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Studio Insider: Combat Audio

In this Studio Insider, Audio Designer Scott Morton guides us through the process of creating the perfect mix of music and sound effects to complement the combat experience, from the initial conceptualization to the final implementation.

Also, in this week’s Community Q&A, Senior Concept Artist Clint Young answers your questions about the art direction in The Old Republic. If you have any burning questions you’d like to ask the developers, be sure to leave them in the Community Q&A Thread!

Audio Design

Hi, my name’s Scott Morton, and I’m one of the audio designers who helps create the soundscape for Star Wars™: The Old Republic™. I spend half my time coming up with new sounds for different parts of the game (explosions!), and the other half conceptualizing technical approaches for getting sound and music playing in the game engine. The art of sound design can sometimes be a little mysterious; audio is always a supporting element and tends to be secondary to visuals in the player’s mind. Yet audio’s importance in helping craft the aesthetic feel of a player’s actions and experiences shouldn’t be underestimated.

Combat is the most dynamic and action-oriented aspect of The Old Republic, and it’s also one of the areas of the game that can be drastically affected by audio. I’ll explain the thought process and design approach we typically go through when creating sound for a combat ability.

One of the first things we do when beginning audio production on combat abilities is to give each class a distinctive aural character. We’ve discovered that a great way to establish a sonic palette for each class is to come up with one or two descriptive terms that capture the essence of what we’re trying to convey, and attempt to tune every sound to those terms. The Jedi classes are very “Zen” in nature, employing a lot of yellow, white, and blue visual effects – usually softer around the edges. For these, we want to convey ideas like “smooth” and “wavelike” in our audio. Because the Sith represent a more corrupt and “edgier” side of the force, we want the sounds associated with them to be more “rough.” Smugglers are “flashy”. Agents are “refined” and “sleek”.

After we’ve determined the general style for each class, it’s time to hammer out the details of how each of the abilities functions, from both a dramatic and a Player feedback perspective. Not only do we want the Player to feel awesome when using an ability, we also want to communicate to them what sort of statistical purpose it serves to their character. Some are obvious – the Sith Inquisitor’s Force Storm is one of her top-level abilities, and it’s very apparent that Force Storm is all about inflicting massive amounts of Force Lightning damage on any poor soul who might be in the immediate vicinity. Some abilities, like the Agent’s Stealth, benefit from a feedback-like approach. The sound needs to fit the sonic style of the character, but it also needs to tell the Player that he’s dropped into an undetectable state. Designing the audio to slide down in pitch and volume can help to give a “backing off” impression as the Agent retreats into the shadows.

Establishment of style has to be done a bit more carefully in The Old Republic than in other games; after all, there is a long legacy of signature sounds associated with the Star Wars™ universe that came out of the films, television series, and even previous games. Lightsabers have an iconic aural identity, along with many of the blasters and other weaponry. Because the setting in Star Wars: The Old Republic is much earlier than the time period of the films, we have some room to deviate a bit and go in new directions. At the same time, it wouldn’t be Star Wars without those signature sounds that we all recognize and love. When we’re working on an ability that involves a weapon, whether it be a Lightsaber, blaster, or bowcaster, we always make it a point to ask ourselves, “Does this sound like Star Wars?” Because of the fantastic history of iconic sounds that we have the privilege (and responsibility) to tap into, that question is an important one for us to ask ourselves.

Designing sounds can end in some delightfully deceptive results when it comes to supporting a visual component of a particular ability in the Player’s mind. There are many cases where the source layers we put into a sound aren’t at all what the listener might expect. A great example of source layers is with the TIE Fighter from the first Star Wars trilogy. Believe it or not—the core sound Ben Burtt used for the screaming engine was actually an elephant call! In our game, the Bounty Hunter’s Rail Shot uses a combination of interesting layers. A number of these sounds incorporate other noises that have been distorted or otherwise altered using computers, such as the tail end of an explosion that was processed and delayed to create the echo of the shot, or the time-stretched sounds of smoke that were used to make the entire effect sound more “metallic.” Other sounds were much more simplistic, like the sound of a solid object striking wood.

Note, in the first two videos below, you won’t hear sound until the Bounty Hunter’s Rail Shot fires. Do not adjust your headset!

Stage 1 – Since the Rail Shot is a super-powerful laser capable of punching a hole clean through a droid’s metal skull, the first step is to establish the weapon’s character with a high-pitched energy burst. The laser also scorches the air around it, so we’ll need an edgy, metallic smoke sound to go with it.

Stage 2 – Next comes the raw power. We want this weapon to feel like it’s going to knock your bracer arm out of its socket when you fire it. A tight, focused slamming sound communicates how much brute force is behind the laser blast.

