To the Audio Teams: The Art of Sound

Dear video game audio designers, producers, mixers, editors, engineers, technicians, quality analysts, composers, and any audio-related field I forgot to mention,
This letter from a blind gamer goes out to all of you. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’m pretty sure I can speak for most blind gamers out there when I say thank you. Thank you for putting in the time, and making the effort. Thank you for adding those little extra touches that we notice all the time. The things that a sighted player doesn’t necessarily need, but that add to the audio experience. Thank you for your own desire to make games sound as alive and vibrant as possible. Thank you for immersing yourselves in the material so the experience you create matches the story being told. Thank you for being awesome.

We blind gamers bow before you, audio teams. Without you, we couldn’t do what we do. Without those little touches, in some cases, we would be further hindered in our efforts. I’ve said before that blind accessibility is all about information, and the things you guys do with audio give us that information, sometimes whether or not you’re aware of it. I commonly use the example of Kingdom Hearts, where equipping different keychains causes Saura’s footstep and attack sounds to change based on which one is equipped. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it is thanks to an audio team that cared to make it so. Because of that, we can tell you by taking a few swings what we have equipped, and from there branch out into how much damage it does, what bonuses it has, and so on. The importance of these little things cannot be underestimated.

But let’s go further. Things get crazier when we consider things that have ambient sound, but don’t necessarily need to. The Death’s Breath crafting component in Diablo 3, save points and treasure spheres in Final Fantasy 13, all of these things and more are examples of necessary objects that we can now locate within a certain distance thanks to audio. Without those ambient sounds, they would just be lost to us. That’s huge! It’s so simple and easy for you audio guys to do, but it’s so, so very helpful.

But really, we’re only scratching the surface here. Let’s go even deeper, and discuss the crazy things audio teams are doing these days, like accurate surround sound positioning and even 3D audio in some cases, realistic echoes based on the objects sound is bouncing off of, (often used to indicate distance between, say, you and a companion), and even dimming of sounds that are blocked by an object such as a wall. The tremendous amount of code that must take is mindblowing, and the fact that you guys work to perfect it, to make it sound right, is inspiring. Let me just tell you now, in case you had any doubt, that it’s worth it.

Now we can’t talk about audio without talking about music. Music is a huge, huge part of creating an atmosphere in a game. I once spoke directly with Austin Wintory, and told him that the music in Journey is what really told me the story. It was true. The music in that game is powerful. It connected with me on a deep, deep level. It made me feel every emotion right along with my fiancé, who was actually the one playing it. I felt the joy of flying for the first time, I felt the rising tension as we got ever closer to our goal… It was an astounding feat of scoring for which Mr. Wintory has received much praise, but if you ask me, not enough. As I’ve said, I wasn’t even the one playing Journey, but when it was all said and done, I felt as though I had. I cannot think of another game that has achieved that effect on me personally.

That is not to say that I don’t love other game music, because I do. There’s a really old game called Stonekeep, which was one of the first games I ever owned. During one part of that game, you wander from the relatively dangerous, though not-too-difficult sewers beneath Stonekeep into the lair of a monstrous evil creature that you, at some point, must defeat in order to proceed. The brilliance of this is that the creature does not immediately attack you. It is, in fact, the music, which changes drastically and ominously the moment you step into the lair, that alerts you to be prepared if you plan on moving forward. After all, the lair itself is not large, and should you actually proceed despite the warning the music provides, then the additional warnings provided by the piles of bones in the area, you will find the beast lerking just a couple corners away. It’s a wonderful, powerful moment in the game, and for me, mostly because of the music.

There are plenty of examples of moments like that in games, but I particularly like that one. The power of music is, I think, becoming more respected these days. I feel like people are taking greater care with music, and that is very much appreciated. Look at, for instance, what Crystal Dynamics did with the first Tomb Raider reboot, scoring every single encounter differently, and using a dynamic music system to make it all flow depending on what you did. That is… That is awesome! There is just no other word for it. Even Killer Instinct for the Xbox One does awesome music tricks, picking up the background music depending on the size of the combos you’re doing. What better way to make you feel good about pulling off an amazing feat of fighting game excellence than to deliver the rousing chorus of that level’s music? It fits perfectly, and it’s also awesome.

