The Problem With… Final Fantasy

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Final Fantasy – A Brief Overview

Final Fantasy is a franchise of role playing games and associated spin-off games. Generally most games in the franchise are totally unrelated to each other but share common themes and mythologies. Reoccurring themes include characters with names such as “Biggs”, “Wedge” and “Cid”, mythological creatures such as the “Chocobo” and “Moogle” and god-like summons such as “Shiva” and “Ifrit”. Each game generally centres around a group of playable characters who are assembled through the course of the game in order to rid the world of an evil antagonist. The name Final Fantasy was originally used as the title of the first game as it was a final attempt by series’ creator Hironobu Sakaguchi to create a successful game. The name does not imply that each game is supposedly the last!

Introduction

I’ll start with a quick game, I shall describe a Final Fantasy game and you say which one you think it is.

I run down a corridor; I am interrupted with the occasional cut scene, I then continue to run down a corridor. Finally I enter a battle, I press a button and the game selects the most appropriate spell to cast against the enemy. The battle finishes and I continue on my epic quest down a long corridor, occasionally I wonder if I will come to a cross roads I can explore or reach a village where I can wonder around for an hour; talking to locals and upgrading my gear – no such luck.

Final Fantasy fans reading this will have no problem pointing out that I have been describing Final Fantasy XIII. Really, this article can end here and conclude with the statement “The problem with…Final Fantasy is FFXIII”. My love affair with JRPGs officially came to abrupt end with XIII but in all fairness this was just the tipping point. The truth is Final Fantasy had been going downhill for years, beginning with Final Fantasy X on the PlayStation 2. For the record my favourite game in the series is Final Fantasy IX, which in my opinion got just about everything right. A good story, set in a beautiful world, filled with interesting characters and literally stacks of nods to previous games in the series. So what went wrong when transitioning between the PS1 and PS2?

Game Play Over Graphics

The PS1 was released in the very early days of 3D gaming, along with the N64. Looking back most games from that generation haven’t aged well, specifically 3D games. Just take a look at some classic sprite based games on the SNES such as Super Mario World, Super Metroid and Secret of Mana; although they look old they still have a certain charm. Now look back at N64 games like Super Mario 64 and Goldeneye 007 or PS1 classics such as Metal Gear Solid, Crash Bandicoot and Tomb Raider. None of the N64 or PS1 games look particularly charming or cute these days; that’s because we were transitioning into 3D. The technology was in its infancy whereas 2D platformers and other SNES games had been using technology that had already been in development for several years.

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Games like the masterpiece that is Final Fantasy VII didn’t get caught up in trying to look mind blowing. Just consider for a minute the above images; on the left you can see Cloud as he appears when rendered in game. On the right you can see Cloud pre-rendered in an FMV, they look vastly different. VII still looked good at the time but that isn’t what it has been remembered for. The game play and narrative alone was enough to keep the player hooked, any technical achievements were a bonus but not the main selling point. XIII on the other hand has put its focus on polished graphics and as a result both the story and gameplay have suffered greatly. I am not alone with this opinion; it’s quite common knowledge among the gaming community that VII is one the most highly requested Square Enix remakes. Yoichi Wada, the Square Enix president, has stated “To get FFVII to something like FFXII, it would take ten times as long”. [1] A statement that in my opinion effectively confirms that XIII doesn’t even come close to the scope and exploration found in older FF games.

The 3 eras of Final Fantasy

The Final Fantasy franchise can be split into 3 eras, the first being the golden age of Final Fantasy to FFVI. These games progressively evolved over several years but remained largely recognisable in terms of looks and gameplay. The first big change then came during FFVII to FFIX era, here the franchise switched to a fully fledged 3D game, came on CD-ROM instead of cartridges and featured FMVs. During this era the Final Fantasy brand reached a whole new level and introduced many new fans to the RPG genre.  The next evolution can be seen in FFX to FFXIII (excluding FFXI as this is an MMORPG); here the games dropped the world map mechanic (more on this in a moment) and really tried to push the graphical capabilities of each system the games were released on. During this era the games somewhat “sold out”, trying to pull in a very mainstream audience and dumbing down the traditional micro-management and number crunching game play and mechanics.

Both the first era (I-VII) and the second era (VII-IX) seemed to build on the success of the franchise and both have flagship games with a large fan base (VI and VII). In my opinion, although the third era (X-XIII) has seen strong sales there isn’t a core fan base behind these games.

