Life is just a fantasy: Blizzard Entertainment’s World of Warcraft MMORPG owes its success to fully immersive game play.
Photos: Courtesy Blizzard Entertainment
World of Warcraft, simply known as WoW in the game industry, is more than just a game; it's an international phenomenon. WoW is an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) released in 2004 by the gaming masterminds at Blizzard Entertainment, a subsidiary of Vivendi Games that created such successful franchises as StarCraft and Diablo, and, of course, the Warcraft series on which WoW is based. WoW is a cross-platform game with an online subscription base of more than 9 million worldwide to date, and more players projected to flock to the game, making it the most successful MMORPG yet.
An online game of this magnitude presents unique challenges for building an interactive soundscape, and the adventurous audio team at Blizzard is certainly up to the task, creating an immersive and epic experience that enhances game play and captures players' imaginations.
Role-playing games have been around for quite some time; games involving rolling dice and acting out characters' actions have been replaced by computerized 3-D role-playing games. But WoW possesses its own unique mixture of interactive game play, high-quality production and a dedicated online community that contributes to its domination of this genre.
Players subscribe for a monthly fee of $15 and then log on to a PC or Mac to create a character and join a worldwide server that launches the player into an immense, interactive virtual world. Players move up in level by earning experience points and accumulating “loot,” such as cool weapons. Depending on the character, players can gain the ability to cast powerful spells. Cooperation is a hallmark of MMOs, so players can join the fight against other factions, form guilds, embark on group quests, “farm” raw materials and even trade items and materials using in-game auction houses scattered around the world. There are literally thousands of players on each server (or “world”), with hundreds of servers handling massive amounts of information, such as player actions, stats, state of the environment and other types of game data — all in real time.
IN-HOUSE AUDIO — A LONG BLIZZARD TRADITION
Blizzard formed its audio department in 1993, when audio for videogames was very limited. Today, that's all changed: The Blizzard audio team has grown to include several pro studios with a talented team led by audio director and lead composer Russell Brower. (For a full crew list, see “Sound Masterminds” sidebar on page 56.) For more than 25 years, Brower has worked in film, television, theme parks and videogames. “Over those  years, game audio technology has advanced from primitive ‘bleeps’ and ‘bloops’ to low-resolution digitized sound, to General MIDI music, then higher-fidelity sound, synthesizer [sample-based] scores and finally to environmental surround sound and live orchestral scores.”
Blizzard's audio team has always produced music and sound design in-house, and enjoys a reputation for creating incredibly rich game sounds. With Blizzard's recent expansion-pack release of World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, the company spared no expense to capture the game's epic score. “I went to Seattle to record my latest score with a 96-piece orchestra and a 30-voice choir in a chapel with a 47-foot ceiling,” Brower says. “The sound of an entire orchestra playing together in a large-volume space is something that cannot be duplicated inside our computers.” The team overdubbed ethnic instruments, such as a ney flute, using up to three microphones on each instrument.
“Besides a typical large-diaphragm Neumann or the like, we'll also use my vintage RCA 77DX ribbon and our Sennheiser MKH-800, which captures up to 50 kHz,” Brower says. The team particularly liked the MKH-800's extended frequency response because pitch manipulation revealed upper harmonics and other subtle sonic “goodies” that they could later mix in with the score or layer with the ambient tracks. “The RCA, on the other hand, is very warm and musical,” Brower adds. “We recorded a lot of solo cello for World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, and the ribbon seems to bring you inside the instrument.”
The WoW environment teems with beautiful mountains, rolling hills, forests and cities, but there are also exotic lands that invoke magic, mystery and danger. When it comes to sound design and environmental audio, the Blizzard team is very keen on field recording. “We are active listeners who will often be found savoring the tiniest and most subtle nuances of everyday noises,” Brower says.
To capture these sounds, the Blizzard team uses a variety of cutting-edge portable gear. “We are also on a perpetual hunt for the ideal field recording rig since the most interesting and complex sounds occur in the real world outside of our studios,” Brower explains. The department's field recording devices include the Sound Devices 744T recorder; the Zoom H4, which the team uses to capture pleasant surprises; and, more recently, the Korg MR-1, which “captures audio in amazing detail and satisfies my desire for low-profile stealth recording,” says Brower.
The Blizzard team values convenient microphone setups for field recording. Brower's favorite mics are the Sonic Studios Dimensional Stereo capsules, which can be worn in front of the ears as “they capture a realistic and robust stereo image that has served me well in both games and traditional media for years,” he says.
