Truth be told, none of the techniques I've described today are new or inventive. I am certainly not an innovative genius or a radical visionary, I've just been doing this stuff for a while. In fact, creating audio for mobile games these days is strikingly similar to producing audio for PC games in the '80s and doing web audio in the '90s. The same kind of audio problems and solutions will apparently arise in almost any resource-constrained, developing, competitive environment.
But since we've been here before (twice!), you think we would've learned a lesson or two. We'd know that closed, proprietary audio formats are bad and open standards are good.
We'd know that bandwidth bottlenecks will expand, and so we'd plan for scalability now.
We'd know that all DRM schemes are doomed, and that the best way to make a buck is to give the customer what they want, not criminalize what they're going to do anyway.
But most important, we'd know that the same techniques that have worked for us in the past will be useful today and in the future. In other words, you want interesting, well-produced soundtracks for your mobile games? Hire old game-audio guys!
By the way, these "lessons learned" are not mine, they are just a few from the 2004 Project Bar-B-Q Mobile Audio session.
But finally, my friends, I'm going to stand here and tell you that the mobile industry moves so fast that everything I've said today about creating soundtracks for mobile games is already complete and utter bullshit. And I'll tell you why: convergence.
The advent of music phones with gigabyte removable storage and broadband network connections is going to make mobile game music completely obsolete.
Really, think about it for a minute: games on your cell phones are not like games on your Xbox, or even your PSP. Given the bandwidth restrictions and the CPU usage, mobile games tend to be small, fun, time-killers. They're not 40-hour immersive environments like God of War; they're what you do while you're waiting for something else to happen in your life. And because of the technical limitations, and because they're cheap, and because, let's face it, folks, they're phones, not dedicated gaming platforms, mobile game soundtracks are going to be kinda low-res no matter what you do.
And this is all well and good when that's all you've got. But what happens when that same device, that cool little gadget that takes pictures, does email, surfs the Web, plays games, and—oh yeah—makes phones calls also contains six hours of your favorite music? Ask yourself what you would prefer to listen to while you kill a little time playing little game—some low-res MIDI soundtrack written by who knows who (and that would be me in this case), or that funky-cool Grammy-winning groove you just uploaded to your phone from iTunes? Come on, it's no contest.
And I know this because I've done it, and it's too damn cool for school. It's "roll your own game audio;" it's CheeseRacer with an Aerosmith soundtrack, or the Greenskeepers, or the New York Philharmonic, or whatever you want. I'm tellin' ya, it's the best thing since flavored toothpaste, and pretty soon aaalll the cool kids are going to be doing it. Some Motorola phones already have iTunes built in, and the cell phone carriers are all jumping on board the "music phone" bandwagon like it was headed for Gold Country. Personally, I just took my custom black Hiptop and slapped an iPod nano on the back with duct tape (because I'm a musician, and all musicians must use duct tape) and voilà! (See Figure 12.)
Figure 12.The nanoHiptop (Duct Tape Edition) is the essence of convergence: two refined tools fused into one.
Introducing the nanoHiptop (not a real product, not available in stores, not condoned by either Danger or Apple Computer, do not try this at home, may void warranty). Nonetheless, check it out, it's a cool concept, it works great—and it represents a paradigm shift in the way we're going to think about creating audio for mobile games.
The day after I made this presentation, I attended Brian Schmidt's Xbox 360 audio session at GDC, and after my head stopped spinning from the unbelievable power of the system (322 simultaneous voices of digital audio?!), I discovered that not only does the hardware have a port for plugging in your iPod, but all titles for the console are required to let gamers use their own playlists as background music. The game's background music stops, but the sound effects keep going and the iPod output is mixed in ... brilliant!
This may be the first time that high-end console games and low-end mobile games share a common functionality—allowing the user to customize their own audio experience. I'm tellin' ya, folks, it's the wave of the future.
Peter Drescher ("pdx") is a musician and composer with more than 25 years of performance experience. He has produced audio for games, the Web, and mobile devices, using his "Twittering Machine" project studio.
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