The S+V Interview: Guild Wars 2 Audio Director James Ackley

The dragons are back from the ocean's depths. Today marks the release of Guild Wars 2, the new massively multiplayer online role playing game (think World of Warcraft meets Star Wars: The Old Republic) from developer ArenaNet. S+V got a chance to chat with Guild Wars 2's audio director, James Ackley, who told us about the challenges and rewards of designing sound for an MMO.

Ackley has been a sound designer since 1997, getting his start at Sierra Online and then moving onto Monolith, where he worked on the Condemned and F.E.A.R. horror shooters and their sequels. But he's been designing audio since he was a kid. "My friend and I would play with creating echo and sound delays with three different portable tape recorders. At the time, I thought we were doing something no one else had done," he smiled.

But while a few others have done it, sound design for an MMO is indeed very different from a traditional game. Traditional games rely on cues and scripted events to trigger sound effects, but in an MMO scripted events are few and far between. I picked Ackley's brain about what he went through of creating an MMO's soundscape, how he sees audio changing as the medium matures and lighting a 14" ball of Kevlar and chicken wire on fire instead of using stock sound effects for fireballs.

And yes, there's video.

How have the advancements in hardware and audio codecs changed your design ethic?

This is one of the things I love the most about our industry. Technology is always evolving, which brings both new solutions and new challenges. Obviously, memory size and CPU speeds are the biggest advancements that have evolved in our favor. This makes it a lot easier to fit more sounds in memory at a much higher sample rate and be able to play more sounds at the same time. Codecs have also grown to be faster and better sounding in less memory. All these things have certainly made it easier to make a more full sounding game.

What are the challenges of designing a soundscape for an MMO in particular?

Two of the biggest challenges in an MMO are both the diversity and amount of soundscapes. Previously, with most of the FPS games I've worked on, we put a lot of effort in to creating a single soundscape for the game. With Guild Wars 2, we have many different types of regions that need unique new sounds for each area. It sometimes feels like having 10 normal sized games all in one. The art teams work very hard to make each region look entirely different and have an artistic style that suits the climate and or inhabitants. We spend a lot of time working to match that feeling.

Some of our races are very mechanical, some are magical, some are small and some are big. The ambience in each area needs to match the lore so you feel like it is a real place. I love it when you can just wander through the game, listening to the environment and it all seems natural. Sounds weird to say, but sometimes when we do our job right, no one ever notices.

How does designing an MMO's sound differ from a more close-ended game?

The biggest challenge coming from FPS-style games is the lack of a linear story. We used to have all kinds of sneaky ways to make sure the player heard the sounds when we wanted. You might walk down a hallway, through a door, in to a room, and BANG, a big scare or something could be choreographed for the player. What most players don't realize is that when you stepped through that door and it closed behind you, it might have been for technical reasons to make sure we could purge memory or limit where the player was going.

These limitations worked great for us laying in sounds, but in an MMO, you don't get very many of these scripted events. So, we need to come up with complicated systems that track lots of game data to make sure our sounds get triggered when we want them to. The game needs to ebb and flow like reality and less like a scripted movie. This is one of the things I love the most about these games.

What were some of the themes or textures you were trying to hit in Guild Wars 2?

Themes and textures make me think of a lot of conversations our audio team has had over the years. We worked on targeting types of sounds not only for regions but also for professions and races. Our hope is that you will be able to hear voice from a Charr and know right off who is talking even if you don't see them. Also, in the midst of battle, our goal is to help you hear the profession types that surround you and even more, be able to recognize the skill that might be about to attack you. One of the things I learned from making lots of gun sounds is that the sound can make something fun or not, or even make something feel more or less powerful. We've worked very hard on making the texture for all the skills not only feel appropriate, but also fun.

What carried over from the first game's sound design?

The first game did a great job setting the standards and moods for the game. We just took what they had done and tried to improve and expand where we could. New technology, more time and being in-house helped us a lot. Fortunately for us, the quality of the music was carried over as Jeremy Soule also [composed the score] for Guild Wars 2

How do the two games differ from an audio standpoint?

The audio in the first game was limited largely by the technology of the times. Tools have since improved as well as the speed of machines. [Less] memory limitations have made it a little easier for us to get sounds in the game.

How long did it take to create the theme or texture for Guild Wars 2's audio?

