Bungie's Marty O'Donnell Doesn't Like You Messing With His Knobs


In a huge and ongoing multi-part interview on Aussie blogger Ben Abraham's Super Legacy Reading Club, Bungie's Marty O'Donnell has been giving some fascinating insights into the art of audio design. "What I didn't like was people, especially game players, have gotten into a habit that they should have control over all these things and basically I'm saying, you know what, no - you shouldn't," says O'Donnell, when asked why players can't tweak Halo's audio mix.

Here's some more on the same topic, taken from the fourth part of the interview series:

Ben: I also read in an interview with you, that you deliberately decided not to let the player fiddle with the volume of the music and the mix. I thought that was a really interesting choice.

Marty: That goes all the way back to Halo 1, you're right. B: And I didn't even know as well, I'd never gone to look for it until I had started my analysis for it, and tried to turn it up so I could hear it over the noise of a tank. Is that choice related to you want to have that composer control?

M: *laughs* Probably, I think my genetic makeup is 'I'm a composer' but I like technology, I love games and I play games and I help design games, but... yeah, my DNA is as a composer and composers are primarily control guys. Even more than that is that I want people to have a really great experience. It's as though I was a chef and, look, I'm making a really great meal and if the first thing somebody does when I serve them is they pour ketchup all over it or salt all over it, I'm like 'wait a minute! You're not tasting what I prepared. Now, if someone tastes it and goes 'wow this tastes like crap, I need ketchup' then fine. What I didn't like was people, especially game players, have gotten into a habit that they should have control over all these things and basically I'm saying, you know what, no - you shouldn't. What you should do is, play my game and if you hate it you should return it. *laughs* You should stop playing it. But I don't want you to return it because you poured ketchup on it right away.

"If the very first thing people do, and which I've seen people do, is they change the mix before they even play through the game... my suggestion was, hey I have no problem giving people control over the entire mix of the game, that's fine, I want to give you control of the entire mix of the game, however I'd like you to earn that right *laughs* and I would like the technology to be... play the game my way once, and then you unlock the mixing console and now you can go back and play the game again... but at least I know at least one time you heard it and experienced it the way I like it... I'm not even saying it's the right way, I'm just saying this is what my vision was. So, what I don't want-- people go 'hey you know I had a really crappy audio experience' and then I say 'really?' And they go 'Yeah, well of course I turned the sound effects all the way up and I couldn't hear the music'. It's sorta like, well that's not the experience I gave you so...

You know what, he makes a very good point.



    Sorry guy, the first thing I generally do is turn OFF the music completely. If I dont have control over this then I will often simply not play the game.

    He comes across as a bit of a dick in my eyes.

    It's like, sure, you are the composer, and if you want the soundtrack at a certain level compared to the sound effects, that's your decision to make. But he makes it out like this is *his* game, like the audio's the only important part of the game experience or something. Don't get me wrong, the soundtrack is fantastic, but the way he words things, he comes across like a total asshole.

    More to the point, someone would have to have severe problems if they decided to change the audio levels themselves, then complain about the audio experience they had because of the changes *they made*. The entire point of having an audio mix is so that you can change the levels to your pleasing--for instance, I like to have a fairly loud soundtrack compared to the audio effects--but if I finished the game like that and thought "Wow, I really hated the audio in this game... the levels were just ridiculous", I'd have to be extremely stupid.

    Anyway, that's my rant for the day.

    I can see his point, if the level of control afforded to the average user has the potential to negatively impact the game if used improperly then fair enough.

    But if the game can't stand on it's own merits no amount of dramatic music or impressive sound effects can save it.

    In just 3 Oz responses there are 3 different opinions on the ideal level for the music - andy turns it off, James turns it up and my personal preference is to leave the music on but drop it down to about 1/2 the level of the speech and effects.

    It's not 1 size fits all, and we wouldn't want it to be.

    For me, it completely depends on the game in question.

    For something like a serious racer (Grid, Gran Turismo, ect) I like to race with music down and engine noise up. For a less serious racer (Need For Speed, Juiced, ect), the music goes all the way up. 'Extreme' sports games (Amped, Tony Hawk, ect) get the music up. So on and so forth.

    And then there are some games where I prefer however it was originally mixed. Halo is one of those games. I find that the sound effects, voice, ambient and soundtrack are all mixed rather well. I completely approve of Marty and what he's saying. While a lot of people can (and do) bag Halo out for just being a mindless FPS, there is a lot of subtlety to the story that is presented, and the audio plays a fairly large part in that. So well done to Marty for sticking to guns and making people play the game it was intended to be played.

    Definately depends on the game. If the designers have put the effort in and crafted some good music (halo, ace combat, jimmy Z and the battle for Pete's ridge, etc.) then ill often turn it up for maximum theatrical impact.

    Was playing Lord o' the rings conquest demo as the Good team on Minas Tirith and the main theme kicked in as my team made a come back. it was fantastic.

    The whole time I was reading this I kept thinking about Roland Barthes and the notion of the death of the author. But hey, the guy has a point; it's his game and he can do whatever he wants with it.

    I couldn't help but think of the people who claimed BioShock's combat sucked because all they did was hit every enemy with the wrench.

    Heh, Trace has an interesting observation about Barthes. Go structuralism!

    But honestly, as a music enthusiast, I really do respect O'Donnell's rather forceful opinion. I honestly can't imagine playing a game such as Oblivion or Fallout 3 without the music. It really makes the moment - the ambience.

    I'd rather play a game as the developers intended it to be played. If you can imagine, watching a film without the music (still with dialogue) is rather horrendous. Music is really able to conjure emotions inside the audience, and without it as it was initially composed and/or designed, the game loses its integrity.

    If the audio composers had put in the time and effort to make sure that there was an equal balance of audio within the game. There would be no need for the player to adjust the levels of the music to the dialog. i have played many games where i have had to turn down the music because i could not hear the dialog. when i played the halo's the last thing on my mind was the need to adjust any of the volume control.

    Actually I said I turn the music off, but thats not always true. Shooters, yes - but there are occasionaly games where the music doesnt annoy me. Burnout Paradise and GTA games ae good examples.

    But I want the choice.

    Timesplitters music ftw

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