The importance of good audio in an MMO

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The importance of good audio in an MMO

In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the development budgets of new MMOs. To stay ahead of the technological curve, a large portion of the budget invariably goes toward the graphics department. Studios produce impressive graphics engines and mountains of art assets in an effort to make their game one of the most visually impressive out there. Amidst all the fuss over graphics and gameplay, audio is often overlooked and underfunded. It's been shown that good music and sound effects can have a significant impact on the perceived quality of a game. This is something that some development studios recognise and support but many continue to neglect this vital part of the gaming experience.

In this article, I examine the importance of good audio in an MMO and explain the underlying psychology involved.

The psychological effect of music on people's mood has been documented for centuries. Music's tempo can be used to set the pace and feel of an event, putting a player on edge or setting them at ease. In his acclaimed book "Predictably Irrational", Dan Ariely describes research in human behaviour which is surprisingly relevant to game design. One such notion is the idea that our expectations will forcibly colour our perceptions. Encountering epic music during play will make a game feel much more epic than it really is. This is the same effect used in the film industry to evoke emotions from the viewers and draw them into the movie. Like most psychological effectors, using music to set the scene can lose effectiveness if overused. The most effective way for developers to manipulate the effect is to use their most persuasive musical compositions sparingly.

Everquest 2 did a particularly good job of this by using separate background and combat musical compositions. When combat begins, a piece of combat music is selected based on the strength of the enemy you're fighting. These musical pieces become more tense, epic and uplifting as they progress. Longer battles such as boss fights or solo close calls with higher level enemies last long enough to reach the more awe-inspiring segments of the composition. Consequently, these battles feel inherently more epic and tense than shorter ones where the player will naturally be in less danger. Each segment of the music also has a corresponding short end sequence which plays when the music terminates, producing flawlessly complete ad-hoc compositions. It's an elegant system which helps achieve something that a lot of MMOs strive for – turning grind into an adventure.

Finding appropriate music:
Further evidence that appropriate music can improve our perceptions of a game's quality can be found in a quite obvious but often overlooked place. Player-made videos of in-game action are almost always set to music of some kind. While not all players are skilled at choosing adequate music, their music choices can definitely be seen to alter our perceptions of what we're watching. Videos with appropriate soundtracks feel inherently higher quality and set out an appropriate feel that augments our viewing experience. This is particularly true in the case of sci-fi MMO EVE Online, where the choice of music in some player-made videos has transformed simple space battles and nice camera work into epic sci-fi stories.

Read on to part 2 where I contrast the music in EVE Online and Black Prophecy and examine the psychological significance of sound effects.
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