Final Fantasy X – The Franchise Reinvents Itself

So why do I believe the third era, starting with X brought about the demise of the franchise? Notably there was a shift in key members of the team; Nobuo Uematsu had scored all previous games in the series but he was now joined by other composers. His work on VII-IX in particular is remarkable, yet from X onwards we see a rise in generic electric guitar and J-Pop music, even featuring lyrics! Hironobu Sakaguchi, who had previously produced all of the previous games in the series, became an executive producer. From what I can gather the role of “executive producer” on a video game can be a very fuzzy area but generally this appears to be a step back from some of the more creative aspects of the game itself.

Voice acting was utilised for the first time which, although a step forward (especially in story heavy games) can also negatively impact the game. Cloud (the main protagonist in VII); for example was always considered a bit of an “emo” filled with teenage angst but the player was able to create their own version of Cloud by imagining his accent and how he talks. Arguably the X protagonist, Tidus, was a very similar character only this time players were able to hear his shrill voice and he perhaps came across as more of a young whiny teen than he would of if this game were text only.

The biggest shock I received when playing X for the first time wasn’t the voice acting, cast or new battle system. After several hours into the game I realised there was no world map! Now it’s fair to say that previous games in the series have also had a degree of linearity; the basic story has to be completed in a set order. The player is funnelled towards new areas with paths that the developers do not want you to explore blocked until a later time. This concept used to be masked quite well with the use of a world map. The player could clearly understand that they couldn’t transverse a mountain or swim an ocean until a later point in the game when they had unlocked an airship or boat. The world map in these older games never really had a massive amount of locations to explore but the few it did have that strayed from the main quest helped give the impression of a non-linear experience.

Final Fantasy XII

Aside from the fact that I couldn’t follow the story in XII and didn’t have a clue what was going on half the time; the gameplay itself was pretty good. As with X, there was an absence of the classic world map. Instead a compromise was made in which the player was able to explore the world via interconnected regions, this felt much closer to the old world map system. XII still had its fair share of problems, in particular the forgettable characters and the Gambit system, a catalyst of sorts to the “autobattle” system featured in XIII.

The gambit system did present a few interesting ideas; the basic concept of which was to set up a list of rules which your AI party members would follow when in battle. For example, a character on your team could be set up to always attack using magic. If however, anybody in the party has less than 5% health left, the character will use a health potion on their next turn instead of a magic spell. Although a deep system, the problem here was that your party was now essentially fighting for themselves while you took control of the main character. This, in part, has lead to Final Fantasy games becoming the linear, corridor crawler, dumbed down game we see in XIII.

Final Fantasy XIII – The Franchise Sells Out

Right from the moment you pick up a copy of XIII you can clearly see Square Enix have tried to reach out to a wider audience. The European box art features the game’s main protagonist, Lighting in all its Americanised glory. This might not sound like a big deal but previous Final Fantasy games in both Europe and Japan featured a simple logo while the movie poster Esq. Box art was typically reserved for North America. See the images below of the Final Fantasy VII box art for the Japanese, European and North American covers. Why did the Europeans now have to suffer with the American box art? Probably because the simplistic box art of previous Final Fantasy games doesn’t appeal to your typical FPS gamer.

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As I mentioned in the introduction, XIII was a very linear experience. The game has strayed far from its classic JRPG roots and has turned into a beautiful but dull experience. XIII seems like a tech demo that somehow managed to get green lit into a fully fledged game because it looks pretty and will draw in the mass market. There is a compromise a development team must make with games, more polished and beautiful games will be more linear. Create a more open, flexible game and you have to compromise somewhat on graphics and polished, scripted experiences. Games such as Battlefield 3, Uncharted 3 and Portal 2 look so polished because the experience is very structured and you are clearly being led along a path the development team have carefully crafted. Compare this to something like Fallout 3, which doesn’t look very pretty but you are placed in a massively open world environment that you can explore as you wish. Final Fantasy has clearly opted to be based in the Uncharted camp rather than remaining in the less attractive, massively open RPG camp and here lies a massive problem. Final Fantasy is an RPG choosing to attempt to have its cake and eat it and it has failed massively.

Undoubtedly XIII was the game that killed the franchise for me. Obviously, being the most recent game this could be a one off mistake. After all Square had developed a new engine, which they were getting to grips with on a new console generation (but wasn’t this also the case with VII? And that was brilliant). I doubt this is the case though, as going back to analyse the changes made during this “third era” it is quite clear that some bad decisions had been fermenting since the development of X, mainly the development team trying to push the tech rather than looking at what made the older games in the series so good.

