We talk with Rob Bridgett about culture, craft, and coffee!

Creating Sound: Rob! What do you think the futuristic cyber-audio designer’s responsibilities will be in five years? Ten? Ten thousand?

Rob Bridgett: I think your responsibilities, and whom you report to, the kind of work you do, all depend on the culture you work in. I’m thinking how differently organized EA sports is from say, Media Molecule or Double Fine and I’m wondering how different things are from five years ago in our industry. Not that one is any more or less ‘creative’ or ‘technical’ than the other, just that their structural differences are necessary to the end product. I’d say in some cases, there is no difference at all, even going back 10 – 15 years, and I’m thinking that time might not be as useful a reference point as we might think. I think all the significant changes have come from the people working in the industry, and the types of games being made, and if you looked at those games outside of release date, you might think them from a previous generation. Games like Limbo, Soundshapes and Journey have changed things so much more than the technology has; they are new art forms, new business models, and herald new ways of designing and integrating sound into new experiences that the hardware manufacturers couldn’t have dreamed of. There are so many wonderful and innovative games and ideas coming through now, that they feel like creative opportunities exploiting the cracks between technologies.

Digging in a little on the audio technology side, I think the enrichment of middleware will continue and in doing so set a lot of new ideas free. This I see as incredibly positive, accessibility of tools and simple, solid interfaces that allow deep experimentation and customization were one of the fundamental ‘missing parts’ of the audio development landscape. There is also so much tutorial content and shared knowledge in this area, that it is now so quick and easy to get interactive content up and running. In the past I’d have struggled to give advice to anyone from a linear sound background as to how to best get a feel for game sound, now you can just point them to download Wwise and the tutorials or Fmod TV on YouTube and they’ll not only be able to hear and read about it, but build their own projects with their own content, hands-on, for free! You can’t even do that with Pro Tools or Nuendo, so we are ahead of the pack there in terms of accessibility. Again, I think this accessibility to enriched interactive tools opens up the craft and technology to people with very new and different ideas and uses for these engines.

To your first point, do you think that a studio’s culture influences the final product?

It is the biggest influence. The team and the culture operate on all levels of production, from attitudes to overtime to innovation. The Kixeye recruitment video really sums these things up nicely and puts a bow on it. It will make you laugh in recognition at this notion of the ‘old ways’ of game business culture. However, if you want to take this kind of thing to its logical conclusion, I recommend looking again at the Charlie Brooker / Chris Morris TV show, ‘Nathan Barley’. This is why I think it is important for audio to be represented at the cultural level in a studio, if it isn’t, then of course it will be neglected. Sound needs a seat at the table.

Going back to your second point about audio technology, with the barrier of entry into game audio getting lower and lower, what new qualifications will emerging for the audio designer?

So, with the access to the technology getting lower, accessibility to publishing platforms is easier if you have a small savvy team of coders and designers with a really great idea, they can make that happen at a relatively low cost. They’ll still need some business and production savvy, but they don’t need to go through the publisher sign-off and pitching process, which is good if the idea is focused and clean, but there are new challenges with that model, in that you can just put out an underdeveloped, buggy product. Sure, feedback and milestones can sometimes take the ‘edge’ off a product, but they also give it a more polished feel, and there are lessons to be learned in that, seeking feedback, setting regular milestones, that’s all a healthy part of production – of course some teams can’t and don’t work like that, but that polish process has to happen in there somewhere. In terms of audio production, there are a whole range of ways that audio can be integrated into indie games – from outsourced lists of sfx and music that the developers hook-up themselves, to on-site implementation and audio design roles. The former is a model that triple-a development studios have slowly moved away from (on the whole). There is a whole ecosystem of studios and cultures with different ways of bringing audio into their games, and I think that diversity is one of the really interesting and challenging things about our industry.

Anyway, to your point about qualifications, I think personally any qualification in any discipline will give you the perspective of working on something and finishing it to a high enough standard, the other essential thing you’ll need is experience in collaborating with others on projects. I’m not necessarily talking about paid work for a developer, although that experience would be hugely valuable, I’m thinking of examples of projects you’ve worked on with other people, where you can identify your role, talk about the process and decision making on that project, how feedback was gathered and prioritized, and how the final ‘thing’ was completed as a mutually accountable team – that experience could come from anywhere, be it a mountain climbing expedition, or publishing a small journal. Speaking from my own perspective, I’m always very impressed, and inspired, by people who are professional, respectful, and have a good sense of humour – that goes so much further than having shipped 5+ AAA titles that have reviewed 80 or above on metacritic. Soft skills are in short supply and high demand, but again, it is a balance between those soft skills and experience, and understanding of your craft. I think Valve described seeking T-shaped people – meaning having broad overall experience, which is the top of the ‘T’ – coupled with a deep specialization, which is the vertical part of the ‘T’ – it is another interesting way to evaluate holistically for a role within a team and particular culture, rather than trying to specifically solve your needs for a ‘technical sound designer’ or an ‘audio programmer’. Damian Kastbauer has said ‘it’s all about the people’ – and he’s totally nailed it – ‘it’ being making games.