I feel as though I could sit here and write about game audio for hours. However, I think that what it boils down to is this. Audio guys, you are our lighting. You are our graphics. You are our art. You are our atmosphere. You are our information. Sometimes, you are our story. You are essential. You are needed. And most of all, you are awesome. Thanks for reading. As always, consider supporting this content if you can, however you can, and continue to be awesome!

The Xbox One Elite Controller: How Elite is it?

I’m going to start this blog off by answering the question in its title. The Xbox One Elite Controller is, in fact, elite. It is full of great ideas, not all of which I use but all of which are tremendously implemented and useful to folks of all sorts. It might be a bit on the expensive side, and I hear a new one may be on the horizon soon, but I personally think it is a tremendous value. Let’s discuss.

Firstly, the controller is extremely responsive in all aspects. You might think that’s just something they say on the box, but it appears to be true. The face buttons and triggers seem to react smoothly, the thumbsticks have a solid, steady feel that is responsive while managing not to be too sensitive, and the directional pad, (which at first made me nervous due to its very different design), seems to work perfectly every time. It is made to better account for diagonal presses as well as the traditional 4 directions, and this makes it feel a bit floaty when you’re moving it, but it works well despite that. I had no trouble pulling off moves in Mortal Kombat or Killer Instinct.

Even better, the entire controller is configurable. Get this. You can configure the sensitivity of every button including the triggers and, if you want to really get into it, you can remap every single button as well. You can even configure the brightness of the light on the Xbox button. That’s some serious configuration. Maybe in the next model you’ll be able to transform the controller into any shape you like! I personally look forward to playing fighting games with my grilled cheese sandwich controller.

Seriously, though, I’m not done. Let’s just say that remapping the existing buttons isn’t enough for you. Perhaps you have issues with hand mobility, perhaps you just like buttons. Either way, the elite controller has you covered. There are 4 additional, attachable/detachable buttons that can be configured during remapping as well, given you even more options. These buttons attach to the grips, making them easier to reach while holding the controller. They are magnetized, making them easy both to add and remove, and if you don’t use them, just keep them in the handy dandy hardshell case the controller comes with. Ya know, just in case you ever want to attach your run button to the grip of your controller, or something like that.

If you can believe it, though, I’m still not done. Both thumbsticks, as well as the directional pad, are completely swappable. The controller actually comes with 1 spare directional pad, and 2 spare differently-sized thumbsticks. Again, configuration is the name of the game here, until you start playing a game, in which case the name of the game you’re playing is the name of the game. You get it. I’m just saying, it’s amazing.

Just one more thing, and then I promise I’ll stop blowing your mind. All these configurations, the remapping, the sensitivity, all of it can be assigned to different controller profiles, which you can then save to the controller. Yes, you can only save 2 at a time, but a flip of a switch swaps between them, leaving you freedom to have your own way of playing games even if someone else wants to keep things as they are by default. It’s another thoughtful feature that makes this controller complete.

I think I’ve made the point by now. The Xbox One Elite controller is a really neat, really well-made device. Everything is considered from configurability to comfortability, as its grips are easy to hold. Microsoft deserves almost as much praise for that as they do the Adaptive Controller, but the adaptive controller is just too amazing to handle, and one can only take so many brain explosions. I thank you all for reading this little review, and please continue to be awesome!

Game Accessibility Talk from #GAConf live now!

Hey folks!
I’m happy to report that my talk at the Game Accessibility Conference, the first ever Game Accessibility Conference, is now live. This talk proved to be extremely important, as I am, no kidding, still feeling its fallout today. Listen as I discuss blind game accessibility with a bunch of industry folks, and maybe, just maybe, entertain them a little bit along the way. You can watch the video below.

