June 25, 2016 Jay F.

Turn Down For What??
Why Loudness Matters In Video Games

TooDarnLoud

This post is a continuation of my previous blog post where I talked about what loudness is so now I will go into more of why it matters with a focus on video games.

Now, there are different things which loudness affects that should be considered. Some of them might be very noticeable to many users while some may very subtle. The more noticeable something is the more someone can point at it specifically as a problem, like a single sound that’s too loud. But the subtle issues can be widespread and harder to pin down. They may be veiled as comments about audio ‘lacking polish’, being ‘too loud’ overall, or just being uncomfortable to listen to for long periods of time. All of these are things developers and designers should strive to fix (and some are!); even console manufacturers are jumping in! Loudness in games has an effect on how much a player enjoys the game, the length they will play in one sitting, and how they talk about it to others, though the amount of these effects is not certain as it can be subjective, but it’s one piece of the puzzle! Look at it this way, if there are ways to make games more polished (or call it “better” since most would agree) and have less “bad” things to point out, then why wouldn’t you want to?

Now, with pretty good certainty I can guess that most people when asked “Have you ever complained a game was too loud?” Will say yes. and while “Have you ever complained a game was too quiet?” Will also garner some yes answers, they would be substantially less. I even went as far as sending out surveys to see if this was true, which I’ll discuss later. Just recently, I actually stopped playing a game because of how loud it was since I couldn’t play it comfortably with the audio on, losing 50% of the experience for me. That SUCKS. Not just for me but for everyone involved and it could have been easily prevented, I wanted to love the game but this barrier prevented me from doing so. I ended up having a very negative experience, I may be wary of buying games in the future from them, and might not recommend it to friends. I’ve even had people tell me they stopped playing a game altogether (and won’t return to them) because they were too loud. User experience plays a large role in how positively people react to your game and get others to look at or play it. Having something that could prevent people from continuing to play a game seems like something we should get rid of!

At this point you might think “but louder is better right? All of my favorite music/movies/shows/games etc. are loud and amazing!” Well, no. (some of) those industries actually have standards you have to legally follow  to prevent them from being too loud (which I detail in my previous post). One thing to remember is that if a game is too loud and distorts, you can’t turn down distortion and fix it, the audio has been ruined. But a game that is too quiet you can turn up the volume and still have a great dynamic audio at the volume you want that isn’t distorting (called headroom). The IDEAL situation is not having to change volume at all but quieter is at least better than too loud. This is why the standards exist so everyone has a number to try and hit to prevent volume changes. To those who still want to be loud I would reply with the recent shifts in the industry against loudness, like: studies that show how loudness does not affect sales in the music industry as well as listener fatigue caused by loudness and digital conversion not to mention other game developers talking about loudness fatigue in video games and showing their successful game without it. Youtube, Spotify, and Apple are even adding in some things to prevent loudness on their platforms (mostly normalization). Last but not least Sony actually requires you to adhere to some aspects of the ITU/EBU Loudness standards (technically) to release on their systems, though it’s a little incomplete, and Microsoft/Nintendo recommend the same ones. Essentially, you will need to comply eventually so it’s easier just to start now!

BORING right? What kind of games actually follow this stuff? Well, I don’t know, maybe one of the biggest Elder Scrolls games that was acclaimed for it’s audio? SKYRIM. Or how about The Banner Saga? An indie game that also saw great success and acclaim for it’s audio? There are many great examples that I could point to and you can see how people reacted to those games. They did not complain that the games were “too quiet” and buy something else, the games won multiple awards (or were nominated) for audio which is more than a lot of games can say. (so obviously it doesn’t hurt!)

I actually did a quick survey to see if there were any interesting trends. What I found is that over 70% of respondents have complained that a game was too loud (while 50% said too quiet). Even more interesting is that almost 90% of people said they have turned down a game when switching to it from another app or game on their system (64% said they would turn the new game up). But for me the MOST interesting one is this:

I asked “Have you ever played a game and taken off your headphones or turned down/off the volume in the middle of your gaming session because of the audio? (surprisingly loud sound, needed to ‘take a break’, felt fatigued or hard to keep listening)” and almost 60% of people said yes! That’s almost 2/3 who have removed headphones and intervened because something was too loud/fatiguing. That is something we can definitely work to lower since nobody should have to do that and ruin their game experience. Below are the results from my survey with short descriptions of what it could mean.  As a note I got about 50 respondents and the average gaming time was around 15 hours per week.

Consoles

Pretty straightforward, just seeing what kinds of consoles/devices people are playing on.

PlaybackDevice

Just trying to see how people listen to their audio

TooLoud

Might as well just come right out and ask right? Now this is subjective and does not mean every game they played was actually too loud, but it’s interesting to see so many have complained about it.