Let’s say someone is an experienced sound designer. They can make kick ass sounds and implement them into the game. What should be their next priority?

From that description, it sounds like a very accomplished technical and artistic person. My own advice would be to encourage and help someone like that, who was actively looking for ways to develop, to deepen their human relations skills and social skills, and try to balance all three of those skill areas equally in their work, so that every typical week would involve all of those areas in equal measure – So, rather than designing and implementing all week, they’d be spending a couple of days of that week sitting down with designers or artists and gathering feedback and opinion, testing out their sounds with other collaborators and reviewing them in context. Learning deeply about other disciplines is also a great place to develop both other perspectives, understanding or processes and dependencies and different ways of communicating, mentor with a designer or animator, it’s very interesting to find similarities as well as differences in how we work; we deal with a lot of the same issues – and no matter what our discipline, we are all trying to solve either design problems or production problems with our work and workflows. I’m personally obsessed with listening to and reading about graphic design and architecture, as I find so many easily applicable ideas and concepts there. Bringing it back to sound, Randy Thom said, in an interview with Designing Sound, that “I sometimes think of the work as being about 33% art, 33% craft and 33% human relations.” – I think this is an utterly brilliant observation, and, for me, represents the perfect balance to strive towards for an individual working in any collaborative job, but especially sound. I also think that this formula is a great way to balance a team with various strengths, for example a gifted technical or implementation expert, working with someone who is a very creative sound effects designer, both working with someone who can explain and communicate with the rest of the team etc. It remains loyal to that formula. I find this quote from Randy is ‘a world within a grain of sand’ in terms of how it can be applied at various levels to sound teams.

Is there an area where you think audio designers are coming up short? Aside from our literal height. It feels like we’re at least an inch shorter than producers and artists on average, depending on the heels.

This isn’t just audio, but I’d love to see developer diaries or focus features where several disciplines get together and talk about the game or the thinking and process, rather than sitting down to single out sound or music, or dissect a single element of the production like the camera – it is a very one dimensional approach, very flat, it promotes segregation of the arts – I think presenting that viewpoint misses the point of how these experiences are really put together and built, and it creates a false impression that each discipline is somehow working in isolation towards the success of the game – Media Molecule have an interesting approach to podcasts, as do 2k on their Cult of Rapture podcasts, again, around this idea of a group of developers sitting down and you, as a listener, become a fly on the wall of their process and team conversations. This feeds back into the idea of an interdisciplinary studio ‘culture’. I’d personally much rather hear about how a team came up with an idea for a feature together, how the sound influenced the visuals, how the visuals influenced the sound, and how the balancing and weight of the game design elements like spawning enemy amounts and stealth vs gun-play influenced the approach to the environments and the mix and so on, these are the kinds of examples of production I’d much rather see representing game development – I recall a great featurette on one of the many DVD re-issues of Apocalypse Now showing a production meeting between all the principle collaborators on the film, Murch and Coppola et al, and you get such a huge amount of inspiration from the way Walter represents his ideas and how Francis responds to those ideas in a group setting. This was one of the only ‘making of’ segments that completely changed the way I wanted to work in sound.

So, to sort of answer your question, I don’t think this is specifically something audio designers are falling short on; it is just the way that interviews with developers are being framed and set-up. Similarly, why not have a publicity picture of an audio designer, not wearing headphones or slumped provocatively over a hot a mixing desk or other ‘gear’, but in a team or collaborative context, a still-shot of someone working and discussing ideas with others, no more pictures in front of mixing desks! This is also one of my personal goals from now on; we’ve all been guilty of it, but it is a big part of how sound design is perceived – put ‘sound designer’ into google image search, and you’ll see what I mean – I mean, sure, it is what we do, but somehow, it isn’t really what we do at all.

