Nathan Lovato

Nathan is a content crafter and Game Design & Analytics expert at GameAnalytics. When he's not doing research, you can find him writing and pulling colorful worlds out of his imagination.

We barely touched on sound, yet it’s an important part of the game’s experience:

  1. It gives cues to the player that will help him to react to the world. For example, you can hint the presence of some NPC behind a wall or inside a building. Or let the player know that an enemy is rushing on him while it’s not visible yet.
  2. Sound provides instant feedback to the player’s inputs. We talked about that in the article on juicing, which you can check out right here: Squeezing more juice out of your game design!
  3. Music is your most powerful tool to drive emotion. Sound effects greatly contribute to the player’s immersion. The absence of sound, or bad sound design will break your game’s feel.

That’s why you want to pay great attention to it. For this article, we collected some useful tips to help you get your sound right on a tight budget. 2 professional sound designers were kind enough to share some tips too. By the end of the post, you’ll know how to better organize this part of the project, how to hire a professional sound designer and get your game’s audio to the next level.

Tip 1: Check out those websites for quality free sounds

There are several places where you’ll find decent sound effects. Sometimes, if you want specific audio samples and tunes, you will have to spend a few bucks. More on that later. But here are places where you’ll find great free sound effects to get started.

Sonniss makes premium sound libraries to use in games. Since 2015 at least, for every game developer conference, they have been sharing a huge library of royalty free samples. This year’s release is still up for you to grab: Soniss, GDC 2017 royalty free sfx library

I know at least several developers who used music from Incompetech in their first indie games. On this website, you will find an extensive list of tunes with different genres that you can use in your projects, for free. The soundtracks are arranged in thematic collections to make it easier for you to find tracks that work well with one another.

Finally, Pixel Prospector, a wonderful resource for indie game developers, has a long list of royalty free music and sound effects. The quality may vary at times, as with everything free, but still, check them out! Pixel Prospector’s big list of royalty free music and sounds

Pixel Prospector list of royalty free sounds banner

Tip 2: Embrace sound yourself

Especially if you are an indie game designer, you have to spend a bit of time exploring sound. You will not only implement them in the game yourself at some point: you want to understand how sound works and what’s the most important sound effects and audio tracks to focus on. Not only that, you’ll want to learn how to communicate with a professional composer or sound designer and get the most out of their work.

Tip 3: Focus on what’s essential, the gameplay

If you have limited resources, all that matters is the gameplay experience you offer. Everything that’s related to the player’s interaction must be of the highest quality possible. The ui, the buttons, but also attacks, hits, solving a puzzle… everything that will help the player understand the situation he’s in. This includes music too: the soundtrack helps to set the pace and immerse the player.

Sure, ideally, you’d want to have sounds to describe every object with the world. Walking through bushes, bumping into walls, etc. But worst case scenario, you can skip those if it helps you ship the game. With my former partner, we made and sold mobile games to publishers with just a handful of sound effects and one or two tunes. That was all we could afford considering how tight our time budget was, but it worked!

Screenshot from Titan Souls
During its boss fights, beyond the music, Titan Souls only features essential, gameplay-related sound effects.

Tip 4: Make sure the sounds and music blend well

I remember the first time I worked with a professional sound designer, and he asked me what keys the soundtracks were in. I was quite surprised, but it makes sense: the sound designer will make sure that the sound effects respect the music’s tonality, so they don’t clash with one another. It’s a bit like how chords work when you’re playing the piano. With the wrong note interval, the sound will be dissonant. And you want to avoid that it possible.

Have you heard in the last Zelda: Breath of the Wild, how its soothing music fades in and out, and lets itself get filled with the sound of the wind, or supported by your steps in the lush grass? Music can be diegetic too as Mark shows in his video analysis of the game’s soundtrack. I invite you to listen carefully to the samples, as you’ll hear what could be sound effects sometimes replace percussions in the tunes.

Tip 5: Include sound early on into the game and get feedback on it

Sound effects are a core part of the experience. It’s the same if you are working on your game’s trailer, which we talked about a few weeks ago. That is why you should include them early on into the game. You want them to be tested, as anything else. It’s also easier to list all the sound you will need as you go.

As Minh Ho, a sound designer working in Canada, advises:

“list everything all the sounds you need from the start of the project. You’ll want keep track of the extra samples you need, the ones you are working on and the ones that have to be modified as you progress through production.

You should use a clear colour code. I use red for missing files, orange for what doesn’t work, yellow for the sounds that were implemented but need some changes, and green for everything final.”

Tip 6: Learn from the sound of other games

Study the sound of other games like you would study their game mechanics. It makes sense, but that’s something we might all forget to do: look at what others do right or what they do wrong, focusing solely on the audio experience.

My tip is to use a headset while you play. Isolate yourself from outside noises, and close your eyes from time to time to focus your attention on the sounds. All that while you are playing.

For extra insights, check out the Blipsounds channel on YouTube. It’s young, but gosh is it interesting!

Tip 7: Here’s the audio budget of 5 independent game studios

It’s very hard to know what a reasonable audio budget is for an indie game. I contacted several studios that already shipped games and asked them how much they spent there. For the most part, it ranges between 5% and 10%. The price goes higher when they have musicians, voice actors or even an orchestra playing for them:

  • “We set aside a little less than 10% of our budgeton both the music and the sound design for Lethis: Daring Discoverers”, @Triskell_Int
  • “Same here, less than 10% on Steredenn”, @pixelnest
  • “It was 7% for Drifting Lands. In a perfect world, I would have liked to spend 20 to 25% to have full voice-overs and more soundtracks”, @alkemigames
  • “It was 5% of our total budget on the last project”, @CheeseBurgames
  • “For the OST and the voice-over, and some are direction from the actor, we allocated 5% of our budget on Epistory”, @epistorygame
  • “That was approximately 15% for us on Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Trap”, @lizardcube

Tip 8: Keep It Sweet and Short

“We follow a rule of thumb for 90% of the sounds: KISS. Keep It Sweet and Short. This means that you can go ahead and cuts trailing audio on your files to make them as short as possible.” Explained Minh.

