There’s always a sense of coming back down to Earth after a convention, and with Play Expo Manchester that has definitely been the case. Organised and supported by Replay Events Ltd, the Play Expo’s run in three locations in the country – Manchester, Blackpool and Glasgow. Having been to Play Expo Blackpool before, I was interested to see how the Manchester rendition would compare and discovered it fares similarly only on a much larger scale. Set in the Event City venue in Trafford, Play Expo Manchester runs for an entire weekend and features an absolute miscellany of games including retro, modern, table-top, card, arcade, virtual reality, indie, AAA and so much more.
This year, The Sound Architect had the opportunity to set up its very own game audio stage on which talks, interviews, audio panels and even live performances were featured hourly for both days. The talks covered a vast array of topics from virtual reality, the differences between working on an indie and a AAA basis, as well as more technical talks and personal interviews about the games and career paths of the professionals in attendance. The entire line up for the stage included talks with or from:
- Sound Designer, Ash Read – Eve: Valkyrie
- Sound Designer, Simon Gumbleton – PlayStation VR Worlds
- Voice Actor, Alix Wilton Regan – Dragon Age, Forza, Mass Effect, LBP3
- Composer, David Housden – Thomas Was Alone
- Composer & Sound Designer, Matt Griffin – Unbox
- Composer, Martin Stig Andersen – Limbo, INSIDE
- Audio Panel with Adam Hay, David Housden, Matt Griffin
- Second talk with Composer Martin Stig Andersen – Limbo, INSIDE
- Composer & Audio Designer, Nathan McCree – Tomb Raider
- Voice Actor, Jay Britton – Fragments of Him, Strife
- Audio Designer, Adam Hay – Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture
- Game Designer & Musician, Jon Hare – co founder of Sensible Software
- Audio Panel: Simon Gumbleton, Ash Read, David Housden
- Live Music: EZXP
The stage covered a well-balanced array of game audio professionals to ensure that people interested in any area would have something to gain by attending. The talks featured a vast range of information about speakers’ current and past projects, working in the industry, tips and techniques as well as advice to aspiring “up and comers”.
On the composition front, Matt Griffin’s talk included an in-depth study of the the mammoth task he had of tackling the sound, music and dialogue for the fantastic indie platformer Unbox. Matt used the audio stage set up to do a live demonstration of his Unreal Engine project for the game and and talked through multiple techniques he implemented for Unbox including Unreal’s ability to use multi sounds, scattered sound modules and various parameters to make both the music and sound design responsive. It was a great demonstration of huge benefit to those who have not yet dabbled in, or are still new to the realms of audio middleware, and brought to light the true scale of what he accomplished being Unbox’s primary audio designer.
Martin Stig Andersen gave a fascinating talk on his choices for both Limbo and Inside, even providing some gameplay of Inside to demonstrate. Limbo and Inside are both puzzle platformers who’s sole characters are a nameless young boy. Both games are relatively dark in nature and that is something Martin worked to reflect in the audio, using sparse musical cues throughout. Given its release this year, the majority of the talk focused on Inside, and Martin explained some of the choices he made working on the game. His thought process for this game was definitely outside of the box. To depict an ominous yet intimate sensation, Martin explored the idea of how sound is heard from inside our own bodies and even went as far to record some of the game’s sound through a human skull, and a contact mic down the throat of a professional sword swallower.
Thomas Was Alone’s composer David Housden discussed how his path in composition started and how having such a successful first game has influenced his career path to date. He also discussed current and future projects including Volume: Coda on which he is collaborating with composer Daniel James. David spoke about the state of the industry in present day and what a composer’s place is, theorising on what he feels the future of music may be and what challenges he has faced as an up and coming composer.
Finally, Sunday saw Tomb Raider’s original composer Nathan McCree discussing the Tomb Raider Suite and his experience in the video game industry. Nathan talked about how he began his path with a Computer Science degree intending to be a programmer. After coding a music sequencer for the Megadrive, he offered to write some music to demo the sequencer to the company, which impressed them so much, he began working on the audio full time. When discussing the Tomb Raider Suite, Nathan stated how he has been thinking about this project for nearly 19 years and the amount of persuasion and determination it took to encourage the company to allow a release of the soundtrack. That suite is due to be released later this year, and will feature 21 tracks of the first three Tomb Raider games, as well as 2 finales and 3 medleys.
