The Art of Audio Design: Exclusive Interview with Simon Pressey

June 27, 2013 by Crytek

The Art of Audio Design: Exclusive Interview with Simon Pressey

Audio is a key component of game design, providing unique technical and creative aspects for a non-linear medium. It is used in videogames to enhance environments, dramatize script and scenes, create a sense of realism, immerse the player into the game, and much more. Games like Far Cry, Crysis, and Ryse: Son of Rome would not be the gaming experiences they are without sound, so audio teams are highly important in creating a sonic identity for Crytek games.

Audio and sound design is an art as much as any other discipline. Industry expert Simon Pressey, who recently joined Crytek as Director of Audio, explains the importance of making a videogame a sonic experience as much as a visual one. “The development of the sound of a game, it’s like creating a world. Sound design is a highly creative field: a large portion of sound has to be created from scratch. A lot of that creation is combining existing sounds into a new one that’s more suitable. For example, a shield bashing sound can be created by combining sounds of roaring cougars. Audio is also about perspective, subtlety, and perception: it doesn’t matter where the sounds eventually come from, as long as they sell the experience.”

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At a very young age, Simon became interested in music and recording through being a chorister in church and his father, who taught him a great deal about electronics. Although he played music himself, he always knew that he was better at recording and producing rather than performing, so when the opportunity to work as an assistant in a recording studio came along, Simon did not hesitate.

For nearly twenty years, he worked as a recording engineer and producer in the pop industry with artists such as Céline Dion, Shania Twain, and Rush. The jump into the videogame industry happened gradually. “The musicians I worked with often played games in between takes. We had some pretty powerful computers that handled early copies of Doom and Mario Bros. But to me, none of them had good sound! Ubisoft approached me to do some music and the unrestrained feeling and risk-taking of the industry really excited me,” says Simon. “But I was totally unprepared for just how difficult it was. There were a lot of challenges in hardware, all quite unsophisticated. But the more games I worked on, the more I liked it.”

Simon worked on multiple games and franchises such as Assassin’s Creed™, Prince of Persia™, Rainbow Six™, and Splinter Cell™ at Ubisoft, followed by Mass Effect™ and Dragon Age Origins™ at BioWare, a lot of which were overlapping projects. “During this time I really developed a thorough understanding of IPs from a sonic perspective,” says Simon. “I understood how I could use audio to connect the player to the character and the environment, so even when the player doesn’t really notice the sound, it somehow still feels like he/she is moving through that world. It is often a balancing game between subtlety and telling a bigger story.”

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At Crytek, Simon’s current focus is on Ryse. Since the project was already well underway before he joined the ranks, it’s a lot of catching up. “We’re in the sound design stage where we’re starting to create the reality and push it even further by experimenting and enhancing the combat experience. It’s a perfect recipe for creativity, albeit a lot of pressure with a lot of new – new IP, new team, new console… The hard part is how to deal with that creativity,” he smiles. “Obviously there’s a strong appreciation of Crytek making visually stunning games, but in my opinion they make equally good sounding games. The team has enthusiasm, passion, and are executing on that at a high level. Aside from that, Crytek is maintaining its independence, which allows the flexibility to do what it wants to do, which is making great games, and I enjoy being a part of that process.”

“My job is a really global position, and my role is about helping every member of the audio team to work together, support them, get them to a high quality standard, and bringing all of everyone’s knowledge from different backgrounds together so that we can all gain from each other’s experience. The team has been wonderfully open and receptive to my ideas – good and bad,” Simon continues. “Artists are at their happiest when they are being creative, so enabling that creativity and preventing overwhelming workloads or discouragement is another important aspect I emphasize. We know that we’re doing all that we can and we must be confident of that in the face of a challenging project like Ryse.”

Of course, each game brings a different set of challenges to sound design. Simon names a few regarding the development of Ryse: “The biggest thing is dealing with the dependencies on other teams, and building awareness that audio is dependent on those teams. We need the visual experience before we can create the sonic one, so achieving this under time pressure can become rather tricky. Adding to that, we are dealing with the unknown territory of the new console [Ryse will be released on Xbox One]. So far, it’s actually a significant improvement of technology with fewer limitations for sound, but having less boundaries also means knowing where to scale back and reign in to create the best possible experience.”

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Simon’s approach to sound design is, according to him, quite simplistic. “It’s all about realism. Let’s support the reality of this particular game world, and then look at where we’re going to change the design around that. It’s rare that I come up with a completely finished sound design in my head; it’s an evolving process on each game. I try to get the fundamental themes of the game written down early, because there’s a lot of sonic information in the script and character biographies. But yes, I definitely like to get the heart of the music composed early. From there, it’s easier to build on.”

Even though he stepped into Crytek and Ryse with everything being in full motion, Simon is positive about the future of the game he’s making. The prospect of creating more original IPs and exploring sound design for the next-gen consoles makes him smile. “You want every game you make to be a mass market experience; you want as many people as possible to play it. The only set formula is that it must be fun to play. There’s no recipe for that, and there never will be a set recipe for a perfect game,” he laughs. “I’ll always be providing a unique audio experience, tailoring to a unique game. It’s a chance to be ever-improving, and it kind of means I get to be unendingly creative.”