Interview: Planetside 2 sound gurus share tips for building euphonic battlefields
Play a frenetic first-person shooter and you're often dead before you ever see where the bullet came from. You have to pay close attention to every detail—the click of a grenade dropping, the scrape of boots on concrete—if you want to succeed. The free-to-play massively multiplayer shooter Planetside 2 is predicated on never-ending firefights, and Sony Online Entertainment’s attention to detail didn’t go unnoticed—the Hollywood Music in Media awards nominated the Planetside 2 team for best video game score this year.
But the Planetside 2 audio team isn't resting on their laurels—they're gunning to topple Battlefield 3 from the first-person shooter audio throne. “DICE is the defacto standard [for shooter audio],” said Rodney Gates, Planetside 2’s audio director. “With Planetside 2, we keep improving our audio. We have different ways of firing weapons than we had three months ago. We keep chiseling at it, and we’re gunning for DICE.”
“Planetside 2 is the first full-bore FPS I’ve worked on. It was my chance to jump into the Battlefield and Call of Duty waters and come up with something really cool in our soundscape for our players,” he said.Gates has been creating video game audio just over nine years; his first project was Capcom’s 2D fighter Darkstalkers. Before that, he studied at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Arizona.
Gates said what ties Planetside 2 together aurally is depth. His team worked on that in a few different ways, including manipulating multichannel audio so that two identical weapons firing simultaneously won't sound the same, even if the two players are standing right next to each other.
Planetside 2’s three distinct empires needed three distinct identities. Being the biggest empire, the Terran Republic still uses weapons based on black powder. Their weapons were the simplest to design—at least from an aural perspective—because gunpowder firearms produce very familiar, realistic sounds; Gates said his team wanted them “as punchy and real-sounding” as possible in Planetside 2.
“You have the big stereo or quad assets that play when you’re firing, which make it feel like it’s wrapping around you,” he said. “Every time a player fires his weapon, the weapons of their teammates duck [drop in the mix] briefly. You don’t really notice it, but it carves a bigger hole for your gun so it always sounds big.”
More challenging was the arsenal of the New Conglomerate, which deals in prototype weaponry like rail guns and magnetic propulsion systems. They’re still based on real weapon sounds, but Gates said they added other elements so they sound different and have their own identity.
The biggest challenge of all the empires was the Vanu Sovereignty. Because Gates didn’t want the laser-based death-dealers to have a high-pitched “pew pew” sound, he looked to cinema for inspiration.
“I listened to the guns in District 9 and blended them with the guns from Battle LA,” he said. “All the elements in those weapons are completely synthetic: 808 and kick-drum sounds mixed with all kinds of weird stuff from native instruments.
“The tiny little ramp-ins that happen before the shot fires? That helps sell this completely alien tech that doesn’t sound like anything you’ve heard," said Gates. "There’s even a little bit of electricity in there."
His team had to do some significant improvisation to get the sounds they were looking for. Gates says the team kept playing around with the metal clink and clank sounds for vehicle reloads from the massive audio library they share with Sony’s console developers, but nothing sounded quite right. So they looked homeward.
“One of our sound designers went home and recorded all the mechanics of his gun safe. A lot of those cool metallic elements of things sliding into place are present while you’re waiting for your turrets to replenish their rounds,” he said.
And that's just a handful of sound effects in a massive, sprawling game with an equally bombastic musical score. Gates worked on that as well, acting as a liaison between the creative team and Jeff Broadbent, the composer who wrote Planetside 2’s score.
Broadbent’s been composing for 16 years, working on everything from last year’s survival game I Am Alive to licensed music for the Let’s Make a Deal game show and a plethora of content for the Discovery Channel. At UCLA he studied film scoring under Robert Drasnin, a veteran composer on The Twilight Zone.
“Film scoring training allowed me to approach game projects with a sense of dramatic arc and thematic development,” he said in an email interview. “Motifs and themes are critical to film scoring to highlight the development of the characters and story. When these principles are applied to games, it creates a greater emotional connection between the player and the game.”
With how hectic the online battlefield can get, audio –and music in particular—has to be handled with precision. Otherwise it muddles what’s really important: tactical awareness.
“A lot of it is achievement stingers that are short and succinct just to give you feedback,” Gates said. Music doesn’t play all the time in Planetside 2, mainly at key moments like capturing a base.
“It’s like when you watch an action sequence in a film: The accompanying music helps to heighten the experience,” wrote Broadbent.
Broadbent said Planetside 2’s use of ambient music during combat and sections of traversal across the giant maps are meant to bring an emotional element to the game, something that's otherwise lacking in a game predicated on battling platoons of faceless enemy soldiers. Broadbent claims many gamers commented on the music and how it brought an emotional depth to the game.
The three different empires required three different music scores, too. Each faction has its own identity, and that’s reinforced through their theme music. The Terran Republic soundtrack is full of choir and orchestral tracks, bluesy rock is the New Republic’s theme, and the Vanu Republic steals the show with its eclectic mix of electronic/world music.
“This was very different from other projects I’ve worked on, where there was a single primary sonic approach for the game,” Broadbent said. “What makes a score great is its ability to be a unique fit for the rest of the game: to represent the creative vision and be closely related with the story, characters and environment.” Now that Planetside 2 has been nominated for multiple industry awards for audio excellence, it's safe to say Broadbent, Gates and the team of audio specialists at SOE created a pitch-perfect accompaniment to the most expansive sci-fi shooter on the PC.