty nice little setup.”
ONE PIECE AT A TIME
As is the case with many of today's sprawling, cinematic games, the development process is a bit-by-bit process where the audio team can only create audio as the artists and programmers finish or finalize individual levels, characters and the like. “We have lots of areas in the games like weapons and ambiances and machines and so on. And we can't really design something until someone else is done,” Weinland explains. “So we really interface with the people in production and with the art leads and so on to figure out when their assets are going to come online, so that we can then put our little sprinkle of magic fairy dust on it.”
“The implementation side of it is really huge,” O'Donnell says. “It's not just about, ‘We need a sound.’ It's all about, ‘Here is this vehicle or here is this weapon, which has many different components and many different ways it needs to act in a 3-D audio environment.’ The lesson learned here at Bungie is that the audio guys need to be in from the very inception.”
Although much of the audio content — like music and background ambiances — is created completely in the Pro Tools environment through the use of sample libraries, soft synths and more sound design-oriented tools, a great deal of the sounds are actually recorded on location. The team employed both their own portable recording rig as well as some rather creative approaches to recording in the field. “To start with, we have a very large collection of commercial libraries that we will hit as needed,” Weinland explains. “But if we need particular stuff, we have a couple of Sound Device recorders, the 722 and the 744T, that can be linked together to do up to six channels. We have the Apogee Mini-Me and some mobile pre's that can be charged off a portable battery system. So we can sit off in a field somewhere and record eight, 10, 12 channels, if we include laptops in the equation, and record whatever we need. We were involved in a gun-recording session with another MGS group that was Halo-ish, and we basically shared some of those resources.
Bungie's Jay Weinland and Marty O'Donnell
“A couple months ago, I needed a nice exhaust sound for something that we were working on,” Weinland continues. “So I strapped a microphone on the back of a friend's Fiero here that has dual six-inch pipes on the back, and we drove around town and recorded what we needed. We record stuff as necessary.”
One of the most involved aspects of the audio development was the casting and recording of the voice actors, whose performances are a major element of the game as they not only add to the overall realism of the game, but also provide players with crucial information. And unlike a film where things follow a predictable, linear progression, the developers have to record and edit enough dialog to account for the nearly limitless ways a player can move through the game. On Halo 2, O'Donnell and Weinland had to contend with more than 16,000 lines of dialog, and with the increased audio capabilities of the Xbox 360, casting the voice talent and managing the dialog were even more involved, all the way through integration.
“That's a big one. I've been doing this for a while in terms of casting voices,” says O'Donnell. “I used to do commercial work where I knew tons of very talented voice actors. And when I started working with Bungie, we pretty much cast from the Chicago pool of talent. Then when we moved out here and started working on Halo, we were in Seattle and went through a big casting call, and we've gotten a bunch of really good Seattle actors to be part of our stable. And on Halo 2, we went to Hollywood and got some people that we thought it would always be fun to have who turned out to be Halo fans and wanted to work with us. We've got actors from Chicago, Seattle and Los Angeles in the game. And there is a company in Los Angeles called Blind Light who has helped us quite a bit with casting, especially in Hollywood and contracts and studio booking time and all sorts of stuff.”
THE GHOST IN THE MACHINE
Aside from crafting the actual sounds and music for the game, the audio team has to contend with how the audio will change and react to game play. “We use in-house tools,” explains Weinland. “One which handles all of our data and any applicable parameters — volume and pitch variation, EQ, weighting, distance attenuation values etc. — and another for populating sounds in the environment, such as ambient and reverb properties, sound points, etc. The audio portions of these tools are tailored for our game and allow us to attach sound to just about anything in the game.
“Another component is the scripting system, which among other uses allows Marty to paint music upon a blank canvas, responding to events during gameplay as desired,” Weinland continues. “He can for instance highlight a specific event or move to an ALT mix of a piece dependant on gameplay. It's a very subtle yet powerful system that allows the music to flow with the game without appearing to be ‘triggered,’ as is the case in many videogames.”
As players move through the game and interact with different characters, vehicles and weapons, the audio has to reflect physical changes in environment, and the music and dialog have to be constantly mixed in real time so players don't miss important pieces of information and plot developments. This means that the audio team has to spend a great deal of time working with the actual game engine to make sure the audio is properly implemented.
“I think this the key to making good game audio,” says O'Donnell. “It's 50 percent the content and 50 percent the implementation. That's just a simple way of saying it. It might even be more implementation. We want to have the absolute best content to start with because it has to be interactive and really controllable at a very fine, granular level. And that means it's not just about going out and recording the best-sounding gunshot or the best-sounding engine sound. It's, ‘How do you create an engine sound that is totally interactive, does all the things that an engine does in real time but is completely controllable by the player?’ And that takes a lot of horsepower in the [game] engine itself. There are all kinds of things where you have to know how you're going to use the physics of the game to have the sound track as perfectly as possible.”
“One of the things that's pretty cool about our code engine is that we actually have real-time ducking in our game,” Weinland adds. “So that we can control any individual sound, we can control how we duck it under cinematic or other types of dialog, which is our biggest challenge. If the character is giving you some very important information, and all of a sudden three grenades land at your feet and blow up, you don't want that line to get stepped on. We have real-time parameters where we can say, ‘We'll duck this sound nine dB over two seconds and let it ramp back up after the dialog is done, over the course of another second and a half.’ So it allows us real-time control over the volumes in the game, and it helps us to make sure that we can always hear the important dialog and other things that are important.”
“It's almost like designing another artificial intelligence character within the game, and that's the film mixer who sitting off on the side mixing the game in real time,” says O'Donnell.
With a deep and enveloping plot line, a cast of memorable characters, ultra-realistic graphics, fluid game play and world-class multichannel audio, playing Halo 3 is about as close as one can get to stepping inside a blockbuster sci-fi film, and that is exactly what the team Bungie set out to create. “The unexciting thing is that we're not trying to do anything too revolutionary,” says O'Donnell. “The Xbox was the first platform that allowed us to do real-time Dolby surround encode/decode, and that's a huge palette to perform on. So we're just spending even more time on the details, getting better fidelity in every area, having more voices, more control over how things are mixed, and even the number of characters on the screen. There will be more unique voice actors per level than we've ever had. And so we need even more robust means for choosing what should be heard. So that's really what we're working on. We just hope that when people get in, all of the sounds, all the voices, it just sounds so alive and real that they're not even thinking about how real it is.”
“I have a lot of people ask me how we make our games sound so good, and what I usually come back to is that it's not like we're doing rocket science,” Weinland concludes. “We try and make good content, and then we're really stinking anal about trying to make sure that every single detail that should have a sound makes a sound. That way it just sounds natural. If it sounds correct, then we're happy.”
To learn more about Halo 3 or the developers at Bungie Studios, take a look at www.bungie.net.