The audio team supplements the custom field recordings they've gathered (or “farmed” in WoW speak, referring to the process of gathering valuable raw materials during the game) with commercial sound effects libraries. However, the team rejects any sound that seems “canned.” “Since everyone in the business owns the same CDs,” says Brower, “it's important to know when to reach outside of those libraries and record new sounds.”
Brower on field recording: “We will often be found savoring the most subtle nuances of everyday noises.”
Dialog is also recorded in-house. For years, the Blizzard team has enjoyed a reputation for bringing high production values to dialog, going back to a time when recording game dialog meant calling your uncle Bill to capture a few lines. Blizzard has several vocal booths at its facility to record the bulk of game dialog and hires A-list voice-over artists to create a variety of game characters. Translations, or localizations, are usually farmed out to studios that specialize in the needed languages. In addition, Brower says, “Dialog receives special attention, as an international localization team must not only record each line of voice-over in several languages, but also replicate any special processing we apply to the tracks. It is therefore important that our documentation make sense to people outside of our own department.”
As with any large audio project, careful planning and execution are vital. “Whatever the recording technique, it all comes down to final editing and mixing in the Pro Tools environment, although a couple of the team members prefer Sony's Vegas for preparing perfectly looping background ambiences,” Brower says. “Everyone is welcome to work on the platform in which they feel most at home until the final mixing stage, where it is important to share audio assets quickly between each other and any outside production teams [often related to dialog localization] with a minimum of compatibility issues.”
LOADING AUDIO ELEMENTS
Brower explains that because World of Warcraft runs on a computer — as opposed to a game console like the Sony PlayStation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360 or Nintendo Wii — sound loading is handled a bit differently. “The sounds reside on the ‘client,’ or a player's computer; only certain triggering signals flow through the data connection from the game server,” Browser says. “This is an ideal situation in terms of delivering audio to the player in a timely fashion; the only real bottleneck has to do with fetching sounds from the player's hard drive. Of course, this varies from system to system. However, the typical symptom is a slight delay the first time a given sound is played. After that, the sound plays from RAM, unless it gets purged to make room for a new crop of higher-priority sounds.”
A VIRTUAL THEME PARK
To create an immersive soundscape for World of Warcraft, Brower draws upon his experience working in theme parks, which gives him a unique perspective on interactive sound mixing. “Like in a theme park, the sound mix at any given instant is determined by where your character is standing,” he says. “Sounds are localized around you in all of the compass directions, and increase or decrease in volume over distance via a system that mimics an idealized version of real-world physics.
“To keep important sounds audible, even while your character stands close to a noisy waterfall, requires some careful setting of levels and trimming of the ‘fall-off,’ or distance over which a sound ceases to be audible. I was pleased to find that most of [my theme park] experience carried over nicely to the virtual world. In fact, I can now do things I only dreamed of at theme parks: Virtual speakers are invisible and therefore can go anywhere! Some speakers even ‘follow’ your character around, providing the opportunity to ensure certain sounds and music are always heard as intended.”
CUSTOM TOOLS — KEY TO SOUND IMPLEMENTATION
A game of this size and complexity requires usable, powerful tools to manage audio implementation. Blizzard's audio team works with the company's software tool developers to integrate audio.
“Like so many other parts of the development process — art, quest design, event scripting, world layout — the audio is implemented via a [proprietary] tool called the World Editor,” Brower explains. “This project-wide application contains some sound-specific tools, which we helped to design. These tools provide the means [for us] to assign background ambience and music to physical locales and zones in the game. They also facilitate attaching component sound effects and voice-overs to characters, monsters, animations, props and other objects, or ‘doodads,’ as they are called.”
With tens of thousands of sound files in World of Warcraft, the importance of a mutually agreed-upon file-naming system is crucial to ensuring that all sound elements are smoothly implemented. “One of the most important steps in our pipeline,” Brower explains, “is the comprehensive tracking and naming of all audio assets. Without a standardized convention [for] file names and containing folder structures, chaos would ensue.” A team of production coordinators works with the audio team to ensure that the status of each sound is easily and accurately tracked to guarantee smooth sound integration.
