Continuing in my line of video game interviews with the companies at the forefront of the industry, I recently got the chance to talk to Adam Boyd over at Activision, the publishing division of Activision Blizzard. With his long-standing position within the game industry as an audio professional, I anticipated that he'd be able to offer some insight into the work done by one of the major game-associated companies around.
Hi Adam! Thanks for taking the time to do this Q&A with me about your work. For those who might mistakenly label Activision as a game developer, instead of a publisher, can you explain if the audio personnel at a game publishing company differs from that of a game development company? Does the distinction matter?
Activision has a number of studios that work on well-known brands like Skylanders and Call of Duty, as well as numerous licensed properties too. The publishing side is where the executive and various other departments reside, such as marketing, finance and legal. My group (Central Audio) is also on the publishing side, but we focus primarily on development support for the studios, made up of colleagues who are actually designing and making the games. We support the needs of our studio teams on multiple titles over the course of their respective development, helping wherever we can. Where our studio colleagues will be hard at work on one title over many months or years, my group moves from project to project during the year as required. For this reason we need to be very agile and adapt to working on a variety of genres, which keeps the job interesting.
The skills required are very similar - sound editing and design, mixing, implementation, etc.; however we also tend to interface a lot more with our legal, marketing and production management groups, doing things like setting up external contracts, managing vendor relationships and working on marketing assets. As a central group, we have some degree of involvement with most of our franchises, and we stay busy throughout the year.
What does your job as the Senior Audio Manager at Activision entail? What kind of workload do you have, and has that evolved at all over the years?
I manage a small select team of sound experts whose main purpose is to support the audio needs of the development teams as they create the games. Our involvement varies from studio to studio depending on their needs and resources. We can take on chunks of work that are more easily compartmentalized or post-production oriented (like in-game cinematics), but we might also do sound design or implementation. A relatively new direction for us, when we're not working directly on games, is that we’ve increased our focus on R&D efforts. Our goal here is to identify and evangelize advanced practices around sound design and mixing techniques, as well as to develop audio tools and technology that can contribute in a measurable way to the ongoing success of all Activision games. Right now we have several advanced R&D projects underway that I’m very excited about, and I think will have quite a profound effect on the way we work moving forward.
Having a background in doing sound for TV, how does the skill set for that kind of thing carry over into games? Is it the same process?
Personally, I feel it's a great advantage to have post production experience. Storytelling through audio is very important to me, and working in TV and film is where I learned the craft. But it will only take you so far. The audio for games today is much more technically complex than ever before, and in some areas it is distinctly different from the kind of linear sound design and mixing in film or TV. Interactivity is a big challenge for audio, and with the scope of games increasing every year, it only becomes more and more demanding. A game audio professional needs to be highly skilled in the creative aspects of sound design, but they also must have a solid grasp of logic (and physics) in order to break down sound events into systems that support interactivity. Sounds that might be simple to drop into a linear timeline can become very complex when non-linearity enters the picture. You really have to be a quick study and be able to adapt to using a variety of toolsets – from simple spreadsheets to actual audio middleware and everything in between.
As an employee of Activision Blizzard, what does your Audio Team look like in terms of manpower and resources? Does having a corporate parent allow for a generous supply of resources for your projects? Do you ever have to involve freelancers with what you do?
Working for a large publisher has its advantages, but we’re not extravagant. There’s a culture here of supporting the right ideas, and that trickles down to the way we operate our department. We’re pretty thrifty and we invest wisely in the tools and people we need to get the job done.
The scope of our projects is often varied and sometimes can be so big that we do need to bring in external help. Part of what I do in order to support the development teams is to seek out and recommend external vendors who will bring the best results. This is one of my favorite aspects of the job, because it gives me a chance to connect with some of the best and most respected sound
You've worked on a lot of Need For Speed titles since 2003. From an audio perspective, what does working on racing titles do for your skill set as an audio professional? I assume it requires a specific set of abilities that wouldn't necessarily be utilized in other genres.
In my opinion, racing games are the most challenging genre of games to work on. For one, vehicles are complex machines that make a lot of noise and interact with the environment in a myriad of ways. Breaking any vehicle system down into its constituent sound-making parts and then rebuilding them in an interactive context is very difficult. In racing games you usually have a singular POV for long periods of time (notwithstanding the fact that you can sometimes switch the drive camera, but that is rarely done for dramatic effect, it's usually just for player preference) and it doesn't take long for the sound to stagnate. You have to get very creative with your sound design and mixing approach in order to keep the player engaged, while at the same time giving them accurate audio feedback so they can perform to the best of their abilities. If anything, working on a racing game is a great crash course in physical systems, environmental acoustics, and player engagement, and that knowledge applies to most other genres as well.
