GDC 2015 – Sunset Overdrive and Maintaining a Vision

All Style, All Substance:

The Audio Journey of the Vanity and Traversal System for Sunset Overdrive


Kristen Quebe (Microsoft) [@gameaudiogirl] [] Bryan Higa (Obsidian) [@bryanhiga] ... and special guest Jeff Dombkowski (Microsoft) [@ThBigDombkowski]

If it were as easy as taking what you’ve built in Wwise and dropping it, a fully realized and performant vision, wholesale into a game, game audio would sound a lot better than it does already. It’s never actually that easy. If I’ve learned anything in game audio so far, that’s it.

When we play games, we form opinions. That’s human nature. But you’d do well to tread lightly if you don’t know the whole story of how that game took shape. Hear something you like? Presume that a lot of people fought really fucking hard to get it there.

And if you hear something you don’t, or don’t hear something you wanted to, don’t presume to know anything at all.

Closing the gap between vision and execution in game development takes a lot of work from a lot of people.

On the sound side, you’re going to need a creative mind to dream up the way the game should sound, conjure that initial target that the game’ll strive for until it hits shelves. You’ll want a technical sound designer type to take that vision and turn it into systems that will surface raw sound design in a way that hits that mark. There’ll be some Producer / Sound Supervisor type to draw up all the asset lists, rolling and militarily maintained Excel sheets of required components and filenames that’ll go into the grist mill and let the middleware project run. You’re going to need designers to make all that stuff.

None of that matters if you aren’t able to get a team behind you.

Programmer support, production time, budget, headcount–all of these are really unsexy-sounding concepts that nonetheless hold any game’s features in sway. It takes people to get stuff working, and when time and money are inflexible, people are a really hot commodity. Pretty much all my takeaways from GDC last year were that the best-sounding games with the coolest tech were coming out of the most supportive studios. Gaining that support takes a champion or vision-holder who’s willing to go tirelessly to bat for the stuff that counts.

It’s clear from the way Sunset Overdrive’s vanity and movement system turned out that they had a champion. Maybe a bunch of them! And a whole stable of talented designers; I saw something like 15 listed contributors from Microsoft alone, not to mention the entire audio team over at Insomniac. Just the same, what they pulled off sounds pretty incredible. I’m gonna quote myself here because I already gushed a ton about this last Wednesday, and it’s my blog.

Anyways, let’s get to the meat and potatoes of some of what they did.


Sunset Overdrive is big on clothes, and shoes. You can dress your avatar up in a half billion combinations of tops, bottoms, shoes and accessories. The visual results are often goofy, but super fun to tinker with and own. But who wants to let art have all the fun? Kristen, Bryan, Jeff and a whole whack of Microsofties went wide, recording thousands of rolls, tumbles, jumps, stretches, runs, walks and jingles for everything the art team could kick up, then manually put all those assets into Wwise structures that could operate independently and were switchable per-limb.

Again, important sub-theme here is that someone convinced someone to let them do this. Someone also ensured that all Foley assets for a given action (say, rolls) were always being trimmed to an exacting standard, ensuring that tumbling around in leather pants didn’t lose any of the core energy right at the peak of the roll that doing so in blue jeans might. Seems like a thing you’d just do, but when you’ve got legitimately thousands of assets to cut, you’d be tempted to just trim silence and bounce that stuff out. Nope.

VIDEO: Sunset Overdrive Audio System: Vanity

Final result? Your character sounds like a wonderful blend of all the ridiculous stuff you’re wearing, no matter what it is. No shortcuts taken.

Layers of Awesome

Another system in Sunset Overdrive is the so-called “Level of Awesome.” Think of it kind of like keeping a multiplier going in Tony Hawk, where, as you hop from rail to rail and stitch overland tricks together in a manual, you’ve got a big combo bonus stacking up. Now imagine that combo bonus making everything your character did while under sound way cooler. This is what they did.

The team took a bunch of actions–falling, jumping, grinding, bouncing–and matrixed them against what they felt the core of each Level of Awesome should sound like. At Level 1, your basic movement actions might have a little extra zip to them; at Level 3, you’re the hero at the core of a retro arcade game, with cartoon stingers and chiptune trails following his every move.

VIDEO: Sunset Overdrive Audio System: LOA

This is a system that needs to be seen (and heard) in-game to be really appreciated, so I can’t wait for the Vault video to go up.

The long and the short of it is that they fucking nailed this. Consider building this system into your next game and you’ll probably think you can do it. The way you’d set stuff up in Wwise seems clear, anyways–events that play both a basic layer of a sound plus a switch-driven sweetener layer, with that switch being driven by some Awesomeness RTPC that jumps values at set crossover points. But maintaining quality and timing standards across every one of these layers, ensuring that each action is not only legitimately improved and themed for each Level of Awesome (instead of just, “yeah, we made the whoosh heavier with an EQ”) but that peak energy and timings stayed consistent? That’s incredible.

That it all gels so well together in-game speaks volumes to the organization of the sound team and to having a really solid plan.

And again, to having someone who managed to buy them the time and space to execute.

There’s lots more to the talk that I won’t bother going in, but it’s full of crazy accomplishments on the game audio front. This talk alone showed me the power an empowered, passionate Sound Supervisor can bring to a game, and I applaud the entire team for pulling off what they did. Honestly, the number of talks on Sunset Overdrive at this year’s GDC (two on audio alone!) are a testament to the game’s technical and artistic achievements far and beyond its already awesome reviews.


Bonnie Bogovich March 18, 2015 Reply

Nice writeup, Luca! This was one of my favorite talks at GDC this year, especially with the fact that they made ‘level of awesome’ an actual term and definition to use throughout the project..

Luca March 18, 2015 Reply

Thanks, Bonnie! Yeah, the name coincides nicely with what they were able to do.

More stuff coming in the next bit, I hope. Several half-spun drafts await filling out and finishing touches.

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