Other than linearity, XIII also implemented a new battle system, which has a similar feel to the Gambit system used in XII. The worst thing about the new battle system is the “autobattle” feature, which essentially presents the player with a “one button to rule them all option” as it selects the appropriate command to use. Now many people who have experienced a Final Fantasy game in the past know that many attacks, summons, potions and defence commands can be gained and utilised in battles throughout the game. JRPGs normal consist of many of these commands and part of the fun of the genre is the micromanagement and decision-making involved. Having a command to bypass this is killing the whole fun of the battles. Of course this feature doesn’t have to be used but it is very tempting in some situations, not to mention new comers to the genre will probably rely on this button constantly than complain that the game has no depth and you can win by just pressing one button.

XIII has also followed a recent trend of releasing sequels. Sadly, this is something that began with VII. VII started the trend for releasing sequels, spin-offs and other media in the form of Crisis Core, Advent Children and Dirge of Cerberus to name a few. The VII collection however was justified as the game had such a strong following and releases came years apart (Crisis Core for example was released over 10 years after VII). However, it wasn’t really until X that the flood gates truly opened for these types of Final Fantasy collections. Here is a list of the X, XII and XIII collections to date:

Final Fantasy X
Final Fantasy X-2

Final Fantasy XII
Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings

Final Fantasy XIII
Final Fantasy XIII-2
Lightning Returns: Final Fantasy XIII
Versus XIII (TBC)

Conclusion

It seems very fitting that my first real JRPG experience was VII while XIII put me off JRPGs. Saying that both Dark Souls and Demon Souls are absolutely fantastic RPGs from an eastern developer and they shine a ray of hope that JRPGs haven’t all turned into a mess. I believe that a much more interesting RPG experience can be had with western RPGs. Games like Fallout 3 and Skyrim are absolutely huge while quests and game play style can be approached in a variety of ways. Other games, that aren’t strictly RPGs but include RPG elements such as Bioshock have also provided a refreshing way to revitalise both the RPG and FPS genres. Compare this to The Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy. Although I am a massive fan of both Zelda and Final Fantasy I can’t help but think about how disappointing they have been in recent years. Zelda has gone stagnant and struggled to move with the times, offering a very hollow experience while Final Fantasy has tried to evolve and failed miserably.

[1] http://kotaku.com/5551606/how-long-would-a-final-fantasy-vii-remake-take

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Leave Luck to Being Rescued – Christiaan Jones

Christiaan Jones
Content Designer
The Creative Assembly

Notable games Christiaan has been involved with:
Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, Operation Flashpoint: Red River and F1 Race Stars

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Christiaan LARPing as Vincent Le Blanc (deceased)

Brad: Hello Christiaan.

Thanks for taking part in “Leave luck to being rescued” which bears no resemblance to any music based top 5 interviews!

Now, I have previously worked with you through a development cycle so I already know a few things about you. I know you enjoy LARPing, so I’ve set up a very believable scenario to explain how you get stuck on an island with nothing but a few of your favorite games. I also know that your real name isn’t Christiaan, although I can’t remember the story behind this. So why don’t you start by telling me a bit about your LARPing hobby (do you have a good photo I can attach to the post).

Christiaan: Hi Brad!
Firstly, thanks again for trapping me on an island (I think…) and I’ll quickly try to clear up the name confusion; Third child of 4, grandparents wanted family names, I drew the short straw and got them but to save all the arguing everyone calls me Christiaan (family names being Alan-Michael and Harold)! Luckily my last name is Jones so that keeps me humble 😉

I’ve been LARPing on and off since I was about 18 in a few different systems around the UK (Live Action Roleplaying, for the uninitiated, is a mix of cosplay, theatre, a kind of martial art and basically pretending to live in a fantasy-based MMORPG), which are all different sizes and have a different feel or emphasis depending on where you go. I’ve been in many forests and fields, camps and “towns” and even a 2 mile long chalk cave system (it was very dark and cold, but GREAT for atmosphere)!

In the system I currently play in called The Lorien Trust (or L.T.) there’s a good mix of fighting and roleplaying and I try to attend all four of their main events, two of which are in May and two in August. Each main event lasts around three days over a long/bank holiday weekend and you can spend your time trading, crafting, fighting, casting spells, performing rituals (basically uber-majicks) researching about the world, chatting, eating and drinking (there is lots of this!) or pretty much anything else you can imagine doing!