In 2011, you started getting credits on Call Of Duty games. Was this a transition that required you to acquire new skills in sound design or audio, or were your previous abilities easily suitable to this project? Also, did you have to manage your audio team any different for those titles?
It’s been great working with and supporting the studio teams here. I started as a freelancer, mostly doing sound editorial for cutscenes. It was a fantastic experience, and when I joined the company full time in my current role, the transition brought even more opportunities to learn new things. With every new genre I’ve been exposed to comes its own unique set of challenges to solve, and this gives me endless opportunities to grow as a sound person.
What I learned with first-person shooter games is that it's fundamentally about controlling your mix, and giving the player the information they need to play the game, while at the same time providing the emotional cues necessary to push the story forward. There's usually a lot of on-screen action in a first-person shooter game, and having the ability to know what's important to hear at any given moment and the skill to execute that goal is quite a challenge. It’s almost the polar opposite of what a racing game is like, but in the end it’s trying to achieve the same thing. The games our developers create are amazing pieces of art and technology, and I can’t give the audio teams enough credit for the incredibly nuanced, complex and compelling experiences they create.
Your game resume is full of action/racing games, which I would assume share much in common, in terms of energetic audio, exaggerated effects and lots of sound-processing. What would you say are the skills and knowledge that has helped you be successful at such projects?
Of course you have to know your tools and understand all the technical stuff. But the most important thing is making choices with your sounds that are the right ones for whatever story is being told at any given time. As I've matured as a sound designer I've gotten less and less interested in making “cool” sounds for their own sake, and more interested in becoming a more capable storyteller. And by story I don't necessarily mean the long form narrative that that term usually implies. Stories can be told in so many ways, and in games a lot of the stories are just micro events that have a beginning, middle and end… like, "I was driving fast, I dodged an oncoming car but oversteered and smashed into a barrier" - that's a whole story that might happen in the space of three seconds, but it still needs to be carefully crafted with sound in a compelling way or it can easily turn into a wall of meaningless noise.
As someone who oversees his own team of audio staff, whilst having also worked alongside staff from other game companies and freelancers, would you say that anything in particular distinguishes the Activision audio team from other companies? After all, audio from all kinds of games and companies receive praise. Do you think sound teams tend to differ in tangible ways from company to company, or is the profession a predictable one?
Our studio partners who do the hard work of making the games are among the best in the business. Each Activision studio has their own unique culture and way of working. If I had to find a single characteristic that defines them all, it would be that they all take their work extremely seriously and there is no end to the passion they have for making great audio. We have an amazing talent pool here and I feel really lucky to work with these people every day. I have a ton of respect for anyone who chooses to make a living as a sound person in the games industry. It’s not an easy job, it’s not glamorous and sometimes it’s the last thing people think about when they’re making a game. Most of the people I’ve met across this industry are driven primarily by their love of sound and music and when you look at what they have accomplished in the few decades that video games have existed, it’s pretty staggering.
In the past, you've mentioned that you want your games to sound great with small speakers through an average TV, as well as have it sound amazing on higher-end systems. What are some ways that you and your team go about trying to achieve this? Is this done more in the mix stage or programming stage?
We first sit down with the studio audio team – the designers, the leads – to see where we can help and to understand their vision for the game they want to create. As most will tell you, great audio starts with the content creation, continues through the implementation and goes right through to the final mix. There's often a tendency when you're doing sound design to make every sound huge, full bandwidth and as loud as hell. Of course when you have 100 other sounds all competing for the same small piece of dynamic range, this can be a problem. The industry on the whole is adopting loudness standards and that's a great start, and a place where my group can contribute by evangelizing this idea and helping to put those practices in place. We also check all of our sounds on multiple speaker setups before we committing them into the pipeline. It’s important to never take it for granted that a gamer is going to have a perfectly calibrated 5.1 home theater system available to them. I would advise to mix for the baseline, and then move to the higher end system and embellish. That way there's something for everybody.
Does your job involve dealing with the licensing of music for Activision titles? If so, can you talk a bit about how that works and how licensing music complements in-game scores?
I'm only peripherally involved with music licensing; we have a separate music department that handles all of that. I’m more focused on supporting the sound design and mixing needs coming from the studios, but of course music is a big piece of the puzzle for them to consider.
For someone out there who has their eyes on getting into the audio team at Activision, what are some things that would catch your eye about a young sound designer?
Good taste and a passion for sound in general. Also work ethic is huge. There’s a common saying that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at anything, and I think there’s a lot of truth in that. Maybe 10,000 hours is a bit abstract. To put it another way, if you did nothing but sound design for 9 hours a day, and never took a day off for the next three years, that’s about 10,000 hours. That’s a pretty extreme commitment right there!