I am Todd Castillo, audio designer at Six Foot, and this is my process behind the audio for Dreadnought. Though parts of this article might be somewhat technical, I hope this behind-the-scenes look at game audio will be of interest to all.
When I start a new project, I always set goals for myself. That can mean learning a new instrument, changing my recording process, or doing everything I can to make myself creatively uncomfortable. In doing so, I create an environment ripe for discovery, exploration, and telling new stories. When I started designing audio for Dreadnought, my first task was to lay the groundwork for remastering the current sounds.
My role as audio designer, especially early on, is to discover the heart of the game. What should Dreadnought sound like, and why? The answer comes with playing the game extensively and discussing ideas and design documents with the team. Once these questions are answered, that’s when the real work begins.
When designing audio, one important thing to consider is players’ expectations. What do players expect to hear when using weapons or navigating a menu? What kind of music do they think should be in the game? And, most importantly, why do they have these expectations? Understanding these questions is critical to creating new audio that challenges player expectations but does not distract from gameplay.
Like Carl Jung's archetypes, audio can fit neatly into universal categories. As we grow up with games and movies, we unconsciously learn emotional responses based on specific instrumentation or mixing techniques. For example, atonal audio often causes a stress response, while major chords can create resolution and satisfaction. This is true for both sound design and music.
Let’s take a closer look using a graph:
Audio that’s expected becomes invisible to players. They have heard this music or sound a million times, and the brain filters it out. For some projects, you need the expected—for example, situations where audio is not required for delivering information in new ways.
The unexpected has the opposite effect. It creates experiences that are unfamiliar. The player’s brain does not filter out these sounds, and they become clearly identifiable in-game. Delivering information through the unexpected creates unique moments that people remember. However, using unexpected sounds risks distracting them from gameplay.
In designing the audio for Dreadnought, my goal is to constantly balance these two elements: to make sound and music that support gameplay, but also to create a unique listening experience that immerses players. The range between expected and unexpected audio is vast and leaves plenty of room for creativity and experimentation.
Now that we’ve covered some abstract concepts behind the sound of Dreadnought, let’s look at the actual life cycle of audio. How do we get our sounds into the game?
The first step is planning. Specifically, that means creating design documents and mapping out ideas and goals. This part of the process is fun and often filled with a great sense of excitement. I like to surround myself with inspirational games and music—for Dreadnought, I found myself restudying the brilliant audio from the Battlefield series and dissecting the music of composer Johann Johannsson.
Next up: field recording. The difference between recording original material and using a stock sound library should not be underestimated. Whenever we go out to record samples and build a toolkit for constructing more complex audio, we end up creating unique sounds that have never been heard before. Sure, the sources might be like those in other sample libraries, but the recording process itself—the way you hold the microphone, the environment you record in, and the way you edit the samples—makes the sound distinct from any other. When gathering samples for this game, I recorded freeway traffic through plastic tubes, traveled to California to record automatic weapons, and sampled from vintage 80s synthesizers.
Once field recording is complete, we build assets—weapons, button sounds, and ship engines—using the sound library material. The larger the field recording toolkit, the more freedom there is at this stage. However, the most powerful tool during the sound design stage is not the sample library—the most powerful tool is the development team. Constant iteration turns good sounds into excellent ones. Feedback from non-audio team members is invaluable at this stage, too. Sometimes, just seeing the initial reaction is enough to send us back to the drawing board. In all my years in game audio, iteration—listening to feedback and reworking sounds—has become essential for creating excellence in audio.
Once the sound design is complete, we put the audio into the game. Every step in the process is important, but audio implementation is critical. Mistakes at this stage can not only wipe out the audio team’s hard work, but they can also adversely affect the game itself. The implementation stage presents many challenges. Because of its technical nature, this stage might appear to have less creative potential than earlier stages. One might even be tempted to assign this work to team members outside of audio.
However, nothing could be further from the truth.
The implementation stage is one of the most creatively rich parts of the process and is unique to the video game industry. As audio designers, we take the director's seat for the audio and can program exactly how we want players to experience what we’ve designed. It was during this stage of Dreadnought’s audio development that we focused on creating a sense of scale and weight for the massive ships and their thundering weapons.
Testing is the final stage, which often involves some of the most challenging problems to solve. Fortunately, this is also the most rewarding stage because we get to share the audio that’s been planned for almost a year with the rest of the team. On Dreadnought, we remastered nearly all the weapons, user interface sounds, and music to create an entirely new soundscape for the game.
Our sonic journey with Dreadnought is ongoing, but I hope this post gives you some insight into the audio development of the game. My year running the audio department has been a journey of discovery on a search for strange sounds. I look forward to sharing that journey with you soon. See you in-game.