There’s stalls for food or selling kit like weapons and armour and the roughly 2000+ players per event (not including vendors, referees and other hangers on) arrange themselves into one of the many nations, groups and guilds all with their own lands, customs and identities and act on the various storylines or plots, some of which have been going continuously for 10 years or more!

I could go into a LOT more detail, but 1) I’d be here forever and 2) this is less about LARP and more about gaming: Next question please! ;D

Brad: Wow, I didn’t realize how much was involved. I imagined about 40 people in a field shouting a bit and pretending to attack each other!

Alright, so let’s talk about games. I presume you were a gamer from a young age? What was your first console (or PC)? When did you decide to pursue a career in games development and what is your background?

Christiaan: It ‘IS’ one of (if not the) the biggest systems in the country, and most other systems tend to be around the 40+ mark it’s true 🙂

Yeah, I started pretty young with an Apple 2 we used to borrow from the local primary school I went to for a week during the summer holiday to play Oregon Trail and Kings Quest 1 on. The first games machine we actually owned was the good old NES (in the end my parents bought two for us to share!) and I spent many long hours with my brothers in front of it back in the early 90s.

Deciding to go into the games industry was a bit of an accident really. I’d finished secondary school (having done A levels in English Literature, Philosophy and Media Studies) and I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to do next! Looking through some university brochures I saw a course in Games Design from Lincoln University. Thinking about it at the time, I’d always been designing one thing or another when I was a kid playing with my brothers: turn-based rules for a LEGO strategy game (with real-time sections for shooting the cannons!), new quests for the Hero Quest board game or even digital stuff using RPG Maker 95 and various MOD tools for Quake and Quake 2. I’d never considered it as an actual job and Lincoln were offering one of the first courses on it in the country so I guess I was lucky to get in on the academic ground floor!

Brad: Ah yes, the NES, I spent countless hours playing Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda on mine and it still works!

Looks like you were always going to end up in some sort of design / games related career then.

Now Christiaan, a shocking turn of events occurs when The Lorien Trust decide to do something a bit different and organize a special LARPing event to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. You decided to go LARPing as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and in your excitement you climbed down a sewer to hide; suddenly a great rush of water knocks you unconscious and sweeps you away. You awake to find yourself at the foot of a ladder and suddenly another rush of water picks up, carrying with it a load of games. You only get chance to grab 5 of them, one of which can be a collector’s edition (explain why you chose this) along with one complete game soundtrack (this can be from something other than the 5 games you select). With your new haul in hand you climb the ladder and reach the surface, only to find yourself on a desert island and stumble across consoles, TVs and a power supply. What 5 games did you grab and why?

Christiaan: Certainly one of my strangest adventures I think (also, I’d have probably been dressed as Donatello, but that’s neither here nor there really).

So, on to my choices. I’d like to start with the Game soundtrack if I may and that would be the original World of Warcraft (WoW) soundtrack. I’ve chosen not to include WoW in my main list for two reasons: firstly, because I won’t have internet connection and the servers have to close some day and secondly because it somewhat bias’ the list and there’s SO many other games I’d like to include!

So my choices (in no particular order) are:

1)  Diablo 3 Collector’s Edition (PC)

OK bit of a cheat this one as by taking the collector’s edition of Diablo 3 I get Diablo and Diablo 2 plus all the expansions already saved on the USB stick but my choice is still valid (plus I’m a sucker for an art book, especially those done by Blizzard)! Actually one of the first great games I played on the PC, the Diablo series is probably the best hack-and-slash RPG out there, despite some… odd choices for the third instalment. The story is great without being overly complicated and the replay value is frankly, HUGE. Randomly generated dungeons and item drops, unique creatures (in the later instalments) and simple but addictive gameplay make this a series I constantly come back to (even today I have both Diablo and Diablo 2 installed on my PC). The way the characters interact with the world too by breaking open barrels and opening chests and sarcophagi made you feel like you could have an impact on the actual environment and made the huge AOE attacks all the more satisfying! Special mentions goes to the dark tone, the gore, the story and best of all: sounds design. Those town and cathedral tracks from Diablo or the haunting desert theme in Diablo 2 make me feel I’m right back there, seeing them for the first time not to mention the death sound effect when you kill goatmen is still one of the most visceral and satisfying sounds ever! 😀

Brad: What a great choice, selecting a collector’s edition with the previous 2 games included and giving you a massive amount of content!