The general creative direction for the audio in Guild Wars 2 was something we worked on for the first few months or maybe even a year in some cases. After that, it was development and implementation to make sure our ideas in theory worked in practice once they were in the game. A lot of times, something you thought would sound great doesn't work once it's put in-game. Perhaps the game functionality changed, the artwork, animation, or maybe it was just a bad idea. Game development is constantly evolving all the way up to release. The audio team always needs to be able to react to change. We work closely with the other departments from the beginning, but as they go through the same trial and error process that we do and as they make changes or improvements to the functionality, we then need to test and adapt to those changes as well.

What were the more interesting tools and techniques used for foley effects? I'd heard you lit something on fire and swung it around the studio.

We have done some pretty fun things making this game. We wanted more fire sounds but were tired of using the library sounds and have been working hard not to use many of them. We are fortunate to have Drew Cady on this project. He always has some amazing ideas and then is able to handcraft some very cool tools. Drew originally did a test run building a 6" round ball from Kevlar rope and chicken wire. He then tied a cable to it, dipped it in gas, lit it on fire and swung it around himself. The sound worked so great there was only one thing to do: make it bigger. The version we have now is a 14" round ball and it is amazing. We got so many fireball-type sounds from it that we'll never use library fire sounds again. I'm sure we'll do some more sessions with it once our schedule slows down a little.

Other things I can think of are the shoes Drew built to make Charr footsteps, dry ice blocks on all types of metal, and trips to the local animal farms. Oh, and that nuclear facility to collect reverb impulses. Yeah, we have had a great time.


What was your ultimate goal for Guild Wars 2's audio design?

From the moment Drew and I started on this 4 years ago, we wanted to make this a great sounding game, not just a great sounding MMO. We both believed that since people are going to be playing this game for many, many hours we needed to work very hard on the immersion and long playability. The audio in the game should be full of sounds that will make you never want to turn them off. They should be rewarding and satisfying when they need to be. This has been the biggest challenge: making sounds feel huge, loud and powerful but not annoying. It is very hard, especially when people will play the game for hundreds or even thousands of hours.

Who do you look up to in terms of audio designers? It's kind of an unsung aspect of games that only sticks out if the sound is poorly done.

There are so many talented sound designers out there and yes, like you say, not many of them get the appreciation they deserve. I know this is going to sound corny, but the team I work with are the first set of people that come to mind. I've already mentioned just some of Drew's talents and he has many more as well. Maclaine Deimer has a brilliant understanding of music and implementation; he brings a level of excitement to the team. Robert Gay is just as good of a programmer as he is a sound designer; I'm not sure what we would have done without him. Jerry Schroeder amazes me with how fast he can do such great work on very difficult tasks; and he is always positive. We are also very fortunate to have Jim Boer; he is a terrific audio programmer doing all the heavy sound tools and engine work.  

Obviously, people like Randy Thom and Ben Burtt are always inspiring.  I love to see people like them that have worked on so many huge movies and are still innovating every time they work on a new project.

What were some of your inspirations for the game's audio design?

Honestly, the reason I joined ArenaNet was the artwork. I'm still amazed walking around in game looking at the world they created. The original concept art Daniel [Dociu] and his team had created was inspiring. I looked forward to trying to create the soundscapes, creatures and effects that could match and support what they were working on. They set a very high bar and I've enjoyed trying to reach it.

What aspect of the audio are you most proud of?

That is a hard one. The things I am most proud of are the strength of the combat sounds and the life of the environment. I was just talking with the team the other day about how the skill sounds make me want to play a particular profession, even one that I am not as good at; Mesmer is a perfect example. Although I am better at playing an Engineer or Guardian, I still really enjoy playing Mesmer because of the sounds. In regards to the environment, there are times when I've been testing something and I get called away from my desk for a bit. When I come back, I can hear the world just living and breathing. It makes me very proud of the audio team to have so many sounds, systems and departments all come together to make the world sound so alive.

How do you see audio design changing as the industry matures?

We have a lot of tools and technology growing in this industry right now, so it's a very exciting time to be a part of it. We're getting close to when our limitations will no longer drive our creativity. It will be nice to be able to conceive of something you'd like to hear and just do it without thinking about how much RAM or CPU power that will take. Also, the ability to adjust, process and modify sounds at runtime is improving. This not only saves memory but also gives more tie-in to the game space. Sound in reality is constantly changing and evolving with its surroundings. It won't be too long before we'll be able to do more of that and increase the level of immersion.

And we leave you with a couple of behind-the-scenes videos of Ackley and his team at work. . .