When it came to sound design, there were several treats in store. Kicking off the Saturday was Ash Read from CCP games’ talking about their project EVE: Valkyrie. The game is a multi-player combat game set in a fast-paced space environment. Players man the cockpits of their space ships with the sole mission of taking out other players. Ash elaborated on the considerations and challenges of developing the audio for the VR environment and the importance of communication; ensuring the player (i.e. the pilot) is consistently sonically aware of everything that is going on around them, from hearing where enemies are situated to how much damage their ship is taking. Ash’s talk also took a dive in to the technicalities of VR audio, explaining Head Related Transfer Functions (HRTF’s) and the science behind how our ears and perception of sound operate and how that must be taken in to consideration when developing audio for a VR game.
Following that was a further talk on VR audio with Sony’s Simon Gumbleton, discussing their recent release Playstation VR Worlds. The collection includes a range of VR games with their own settings, stories and characters, encompassing numerous environments such as under the sea, a London heist and in space, to name a few. Released alongside the PSVR on the 13th of October, Playstation VR Worlds is the perfect introductory compilation for what is proving to be a worthwhile VR contender. Simon gave an in-depth break down of each game featured in the compilation and elaborated on the trials and tribulations of handling audio in a VR format. He also expanded upon the various techniques they used throughout the gameplay. One of which was their ‘Focus System’, a concept that allows the audio of various objects to grow in the mix depending on how long the player focuses on them for. Additionally, Simon spoke about conveying game states and emotion through the player, such as increasing the player’s breathing rate when faced with a great white shark in Ocean Descent and also using the player’s breath to inhale and exhale smoke from a cigar in the London Heist.
Finally, there was Adam Hay who was interviewed on his work with The Chinese Room for award-winning Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture and Dear Esther. Adam’s career spans an impressive range of accomplishments and experiences having worked with Traveller’s Tales, Frontier Developments and also independently under the alias Unusual Cadence. Adam gave some in-depth insights in to the background of both games, elaborating on the thought processes involved, such as with Rapture, ensuring there was a narrative journey with the sound and that each area of the game felt distinct in its audio. Hearing the intensity and the degree of investment that has gone in to both games, it is no wonder that they have secured multiple awards, including ‘Best World/Story’ for Dear Esther and Rapture’s multiple BAFTA awards for ‘Audio’, ‘Music’ and ‘Performer’. It was eye-opening to listen to take a peek in to the path Adam has taken so far and the things he has tried along the way, all wrapped up with some great advice for aspiring audio designers.
Voice actors also had plenty of advice to gather with Alix Wilton Regan’s talk which covered her experience with the initial and current stages of her career as well as providing some useful advise to aspiring voice actors. Alix stressed the importance of a voice actor having a strong show reel and making the effort to seek an agent in order to open themselves up to the larger opportunities. Alix even showed some behind the scenes footage of projects she has worked on and also emphasised the value of social media and how much more accessible that has made the industry to people from all backgrounds. Building on her passion for supporting people from various backgrounds, Alix also discussed the work she has been doing for charity organisation Play for Calais which is working to raise money for refugees.
This was all followed on Sunday by a spectacular talk from Jay Britton who gave an in-depth demonstration of the everyday life of a voice actor. Pulling a volunteer from the crowd, he showed the audience exactly how you would be directed when recording your voice for a role, even providing examples of the script layout, common terms and challenges you may be faced with. The talk was fantastically well-humoured and was riddled with snippets of Jay’s multi-faceted vocal ability as he showcased some of the characters he has played in games as well as others that he simply knows how to perform.
Finally, the stage even had some live music with a performance from Jon Hare, accompanied by our very own Sam Hughes on guitar. As well as being a game design veteran, having been the co-founder of Sensible Software and the co-designer and artist of all of their greatest games (including Sensible Soccer, Cannon Fodder, Wizball and more), Jon is also a renowned songwriter and composer. He has worked on several of the games Sensible Software has produced and gave a special performance titled “A set of Sensible hits and other old tat” in which he played several classics that he wrote for the Sensible series and some others.
The weekend was then drawn to a close with a stellar show from video game tribute act EZXP. The band expertly covered all manner of classic tracks including Pokémon, Zelda, Star Wars, Mario and Halo. EZXP had a fantastic live presence and as a musician, it was a pleasure to find a video game tribute band that had clearly invested true time and talent to ensure a high quality performance. The musicianship was tight and well-rehearsed. The accuracy of the synth sounds was perfect and the band announced that they are available for hire for all manner of events and occasions which is well worth keeping in mind for all of your live video game music needs!
Overall, the stage was certainly a welcome addition to the Play Expo Manchester proceedings and was well-attended throughout. It was amazing to witness such a great collaboration between game audio fans and professionals in one place. The talks were both educational and entertaining and it was a pleasure to see such an eclectic range of individuals gathered to share their passion or what they do. For those unable to have attended, we will have recorded content of the talks that took place throughout the weekend available on the website very soon, and we hope you can join us next year!
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The Sound Architect