Microsoft E32016 Press Conference Quick Thoughts

Greetings again!
Well, turns out I do have something to say. The Microsoft Press Conference is now over, and I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand, the Play Anywhere idea is a good one. Moving forward, ordering a game for Xbox One or Windows 10 gives you the game on the other platform, and saves automatically transfer. The work they’re doing with cross platform play, being able to play not just cross platform on PC and Xbox, but on mobile devices as well, is also a great idea. Those are the things I approve of, along with a few of the games that sounded neat. The Happy Few, and Scalebond were especially interesting to listen to.
However, I was right. New hardware has been announced. The Xbox One S is a slimmer Xbox One, which is fine. New players can come in and get that one. Great. My real problem is the other piece of new hardware they announced. Project Scorpio. It is a new Xbox Console, with tons more power, capable of delivering high-fidelity Virtual Reality gaming without sacrificing performance or graphical quality, and so on. Here’s the thing that I don’t think Microsoft wants you to consider.
When they made the announcement, they tried to soften the blow by assuring you that all previous games and accessories would of course work with this thing. That’s all well and good, but let’s talk about moving forward. Starting basically now, new Xbox One games will be made with this new console in mind. “But,” you say, “We’ve also been reassured that new games will continue to work on the original Xbox One as well!” Yes, I’m sure they will, but think about this. Developers want to keep moving forward. They want to provide you with the best experiences they can. So they are absolutely going to focus on harnessing the power of this new system, and games played on a regular Xbox One are going to suffer for it. No matter what they say about all games working everywhere, there will come a time, probably sooner than later, where you will simply need this new system, or be forced to deal with what appears to be a broken game.
Now, this isn’t just me ranting at Microsoft. I don’t agree with the fact that it’s rumored Sony is doing this same thing. Gaming is already an expensive hobby. We as console gamers should not be forced to buy new hardware when it is not a new system, just a hardware and power upgrade. Now, PC gaming is a more expensive hobby, and I get that they already do this. You have to if you’re going to keep up with the constantly improving PC world. I just do not agree with the idea of consoles going that way. Many console gamers buy consoles so they don’t have to keep up with PC’s. I’m not a fan, and I’m definitely not sold. This is only my opinion, but there it is.
I’ll leave this post at that. Who knows, I might be back once the Sony Press Conference is over. We shall see, folks.

E3 2016: Discussion, concerns, VR

Greetings folks!
I have been away from the blog thing for way too long. I know it, and if you’ve read my other blogs, you probably know it too. However, the 2 major E3 press conferences of 2016 are taking place today, and so I thought I would discuss my thoughts and concerns about this year. Don’t worry though, there are positives here as well.
First, VR. It’s the hip thing right now, especially with Sony’s upcoming Playstation VR device. Given the timing, though, and the fact that the Playstation VR is due out in October, I’m worried that Sony’s press conference will be utterly dominated by VR games, which on the surface doesn’t sound like something the blind community, (which I represent with this blog in case you’re a new reader), would really be able to take advantage of.
Now, though, I offer a potential positive. Sony has made a bold claim regarding the Playstation VR. Supposedly, it will incorporate 3D audio. Now, I say this is a bold statement because many individual games have claimed they used 3D audio in the past, and that hasn’t exactly been true. The original Baldur’s Gate 2 had a setting for 3D audio, and all it actually does is add additional environmental effects and such. Unreal Tournament 3 had a similar setting if i remember correctly, and it was just meant for surround systems. So the implication here is that many, if not most people, don’t actually understand what true 3D audio is. If, however, the Playstation VR does use real, true 3D audio, there may be a reason for the blind to at least try it out. I’m not saying it’ll magically make every game accessible, but it could increase accessibility, definitely. Knowing exactly where your enemies are, which real, true 3D audio would allow, would be amazing. Distance, height, everything.
Still, even if that distant hope turns out to be true, we won’t know it watching Sony’s conference. So I worry, but I also hope that Sony delivers something for both VR and standard players. I know VR is going to be a part of it, I just hope it’s not all of it.
Second, new hardware. No real positive here. I am not really pleased by the rumors of the Playstation Neo, and the Xbox 2, or the Xbox One Slim, or whatever they want to call it. I know it’s been 3 years now, but I just do not feel like purchasing all new hardware. I cannot imagine how either Microsoft or Sony would sell me on a new PS4, or Xbox One, at this current moment when I’m perfectly happy with the systems I got. Slimmer isn’t going to do it for me. Even if they say something like, “It’ll load faster and stuff!” That won’t do it for me either. That’s just not enough reason for me to spend money on essentially a new console.
Now, if they offer some kind of direct trade in program, I would accept that, but that’s extremely doubtful. And yes, I know if I don’t want it, I can just not buy it, but I’m trying to speak for the general public right now, I suppose. Is this what we really need right now? I’m just saying i don’t think it is.
That’s about it for now. There may be more posts later today, depending on what actually happens. I am going to base that on whether or not I have anything to say about it. The press conferences that have already taken place, EA and Bethesda, were interesting, but don’t have much to offer us. More Fallout, more Doom, more Quake, more Madden, a few new games we likely cannot play, and so on. So here’s hoping for the best Microsoft and Sony conferences we can possibly get. Truly, I want them to be great. So impress me, guys.