If you count on this site for nothing else, it should be for starry-eyed reflection on whatever year’s Game Developer’s Conference. So, here we are again.
Most of what can be said about #GameAudioGDC 2016’s been said already, and I’ll leave the rest of it to voices more capable, or rarely heard. But I was there, again. Through the coffee–the too damned early coffee–through the the exhaustion; I showed up as often as I could. Through the talks, hallways, through the barely-controlled screaming that passes for conversational volume at the Death Star, I spoke and listened. I drank. I slept, barely. I went to Denny’s.
It’s an unceasing read / write cycle on your soft tissue flash memory, and you end the week completely full up on ideas you fear you’re about to lose.
As a completely selfish mnemonic act, here’s what I thought and felt coming out of this year’s GDC.
Observations on Year Five
*Six, technically, but five since I really started this sound thing.
Skip the talks. Skip the pass, even. My first piece of advice to game audio hopefuls and veterans alike has ever been “follow @lostlab,” and this year, he did an interesting thing: he didn’t attend a single talk. I mean, besides the ones he paneled on. No, this year, he went Full Sightglass, passing on most of the conference proper for meetings, time on the Expo floor and the morning conversations around the coffee table. Which, incidentally, was packed as fuck. Someday soon, we’re gonna need a bigger boat, but that upstairs ain’t taking on water just yet.
It’s a strategy. The deeper you get into game audio, the more you’ve seen and done, the lesser the odds of That One Talk (or Any Talk) that’s gonna crack your brain open. No one I’d talked to knew what they were planning on attending before the conference which, I think, speaks to the way your priorities shift as time goes on. The greatest experiences of GDC happen outside Moscone, and the really good ones that don’t? Well, they tend to wind their way back to Sightglass each morning. Smart play, Damian.
If you’re new to the show, or to the field, I can still totally recommend the Audio Pass. But the next time you’re back, or the time after, you’ll find it makes sense to shift tracks:
- If you can speak (and you can!); if you’ve got a company that’ll buy you a pass (you probably don’t), you can go All Access. Extra-disciplinary talks are the best, ’cause you have to fight to make them relevant, extrapolate some meaning out of them that you can bring back to audio. Every year, all of my best ideas are borne out of that mental reframing that comes in the middle of a talk on AI or Art or Monetization and ask, “Why the heck am I here? What can I learn from this?” Try it. You’ll be surprised!
- If neither of the above apply, or you’re burnt? Just go Expo Pass. Or nothing. Take the Damian approach, and reap 99% of the good stuff you’d get out of attending.
We Are Legion
As @mattesque put it on this week’s Bleeps and Bloops, “at some point game audio got to the point where people felt like they could win without other people losing.”
My Gosh, but there are a lot of game audio professionals out there. Day Zero’s Designing Sound Brewcade meetup had something like 260 RSVPs. 260!
The above quote is lifted from last year’s recap, and it still rings. Because while we’ve got a fuckton of work to do, I think the game audio community’s the best it’s ever been. We’ve got the Slack, we’ve got Twitter, we’ve got a million and one write-ups exactly like mine but also completely different and they’re all running in this glorious space where people are finding work and staying hopeful.
That’s how I feel, anyways. I can’t pretend to know how goddamn hard it is to get this career going from behind the ball of gender discrimination, racism, politics, terrorism and ignorance. But in the admittedly limited landscape I can survey from my point of privilege, things feel pretty welcoming. I’ll do whatever I can to push that feeling out there and pull more of us together going forwards, and I know lots of others who will, too.
On to the non-touchy feely details.
There’s very little you could read about VR here that everyone hasn’t said already. It’s shit hot right now.
I’m no expert on VR, but I played one at GDC. Like many of us! But this is a safe place, and we can all be honest about it.
There’s a raw, hopeful enthusiasm coursing through game development right now as we strip mine all the cruft away from that Golden Buddha that is VR As It Should Be. Who knows how many fumbly, derivative minigames and point-to-teleporters it’ll take until we’re there, but I think the experience we’re chasing it clear: it’s more of what you feel when you first tour the demos. The way your heart catches the first time you’re on the edge of a building, staring off, right before you notice the lack of wind. Or face-to-face with a gentle giant, whose majesty strikes your lizard brain like a tuning fork. You–me, and the majority who’ve tried it, I hope–have undone those velcro straps and thought, “I wanna go back in.”