These kinds of pictures are codified with meaning, to other people, I imagine they say things like…

‘I have nice gear’
‘I can work this big mixing desk’
‘I have headphones on, sorry what was that?’
‘I am in a soundproofed room, shhh!’
‘This is awkward’
‘I am relaxed. Honest.’

– They don’t say …

‘Sound is an active collaborative element of design’.

So, sound has an image problem. Once the images begin to change, perhaps production thinking will change quicker. All these things can help or hinder the ability of sound to become an active player in early development.

Thinking again about the future, you’ve spoken a good deal about technologies and processes that you think need to happen for audio to raise itself up. What do you think is the very next thing that we should be doing? What’s the most important and attainable move we can make today to help ourselves in the future?

I think we could all make time to gain some fresh perspectives. It’s an awesome industry we work in, but it is often stressful and high pressure and can all be taken too seriously at which point it can become something dark. I think Conan O’Brien’s Clueless Gamer reviews put our industry into a healthy perspective, at least from the pov of the end-consumer, and if we can laugh at ourselves then this is healthy. Collaborate on great games and great experiences, enjoy the process and enjoy working with teams, solving problems with the people you are with… most importantly, get out of the studio – in terms of valuable experiences, the real world is kind of hard to beat, and anything you do outside of the job, whether it is travelling, duck-hunting, bird-watching, baking, cross country skiing, watch-making or collecting hard-to-find Pez dispensers, having a hobby in which you can immerse yourself, lose yourself, is probably the most valuable thing you can do as an influence on your work. You’ll be fresher and sharper when you are at ‘work’ if you are refreshed, rested and content elsewhere in your life. You’ll also have a healthy perspective on the work you do. I find meeting experts in other fields, completely different fields, like short-wave radio or vintage typewriters, is amazingly inspiring. It’s not what they know that I find useful, but the enthusiasm and passion for their subject that is utterly infectious, and these are usually hobbyists who have the most passion. It also allows you to switch off from ‘development’ thinking and ‘sound’ thinking, and it is almost exactly when this happens that the best ideas will occur to you.

So, what’s your hobby right now?

I’m learning about coffee.

Cool. How has learning about coffee affected your work and perspective?

I’m not sure yet, but I enjoy the coffee.

Right on. Tangent. Lots of stuff going around about Google Glass. Do you think there is or will be an audio equivalent?

Glass is screaming out for audio integration to be at the forefront of its development. The visual clutter that we’ve seen in the demos has already received a fair amount of ridicule from a practicality and safety point of view. Positional audio cues, for example, seem like a plausible avenue for exploration here for waypoint location etc. – as does a dialogue-only navigation system, leaving the visual field uncluttered. Life doesn’t need a HUD. It is funny, because I envisage a whole other class of human being appearing with this technology, and one that will appear ‘insane’ to those that don’t use that technology. There will be people standing in the streets and store aisles looking into space as they attempt to navigate an interface invisible to others. They will be less present as a species in the spaces that their physical bodies are, and probably more vulnerable, it could well be an evolutionary cul-de-sac for wearable technology. There is also a risk of highly advanced schizophonia (separation of visual and aural worlds) in this class of human, and I honestly think that prolonged use of this kind of technology will seriously mess people up, we see it as cool right now, but this might be our generation’s LSD. A technology that separates the body and the mind and that actually puts your physical safety at risk in the real world. Put it this way, you wouldn’t last long in my local pub wearing your google glass. Well, that’s quite dystopian of me to say that, but I see opportunities for audio augmented reality as perhaps a ‘less risky’ avenue of development for wearable technology, and I have plenty of ideas where that could go. I’m not saying there should be no visual development in the field of view at all, but a heavier leaning on audio to provide information to the wearer, and not force them to have to stop and read stuff. A lot of dystopian futures have already been written and imagined in this area. There are good ways this could go, and there are problematic ways. As designers, we’ve got to think about more things than just entertainment, we’ve got to think about the contexts in which these experiences are being experienced.

I’ll probably wait for Google Bowtie. End tangent. Is there any misrepresentation or stereotype about the audio discipline that you’d like to dispel?

I don’t believe sound is 50% of the experience, I think that is a disservice to all the other disciplines that go into making either film or games. I don’t like the idea of separating sound out from all the other elements and contexts within which it is experienced. That phrase has shone a light on sound, but, like the Wilhelm Scream, it feels like it is time to put it back in the box.

Do you think we should nuke that mantra then?

