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[This audio feature has Shaba's Meyer explaining how sound concepting plays a vital role in a game's creative direction, with real-life examples from Spider Man: Web of Shadows.]
Concept art is a tried-and-true means of developing the visual look and feel for a game in preproduction. Techniques like sketches, character studies, and visual brainstorming generate early ideas as to how various game assets should look in the final product. Artists use these concepts as a foundation to build the game world, so this early visual design plays a key role in the development of the game's overall style and feel throughout production.
In much the same way, sound concepts can -- and should -- play a vital role in game development. Though not as widely-considered or visible, sound concepting can be used to solidify an audio direction, create sound palettes, prototype various effects and ideas, define the audio characteristics of the game state, develop an understanding of the importance of audio to a project, and even help sell the game to a publisher.
Sound concepting consists of many exercises, both creative and functional -- but for this discussion, "sound concepting" refers to the construction of sounds used as a basis to derive sonic ideas for a project. Sound concepts are not just mockups, but a serious study into how the aspects of the world should sound in the game.
These concepts may be a series of ideas for a single sound, a short soundscape, or a complex sound synced to an animatic -- basically, anything which can be used as future reference for the sound designer's vision. Sound concepts are just that: concepts, not final assets. However, studies developed during the concept phase often evolve in some form into finished sounds.
Concepting entails various exercises, experiments, and studies used to create a framework from which a game's audio can develop. It affords the audio team the opportunity to find the game's voice creatively, and begin to work out any technical issues to ensure the team's vision and ideas are possible and iterated upon. In practice, sound concepting is the act of mixing the "designer" side of the sound designer with the "sound" aspect.
The point of sound concepting is to experiment freely, and test concepts against other to help them evolve. The designer should create without constraints, until he or she finds what works best sonically, and then figure out how to make these ideas work within the game engine.
Before exploring some examples of sound concepting and demonstrating how it can help a project, I cannot stress enough the value of integrating the process of concepting into pre- and early production work. The pre-production phase is invaluable to a project, in that it is often the only time in which designers have the time to experiment with various methodologies and content freely. The goal of concepting is to develop innovative ideas which can translate into final content through experimentation and iteration.
For an audio team, concepts aid in building a concrete audio design early in the project. By engaging in pre-production experiments and exercises, designers begin to think about various aspects of the game while the rest of the team is also engaging in the same practice. Most collaborative design choices occur during this phase, when ideas can be conceived, prototyped, and scheduled. Pre-production time is invaluable for generating long-term project goals and deriving multiple solutions to ensure their implementation.
Creating these initial concepts without boundaries often allows designers to be more productive in generating unique, creative sounds. By giving full creative reign first, and then re-constructing sound design under the guise of an audio engine, concept work helps audio designers think more clearly about how they'll tackle obstacles and limitations within a game engine -- while still having the freedom to experiment with limitless solutions.
It can also help mitigate the number of placeholder sounds that trickle into the game, by giving the designers time early in production to solidify the nature of important sounds in the game. (For more on the importance of audio in early project development, see Rob Bridgett's article, Designing a Next-Gen Game for Sound).
Most sound designers already engage in sound concept work on some level, but it is important to ensure that time is set aside to give a designer the chance to develop and explore various sound concepts before running into full blown production. Once sound concepting becomes an integrated part of a production pipeline, the results are higher-quality sound, greater innovation, and better polish.
There's also better cohesion across the multiple disciplines of video game development in defining a shared vision. Now, let's examine some practical uses of sound concepting in both hypothetical and real-world game development situations.