VR game development seems nothing if not self-aware. We know these early products suck, or at least, that they will suck inevitably compared to where things’ll be down the line. We’ve seen this before: films that wanted to be books, games that wanted to be films, the Internet that wanted to be TV. Given time, these media found their way (or have started to) and flowered into the full bloom of their craft. We’ve done this enough that we know where we stand.
I feel the marketing’s more or less lining up the same way. (RemindMe! Christmas 2016) For all the hype around VR, there’s a reassuring sense of restraint. The hype around it doesn’t feel like this “4K 3D buy now you need it kind of hype,” but more of a, “it’s there, and if you’re the type of person that likes buying New Things and Taking Risks, here it is” thing. It feels to me like no one’s in a race to burn this thing out via overexposure–that if it and the tidal wave of investment behind it can hold out just long enough, we’ll get to that killer application in time for things to latch.
So–what’ll that killer app be like? And what does it mean for audio?
My favorite universal takeaway from the handful of VR talks I went to is that we don’t know.
Three panels on Monday all kinda concluded with a final slide that said, “That was sixty minutes’ of research and best practices–and here are half a dozen things you should try that would prove them all wrong.”
And frankly, that’s fucking thrilling. Because really, once we’ve got our wishlist of realtime geometry-based fourth-order Ambisonics reflections and occlusion and dead-on XYZ positioning and cheap A-format microphones and all of that decoding running on tiny Android devices that everyone’s got Cardboards for, well. What next? We’ve modeled a very realistic way to localize sound. Film wasn’t a solved problem with the invention of 5.1. It’s the stuff we’ll do next that’s exciting; it’s the stories we’ll tell that count.
One nice thing about VR is that it makes the case for telling those stories through sound a much easier sell. ‘Presence’ doesn’t happen without immersive audio. That’s not a bullet point on my agency’s pitch sheet, that’s something that even the sound-blind layperson’s picking up on as soon as they strap in. That inescapable link between quality audio and believing you’re there (kind of the entire selling point of VR) should make fighting the cause for quality game audio a whole lot easier.
My VR experience at GDC has, if nothing else, got me flipping lots of perspectives and asking lots of questions about how sound should work, put a fire in me to try some new shit out just because it seems cool. I needed that. For however many Vives end up next to Rock Band guitars in a couple of years, those lessons are mine, and I’m glad to have them.
- The tech’s getting really cool, and we’re on the eve of consumer availability, but I wouldn’t worry about jumping in right now. It’s still a ways before this stuff takes en masse. Potentially a long ways. If you’re smart, communicative, can make good sounds and respect the art of telling a story, you’ll be able to roll over and figure out how to bolt on a Ambisonics decoder some years down the line with little workflow interruption.
- But if you do jump in now? Try everything.
That label we were looking for for a while, for games that weren’t rhythm games, but felt beat-driven, connected deeply to music: we has it now.
It isn’t a new concept, but it’s one that feels like it’s about to go wide. Eric Robinson’s a sound designer, audio programmer and developer of Koreographer, a bolt-on suite of Unity Audio functionality that makes it easy for devs to get their games taking cues from the sound. He gave a couple of presentations on the case for audio-driven gameplay, standalone and at this year’s Audio Boot Camp, which were full of naturally extensible examples like snapping footstep rhythms to the beat.
The demo occasionally went a little far afield–tree branches that pulse and swell to the rhythm are kind of a tough sell unless you’re working on some Aldous Huxley tribute–but was super compelling for something so simple. And that’s great, because it’s something that shows around. Eric’s doing a lot of good work to push this case forward for the rest of us, and I’m stoked to have a bit of a movement going.
There was another talk. Martin Stig Andersen and the team at Playdead are making a thing after LIMBO, and are finally beginning to pull the curtains back on what it is.
I’ll save that for another article, but suffice to say that the stuff Martin showed hit like a warhead, and it’s squarely within this wave of games whose logic is slaved to audio for the sake of storytelling and impact. I can’t wait for it to land. For all of these to, really, because every great new experience that’s got audio at the foreground makes it easier to make the case for audio support the next time around.
- Koreographer’s a set of tools to lash your Unity Audio-driven game to the masthead of sounds and music. Structures for lining things up, stretching a rhythm through as many corners of the game as you can dream up. If you’ve thought this is a thing you wanted to do, you have some tools for it, now, and you also have a name for what those tools do.
- If you’re on Wwise, heads up for a set of similarly useful music and audio callbacks coming sometime in 2016.