Stage 3 – Mix in an energy-based charge-up sound, an impact sound on the target, and bring in all the rest of the surrounding audio, and you’ll hear the complete picture. Toasty!

Once we’ve done all our cutting, pasting, layering, processing, and other magic voodoo that sound designers perform in our dark sound caves, the end result won’t remind you of any of those source objects at all; it will just help to sell a nice fat piece of hardware that you’ll be unleashing on a group of Republic scum.

Sound is one of the most enigmatic parts of a video game. There are the few and the proud audiophiles out there who hang on every piece of audio a game world has to offer, but most gamers are unaware of just how powerfully a sound can influence the final perception of something like a Lightsaber impact or a Republic dropship flying by. Is that dropship’s engine old and holding together with haphazardly-bolted spare parts? The sound can tell you. When that Sith Warrior behind you draws his rare-drop epic Lightsaber in a PVP match, how will you suddenly be aware of the danger and unbridled wrath waiting to strike you down? The sound can tell you that too. And to top it all off, how much cuter is that baby Flesh-Raider once you can hear his little hungry cries for meat?

Crank up your speakers, and May the Force be with you!

Community Q&A

Each month we take time to answer some of the community’s questions about Star Wars: The Old Republic. Next month’s Q&A will be focusing on sound and music. If you have a question for one of our audio designers, feel free to post it on the Forums or on Facebook. Be sure to get your question to us by May 27th if you want it to be considered for our next Community Q&A.

Today, Senior Concept Artist Clint Young answers some of your art-related questions.

Q: Are there weather condition changes on planets? - Fyror

A: Each planet has localized weather conditions. Depending on the world the weather you will encounter will include rain, snow, sandstorms and many other unfavorable conditions; it just happens to be a constant for those worlds. For example, if you’re on Hoth you can expect moderate to heavy snowfall with the occasional blizzard.

Q: Was "stylized realism" the first art style BioWare decided on, or were other art styles considered? If so, what were they? – JakeLagerstrom

A: “Stylized Realism” was always the plan for the overall look and feel for the art of The Old Republic. Both LucasArts and BioWare wanted to give the art in SWTOR a style that could be easily recognizable as Star Wars, but really call its own. Many people draw comparisons to the Star Wars: The Clone Wars™ television series; however, being a fan of both the films and the animated series, I like to think that we are both and neither. I recently received a bit of art direction on a concept piece I was working on that simply stated “ya know, make it ‘Old Republic’y’.”

Q: When you are doing artwork for things not yet defined in the Star Wars universe, does BioWare offer up a bunch of suggested art pieces which LucasArts say yes or no to, or does LucasArts have a list of required features and BioWare artists work to that goal? – Infyrno

A: Yes, no and both. It’s an interesting question to answer because I find both BioWare and LucasArts give us (concept artists) a huge amount of freedom while playing in the Star Wars sandbox. We show our conceptual art to LucasArts and sometimes they have notes and/or suggestions. We are always open to making something better, more accurate or work for the time period.

Q: When artists go back to improve upon an area after they have learned more about it (like the example Robby Lamb gave us regarding the hacker enslaved to the Empire), I was wondering how much of the story the artists are given, or do they have to wait until release like us to hear the stories for each class? - Spektur

A: When we start work on a planet, the writing team describes as much of the story as they can. From that, we create concepts to match the story and ideas each planet represents. A big challenge we face when conceptualizing a planet is working in tandem with several other teams. While our talented environment team puts these areas together, designers and writers are also working on the same planet at the same time. Because of this, we have to make sure that we continue to work as a single unit, even with all these moving parts.

Q: What medium do the concept artists use to create the concept art? - MorgonKara

A: All the art is done digitally, though some of the artists begin with concepts sketched on paper. Once a particular design is agreed upon the artist will then scan the image and paint the sketch using Photoshop. Many of the artists (if not all of us) enjoy a good pencil sketch to keep our skills sharp.

Q: Will everyone have their own unique armor/look in the game, or will we be seeing some of the same armor/look on multiple people?

A: We have thousands of different armor/outfit combinations planned for the players and are currently still building this list and will continue to do so even after we launch. That being said, there will be millions of players, so there will be some crossover in their looks. Our main concern is that each player looks specific to their chosen class and has enough variation to allow the player to feel as unique as possible. For instance, if you are playing a Jedi Knight you will look significantly different from a Jedi Consular. You will also have opportunities to distinguish yourself from other players of your same class by going off the beaten path to find rare gear.

Thanks for joining us for this month’s Studio Insider! We hope you enjoyed Scott Morton’s in-depth look at the process of designing the audio in The Old Republic, as well as Clint Young’s answers to your art-related questions.

As we’ve given you an insight into audio, our next Community Q&A will be focused on sound and music. If you have questions on this topic, we invite you to post them in the Community Q&A thread.

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