Tales from the arcade!

In this section, we look at an area that hasn't been the subject of much IA-SIG activity yet, but is where gaming popularity got most of its boost in the 80s: The Arcade. While one might say that arcades are long past their heyday, many companies are still pushing the envelope and developing leading edge titles with far more sonic firepower than can be found on the average PC or anything else at home.

We will start by going back a little with Graeme Norgate, music and sfx wizard at "Free Radical Design, Ltd.", formerly attached to "Rare, Ltd.". Here, Graeme talks about his role in the widely popular "Killer Instinct":

"Throughout 94, whilst working at Rare myself and another musician worked on the audio for Killer Instinct which hit the arcades around Christmas the same year. The audio hardware was the same as used by Midway/Williams in most of their coin-ops and Pinball Machines at the time, most notably Mortal Kombat 2.

We had 4 meg in total for all sfx and music, but this was running mpeg compressed audio at pretty high compression rates up to 50 to 1 in some cases if my memory serves me well. This obviously caused a lot of bass bubbliness and high treble tweetering, but in an arcade environment this wasn't going to cause much trouble. To keep within the memory limit, however, the music was short and repetitive and the whole mix would be cut up into little blocks of sound that could be repeated and the original tune was then rebuilt with these samples by the use of a playlist.

There were no effects, and playback was only 3 channels. So music was in mono which left 1 sound channel for each character, you couldn't play looped samples, nor change the pitch.

It was fun to do though, as we could use full blown music mixes for the soundtrack which compared to the 8 channel SNES chip music we were also developing on at the time was a luxury.....although it came back to bite me in the backside when I had to down the SNES and gameboy conversions :)"

- Graeme Norgate, Free Radical Design

Next we hear about the ups and downs of development for Atari Games' 'Gauntlet Legends' from John Paul:

"Creating the music and sound for Atari Games' recent arcade release Gauntlet Legends was a game composer's dream and nightmare. The fun part was using the original Gauntet audio with its catchy FM organ tune and effects as a stepping stone for a sample-based update. And the new graphics produced by our artists were beautiful and evocative, great inspiration for 70-plus minutes of music and almost 1000 sound-bites. The challenge came in getting it all to work on our target custom hardware.

The first limitation (as always) was RAM: 2 Megs initially which was later doubled (may the engineering gods be praised!). Now I know to PSX developers that sounds like a lot, but when you consider this was a 4-player game, that most of the 300 announcer phrases always had to be available and that the music "streams" were also in RAM, it was a tight fit. A fair amount of time was spent in designing an efficient banking scheme, working with the programmers to determine when banks could be loaded from the game's hard-drive into RAM. In an arcade title you try your utmost to get those load-times to be almost imperceptible, so this was no trivial matter. We also have on-the-fly decompression so I was constantly tweaking the compression parameters to fit yet one more sound.

The second more troubling limitation was that we only had 6 channels of audio to play back everything. With 4 players each of whom could be engaged in individual battles with a myriad of monsters, ambient sounds and music vying for the 6 channels, it became a logistical nightmare to insure adequate game audio. We started working on a complex priority scheme and I had to be constantly on the programming staff to share the latest fighting engine rules so I could recommend adjustments to the scheme accordingly. (Priorities are set by the programmer but I was the only one who wanted to do the rock/paper/scissors type of envisioning that is required in priority planning.)

It became very clear mid-development that the sfx package was not going to work unless I starting stacking sounds on top of each other, creating single samples from an assortment of swooshes, punches, and grunt reactions. This approach meant creating a large number "combo" sounds which further taxed our RAM limitation. My ProTools system was a great tool in this endeavor, easily allowing me to add new layers of sound to already constructed combos as our fighting matrix became more and more complex. I believe in the end that the effort was worth it, since it afforded the opportunity to have a more varied sound set than normal and created the illusion of it being more interactive than it really was.

With this much sound going on, balancing it all was key. Our system allows volumes to be set by the composer at the bank construction level and then adjusted by the programmer within game code. Though this approach can create havoc in debugging (programmers have little time to track down each volume call), it does have its advantages. Programmers usually group sound calls into groups (i.e. announcer voice, boss sfx, player sfx) so that volumes can be set globally making it easy to raise or lower a certain category within the mix. It also gives the composer the ability to tweak each individual sound without bothering the programmer.

Designing audio for custom hardware can be a challenge. There were many times I would look at envy at some of the capabilities of the consumer platforms. Other times I would be thankful that I didn't have to worry about some of their restrictions. And with custom systems there is always the possibility that they improve. During the development of Gauntlet, audio RAM did double in size and we gained the ability to do stereo streams off the game's hard-drive. Both improvements drastically improved my ability to create successful audio for the game."

- John Paul, Atari Games