November 14, 2019

Rival Games' audio director Tommi Hartikainen shares his experience.

Is video gaming really as fun as it's cracked up to be?

Can you talk a bit about your background and how you got into Sound Design for gaming?

My career path is a convoluted one. I sort of naturally drifted and finally transitioned totally into music from modern dance and ballet.

Rhythm, specifically unusual time-signatures and polyrhythms, has always been my strong suit. I started getting more and more interested in music technology and songwriting and ended up recording and mixing projects for my band and my friends’ bands.

At the same time, I was studying computer sciences and music technology. From way back, growing up in the countryside, computer gaming and films were always more than just pastimes for me and somehow game audio turned out to be a way to combine next to everything I was most interested in. I still have my old Commodore 64 with its SID intact!

How do you typically get involved in game projects?

For the past six years, most projects have found me via my day job as audio director for Rival Games, the lion’s share of the other ones from word-of-mouth or trusted colleagues. I am terrible at marketing. Might be a Finnish thing? Anyhow, I find kick-starting projects nearly as much fun as finishing them. I go to great lengths disregarding pre-conceptions and preliminary ideas. Don’t cast them away, rather just put them aside for now. Alternatives, backup-plans are great in game development, as things tend to change mid-flight - sometimes dramatically.

What is the typical workflow and mindset required when mixing for games?

I already mentioned the importance of preparation. Putting considerable work in dealing with the game as a whole: story, characters, setting, mechanics, platform, controls, etc. in the very beginning of development is crucial. How to support them, how to intertwine them and perhaps bring something entirely new onto the table with means of audio.

Afterwards, the plans can - and often do - evolve, turn inside-out and having readied options one is not left stranded and clueless. Sometimes letting go of cool ideas that for whatever reason just do not work as anticipated with the gameplay and all its variables can be a difficult thing to do!
Communication between both the elements of audio and the other disciplines is crucial. There’s voice-overs, sound effects, music and everything has to be balanced in relation to each other but also to the animations, storytelling, game mechanics and be appropriate for specific platforms.

Mixing for only mobile devices is a vastly different job than doing it for next-gen consoles. And then there's the factor separating game audio from other audio disciplines: interactivity. At times, it can be borderline impossible to foresee every potential simultaneous combination of events in-game.

As in music mixing, everything affects everything so you can definitely guess how dynamic the workflow has to be throughout production. If only picture lock was the only thing game audio has to worry about!

Also, everyone expects previews and demos, despite those being extremely hard to interpret correctly without expertise in audio. Rough demos and makeshift temporary placeholders have a weird effect of sticking and creating weird preconceptions and expectations. I try to avoid using temporary stuff when at all possible and always weigh the pros and cons of presenting anything at a given point in production.

I ramble. Please excuse me. Workflow and mindset required? Dynamic. In a single word.

What software/hardware do you use?

I work in a Windows-environment and run Pro Tools as my DAW of choice.

Not as clear-cut a decision now as it was ten years ago, though. I have been using RME interfaces in a hybrid mixing setup with Audient hardware. I tend to concentrate a lot on ergonomics and intuitiveness and often change control surfaces and devices. Now I work on the Avid Artist series and a trackball mouse.

I use multiple different monitoring systems: active/passive, single speaker/stereo/multiple, custom made/factory standard, subwoofers/without, laptop speakers, mobile phones, tv-speakers, guitar/bass cabs, etc..I do have to remind myself to check things on different headphones, since I have never found them an attractive way of monitoring for me.

Do you necessarily have to know how to code?

I have a strong background and a good general understanding of programming but have not written a line of code for quite some time, outside of some light scripting in Kontakt or Unity. It depends heavily on one’s exact job. My focus is on directing, design and asset-creation more than implementation.

Possibly, as audio middleware (the software most often between the DAW and the development platform, eg. Unity or Unreal) have come closer to DAWs in both usability and appearance, the general aptitude and willingness to learn to programme as the need arises is now more important than pre-existing skills.

What do you think is a great example of sound design in a game?

Sound design may be one of the hardest aspects to rate from the outside, not knowing the variables within the development, but regarding single viewpoints, the first examples that come to my mind are the lovely soundtrack in Heavy Rain and the pristine voice-overs and technical delivery in Life Is Strange and South Park.

Plus, the implementation in the Battlefield series can only be described as extraordinary, I feel.

How have Acustica plugins helped achieve the results you aim for?

Many Acustica-plugins offer a depth, solidity and width not common in the software realm. I especially have enjoyed the models of tube-based units, particularly EQs and preamps, for their warm and yet not pillowy presence and low-frequency bloom. All that without replacing a single tube or a faulty jack or switch!

Do you have any go-to ones?

Several! Magenta for subgroups such as acoustic instruments and vocals/voice-overs, Titanium EQ on electric guitars, Coral strip on practically any master bus, Pink for in-your-face, transient-driven sound effects...but I feel the most criminally underrated offering may very well be the Amethyst that has such wonderful, musical filters that seem to work on practically anything. Taupe is also one of my favourites.

Is there any audio tool you'd like to see developed for the gaming industry specifically?

I would absolutely love to get myself an Acustica strip tailored for voice-overs, complete with a few bands of dynamic eq! [Laughs]



Visit Tommi's website here.

Learn more about Rival Games. 

Watch Rival Games' 'Thief of Thieves' trailer!



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