Getting Started with Video Game Sound Design

Sound design has been one area of audio engineering where we’ve seen explosive growth over the past couple decades, and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down any time soon. Just like sound design for film and television, sound design in video games is primarily used to create a more immersive experience. With the ever-growing landscape of surround sound and 3-D audio, there are a lot of things for sound designers to consider as they work to make things work together.

Large, AAA video game publishers often staff dozens of sound designers on their teams, but it’s not uncommon for smaller publishers to work with independent audio engineers who may only do video game audio part time for their project. This is where we want to start today.

By the end of this article, you should have a solid idea of what it’ll take to design sounds for indie and major video games regardless of experience in the industry. Let’s get right to it!

What is Sound Design?

As I said before, designing sound for video games is a lot like designing sound for movies, but with a few extra elements. The basics of sound design may be simple things that you’d consider core to the scene – things like background music, ambience, foley, and dialog. While there may be some manipulation going on with the audio, your role for these will generally be confined to capturing good, clean audio for the game developers to use.

As you start to move beyond that, you’ll find yourself working more with sound effects, the requirements for which may vary greatly depending on the size and style of game.

Some of the coolest games to work on are ones where the sounds you’re designing can be built from the ground up with no preconceived notions about how they should sound. Think of those low-resolution games you’ve seen or played from indie developers. Every jump sound, laser, or reward came from someone’s sound design efforts – even if they came from a sample library.

We’ve been trained over the years to anticipate certain things sounding certain ways, but the role of the sound designer is to find new and creative ways to portray them. If every gunshot in every game sounded identical, there’d be no point in making any more epic space shooters. The sound design continues to grow and evolve in new and unique ways, just like the graphics on the screen.

Start With an Inventory

The biggest thing that many new sound designers overlook when agreeing to take on a project is just how wide of a scope their role will need to be. It’s easy to think that you’re just getting hired to be creative with the sound effects, but there’s so much more to it than that.

Here’s an exercise for you – go to YouTube and search for a playthrough of a game from a major publisher, then write down all the things you hear in 30 seconds. Try to find a particularly intense scene such as a boss fight. Chances are, you’ll still be writing before the timer runs out.

My results:

  • Announcer’s voice
  • Woosh sounds
  • Music
  • Lasers
  • Coin sounds
  • Explosions
  • Players’ grunts
  • Health powerup sounds
  • Deflection sounds
  • Body hits (punches and kicks)

I probably would have doubled or tripled that list if I went another 30 seconds. The point is – making sounds for games can be a big undertaking. If you start with a short clip of the game you’ll be working on without sound or better yet, a demo, you’ll be able to take inventory of everything you think should be there and use that inventory as your starting point.

Basic Sound Design Categories: 

  • Dialog (on-screen and off-screen speech)
  • Foley (player and non-player movements)
  • Sound effects (object-oriented sounds)
  • Ambience (background and environment noise)
  • Music (soundtrack)
  • Menu Sounds (toggling between options)

Environments Change Sounds

Think you’re going to make one set of sound effects and be done with it? Maybe in a simple indie game, but for anything more advanced, you’ll also want to consider how the levels will impact the sound effects you’re designing.

A blaster going off in a cave is going to sound drastically different than one going off outdoors. So will footsteps, dialog, and virtually every other sound (other than maybe whispers).

These are all elements that a sound designer should be thinking of as they record audio and design sounds for a game. Asking for a list of levels to design for can be a huge time saver here. Often, the game developers won’t until they realize that the immersive experience has been broken by – you guessed it – audio that doesn’t fit the scene, so anything you can do to help them reach that conclusion sooner will put you in a better position as the designer.

Switch Things Up

Once you’ve flushed out the environments you’ll be working with and the necessary sounds for each, the last requirement is going to be variety. Maybe you could get away with a single sound per action back in the day, but today’s games require a handful of each sound to keep things feeling natural - just like when programming drums.

Think of this variety in terms of how things sound in the real world. If you’re walking down a hallway, each footstep is going to sound a little different. They’re the same shoes with the same person wearing them reverberating off the same walls, yet there are slight variations in how each step sounds. We’re trying to do the same thing here.

This is doubly true for loud or recognizable audio that may occur in rapid succession, such as gunshots. It’s fine to use the same samples as the building blocks but alternating the tails of each shot can go a long way – much like a drummer alternating hands when hitting a snare drum.

Knowing How & Why

Getting into sound design for video games is just as much about knowing what questions to ask and learning about the game developer’s vision as it is about the technical skills required to design the sounds. The nice part is that it’s an extremely cathartic and creative process; being able to design the sound you’ve got in your mind and putting it to a visual is a surreal experience.

Once you’re feeling confident about how to approach a project like this with a potential client, you’ll be ready to get into the details of the actual design work. When that time comes, we’ve got you covered with our eBook, The Producer’s Guide to Synthesizers and Sweeteners. This guide covers all of our favorite advanced sound design techniques not only as they pertain to film and music, but anywhere you may want to add a bit of audio manipulation and creativity. 

Check it out!