“If you take raw sounds from sound banks, they are often well-designed, with complex articulations, but these get lost in the final game. When you overlap many sound effects, their tails can add up and mud down the mix. On top of that, making the sounds shorter will save some audio processing, as you will need fewer channels at runtime.

To camouflage the cuts, we typically use reverb. This blends them together and softens the end of the samples at runtime. To give you an idea, for footsteps, all my effects are less than third of a second long.”

Tip 9: lower the volume

Minh’s last tip is something you should do to properly mix, that is to say assemble sounds together, so they don’t compete for space.

“Doublecheck that all your sounds have a low volume when you export them. You can lower them from anywhere between 9 and 12 dB. The reason is that when you import them all in the game engine, when they play, they will stack up and if the individual files are too loud, it will take extra work to clear up your mix. While if you start low, you will have a more balanced setup from the get go.”

For some extra valuable tips, I got in touch with Julien Matthey, a senior sound designer with a rich background working for radios, for the TV and video games.

What key advice would you give to an indie game developer who has little experience in sound design?

“Hire a sound designer! *laughs*

The first piece of advice I could give is to have a large, varied and high quality sound library. Minimum 44 khz / 16 Bit lossless audio files: no mp3. Of course, a library cannot be exhaustive. It is impossible to have every sound you could imagine on your hard drive. You can store tens of thousands of samples and still not find the one that corresponds to your game. But you must have a good library which includes the most common sounds, according to the theme of the projects you’re working on.

There are hundreds of affordable sample libraries on the market. Take advantage of deals when events take place. You’ll get discounts and sets of free samples with dozens of loops and sounds. For example, Every year, for the Game Developers Conference, Soniss provides a pack with hundreds of professionally recorded files.

Another solution is to record sounds by yourself. The best advice I can give there is to invest in a semi-pro recording device. For example, the Zoom H4N. With it, you will be able to record your own sound effects, but also voices or even music instruments to complete your sound bank. This does takes more time, but it gives you the ability to make your own tests until you get the perfect sound. Sometimes it leads to amazing and unexpected results, that you couldn’t find in any existing library.”

It reminded me that the 2 artists behind Atelier Sento made all the sounds and music by themselves in their game Coral Cave. they had a lot of fun coming up with creative ways to shape their game’s atmosphere. It’s a wonderful way to get a breath of fresh air when you’re only a handful working on the game.

Illustration from Atelier Sento, an asian woman riding a giant fish puppet
Olivier and Cécile paint all of their games’ art with watercolor

Julien continues:

“I live in Switzerland. So there are things I can’t record, like the ambience of the African savannah, Asian crowds… For everything you can’t produce on your own, there are of course paid libraries, but also free resources like freesound.org. I use it a lot. Fellow sound engineers and designers from around the world make their work available to you for free. It’s a gold mine, even if the quality of the samples varies.

However, it may be useful to define a small budget to buy a professional sound banks with a specific theme. You can find ones for heroic fantasy, horror, sci-fi, etc. If you can’t create those yourself, this will really help to improve the game’s quality.

One last tip, have a clear classification and strong naming conventions for your sound library. You must be able to find a file quickly, with just a few keywords. When you’re running a sound design sessioni, it will save you a huge amount of time!

Examples:

AMB_INT_Airport 04 – Geneva – Entrance Hall – Few People, Announcement

TRANSPORT_INT_Car 05 – Opel Corsa – Driving under the rain – From the passenger seat”

Julien puts the keywords in the files’ name so he can search through them from a file explorer. That’s a good practice, and not only for audio files! Think about vectors, 3d models, textures, etc.

Some audio workstations allow you to search through your library using both the file names and their metadata. That’s the case with the one I use, Bitwig. But this metadata will only work with dedicated tools while the name will work with any search tool, on any device or OS.

Julien, the sound designer interviewed here, out on the field, recording a high speed train
Julien Matthey, field recording in Switzerland

What information do you need to best do your work when someone hires you?

“It is important to integrate the sound designer into the creation process as soon as possible. This allows him to know what type of atmosphere the project will embrace: realistic, fantastic, horror, etc. That way, he’ll to begin to pick sounds from his library or record them. And he’ll discuss what is relevant or not with the team, make suggestions…

It is also essential to be able to test the sounds in-game as soon as possible. Sometimes, a sound that feels awesome in isolation will be muffled by the music, or worse: it will annoy the players. In the context of the game, a sound effect may lack some punch, another may be too short or too long compared to the animation or interaction shown on screen. And if you use loops, you must ensure they repeat well. All these points must be tested.

So yes, you should call the sound designer as soon as possible to allow him to deeply understand the project. But also because the creation process takes time. A short deadline will force him to move quickly, and you’ll miss the opportunity to experiment.”

Last words

If you’re new to sound design for games, that’s a lot to take on at the same time. Was the article insightful? Don’t hesitate to tell us what you thought on Twitter!

Nathan Lovato

Nathan is a content crafter and Game Design & Analytics expert at GameAnalytics. When he's not doing research, you can find him writing and pulling colorful worlds out of his imagination.

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