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Audio implementation in game ports

Audio implementation experts occupy a critical role in the game development process—one that calls on a special brand of creativity. Our often unsung niche fits snugly between sound designers and software engineers and is responsible for making sure the right sounds play at the right time in just the right way to deliver the best-sounding gameplay experience possible.

Sometimes, technical audio designers get to take well-loved games and port them onto new platforms where even more people can discover and enjoy them. While today’s game engines and middleware have made it easier for developers to achieve cross-compatibility with features like native audio formats, cross-platform audio effects-processing, built-in localization, and batch processing, every new port still requires special attention to ensure the experience translates appropriately for the technical capabilities of its newfound system. 

Consider this: a souped-up PC is always going to offer more performance power than a handheld console or mobile phone, but games can start on either platform and move to the other. That’s where technical sound designers’ multidirectional expertise comes into play. Drawing on our recent reimplementation of audio for the port of Iron Man VR from its launch platform PlayStation VR to the widely owned Meta Quest 2, here are a few important rules we adhere to when parsing excellent audio performance from one platform to the next.

Prioritize product integrity

Whether implementing audio across multiple platforms before launch or porting a game after initial release, our ultimate goal is always to preserve the overall game experience intended by the developers—no matter the unique challenges each platform introduces. This is especially the case when ports are initiated years after launch, as studios often entrust these duties to outside partners who were not part of the original development, keeping their teams free to work on new ventures.

When entering a project where original sound design and implementation were performed by others, it’s not our job to revise the careful creative direction that’s already been set forth. A port is not the venue to re-envision a game’s signature soundscape such as one might with a remake or significantly remastered edition. Instead, we aim to optimize the experience that players already love for newly destined platforms with as little compromise as possible. A player who fell in love with the game on its original release will expect the same fulfilling experience should they hit play on another system—from signature sound to visuals and more.

Hone in on technical differences for optimal performance

Audio implementation involves a lot of technical negotiation. While engines and middleware may remain the same across a game’s many platforms, the differences in hardware are immense. Each platform has a unique “budget” for how densely you can pack in graphics and sounds and other effects before you start taxing the system and impairing the game’s performance. 

On the most essential level, a port’s performance can be observed in visual frame rates. Densely layered audio won’t cut it if it’s at the expense of smooth animation and clear textures. We look to processing power as a good indicator of how rich an experience we can create with eyes and ears set on balancing the audiovisual load for depth and dimension. 

VR is a prime example of this given its uncompromising need for high frame rates to ensure playability. While PS VR achieves high performance with the base PlayStation console’s 8G of RAM and a wired, external processing unit, the Quest 2 operates with a leaner, more economical 6GB of RAM and an internal processor, meaning a greater need for prioritization of AV assets for smooth gameplay. That said, Quest 2 also offers some unique opportunities given its cordless nature—with unlimited player mobility emphasizing the need for 360˚ spatialization of sounds (something not needed for most screen-based play). 

While consoles provide standardized performance capabilities with each generation (making it easier to anticipate the optimal implementation), PC hardware varies wildly (think desktop versus laptop). When porting from console to PC, it’s up to the developer to determine what kind of performance standards they aim to set in the minds of players and entrust technical sound designers to construct an audio system that aligns with their technical needs.

Weigh content by context

Once you have a clear perspective on the constraints and opportunities of your new platform, then it’s time to get creative. Outside of crucial elements like UI audio that guides players through essential operations, consider the full suite of available sounds by how and where they are used. Are they cinematics, environmental ambience, or are sounds tied directly to players’ actions like combat? Some recordings, such as speech, will largely remain required, but we can always find ways to simplify the processing of even necessary audio should the need arise.

Trimming assets is obviously the simplest way to cut down on performance demands, but it’s easy to take things too far. Rampant cuts resulting in unintended silences are a surefire way to take players out of the game, so we always aim to preserve a constant level of ambience and atmospherics which perform a key role in grounding the overall experience.

Another way we might approach trimming is by adjusting how and when sounds become audible. Think about players’ proximity to a talking NPC or an in-game radio. By giving these sounds smaller falloff distances, we can tighten the window for when the engine is calling on these assets. 

Similarly, as technical sound designers we can uncover opportunities to reduce performance bandwidth in the overall sound mix. Consider a warzone with a wide range of artillery at play. By prioritizing the loudest weapon discharges like massive cannons, we can allow the engine to drop the sounds of smaller weapon fire when they would be overpowered instead of requiring the game to play all sounds constantly. Smart decisions like these can help limit the tax on system performance while continuing to deliver the signature experience players expect.

Implementation is negotiation

These few rules of audio implementation are by no means exhaustive, but each underscores the value of what our role brings to the game development and porting process. On its base level, audio implementation is a systematic art of negotiation, and our perspective builds an important bridge between sound designers and developers. This area of creative expertise is essential to new games as well, but it proves of unique significance when porting games from one platform to their next great frontier.

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