In a lot of games, sound design is often considered secondary to graphics, story, cinematics, and character design. But with Ninja Theory’s Bleeding Edge four-on-four team brawler game, it’s takes on a greater importance.
That’s because the sound matters when you are listening for characters who might be coming at you from different directions. And when a character launches a special attack, you hear the familiar audio theme of that attack first, and that gives you a second or two to get away from it.
And when everybody is fighting it out in a four-on-four melee, the sounds seems to come at you from all directions. Once in a while, you have to notice the whistle of a train, as it might run you over if you are standing on the tracks.
Then you have to take into account that everybody is talking to you at once using voice communication, and you get the idea of how complicated the job of creating the sounds and music for this game are. I discovered this during a preview session that Microsoft’s Ninja Theory staged in San Francisco. The $30 game debuts on March 24 on Xbox One, PC, and Xbox Game Pass.
I played the game for a few hours and then sat down with Daniele Galante, senior sound designer at Ninja Theory. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: What were you trying to achieve here?
Daniele Galante: The audio team was composed primarily of two people, me and the audio lead. For both of us, this was our first experience with a multiplayer game. We both have a background in single-player. It was a challenge for us, a very good challenge, because we had a lot of fun doing it. But in the beginning we weren’t sure how to start our approach to the game.
We tried playing a lot of other games and seeing how they were doing what they were doing, trying to pick up the best from each game. Sound design-wise, that wasn’t a problem. We wanted to complement the art. The art is very peculiar, as you can see. It was easy to find a strong personality for each character. The hard part was to give those strong personalities to the sound design and make them cohesive in a specific environment. They’re so different. Each one uses augmentation to modify themselves in a completely different way.
It’s easy to do a specific sound design for each character, but then you don’t find them cohesive all together. We tried to give a kind of futuristic vibe with a pinch of old school. We tried to design science fiction, but how they imagined it in the ‘90s. It’s a bit more gritty, a bit more grunge. It’s not a very clean, modern kind of sci-fi that you can hear now. Thanks to that, we could get a more cohesive sound for all of them.
GamesBeat: When I’m, say, Nidhoggr, and the guitar music comes on really loud for me, what are the other players hearing? Are they hearing much of the noise that I’m making?
Galante: No. It’s not something completely different, but the mix that we give — it’s different from each perspective. That was one of the challenges in the game, actually. In a single-player game you have one point of view. In a game like this you have eight points of view, one for each player. We had to handle all of them and give the right information to each player.
We tried to mix the game dynamically, based on the gameplay. We give you the right information you need to play better. As an example, during a fight, if someone is attacking you, they’re clearly more important than someone who isn’t attacking you. Therefore, he’ll be louder. Another enemy, in turn, even if they’re not attacking you, is more important than an ally. They could still be a potential threat sometime soon. At the same time, if an ally starts to heal you, they’re more important than an enemy who’s not attacking you. And then you yourself are the most important. You need to feel powerful, so you always need to be the center of everything.
GamesBeat: If I hear something like Nidhoggr’s guitar going, that means something bad if I’m not him.
Galante: Exactly. If you hear something that’s clearly a bit louder than something else, it means that’s probably a threat to you. If you hear that guitar sound, that electricity very clearly, he’s probably coming toward you. If it’s behind you, if you’re very fast you should be able to escape it. That’s not just the case with attacks, but also footsteps and everything else. We tried to do everything so that through the sound, you can be aware of any possible danger.
It’s hard, because as you can see, this is not a shooter. Most of the fights are confined to a small place. That makes it very hard to mix.
GamesBeat: If there are eight players all together, what kind of sound might you hear?
Galante: That’s the thing. If they’re all together, we divide them up based on the threat level and dynamically change the sound mix. If Nidhoggr is attacking you, at that moment he’ll be a bit above the others and you’ll hear him more clearly. But if he suddenly stops attacking you and Buttercup is attacking you, for example, that will change. The more enemies are around you, the more your allies will go down dynamically. That gives a bit more space for the enemies, because you need to be more focused on what they’re doing.
At the same time — the game is focused on melee. Even the ranged characters don’t have a very long range. There are no snipers. We could mix in a way where, if you’re surrounded by enemies, we can leave aside things that are farther away. If an ally and enemy are fighting further away, you don’t really need to hear that. You’re focused on something else. The distance at which you hear something can be longer if you’re not threatened, because you want to know where the fight is happening and where to go, even without looking at the mini-map necessarily.
GamesBeat: If there are, say, eight sounds happening in a tight space, does that stress your processing at all?
Galante: No, we manage our power very well. We know that we always have a certain amount of sound playing together. There’s never more than a certain amount. That changes depending on the machine. On Xbox One X it’s a certain number. On PC it depends on your specs. But of course that can be a problem if you don’t mix it well. You need to decide which sounds aren’t going to play at a certain time, like I was telling you before. If I have to put one sound aside to not play, it’s probably going to be an ally, rather than someone who’s attacking you.
The same goes for how we equalize the game. We try to remove some frequencies that are a bit tiring. This is meant to be a competitive game. It can be absolutely casual, but you’re meant to play a bit competitively. We want to take care of the player’s hearing a bit, so we try to remove frequencies that are more taxing to hear, so you can play longer without any risk. It’s not the type of game, like in a single-player, where you have exploration moments that are very chill, with only ambients, and then you go into a fight. This is a constant fight. It’s already stressful for the player. We don’t want to stress you any more sound-wise.
GamesBeat: How directional is the sound? If you hear something coming from a specific direction….
Galante: Oh, yeah. Everything is 3D. The only 2D sound we use, sound that’s not directional, is your own sound. It makes you feel a bit bigger, because you have more of a stereo image when we play your sounds. But all the other sounds are very directional. You’ll always be able to understand where everything is coming from.