Making sure that the World of Warcraft audio experience is consistent across many computer configurations is a monumental task, and the audio department aggressively tests the game through various audio setups. “As PCs and sound systems vary wildly in the world, we treat the game metaphorically, like a commercially released audio CD,” says Brower. “We do a ‘mastering’ pass on the overall soundscape while monitoring over a variety of speakers and headphones on both Windows and Macintosh platforms. Outside of my music studio, I do not own any fancy speakers, so I hear the game's soundscape under some fairly harsh conditions, from my tiny laptop speakers to the competition of the air conditioning and other ‘sounds of home.’ I listen closely while playing to make sure I can hear everything that conveys the game play and story content. This is not to say we compress the dynamic range in the way of radio music; more accurately, we search for excess volume, frequencies or implementation clutter that obfuscates an otherwise clear presentation.”
Blizzard's quality-assurance department communicates with the audio department regularly to find specific issues relating to hardware incompatibility. Simply put, the audio team takes the time to test the game's audio as much as time allows, even at home. “The best way we personally review our work is to simply play the game at home. Even if you do not have a killer sound system, the game should be as immersive and communicative as possible,” Brower says. “If important aural clues are missing from the presentation, I find my character spends a lot more time running from the graveyard to recover its corpse!”
PASSION FOR GAMES MEETS HIGH-TECH AUDIO
Of course, creating audio for a huge title such as WoW is a tremendously rewarding experience. “Maybe most importantly, we strive to create the kind of game that we want to play, including an audio experience that compels us to turn up the sound, turn down the lights and enjoy the suspension of disbelief,” Brower says.
When it comes to the future of MMOs, Blizzard is leading the pack in terms of the way audio is produced, implemented and presented, as well as with the introduction of new sound features that are designed to make the experience more enjoyable for players. “Newest among those [sound features] are voice-chat systems, which are essential for some facets of cooperative game play in MMOs,” he continues. “Rather than simply being an add-on, as it was with the first WoW release, chat systems will become increasingly integrated so that the player does not have to turn off the game sound to effectively communicate with others. I am proud to note that WoW's forthcoming integrated voice-chat feature addresses this issue via a system that allows the player to selectively adjust their personal soundscape independently for in-chat moments versus out-of-chat situations.”
According to Brower, the voice-chat system is based on channels and introduces push-to-talk and voice-activated features that can be set to a player's preference.
More MMOs are striving to reach the status achieved by World of Warcraft as the dominant game in the genre, and with the latest Burning Crusade expansion, Blizzard once again raises the bar. “One reason I enjoy World of Warcraft is that the line between game play and story exposition is as blurred as it has ever been,” Brower says. “As someone who desires adventuring to go along with his gaming, I see MMOs as the best vehicle for realizing this potential. It can be difficult to implement effective volume mixes of the myriad sound sources in an MMO today. However, I see this as an area where much effort will be concentrated in the future. Much of the design and audio perceptual expertise we enjoy in linear media today can finally be applied to nonlinear game applications now that computers are powerful enough to host better tools and systems for prioritizing, culling and occluding sound assets in a real-time, persistent MMO environment.”
Recently, Blizzard announced a second expansion pack to WoW called Wrath of the Lich King. The release date has not yet been announced. For additional information on WoW, visit its expansive online gaming community at www.worldofwarcraft.com.
Michel Henein felt it was important to mention that he was “forced” to play hours upon hours of WoW for this article.
The WOW Audio Team
Russell Brower: lead composer/director of audio/video
Brian Farr: lead sound designer
Jonas Laster: sound designer
Derek Duke: senior composer
Matt Uelmen: senior composer
Keith Landes: audio producer
Pay to Play
THE BUSINESS EMPIRE THAT IS WOW
Let's do the math: 9 million subscribers (worldwide) paying an average of $15 per month? Folks, that's $135 million a month, which adds up to $1.62 billion per year — you read that right. And that doesn't include the $40 to $50 users shell out to buy the game. How many movies generate that kind of money? Not very many, but the big picture here is that WoW is the first MMO to really be considered headed toward the mainstream. Mainstream equals big bucks: MMOs are being played by moms, kids, the elderly — every kind of demographic you can think of.
The subscription model is definitely a great opportunity to generate revenue, but the players paying for the service are key. There are several competing MMOs out there; some are doing rather well but are not generating the dollars that WoW does. It's all about creating a game that people want to play and are willing to pay $15 for. More than half of the WoW subscription base resides in Asia, as MMOs are extremely popular there.
— Michel Henein