Tom Clancy's EndWar is a real-time strategy videogame for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 developed by the Shanghai studio of the French videogame company Ubisoft and released on November 4, 2008 (Election Day in the US). EndWar is the fourth title in Ubisoft’s Tom Clancy portfolio, alongside the Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon, and Splinter Cell series.*
I was in charge of audio throughout the game’s development, joining the team in February 2005 and finishing up in August 2008. My job was to support the vision of the creative director, veteran game designer Michael De Plater, in sound; i.e., make sure the game sounds good. I consider the project a success, and generally the audio has reviewed quite well; you can read some excerpts on the EndWar press page.
I’ve set up this page to collect some of the more savory tidbits pertaining to audio in EndWar for the casual reader, and to memorialize some of the game’s accomplishments for posterity.
Aesthetically, the goal of the game was to get you to feel down in the action, among your troops. One innovation of EndWar is that the perspective is more like that of a first-person shooter than the traditional, top down view of most RTS’s. We wanted to keep the feel near-future, as opposed to sci-fi, and we did a lot of research to see what life’s really like on a modern day battlefield. Realism was paramount (as they like to say at Ubisoft, it is a hallmark of the Clancy franchise), and we wanted to evoke the smell of sweat, the squeals of dirty gears, the fuzz of mangled communications. This influenced the direction of all our sound design, as well as our choice to go in a more rock and roll direction for the soundtrack, instead of a standard cinematic score. (As far as we could tell, no one out there’s listening to Hans Zimmer.)
We were also striving for accessibility, which is not traditionally a word associated with the micromanagey world of RTS’s, but which was critical in translating the genre into a casual, mass-market console experience. Several of the audio systems described below were designed to provide an additional window into the status of your units and the overall tide of the battle, to make the game simpler to understand and navigate.
Technically, I felt firmly that the bar for videogame audio was no longer simply to have high production values; even from my first game, Leisure Suit Larry 7 in 1996, we had recorded a live jazz ensemble in a studio to provide the soundtrack. At this point, it’s assumed that the quality of the recorded sounds will be top notch, on a par with what folks are accustomed to hearing in the DVD’s or other media that they’re listening to on the same speakers they use for gaming. The challenge now is finding creative ways to deploy these high quality recordings to feel responsive and alive, to immerse the player in the universe of the game. With the processing power of the current generation of consoles, the potential to dynamically manipulate and deploy sounds opens up all kinds of possibilities.
So we came up with several creative real-time audio manipulation features to maximize this potential:
Real-time distanced based filtering
Unlike a stealth game such as Splinter Cell, EndWar has no interior environments; the challenge was rather to convey the epic scale of our battlegrounds. So we didn’t need filters for occlusion or obstruction; instead we used a low-pass filter to roll off high frequencies in proportion to distance. This obviated the need to have near and far perspective sound assets (an impossibility, in any event, given the size of our memory footprint and the sheer variety of weapons), providing not only pleasing variety around the battlefield, but also smooth transitions when hotswapping between units.
The system upon which I bestowed this goofy name encapsulated several processes. Since the game was designed from the ground up for consoles, I expected that a significant percentage of players would be listening to our game in Dolby Digital 5.1, which the BOOM™ system was designed to exploit. The idea is that a simple monophonic explosion sound positioned in 3D space, no matter how beautifully recorded, would sound flat, compared to the all-enveloping explosions commonly heard in war films.
So to beef things up a bit, our solution was threefold: first, we play a stereo sound as a kind of "sound sprite," with the left and right channels separated along a line that runs perpendicular to the camera’s perspective; second, we spawn a random number of swooshy audio particles at the point of impact and dynamically move them to a randomly chosen point on a line that runs perpendicularly behind the camera; third, we throw a little something to the subwoofer. The result (deployed in conjunction with some tasteful dynamic mixing) is an infinite variety of big explosion sounds that fully envelop the player.
