Video game sound is stuck in 2002

A few years ago, when the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were released, the big target for games was a resolution of 1080p at 60 frames per second. With the upcoming release of PlayStation 4 Pro and the future release of Xbox Scorpio that target is moving to native 4K resolution. In fact, since the release of the original Xbox, nearly all of the technical improvements have been to the visual side of things. As an audiophile who spent more on the amplifier in my AV setup than on my TV (and this is long before you add speakers, etc.), this saddens me.

Sound is such an important aspect of immersion for me. Visuals are important as they can make you see new worlds. But sound can make you feel these new worlds. Visuals are about your eyes, but you don’t just hear sound, you feel it. At the end of the day, sound is the vibration of air, but those vibrations aren’t just felt by your ears, they’re felt by your whole body. Next time you’re at a club, or a gig, or even just when you turn your hifi up, notice how you can feel the bass and the sound.

Ever since the PlayStation 2, Nintendo Gamecube, and original Xbox we have had 5.1 sound. This means that you have one subwoofer (bass speaker) and 5 normal speakers (centre, front left, front right, rear left, rear right). The PlayStation 3, 4, and Xbox One support 7.1 but you will be hard pushed to find more than a handful of games that use it. The main reason for adding 7.1 sound to consoles is for movies. It’s a shame that games aren’t really using it, as the difference in immersion is significant.

A typical 7.1 speaker configuration

A typical 7.1 speaker configuration

Microsoft has recently announced that it will be adding Dolby Atmos support to the Xbox One. This latest innovation from the industry leading team at Dolby takes immersion to a whole other level. Where 5.1 and 7.1 place a sound on a two-dimensional plane, Dolby Atmos can place a sound in a three-dimensional space. It is effectively a 7.1.4 setup where it has a standard 7.1 speaker configuration (same as 5. 1 but with surround/middle, left and right) but with an additional 4 speakers in the ceiling pointed down. Once again this is being added for the playback of Blu-rays that support this encode, not really for use in gaming. It’s not that Microsoft won’t allow developers to use Dolby Atmos, but that developers choose not to use it.

PC gaming has supported Dolby Atmos for a while but there are still only a few games that use it. However, I dare you to play Overwatch or Star Wars Battlefront on a Dolby Atmos system enabled PC and not be amazed by how good it sounds. Laser blasts and spaceship sounds don’t just move around the room, they flow through the space you are in. PC gaming isn’t really the natural home of surround sound though. As much as I applaud anyone who has it for their PC rig, the usual place to have a top notch audio system is either in your home cinema or, more likely, in your living room with your big screen TV.

Speaker configuration for Dolby Atmos (7.1.4)

Speaker configuration for Dolby Atmos (7.1.4)

Console gaming deserves amazing sound as much as PC gaming does. It can’t be a hardware issue as it’s not the console that decodes the sound into a surround mix, but the amplifier that you connect it to. It can’t be a media storage issue as we are nowhere near to filling a triple (75GB) or quad (100GB) layer Blu-ray disk, and even if we were it could be added through a downloadable update. This can only lead to a conscious decision by developers to not use it. I’ll admit, there is a greater cost to mixing your sound-field into a Dolby Atmos mix rather than a 5.1 mix, but it really isn’t that significant an increase. What’s more, the increase in cost to develop a 7.1 mix rather than a 5.1 mix is negligible, yet we don’t see many games with even that option.

With Sony and Microsoft in a a resolution battle, the number of on-screen pixels in games is at the forefront of most gamers’ minds. The hardware required to game at native 4K, and even full 1080p at 60fps, isn’t cheap. But this isn’t the case with an improvement to sound, as we already have the hardware in our consoles to do it. The requirement for a Dolby Atmos, or even a 7.1, soundmix is an amplifier or set of headphones that is able to output it. As developers push for more and more immersive worlds in their games, I really hope that they will take the sound in their games more seriously. We’re starting to see more big name composers scoring AAA games, as well as having large orchestras playing the music. Why go through all this effort and then put it in a soundmix that isn’t the best it can be?

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