2)  The Elder Scrolls V, Skyrim (Xbox 360)

I think the best quote to describe Skyrim is paraphrasing Douglas Adams: “Skyrim, is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to Skyrim”. The fact is though, that there’s just so much to do in it and that’s only with one playthrough. The main quest is suitably long and epic and feels like a real challenge, spanning not even a quarter of the map. You can play for 60-100 hours without even exploring all of the over world, let alone many of the dungeons, tombs, houses, coves, caves, shrines, underground cities etc. The combat is really satisfying rewarding skill and timing, the stealth is a tactical challenge and the magic makes you feel really powerful but is balanced by being tough to use against a variety of creatures (who, thankfully, don’t level up with you so you can be killed by a skeever). If nothing else, I’ll be playing this game for a long time, island or no island! Also Dragons.

Brad: Again, another great choice. I have probably spent about 100 hours in that world and that on just one playthrough so I’m sure you’ll be able to sink plenty of hours into this.

3)  Terraria (PC)

An Indie title to add variety, but not placed here without good reason! I got into Terraria fairly early on in its life (when it first arrived on Steam actually) and I loved its 8-bit style and huge depth. Like minecraft only much simpler, Terraria was like when you go exploring as a kid out into the unknown. Most of the time you’d come back with nothing but sometimes you’d stumble across a place you’d never been or a cool dell or something you’d walked past many times before but never noticed. That feeling of adventure and exploration and finding “new” places always excited me and Terraria feeds directly into those memories. Taming the land to my whim was another favourite pastime of mine (sadly only in-game!) and building towers and fortresses to strike out into the Corruption, Jungle or the Dungeon made me feel like i made real progress in a changing the environment, something you don’t often see in games. The amount of tweaks and updates the developers made after release added even more depth (sometimes literally!) to the experience and I still go back to old worlds and characters I’ve created just to “rediscover” what I built in other playthroughs, even months apart. Almost the definition of epic replayability.

4)  Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (PC)

 Yes I know, another Blizzard title, but this really is the game that made me fall in love with these guys in the first place. Epic storytelling and fantastic FMVs set the scene for an epic game where, even though you’re playing an RTS, you always feel like the story is centered around you, and the character you’re playing. The way the game shifts gear through the Orc, Human, Scourge and Night Elf storylines and gets you to experience their sides of the story as well as try out the unit combinations and racial quirks is almost flawlessly executed. The little in-game scenes between characters really give the title life and the gameplay balancing (which to Blizzards credit is STILL ongoing today) mean the game feels easy to pick-up and difficult to master, like all great games should! While I didn’t play online multiplayer as much as I could have done, LAN sessions with my friends at uni and hours playing against the computer opponents on the sprawling maps are still some of the best times I had with an RTS. Also, Arthas is awesome.

5) Starflight (Mega Drive) 

A quite obscure title to finish on perhaps and my only “retro” game on this list. There were many different games I could have picked for this last choice: JRPGs and fighting games, old RTSs and point-and-click adventures but Starflight was just a really cool experience and pipped many of them to the post. Not because it has amazing graphics or massive amounts of replay value but because it was a well-crafted, pulpy, sci-fi adventure and it managed to get SO much detail onto such a tiny console. After assembling your crew the universe was pretty much your oyster and you could fight or negotiate with aliens, explore new star systems and planets, and then send your rover to the surface to search ruins, capture animals, mine minerals- basically all the things Mass Effect did, but about 16 years earlier! There’s no character interaction or back stories for your crew but it was all about the universe out there; a macro rather than micro story. Sorely deserves a good remake!

Soundtrack – World of Warcraft (WoW)

Not only is it well-composed, superbly executed and has a wonderful variety of tracks, but it’ll always remind me of the great times I’ve had on that game, ever since I first started playing on the European Beta way back in 2004.

Well, there are my choices! I hope you enjoyed them and they made sense. Cheers!

Brad: Months later a helicopter comes in to rescue you, in typical Resident Evil style a mysterious figure in the distance shoots the chopper down with a rocket launcher. As the burning debris falls you are only able to grab one of them.

Which game did you save?

