Mix-up, corner pressure, footsies, frame trap, safe on block, punishable, and fifty fifty. These are all terms that I had never heard of before working as a sound designer at NetherRealm Studios. If you’re not a fighting game player or developer, you might not be familiar with them either. So why are they important? I would argue that to be a great sound designer for games, you should strive for a deep knowledge of the genre and game you are working on.
Admittedly, you won’t see me on a stage competing at Combo Breaker or EVO. However, during development I sink in a significant amount of time just playing playing Mortal Kombat or Injustice because in order to give these games the best audio presentation I can, I need to be playing them.
I need to experience the gameplay loops, so I know what types of sounds are played often and which aren’t. I need to understand the narrative context of different factions and characters. I need to have an understanding of each game mode, how they work, and how frequently the average player will be immersed in them. I need to experience as much of the game as I can just like the end user will.
When in production it’s easy to get caught up banging out sounds for specific tasks or systems, but it’s always important to keep the larger picture and experience in mind.
You aren’t going to make the best sounds for a given system or character if you don’t understand the game’s mechanics, and watching gameplay is not enough. I believe there’s a fundamental difference between passively viewing gameplay and actively experiencing gameplay. It becomes much easier to see what is important to a player when you are in their shoes. Passively watching gameplay removes that participation and can fail to highlight things that are important to the player. Additionally, making design decisions from only watching gameplay could potentially hurt the overall sonic vision by drawing focus to things that are not immediately important to the player’s experience.
Playing the game, especially later in development, will highlight how all the game’s systems interact with each other. It will show you how important transitioning from gameplay to a pause screen or inventory menu is for example, or how your sounds and mix system transition through death to respawn.
In sound design, context is king. Audio can help highlight what is important and what isn’t. But to truly know what is important to the player, you have to be familiar with the game as a player.