The latest addition to the “Overwatch” roster — the cute but deadly Wrecking Ball and Hammond the hamster — was almost voiced by the distressed cries of coyote pups mixed with rodent squeaks, the sound team behind the game told Variety.
Fortunately, voice actor Dee Bradley Baker’s audition was so good, the team dropped their nature-sounds research and went with him instead.
Project audio director Scott Lawlor, senior sound designer Geoffrey Garnett, and sound design supervisor Paul Lackey took a moment this week to discuss the audio work at Blizzard Entertainment that went into bringing the wrecking-ball-driving hamster to life in “Overwatch.”
Work on Hammond’s voice started by prototyping a sort of hamster language and then marrying that with some real sounds found in nature.
The group found coyote calls that mimic the whines of pups in distress, which helped the team realized they could get a lot of personality out of those sorts of sounds.
“We did a bunch of different passes on getting the animal sounds right,” Lawlor said. “The first pass was what he was discussing with the coyote, then we tried a pass where we used rodent sounds from the library a bit and mixing it with his, and we were starting to go in that direction when our voice director, Andrea Toyias, sent us an audition from Dee Bradley Baker.”
He added, “He’s one of the most famous creature voice actors on the planet. So he sent over an audition. We were sold on going this whole other direction, but the minute we heard that we were just like: ‘That’s . . . that’s the hamster.'”
The tape included a wide variety of hamster emotions and noises: laughter, being sad, surprised, angry, frustrated, even cursing.
Baker went on to deliver eighty categories of sounds for Hammond, “plus special ones we recorded for specific interactions with other heroes,” Garnett said.
While finding Hammond’s voice may have been initially challenging, it was the other sounds that go along with the hero that really taxed the team, chief among them, Hammond’s wrecking ball.
“We thought, ‘Man, making the ball is going to be easy,'” Lackey said. “It was not easy at all. We had a lot of fails.”
To start, Garnett ordered a bunch of props from Amazon and a bowling ball from “some dude on Craigslist named Stan.”
The first ideas was to drill the finger holes out bigger in the bowling ball and insert tiny, Bluetooth microphones, into them.
“The idea was that this was going to be amazing — we’ll put the [Bluetooth mics] inside the ball, we’re gonna roll it, we’ll get amazing rolling sounds on different surfaces,” Garnett said. “But the actual recordings we got back sounded like somebody chucked the mic on the ground like, ‘CHK CHK CHK CHK’ — just really transient plastic sounds, no rolling whatsoever.”
“We ended up taking the ball up to the parking garage, and we got more success out of just close miking it with a shotgun microphone and rolling it on the top,” he continued. “It was pretty isolated up there as far as noise floor. We recorded it during an hour where there was pretty low traffic.”
The result was a nice hollow, resonant sound, which ended up in the game.
Other sounds didn’t offer such a straightforward path. Creating a ball sounds with a ball is one thing, but how do you make the sound for something like an energy shield?
“That’s an interesting question to ask, because that’s what I think makes all sound designers super unique — we all hear something different in our heads,” Garnett said. “I think that’s the really cool, objective thing about sound. Most people’s eyes work very similar, but what you hear in your head and how you go about coming across something and creating that, is super different.”
Lackey said ultimately the team is trying to reinforce what the designers have put in front of them.
“If there’s something we can do to reinforcing it, that helps us decide which sounds to use, because you’re pretty unlimited with what you can start with, so we try to find ways to narrow our options down,” he said. “Like, we probably didn’t even need to do this, but because he’s a hamster, I just went and recorded a hamster ball. Geoff didn’t even want it in there.”
But Lackey managed to sneak it in anyway. When Hammond rolls by you, if you’re close enough and you listen carefully, you can sort of pick it up, but it’s meant to act more on a subconscious level to reinforce that, yes, that’s a hamster in there.
“The only thing I’d add is that, as far as the initial read of what we want something to sound like is concerned, we’re also super conscious of how it might be useful for gameplay,” he said. “That’s something we worked really hard on in this game — making sure that the sound means something, and that there’s a rhythm or logic to why it sounds the way it does. So, for example, that shield ability even has layers to it, because you know it basically gets stronger the more enemies that are around. So there are sounds that go ‘DOO DOO DOO DOO’ when it’s charging up at intervals, and then when you get the full charge you get a kind of ‘PSHHHHHH’ sound.”
The idea is that the sounds should be as informative as they are entertaining, and they can’t step on the sounds of the other heroes.
“So like, with [Hammond’s] mech footsteps, we put it up against Reinhardt and Bastion,” Lackey said. “Does he have his own sound and cadence? And the same with the weapons. You’re running out of real estate with each new hero to keep it sonically unique.”
Garnett added that because he’s a big metal armor character, he also has to be compared to D.Va, Bastion, and Orisa. And they all have to sound different from each other.
And then, of course, Lawlor notes, a character’s movement sounds need to be different for every type of material that they could walk across: metal, dirt, gravel, grass, snow, coins.
All of this work is then playtested to make sure that in the cacophony of play, Wrecking Ball can be heard just as distinctly as all of the other heroes.
“We get in a room once a week with everyone who’s working on the hero and do this really deep-dive playtest and we all get feedback like: What mechanics are broken? Do you hear this sound at all? Especially at the end with Wrecking Ball’s ultimate ability, I don’t think we’d had an ability in the game yet that’s quite so . . . multistage?” Garnett said. “Most of the ults in the game are fire and forget; they happen and you know it happens right away, you get a voice-line, you get the sound, and it’s done. But for Wrecking Ball, there’s an ignition button, the mines fly through the air, they land on the ground, then there’s time for them to activate, then they beep, then they remain there for like 20 seconds if you don’t kill them. All that stuff has to happen, but we also kind of have to stick with our ultimate MO of having you hear a voiceline right away. You have to know when an ult happens; if you hear none of the sound effects, you have to know by a voice callout.”
A big part of perfecting the sounds of the game comes from the team’s ability to commiunicate with everyone working on the game, no matter what they do, Lackey said.
“We all know each other and nobody has any problems just walking to each other’s desk and saying ‘Hey, I want to talk about this,’” he said. “It’s kind of cool that we’ve been able to give input outside of our specific discipline this way.”
That cross-team work lead to a number of neat design choices for Hammond, like the way Wrecking Ball lights up when he talks and one of the more interesting sounds he makes.
“I remember someone saying during one of our play tests, ‘Hey, it’d be really cool if the hamster was like Ooo-WA-oOo-aaOoAaooAA-ooo,’” Garnett said. “I wrote it down, and then during our next VO session I asked, ‘Hey can you do the Tarzan sound as a hamster?’ and he went [high pitched hamster voice] ‘Ooo-WA-oOo-aaOoAaooAA-ooo.’”
The end result is a character that the team really loves.
“We got to use a lot of recordings that are fresh off the skillet,” Garnett said. “Also, I’m a pretty ridiculous person in general, so the fact that this character was really polarizing in two directions between cute and super tough was right up my alley in terms of being menacing, big, and not taking itself too seriously.”
Lawlor added that while Wrecking Ball pushes the boundary pretty far, he believes they were able to still find a line that was not too comical and not too aggressive, “where you bring some of that personality through, but it can kind of be . . . it’s got this tough outer shell that presents itself very differently than the cute and cuddly center, so to speak. I think that helped people feel comfortable with where that line was.
“And that definitely carried over to the audio design. We did a lot of experimentation around the VO for this character. From cute-cuddly hamsters squeaks to translations from this giant mech. That’s an example of how we very carefully toed that line.”