Christiaan: haha yeah, that is a good ending (curse you Tyrant/Mr. X!) Ooo you bastard; an even tougher call to make now though! I’m torn between Terraria and Diablo 3 but…

I think Diablo 3 has the edge! Oddly, it was the first one to jump into my mind when I read the rest were going to be destroyed. Thinking about it, it’s not only because it contains an art book and Diablo 1 and 2, but I think longevity and nostalgia-wise it’s just a much fonder experience to me than the others. Also the Tristram theme will soothe my soul on the loss of the other titles 😦

About the choices

Diablo 3 Collector’s Edition

Developer – Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher – Blizzard Entertainment
Platform – PC
Release – 15th May 2012

The Elder Scrolls V, Skyrim

Developer – Bethesda Game Studios
Publisher – Bethesda Softworks
Platform – Xbox 360
Release – 11th November 2011

Terraria

Developer – Re-Logic
Platform – PC (Steam)
Release – 16th May 2011

Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos

Developer – Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher – Blizzard Entertainment
Platform – PC
Release (EU) – 5th July 2002

Starflight

Developer – Binary Systems, Electronic Arts
Publisher – Electronic Arts
Platform – Genesis (Mega Drive)
Release – 15th May 1991

Multimodal Stimulation and Computer Games

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To create immersive computer games it is understandable that multimodal stimulation should play an important role in the development process. This isn’t to say developers will sit around having a meeting about how to address multimodal delivery in their latest game but it is something that teams are aware of whether they know it or not. For example, it is quite clear that if a river makes it into a game that it should have an associated sound, the flow of water, the splashes from fish and the croak of nearby frogs. This can also be enhanced with haptic feedback, such as entering the river and receiving force feedback via the control pad.

So let’s now take a look at the theory behind multimodal stimulation in order to understand its importance.

The Theory behind Multimodal Stimulation

Research into sensory stimulus is normally grouped into different schools such as auditory, visual or somatosensory.  However, as noted by King and Calvat [1] and Vroomen and de Gelder [2] real life consists of stimulus from more than one sensory input, which may influence each other.  Single sensory inputs are rarely used on their own to gather a complete set of information.  When walking through the countryside there is a distinct smell of fresh air, visual senses are stimulated by trees, the ground and mountains.  Auditory senses are triggered by the wind, singing birds and the flow of a river.  These sensory inputs combined together provide detailed information to the brain about the environment. Therefore when creating computer games it makes sense to consider how each element in a game can benefit from multimodal stimulation.

Although multisensory stimulus should be treated as a whole there is a key difference between audio and vision.  In vision, spatial location is an indispensable attribute but colour (frequency) is not, while frequency is an indispensable attribute of audio but spatial location is not [3].  This theory is depicted in the figures below.  The image on the left suggests that if two identical notes were played from one location a listener would only perceive one sound source, similarly, if there were two speakers in different locations both being fed with identical frequency content a listener would still perceive one sound.  The listener will only perceive two sound sources if the frequency content differs, thus differentiating between two separate auditory stimuli is dependent upon frequency not spatial location.  The image on the right shows the process for visual stimulus.  Two light sources will always be perceived as one in the example shown, unless they differ in spatial location.  Finally it is worth adding that with both vision and audition, time is an indispensable attribute.  Therefore two identical auditory events heard at different points in time are distinguishable, as are two identical visual events.

multimodal_01

Although a player can enjoy a game to a certain degree without the need for sound, there are several instances where sound complements the visuals or in some situations, is essential.  Examples of how auditory and visual elements work together and may actually change a player’s perception can be experienced with the motion-bounce illusion.  When first observing the illusion an observer is asked to watch the clip with no sound; the two blue balls appear to intersect each other’s path (See the left image).  When viewing the same clip a second time, an auditory “Blip” is heard at the point that the two balls collide, this time the balls appear to bounce off each other (See the image on the right). You can observe this for yourself here: www.michaelbach.de/ot/mot_bounce/index.html

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With the motion-bounce illusion, visuals can appear to change simply based on the presence of audio.  With the McGurk effect however, the inverse happens. The auditory stimulus appears to alter in the presence of visual content. Watch the video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G-lN8vWm3m0, interestingly the male appears to chant “Ba, ba, ba” or “Fa, fa, fa” depending on which visuals you are observing. The audio never changes but your brain interprets the audio in a different way because it is combining stimulus from visuals with the auditory information.  Another example of visual stimulus altering auditory feedback can easily be observed with the ventriloquist effect, something many of us have witnessed. “The ventriloquist talks without moving his lips and at the same time moves the dummy’s mouth. The illusion is compelling: it sounds like the dummy is actually talking. That is, you mislocalize the sound of the voice as coming from the dummy rather than real speaker.” [4] The ventriloquism effect, therefore, is an illusion where visuals dominate over auditory stimuli, resulting in the subject perceiving the auditory event from the same location as the visual stimulus.  Bertelson and Aschersleben conducted an experiment in relation to this effect and obtained favourable results which Kubovy and Valkenburg summarised thusly: “When they presented the sound synchronously with an off-centre flash, the sound appeared to be shifted in the direction of the light flash.”[5]

