An ear for gaming

Vidgame tech generates cinema-quality audio on the fly


It’s how game designers measure the success of their creations. If the player forgets he’s in his living room at 3 a.m. in front of a half-filled box of day-old pizza and starts to believe he’s fighting for his life in an entirely different world, then it happened.

Sound has become an increasingly important element in vidgames, with Dolby technologies giving designers the tools to make titles sound as vivid as anything at the multiplex.

“Games offer special challenges,” says Ron Vitale, Dolby’s marketing director, consumer division. “When you’re not designing something for static playback, you have to come up with some way to do it on the fly yet not have a latency or a delay.”

Sound designers say technology makes all the difference. “All these noises are not necessarily something that people notice right away or that reviewers talk about when they write about the game, but it’s something that the players feel very strongly when they play the game,” says David Rovin, sound lead at Pandemic Studios, developer of “Full Spectrum Warrior.” “You’re trying to come up with a 360-degree sound field and the kind of surround that Dolby creates rounds out the game world in a way that makes it much more like the real world.”

Dolby offers gamemakers three sound technologies, which can be found on more than 500 games for the Xbox, PlayStation 2 or GameCube systems.

Dolby Digital Live appeared around four years ago with the rollout of Microsoft’s Xbox. It is a 5.1 channel digital audio technology that creates whatever sounds the game calls for on a moment’s notice by calculating the X and Y coordinates of where you are in the game and drawing a quick matrix to make the appropriate sound appear in the right place. So, if you’re a soldier in a game and you hear gunfire ahead, the sound should seem to come from in front of you, but when you decide to lob a grenade at the shooters and turn to take cover, the sound of the grenade seems to come from behind you. Nearly every Xbox game made today uses Dolby Digital Live, though some games are only encoded for four or two channels.

Dolby Pro Logic II transforms any high-quality two-channel source into five independent full-range channels in an effort to make the game environment as close to 5.1 as possible. It is most often used with Nintendo GameCube and Sony PlayStation 2 titles. The first GameCube title to really use this tool was “Star Wars: Rogue Leader — Rogue Squadron II” around four years ago. Now, more than 120 PlayStation and nearly 100 GameCube titles incorporate this tool.

Dolby Surround is the consumer version of the original Dolby multichannel analog film sound format and is found on more than 80 GameCube and PS2 titles.

Dolby technology also has helped some game sound gurus combat programming and cost difficulties. “Part of being a sound designer is making a lot out of a little,” says Dan Wentz, a sound designer/composer with game developer Volition. “So what we do in an action-adventure game like ‘The Punisher’ is have bursts of gunfire sound off based on the relative distance to the player to the shots being fired to engulf the player in the process and Dolby’s capabilities are an important part of that.”

Today’s gamers also have been exposed to the increasingly more sophisticated sound systems in movie theatres and in their own homes. “People are starting to expect the same level of experience from a videogame as a film,” says Kristoffer Larson, audio manager of Cranky Pants Games, whose titles include “Summoner: A Goddess Reborn.” “That’s a huge challenge that involves many different disciplines to create a unified experience and Dolby helps us get there.”

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