Okay, this isn’t such an innovation anymore, but it’s still crucial, and it required extra retrofitting on our part of the old audio engine we were using. It’s a simple system; first provide a mechanism for categorizing (and subcategorizing) different kinds of sounds, then send commands (analogous to playing a sound) to offset the volume of all sounds in a given category by a given decibel value over a given amount of time.
Real-time radio processing
All of our radio processing for dialog was done on the fly in software. Writing efficient DSP from scratch was a bit beyond our capabilities in Shanghai; the actual algorithm was furnished by smart folks at Microsoft. Since our fancy dialog system (described below) dynamically allocates a unique voice to each instance of a unit, we used radio processing to help differentiate unit type, with different radio effects for land vehicles, air vehicles, and infantry. We also adjusted the quality of the signal in proportion to the unit’s health, so that as a unit’s health deteriorates, the unit’s radio broadcast becomes more distorted. Providing aural clues to unit type and unit health when a unit speaks is one way that audio supported EndWar’s key mandate of accessibility.
Developed with our story director, John Gonzalez, the dialog system abolishes the common RTS convention that requires every instance of a certain unit type to speak with the same voice. Instead, our game assigns a unique voice from a large set to each unit when that unit is instantiated. This requires a bit of clever concatenation, with units first identifying themselves by their unique call sign (also dynamically generated at unit instantiation) when they radio in.
Unit dialog was also positioned in 5.1 (though not distance attenuated), to provide information about units’ locations on the battlefield. Units’ frequent status reports and responses to your commands (which often included assessments of whether the attack was a good idea or not) aid accessibility, especially when issuing orders via voice command. (BTW, the voice command system, one of the game’s main selling points, is indeed a very cool feature, though it didn’t have much to do with the audio team; the technology was licensed from Fonix and implemented by a separate team.)
John also had the clever idea to include “back chatter,” which means that when a unit member tosses off a random comment (such as they are wont to do when idle), another unit member may choose from an appropriate list of responses, creating a wide variety of possible exchanges, many of which continue to surprise and amuse me.
I’m planning a separate article to discuss the music system in depth, as it’s quite complex, and I consider it to be one of the major audio innovations in EndWar. In a nutshell, we created a system of mid-level granularity (shuffled cells, analogous to drum loops, though they do not loop, and the duration is not necessarily evenly divisible by tempo) that allows the music to turn on a dime, providing endless variability and the kind of close link between action and underscore that folks are accustomed to hearing in film scores, even while accompanying a very open-ended, dynamically generated narrative. The music is also a primary means of providing a high-level summary of how the battle is going, and how close a player is to winning or losing.
Of course, audio design for a game of this scope and profile requires lots of people to pull off, and I had a great audio team to do it: Yassine Abouelfalah was the technical director; Ou Yuan Jun 欧元骏 oversaw the ambiences and picture-in-picture audio and headed up the port from Xbox 360 to PS3; Yu Hai Xiang 于海翔 was the integrator in charge of map-specific sounds and a general, go-to/fix-it guy, overseeing our daily build processes; Ding Jun Mei 丁俊梅 was a former audio tester turned audio integrator in charge of a lot of the effects and destructible object sounds; Du Ke Jia 杜柯嘉 was focused on the PS3 port for a long time; Song Wei Wei 宋薇薇 helped out for a bit, notably with music system prototyping; Wang Yi Chen 王一臣 was our lead audio programmer; Chen Ai Qi 陈爱琦 tirelessly supported Wang Yi Chen on the code side, particularly with dialog management; and Wang Ge 王鸽 was the programmer in charge of the PS3 version. Veteran Ubisoft audio designer Zhang Lei 张磊 joined the team for the last few months of production to help with general polish and pizzazz, and Romain His, another veteran Ubisoft audio guy, provided feedback, guidance, and support throughout the project.
Though not officially part of the audio team, Vinh-Dieu Lam from the AI team was in charge of hooking up music and dialog stuff on their end, and provided extensive support for sound, creatively as well as technically.