I don’t think we necessarily need to kill it right away, it will go away eventually, if we stop repeating it and refrain from keeping it in the production lexicon. These kinds of phrases are crutches, when we no longer need them, we’ll throw them aside.

Is there a talent that you think audio designers have that is not being exploited to its fullest potential?

Listening. It’s an obvious one to mention, but all collaborative disciplines could benefit massively by going through some positive exercises to listen more, to each other, acknowledge ideas and what has just been said. To not step on people’s words. For those people talking, listening constantly and knowing when to finish, or when to get some input – Listen to the game, and to the world around you. I honestly believe that every problem in the world today, whether it is a small issue, or a massive world problem, has arisen because someone has not listened.

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”
— Ernest Hemingway

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
— Winston Churchill

Yeah! I be chewin’ on that wisdom from my main man Winston.

Back to it, another area I think people from an audio discipline excel is in experimentation. I think this comes from the nature of the work, working in the darkness, building things up, every project, team and collaboration being different, with a million possible solutions and avenues. There is also something gratifying about the way we make mistakes; you could argue that the process of sound design, or composition, is just repeatedly making mistakes until something works. This is the way game development should work, and in some cases does, it’s just that the slower iteration time and $ cost associated with getting something to show up on screen and be playable makes mistakes more onerous.

Do you think immersion is the right way to describe how audio contributes to the player’s experience of a game? How can audio make the greatest impact on our players?

Immersion is a word I associate more with virtual reality than in video games, I think the most we can hope for, realistically, is to have an audience be engaged in something compelling. It boils down to communicating the experience to the player, above everything else. As long as all the work of the team is focused on this, then the sound design will provide what it needs to. Every game, and every movie, has a unique requirement from its soundtrack. Oftentimes the sound can go above and beyond, perhaps delivering an experience that was never thought possible of that project, but any seasoned developer will already be expecting that ‘magical’ element from the soundtrack. Sound can be a glue that binds the many moving parts of a project together and fixes problems, so in that sense it needs to be smooth, consistent and polished. It will also deliver the tone of the experience in a direct physical way to the player; it can make something represented on screen ‘feel’ real so it is a physical and intimate experience with the player.

I’d say the biggest thing we can do in terms of being compelling is to design the sound for the person playing the game, not the person watching the game being played. We should focus all our efforts in this area, and the only way to really do this is by playing the game yourself and having reviewers and feedback provided by people who play the game. Someone watching a game being played will ask ‘what’s that bleeping sound?’ or ‘why didn’t that tiny piece of metal-piping have any collision sounds when it hit the ground?’ – Whereas the player is aware of their low-health or ammo warning sounds, is familiar enough to realize that they require immediate attention without it ruining the ‘experience’ in fact, it is the experience, they are not aware of the small piece of metal-piping without its collision effect cluttering the mix. To lean on a real-world example, it is virtually the same difference between someone driving a car and someone in the passenger seat – do they experience the road-trip the same way? With cinema, everyone is a passenger in that experience, looking through the window, perhaps thinking they could drive this car better, whereas with games; you have to do the driving – so this is a fundamental difference in the audience you are designing for, and a difference in approach for sound design that is essential to grasp if the player is going to feel engaged.

Is there anything else that you’d like to offer our dear readers?

I’d definitely like to take the chance to encourage people to give back, to contribute to and be a part of the wider game development community, there are a lot of audio specific organizations like GANG, IESD, GVAC, AES, VGM, IASIG, Designing Sound, Creating Sound (of course), etc, and less formally, but just as importantly through #gameaudio. A lot of people are giving a ton of their time and energy to the wider community through these channels, and if you step back and look at that as a whole, it is an amazing, living resource, especially for those wanting to get into the industry, or learn more about it.

Also, if you find yourself out of work for any period of time in this industry, then these organizations offer a way to stay involved and continue to contribute, even if not through actual game development, so I’d encourage everyone to continue to contribute to those channels and grow them, even start your own.

Finally, if you haven’t already, perhaps offer to do a talk at your local university or school and take any chance you can to contribute to and evangelize for the wider understanding of sound design within game development. I’m all for a total grass-roots political approach to promoting the understanding of how sound, design, technology and visuals work together in media at every level, and the cumulative effect of taking any small opportunity to do this will help, just as much as making an awesome sounding game will.

– Should anyone make it to the end of the interview, I wanted to say a huge thanks to Ariel for asking me to be involved in this thing, it has been nice to dust up a couple of ideas and present them here.

Thank you, Rob! You rule and we all look forward to having you back.