- At a wider dev culture level–start thinking about how you can have this conversation with the rest of your team. What if you made it easy, even natural, for everyone to do what they were doing while acknowledging the underlying meter of the game? A plug-in for Unity that turns subdivides the animation timeline into beats instead of frames. What kinds of systems might you get rolling subtly on rhythm to glue it all together? Coming off GDC, peopleare usually bristling with inspiration and ready to dream. Tap into that and start the dialogue up.
I thought I was done with this stuff but had to make a detour back.
Each year, there’s always one or two GDC talks that get to that universal, subsurface human stuff that goes too often unaddressed in the daily churn towards making games. The #1ReasonToBe talks are perennial winners, here. There was Manveer’s 2014 talk on the under-addressed stereotyping our game narratives support; there’s Brenda Romero’s meditative “Jiro Dreams of Game Design“.
“Everyone In This Room Is a Fraud” was that this year for me. And maybe it’s just because I’m uniquely in this place in life when self-worth battles and therapy and weird empty thirty-something-What Now?-ness have become constant players on life’s stage, but I really needed to hear all of these incredible people speak openly about the things they did. Life is hard; creativity is hard. When you peg so much of how you feel about yourself to your craft, a couple of bad days in the DAW can leave you feeling like a total zero. When you’re really good at locking into that self-hatred spiral, bad days can turn into bad weeks. To know that even those you most admire deal with this on the daily–and to really feel it in this roundtable format where you just wanted to jump in and start talking like you were out to dinner with friends, these stories were so familiar–I’m so glad I got to experience that.
I hope they un-Vault this thing soon so we can all group hug about it.
This talk flipped a switch that sent me gushing downriver all over the Twitters, so I decided to Storify that: https://storify.com/lucafusi/gdc2016-imposter-syndrome
As you’ll see there, and will have seen above, part of me still feels like I don’t even get to feel these things, because I have been so, so lucky in life. (Holy shit. Am I imposter syndromeing right now, or can you tell this is genuine? Words suck.)
So with all that necessary privilege-disclaiming out of the way, I want to say that this year, it feels there’s finally a movement afoot–or that the movement I’ve caught so many more open discussions on inclusion, diversification and the need for more voices in game audio this year than in years past. It seems better. I hope it’s getting better. Shit like this still happens, but at the least, I wanna put a stake down and say that this year’s been a personal turning point in how I see my role in all of this.
I feel like I don’t think about the issue of gender and racial diversity in game audio often enough because from where I’m sitting, there’s never felt like a reason to. That sounds horrible. And it is! But, everyone I’ve worked with has been great, and what they look like or where they’re from hasn’t factored into that at all. I work with people; I’m a person. This fear of wading into the minefield that is even addressing this stuff is, I think, a lot of what keeps otherwise nice and even-keeled folks who have had nothing but great experiences with audio teams of Human Beings of all sorts from saying anything at all.
But inaction is an of itself a harmful act. Playing the middle, being a nice guy, staying inoffensive and quiet–all of that doesn’t help, and what doesn’t help, hurts.
This stuff came up pre-GDC when a bunch of us were out at coffee a few weeks back, and I explained this feeling to my boss, who happens to be a woman in game audio: how tough it is to find a place to help, or talk about gender representation in game audio, because you don’t really know how to say anything without pissing someone off–even when you know in your soul you want to do well. That I wanted to advance the conversation, but was looking for some sort of acknowledgement that I wasn’t a bad guy.
Well, I didn’t get it. Instead, she simply put back that that paralyzing mental juggling I do when I want to start saying anything about women in game audio? Imagine going through that with nearly everything you want to say about anything for every day of your career. And that’s how the other side has it.
I was quiet for a long while after that.
So here’s to hoping that all of us, whether vocal aggressors, hatemongers, clueless dolts or well-meaning passive observers in the shitty way things have come to be.. here’s hoping that we can start acknowledging the ways in which we’ve fucked up and keep the conversation moving forwards however we can. To see opportunities where we don’t need to be heard–where we shouldn’t be heard–and to Step Back, Shut Up and Listen.
What’s gonna be great is when it doesn’t need to be a movement at all, anymore, and simply is. Until then, though, here’s your impersonal Internet-delivered reminder to know when to surrender your spot to those who need it most, and do the right thing for all of our industry.
Man, I have a lot of reading to do.
- Nope. Read the whole thing.
Thanks to everyone who made this year’s GDC the best yet. I’ll see you all at the Carousel before too long.