In house at Ubisoft Shanghai, we were focused primarily on design, creative direction, implementation, and polish; most of our audio assets were furnished by Omni Interactive Audio (founded by good friends of mine from my Seattle days, Alistair Hirst and Robert Ridihalgh; the soundtrack was composed by Alistair Hirst and Matt Ragan), with additional support from Ubisoft’s internal studio in Paris. Dialog was recorded at Technicolor in Hollywood, directed by Chris Borders, under the watchful ear of Tom Hays.
I created almost no content for this game; my job was to design audio systems, oversee their implementation, provide creative direction for audio, liaise between teams, manage my team, integrate the music using our arcane tools, perform lots of scheduling and reporting, and generally ensure the quality of the audio experience. Towards the end, I also decided to do all the interface sounds myself, since I had a fairly particular concept for how I wanted them to work (all derived from guitar recordings, to complement the in-game music). I also wrote a song for the game’s credits, which perhaps merits special mention…
No one ever requested a song for the game’s credits. There were a few conversations about commissioning a song from some rock artist, but those discussions never gained much momentum. We could have just repurposed some in-game music, but I felt there should be something special there.
During most of production, I went to a gym up the road from the Ubisoft office at the Equatorial Hotel three times per week for exercise, usually running or swimming for half an hour. I would usually have our game’s music ringing in my ears as I walked to the gym, and over my lunch breaks, I gradually started to assemble the song that became “EndWar.”
The song closely reflects certain aspects of our game, but not, I feel, in some kind of marketing checklist way. I think you can hear in the music and lyrics aspects of the three different factions of the game, as well as the “down in the action” perspective we strove to bring to the RTS genre. Most important, I wanted the song to feel of a piece with the rocking work Alistair and Matt did on the in-game music, by far the more important music in the game.
So for me, I was just following the artists’ dictum of “write what you know,” since EndWar occupied most of my waking thoughts for three and a half years. I’d consider this process to be pretty much the antithesis of, and perhaps a rebuttal to, commissioning a tie-in tune from a waning brand name like Korn, as Ubisoft did for the dud Haze. I’d see it more as extending and to a certain extent encapsulating the story we’re telling with the game.
The song was done in collaboration with the band 99 Men, in which I briefly used to play bass back in Seattle. To read the details of our collaboration (and for more information on our new rock EP, 3 Heart-Shaped Cookies, available now from digital retailers), check out the special page I have dedicated to chronicling our collaboration.
Post-launch, Ubisoft announced a contest for fans to create their own unique videos for this song. Hurry, you’ve got until February 17, 2009! Even if you’re not interested in creating a video for the song, they've released the MP3 to the public, and you can listen to it here. To my knowledge, despite my best efforts, Ubisoft has no plans for a public release of the rest of the game soundtrack. But perhaps that’s just as well; given the extremely dynamic nature of the soundtrack, it’s best to experience it in the context of the game!
"EndWar" is dedicated to EndWar creative director Michael De Plater, with love.
EndWar was my Ubisoft swan song. After I finished up my work on the game, I left Ubisoft to embark on a yearlong sabbatical, focusing on music performance, installations, gallery shows, writing, and study. Fun as it was, three and a half years is a long time to devote to any project. You can read my sabbatical manifesto on my blog.
In all, I was at Ubisoft just over four years, and it was an incredibly rewarding time. I developed lasting friendships and learned a lot from my vibrant international coworkers, as well as from Ubisoft’s unique way of doing things. I’ll always be grateful to Ubisoft for luring me across the Pacific to China. EndWar was certainly a challenge, but I’m proud of the result and of the audio team that worked with me to realize it.
Now please go buy a copy. Thank you.
- —Ben Houge, Audio Director for Tom Clancy’s EndWar, Shanghai, February 2, 2009
* A word about the Tom Clancy brand name. EndWar is an original concept, not based on a Tom Clancy book, though someone (not Tom Clancy; I don’t think he writes anything anymore) wrote a book based on the game that was doing well on the New York Times bestseller list for a while. Ubisoft has had a longstanding deal to make games inspired by Tom Clancy’s universe of near-future, geo-political intrigue, and during the production of EndWar, they actually bought rights to his name, so they don’t even need to run ideas by him anymore. (top)