TooQuiet

Just had to ask about the other side as well. Now this is still a problem that games can run the gamut of loud and quiet, and being quiet isn’t as bad.

Switching

This is pretty much the exact reasons standards exist is so that people can have the same experience on a platform regardless of the game or app they are playing. Ever watch a commercial that blasts your ears off during a show? Yeah, that sucks and is why we try to prevent it, it sucks with games too since I don’t want to keep grabbing the volume knob. One very interesting stat is that 28% of people just straight up turned the volume off (missing 50% of the experience!). Granted, there may be reasons other than the game’s loudness for it but at least some of these could be attributed to it considering the other answers.

EarFatigue

This is another thing people might not realize happens. I mentioned example earlier but more than 50% of people, at one time, have taken off their headphones or shut off audio because of loud sounds or ear fatigue.

So now, let’s talk about what you measure and why it’s important to take these into consideration.

LKFS (LUFS) – aka Integrated Loudness which is at least a 30 minute average value of a game’s loudness overall. Why? Games that are too loud on average require you to change volumes compared to other programs/games, giving a disjointed experience with other things on the same system or TV. They also can cause other issues like fatigue from being exposed to a loud volume. Short loudness spikes can also be problematic. If most of the game is at ~-23 LKFS but for 10 seconds the game is at -3 LKFS (which is really loud) this could cause discomfort to the user during that time to the point where the user might have to intervene, whether with a volume change or by taking off/turning off their headphones/speakers.

True Peak – I think TC Electronics explains it best: “Many loudness meters have a built-in true-peak meter, and what sets the true-peak meter apart from sample-peak meters is a special algorithm – donated by TC – that not only looks at the actual samples, but also inter sample peaks. In effect, the true-peak mater can unveil peaks in between actual samples that would otherwise cause distortion. Therefore, a true-peak meter actually ‘goes beyond 0 dB’. A reading using a traditional sample-peak meter that displays a max of e.g. -0.2 dB could go as far as +3 dB on a true-peak meter reading.” This can cause distortion if peaks are going too high (intersample specifically) and even if not noticeable by the user (like a +0.1 peak) it can cause fatigue over time since our brains are processing the ‘missing’ information or can cause straight up distortion from the speaker.

LRA – Loudness range helps prevent the quiet parts and loud parts from being to far from each other (the dialogue is too quiet and music is too loud etc. syndrome) Not to mention keeping loud peaks at bay and keeping everything melded closer together volume-wise without sacrificing dynamic range. For living rooms you want to stay below 20 (meaning there is a 20dB/LKFS difference between the quietest and loudest sounds measured).

Now, that was a TL;DR about why this stuff really matters and why you, as a developer, audio designer, or player of video games should care. But now let’s dig in a bit more. Better care of Loudness will have audio that has better dynamics and doesn’t sound too ‘compressed’, the user gets a better user experience, and by using loudness standards you stay ahead of the curve for loudness recommendations in video games which are slowly becoming required. All of these things can help make a better game and the first steps are knowing what to listen/look for and prevent common pitfalls.

Mixing: Being mindful of loudness during the mixing process can help immensely in making sure that your loudness is quelled since many issues are just poor mixing or ‘bugs’ when the audio is brought into the game but aren’t caught.

Measure, Measure, Measure! Get a meter and measure your game play or record videos and measure the audio from the videos. Orban is one of my favorites for this and can give you a running snapshot of where your levels stand, plus it logs to excel so you can go back and see if anything looked way off. This will help you see if your game is overall loud or quiet, if any sounds play are MUCH louder than the rest of the game (inconsistent mix), or if you don’t have enough/have too much range (LRA). Actively mixing the game using a loudness meter is great so that you can see what the average loudness (usually called integrated loudness on the meter), what your peaks are (True Peak), and what your loudness range is (shown as LRA). Most middleware (FMOD and Wwise for sure) have loudness meters built in as well. That being said, you can just make you game sounds good (and the way you want) and address loudness near the end most of the time. Not every time, but I say this since one thing I’ve heard echoed a lot is that loudness standards can somehow ruin creativity or can be really difficult to implement into your game. Honestly, it’s not that hard to do the really simple ones and this doesn’t hurt creativity, it helps user experience (which is/should be the #1 reason your audio exists.)

Now, I can go into great detail about how to measure and fix these issues but that’s for another post (or you can ask me directly!). My main focus for this is to try and spread the word and make people care about how loud their games are. Fight the loudness wars and let people know that it’s JUST TOO DAMN LOUD.

Want to talk more about it? Hit up the comments, find me on Slack or twitter (@jaymfernandes), or send me an email! btw thanks for the title idea Matt! (@mattesque) and for the suggestions Tony!

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