So how does this relate to computer games? Mislocalization can be a useful aid within sound design, as creating speech to pair with a character is only possible if a player believes the sound that they are hearing is coming from the array of pixels on screen.  The character is not a real person, nor are the vocals really coming from the array of pixels; they are coming from speakers generally to the left and right of the screen. [6] With correct use of spatialisation the audio is perceived as if it is coming from the characters mouth, the vehicles engine, the flowing river in the centre of the screen etc…

In context to auditory stimulus presented with visuals Rumsey and McCormick state that auditory spatial cues are “strongly influenced” by information from other sensory stimuli, “particularly vision”. [7] Alais and Burr [8] conducted research and experimentation into the ventriloquism effect with similar results to Bertelson and Aschersleben, the results [8,9] of which presented not only the ventriloquism effect but also an inverse ventriloquism effect.  This experiment was conducted with different sized low contrast blobs, which were then projected onto a screen while “click” sounds provided auditory stimulus.  Results indicated that small blobs led to the ventriloquism effect while larger blobs resulted in an inverse effect, causing audition to dominate.

All of these findings reinforce the logic that audio and visuals go hand-in-hand when developing a game. Audio and visuals can even be perceived differently based on the impact of the other element. This now naturally brings us on to the question of quality. If visuals can affect audio and vice-verse, can the quality of one degrade or improve the perceptual quality of the other?

A Case for Better Quality Audio

Research has been conducted into how much a user will notice the degradation of sound quality while presented with visuals and secondly if audio quality can affect visual quality or vice-versa.  Due to the nature of multimodal stimulation or indeed a game, there are several elements that a user must concentrate on; therefore, it is only natural that attention becomes divided.  Experimental results obtained [10] suggest that a player is less likely to notice a lag between visual and auditory stimulus when immersed in a game, as opposed to simply watching a game.  These results would suggest that high quality visuals are the most important aspect regarding audio-visual systems and that poor, or indeed out of time audio, is acceptable.  However, research and experimentation has been conducted in order to realise the importance of the relationship between audio and visual stimuli.

Storms conducted a series of experiments motivated in part by Brenda Laurel’s research.  In particular Storms focused on the statement: “…in the game business we discovered that really high-quality audio will actually make people tell you that the games have better pictures, but really good pictures will not make audio sound better”. [11]

In the first of Storms’ experiments, his findings confirm the research of Laurel.  Storms noted that when test subjects were asked to measure visual quality only, that “quality perception of a high-quality visual display is increased when coupled with a high-quality auditory display.”[12] Simply put, high-quality visuals are perceived as being higher quality than they actually are when presented with high quality auditory stimulus.  This perception of heightened quality does not apply in reverse. If high-quality visual displays are used with low quality audio and test subjects are asked to measure audio quality only, there will not be a perceived increase in audio quality.  In fact the opposite can apply, making the audio seem further decreased than it actually is.  Finally when test subjects were asked to measure the quality of both audio and visual stimulus, even when visuals were poor, high quality audio perception was increased.

High-quality visual and auditory stimulus has been shown to improve the perceived quality of visuals.  In part this may be due to mechanisms within the superior colliculus, as using both auditory and visual content will stimulate neurons within the midbrain, hence audition and visuals appear to create an output that is “greater than the sum of its parts”.  However, as observed in Storms’ results this doesn’t allow low-quality audio to be perceived as higher quality if high-quality visuals are present.  Storms noted that this could be due to games starting out with only visuals while sounds are added later.  Hence sounds add to the overall experience making visuals appear enhanced.

Attempts to investigate audio degradation with relation to visual stimuli by using visuals as a distracter from the audio quality have also been conducted. [13] Their findings suggested that limiting the high and low frequency content over a 5.1 system resulted in a degradation of overall audio quality.  The results also showed that the deterioration is mainly due to the front left and front right channels being limited, while (understandably) the centre and rear channel degradations are less noticeable.

With a specific emphasis on audio quality in relation to computer games, a further two papers attempted to test how much a user will notice degradation when presented with not only visual stimulus (the graphics) but also having to concentrate on a computer game and complete certain tasks within the game.  An experiment was conducted in which test subjects were to play a computer game while evaluating the audio quality.  Unfortunately this paper concluded that more research was needed [14] but a second paper based on this research showed a “significant but very small overall effect”. The paper noted that a “visual task decreased the consistency of audio quality grading”. [15] Interestingly it would appear that when a player is absorbed in a task, puzzle or particularly tricky part of the game they may not notice a degradation of audio quality. However, this would also suggest that less taxing areas of a game (for example empty corridors in Dead Space) will perhaps allow the player to concentrate more on audible feedback. In these areas a player is generally put on edge and audible feedback often includes eerie sounds, scrapes or the classic, a baby cry.

