Sound design essentials for updating live service mobile games
With the growth of "live service" games, game development has taken on an increasingly iterative creative process. These beloved escapes are often sustained through the introduction of new content (e.g., season passes, DLC expansions, and new chapters) to keep the experience feeling fresh but familiar for their dedicated player bases. And the bigger these games become and the longer they are supported, so too do the needs for creative resources behind them change and grow.
Whether you've just joined a studio team in ongoing development or you've been tapped as an outsource audio producer for a game expansion or update, you'll find you have different needs and expectations to consider than when creating a game's audio from scratch. Here are some crucial considerations that we as an outsource audio studio recommend for sound designers who are tasked with expanding and upgrading sound assets for games that have a majority of their groundwork already laid.
Plan for expediency
Once a core game has already gone live, timelines for new content tend to be short and quick. That should come as no surprise since the bulk of the game's audio profile has already been created. As someone stepping in to fulfill the needs of new or refreshed content, you won't have the same luxury of time as when you're inventing all-new audio from a game's inception.
Start by quickly absorbing key details about the range of sounds already in use. How do the game's current sounds feed into its stylistic expectations (e.g., fantasy, horror), and how do they set the game apart? In an example from our recent work for Mobile Legends: Bang Bang, we were asked to update the sounds for hero Franco who was introduced to the game in 2016.
As a dwarven character, we knew sounds had to be heavy, earthy, and metallic at their core, but his abilities, animations, and cosmetics inspired additional layers that added depth to his sound, such as the underlying rustle of leather, the delicate jingle of chains during his hook throw to convey its complex forgery, and the gratifying sounds of physical impact, mild gore, and the jangle of coins at the end of a successful attack. By distilling these needs upfront we were able to get right to the point with recording and editing, resulting in quick arrival at sounds that feel natural to the game.
If you aren't finding the samples you seek within the sound sources at your disposal and decide to record some from scratch, don't dwell too heavily on any one effect. Open up your session and test a few captures of your idea, but if the results aren't what you expect in the first few tries, move on and try something else. The quicker you go about testing ideas, the faster you'll arrive at the ideal discovery that gets you to your goal.
Beat your references
This might seem self explanatory if your whole request is to refresh dated sound assets, but it's a principle that's worth repeating. When stepping into a project with a large library of sounds that have long been in use, you have to be smart about protecting the integrity of what players love and find iconic while improving upon how the sound fits with the current actions, animations, graphic fidelity, and story elements.
Live service games like Bang Bang: Mobile Legends are constantly growing and evolving, so it made sense to take a character like Franco that had been around for five years and give him a tune-up to fight stagnation and re-excite players. As such, we were provided references for his previous sound kit and updated gameplay samples we aimed to reconcile.
With a kit of three skills and one standard attack, we wanted to make Franco's sound punchier and more energetic while teasing out elements that could feel too repetitive and create player fatigue. Our trick to boosting his punchiness was using real drum beats at the core of his melee attacks. From there, we looked for ways to add the heft that a tank type character deserves. One subtle way we helped signal the weight of his attacks is with the hefty swoosh of Franco's weapon swing leading into the final impact.
When developing sounds with such a quick turnaround, know that sound libraries can be a great asset. They can help you set an early baseline for sound quality that lives up to the standards of comparable games while also kickstarting your creative process. Of course, you'll want to treat samples with your own flavor, and you may end up removing them from the final product in final rounds of refinement. So, never view these resources as a detriment—especially when speed is of the essence.
Let your medium guide you
As much as it may be tempting to create rich and dense sounds that stretch the limits of imagination, we must always keep in mind how and where our games will be played. Mobile devices have technical limitations that could affect how your audio is experienced compared to hi-fi studio headphones, but knowing this can help focus creativity and make your timelines feel less of a crunch.
Since phone speakers produce a narrower range of sound, we know we shouldn't fuss over the high and low ends of any sound. And anything too dense may come off blunt, losing all sense of nuance in your layers, and that's no good if you want to prevent players from getting audio fatigue. It's important to test anything you create in the same context it will be experienced, so share your sounds to various handheld devices and test with both speakers and various grades of common headphones to decipher what to keep and what to trim for the greatest effect.
Besides the technical limitations of our player's interface, with mobile games we also need to remain conscious of where games may be played in public. While we mentioned adding some gore effects to Franco's new sounds, we emphasized the mild aspect of it given that players may be passing time on a bus or in a park within earshot of others. So, just enough to add character while not being indecent.
One more way we test the integrity of our sounds is by switching up our location and playing them at different times of day. Something that sounds great and full of energy in the morning at home over a cup of coffee could feel exhausting later in the day under the flat glow of fluorescent office lights. It doesn't take much testing to know what you need to do to make things right, but plan that into your process from the start for an even better sounding product for your developer partners and their players.