GamesBeat: Do you have some favorite sounds or suites? What did you enjoy making?
Galante: The one I enjoyed making the most is probably ZeroCool, the gamer. It was nice to try and find out how all the old-school sounds were made, like from the Super Nintendo, and try to reproduce them. But at the same time, creating them in a more modern context, and blending them with more modern sounds. He’s flying around on his spaceship, and the spaceship sounds pretty modern, pretty sci-fi, but when he’s shooting, we mix the mechanical sounds of the gun with this 8-bit feeling.
Makutu was super hard to do for me, because it’s much easier when you have someone like Daemon, who’s very snappy. He’s using a sword, so you can just use those swinging noises, like shing-shing-shing. But Makutu is super weird, how he moves. He’s on this big floating ball. It’s hard to give a sense of danger with the more rounded movement that he has. I took a lot of inspiration from anime, ‘90s anime mainly. Akira. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure has fantastic sound design. Even common things like Dragon Ball. I detached a bit more from realism and went for a more design-ey style, more particular, which is what anime is like. If you pay attention to the sounds in anime, they’re absolutely not realistic at all, but they really give you the sensation you need to have.
GamesBeat: What about the other non-character sounds? Is there a lot of ambient sound, things in the environment?
Galante: The ambients are mixed dynamically. When you’re alone you’ll hear a lot more of them, but when you’re in a fight you’ll hear them less. But some sounds, like the train, will play even if you’re in a fight, because the train can kill you in one shot. We put some detection in for the train, so in case it’s about to hit you, it’ll play a horn. You have about a second to evade. We didn’t want to give you too much room, because you need to be fast and aware. But it’s more rewarding if you can do it in that way. It’s all about giving rewards to the player. If you play better, you should be rewarded.
That’s what the sound is trying to achieve. It’s trying to help you play better. The goal we had, if you have two teams, four on four, same skill level, same composition, but one team with headphones and one team without, hopefully the team with headphones will win, because the sound helps them.
I don’t know if you went into the advanced tutorials, where it shows you the ping system — as you can see, communication is very important in this game. Talking to each other is important, because it’s team-based. If you just go alone in the middle of a fight, you’ll get destroyed. Voice chat is a strong element in this game. But at the same time, we don’t want to–we know some players just don’t want to talk. Not everyone wants to use voice chat. Some people just want to play. That’s why we created the ping system. You should be able to give all the information you want through your character. You can say, “Let’s get this objective,” “Let’s go after this particular character,” or “I need help.” All the basic information you need to have, that’s in the ping system, so you can communicate whatever you want even without voice.
GamesBeat: Kind of like the system in Apex Legends?
Galante: Exactly. Apex Legends was definitely an inspiration for that. But this is the kind of game where you play with a controller mainly, so it’s a bit harder to use specific pings in the same way you can with a mouse. This is a bit different. We did a kind of hybrid between the ping system in Apex and the ping system in Overwatch. It’s a mix between the two. I think it works very well. We use it a lot.
One other thing that was interesting for us to work on was the music. For now, the music is not in the gameplay. It’s only in the menu, the tutorials, when you start or finish a match. But it’s still a very important element of the game. It has to be a cohesive part of the mood the game is giving you. We tried to reflect the characters in the music. It’s a mix of a lot of styles. Electronic, but more like old electronic music, like Kid Koala. Nas, a bit of that older hip-hop. More modern, like Koan Sound. We brought in some funky, Rahni loves that. A bit of rock in some places. It represents what the characters are. They’re all people who are made from different pieces of augmentation. That’s reflected in the music.
People seem to love the music. At one point in the beta, lots of people asked us to put music in the gameplay, in the fights. We didn’t want to do that, because we saw the game only on a competitive basis. In competitive games, there’s usually no music, because you need to be focused on the sounds.
Being on Game Pass changed things a bit. Not in a bad way. But because Game Pass is huge — I don’t know the number, but it’s millions of people playing. Every type of gamer is there. People who like adventure, people who like competition, people who want something more chill, people who like shooters or don’t like shooters, everyone. I understand that some people don’t care about the competitive side. They just want to play and have fun, and they like having music in the background to pump them up a bit while they try to kill everyone. It’s something we’re considering. Of course you’d be able to disable it if you want. It might take us longer to implement, because we’re a small team. The audio team was mainly composed of two people.
GamesBeat: What were you working on before this?
Galante: I was working for an indie company in Italy, Ovosonico. We made Last Day of June, which is a single-player, emotional kind of puzzle game. It was an interesting game to make. But it was a single-player experience, mainly. To be honest, moving to Ninja Theory, I didn’t feel that big a difference. The way Ninja Theory works, it’s kind of this triple-A indie. We’re around 130 people, but we’re divided into three to four teams. The Bleeding Edge team is around 30 people now at maximum, because we’re right at launch. On average we were only 15 or 20. That indie feeling didn’t really go away. But of course the quality went up a bit. It’s been an interesting experience.
GamesBeat: Did anything change from the beta up to now?
Galante: We’re listening to player feedback and working on that. Music in gameplay was heavily requested, so we’re looking into that. We need to make sure that it works properly before we just shove it in the game. We might put it in an experimental mode for now, to see how people react. If they like it, we might leave it in. If they don’t, we might remove it. But it was interesting to hear all this feedback all at once. We did the technical alpha with a very small player base, just to test things like how the servers worked, but the beta was massive. The response was amazing. We got a lot of feedback, and we’re trying — it’ll take time for us to implement everything. But we have a live service. We’ll do our best to get things done as fast as we can.