In this grid, each tile represents a physical space—hallway, rooms, doors—in your videogame.
A lot of audio issues have been covered in this space lately, from facility design to education programs. But for many of you, the actual process of integrating audio into a game may still be shrouded in mystery. The main tools — middleware applications — have been covered pretty extensively in this column, as well as in tech reviews and features. We're all familiar with Wwise, FMOD and Miles, the audio middleware used extensively by many top game publishers. But there's more to it than just knowing what the tools are. One can do a lot with middleware tools to create audio objects, properties and scripted events, but the key to integration is the level editor itself, the place where all assets merge to form the game.
This month, I'll break down how audio is integrated into a game level, step by step, in the form of an application-specific tutorial that you can easily replicate. For the purposes of this tutorial, our level editor will be Bioware's Neverwinter Nights 2 Toolset (NWN2 for short), provided for free when you buy a copy of this multiperson role-playing game that lets players design their own universes. That's right, folks — for a mere $40, you can begin your audio integration training.
Because Neverwinter Nights 2 is a fantasy role-playing game, this example will be designed for that genre, but most of the terms used here apply to all types of games.
STEP 1: IDENTIFY WHAT YOU NEED
For linear media such as film and television, this part is relatively simple. What is onscreen (and what the writers/production team/director wants) is what dictates the sound, music and voice-over requirements. The assets are recorded, edited, mixed and slapped into the picture.
However, your needs can change in working with videogames. The most common mistake a production team can make is requesting assets before the content is finalized. This is mostly due to the fact that there is no post-production process in games. When art and design assets are done, sound has to be complete, miraculously, at the same time. This paradigm is shifting slightly toward a post-production mentality, but many studios still expect audio assets to be integrated quickly once other assets are locked down.
For this example, we'll assume content is locked and you'll start simple — with a dungeon interior, a dragon (my son loves dragons; where would we be without them?) and a few skeletons for good measure. The fun part is that you get to create a level and put sounds in it, and the NWN2 Toolset makes the process less complex so you can wrap your brain around it easily.
Using Neverwinter Nights 2 Toolset’s Blueprint tab, you can easily add dragons, for example, into your videogame world.
STEP 2: CREATE A SIMPLE LEVEL
Once you have installed NWN2, find the Toolset icon in the folder where you have installed the game and move it to your desktop. Double-click it and begin the build process.
Go to the File menu, hit “New” and from the drop-down menu select Area. Another dialog will appear that requests Area Tag and Area Type (Interior and Exterior). For Tag, name it whatever you want; for Area Type, because we're making a dungeon select Interior.
You should now see a grid. This grid represents tiles. Creating a dungeon is as easy as laying square tiles on this grid that represent hallways, large rooms and doors. Select the tiles by clicking on the Tiles tab at the bottom-right-hand part of the screen. It should be set by default at blueprints. In the picture above, you'll notice I've used the Crypt tile set. Select a tile, and when your cursor goes onto the grid you'll see the tile you've picked to appear. Press the left mouse button to place the tile you picked. When you want to use only your cursor to select items for deletion, press the Escape key to clear out your selection.
To navigate, hold the control key while using the left mouse button to move. Hold the Control key and the right mouse button to rotate. Use the Control and Shift keys with the left mouse button to move up and down. We'll get to blueprints after we build a small area, which can be anything you want — hallway, room or both.
Now that you have created a dungeon, let's put something in it — a few skeletons and a dragon, for example. Let's go back to that Blueprint tab. “Blueprints” is another word for template. Essentially, these are things that you choose to put (or not put) in your world, and are as simple as their descriptions and as complex as their properties (such as color and hit points, but don't worry about those). Skeletons are listed under Undead; Dragons are under Dragons. Click on one, and in the same way with tiles, when your mouse returns to the main screen you will see a creature attached to it. Cleverly, the toolset will make the creatures stick to the ground.
The same applies for objects. Select Placeables in the Blueprint tab and select a table, a fireplace — anything you wish. For our purposes here, a fireplace is an easy ambient sound to place.
STEP 3: UNDERSTAND THE TYPES
Now that your physical manifestations are represented visually, what do they sound like? Your fireplace will require an ambient sound, which normally should apply to the fireplace the moment you set it down. But in this case, you'll need to select the Sounds blueprint and pick the Environmental type. From there, you choose Fire, scroll down and click on Fireplace. When your cursor moves out to the dungeon, you will see a blue nozzle/funnel shape that you can place on the floor. This is your ambient sound. When you place it, press Escape, then click on it and a green box will appear. At the right top part of the screen you will see a Properties pane indicating all of the little details that are parts of this particular sound. The most important aspect is the radius, displayed by a purple sphere of dots surrounding the sound. You'll notice the default is 25. Change it to 6 or so and you'll see that sphere. This is the maximum range of your sound.
You can now right-click on the area name and go to Properties to assign a looping piece of music for day and night. (Obviously, both will be the same file if you are in a dungeon.)
Ready to play? Just click on File and go to Run Module. It will recommend that you bake the level, so do this. Then your level will play! You have just created your first level with sounds. But you've only scratched the surface. In future columns I'll discuss sound sets, sound object properties, platform differentiation (Microsoft Xbox 360 vs. Sony PlayStation 3 vs. PC) and much more. But if you can't wait, check out the following site: http://nwvault.ign.com/View.php?view=GlobalSearch#Sounds. Have fun!
Alex Brandon is the audio director at Obsidian Entertainment.