Audio as a Primary Stimulus

Audio is not simply an auxiliary feature of television, a film or a computer game.  Hendrix believes that auditory stimuli cannot only be used as a primary source of information but also as an alternative or complimentary stimuli to “improve human performance”. [16] Storms states that “during signal detection the auditory channel proves dominant over the visual channel”[17] while Hendrix goes on to explain that auditory displays are used as warning signals due to a shorter response time than visual stimulus.  This instance of auditory stimulus dominating over visual stimulus eliminates blind spots, for example: “…you can’t see around walls, but you can hear around them.  And if you can hear the virtual door open behind you then you can turn around.  Your ears steer your eyes.”[18]

Audio can be used as complimentary stimuli when visuals are used in very bright or very dark areas (a satellite navigation system for example) or when visuals have already been saturated.  Auditory and visual stimuli should be used collectively to create a multimodal model which enhances a computer game or rather, brings it closer to reality, as multimodal stimulation is all around us in the real world.  The final diagram compares several variations of auditory and visual stimuli working together to enhance the player’s experience:

multimodal_03

[1] King, A., Calvert, G., (2001) Multisensory Integration: Perceptual Grouping by Eye and Ear, Current Biology, Elsiver 2001

[2] http://www.beatricedegelder.com/documents/Vroomen2004Perceptualeffects.pdf

[3] Kubovy, M., Valkenburg, V., (2001) Auditory and Visual Objects, Elsevier 2001, p.109

[4] Bedford, F., (2001) Towards a General Law of Numerical/Object Identity, University of Arizona, Tucson, USA, p.8

[5] Kubovy, M., Valkenburg, V., (2001) Auditory and Visual Objects, Elsevier 2001, p. 100

[6] Alais, D., Burr, D., (2003) The Ventriloquist Effect Results From Near Optimal Crossmodal Intergration, Neuron 2003, p.2

[7] Rumsey, F., McCormick, T., (2006) Sound and Recording: an Introduction, 5th ed, Oxford, Focal press, p. 38

[8] Alais, D., Burr, D., (2003) The Ventriloquist Effect Results From Near Optimal Crossmodal Intergration, Neuron 2003

[9] Alais, D., Burr, D., (2004) The Ventriloquist Effect Results From Near Optimal Bimodal Intergration, Current Biology, Vol. 14, 2004

[10] Ward, P., et al (2004) Can Playing a Computer Game Affect Perception of Audio-Visual Synchrony? Journal of Audio Engineers Society, 117th Convention, October 2004

[11] Storms, R., (1998) Auditory-Visual Cross-Modal Perception Phenomena, Doctoral Dissertation, Monterey, Naval Postgraduate School, p.62

[12] Storms, R., (1998) Auditory-Visual Cross-Modal Perception Phenomena, Doctoral Dissertation, Monterey, Naval Postgraduate School, p.126

[13] Zieliński, S., et al (2003) Effects of Bandwidth Limitation on Audio Quality in Consumer Multichannel Audiovisual Delivery Systems, Journal of Audio Engineers Society, Vol. 51, No 6, June 2003

[14] Kassier, R., et al (2003) Computer Games and Multichannel Audio Quality Part 2 – Evaluation of Time-Variant Audio Degradations Under Divided and Undivided Attention, Journal of Audio Engineers Society, 15th Convention, October 2003

[15] Zieliński, S., et al (2003) Computer Games and Multichannel Audio Quality – The Effect of Division of Attention Between Auditory and Visual Modalities, Journal of Audio Engineers Society, 24th International Conference, May 2003

[16] Hendrix, C., (1994) Exploratory Studies on the Sense of Presence in Virtual Environments as a Function of Visual and Auditory Display Parameters, MSc Engineering Thesis, University of Washington, p.19

[17] Storms, R., (1998) Auditory-Visual Cross-Modal Perception Phenomena, Doctoral Dissertation, Monterey, Naval Postgraduate School, p.56

[18] Travis, C., (1996) Virtual Reality Perspective on Headphone Audio, Journal of Audio Engineers Society, 11th Conference: Audio for New Media, March 1996, p.2