Audio : The Forgotten Component of Gaming
When people think about computer gaming they tend to think about the graphics and image quality. Its’ hard to blame them as the technology has advanced so far over the last 40 or so years. We have gone from simple 2D images to 3D images that rival real world video.
However, audio has seen some solid advances over the years. Until the early later 80s/early 90s audio for PC Gaming was handled almost entirely by a little speaker inside the computer case. The audio was simplistic at best and really had no redeeming sound qualities. That all changed when a company called Creative Technologies, introduced a product call Sound Blaster.
Okay that is not completely accurate, before the Sound Blaster Creative had the Creative Music System which allowed for much better sound options. A year later they introduced the Game Blaster which made it easy for music to be added to games. Specifically, the games produced by Sierra Online. About a year later was when we first saw Sound Blaster.
This card created a whole subset of hardware and changed the way we got audio in our games. While I had used the original Sound Blaster for a bit to get better music and midi functionality, the “moment” for me was with a game called Dune 2. In Dune 2 you actual had the game seem to interact with you, using real human voices. This may not sound like much today but back then it was AMAZING and changed how we looked at sound in gaming.
Creative did not rest however and the Sound Blaster continued to evolve and grow. We saw the creation of actual sound accelerators that allowed for better performance in gaming and better sound. We saw positional audio grow and become mainstream.
Possibly the game that most showed the potential for sound was Thief: The Dark Project. If you never played the original, you have no idea what you missed. The game made incredible use of sound and allowed for a stealthy based game where what you saw was not always as important as what you heard. The game showed, in full effect how incredibly useful sound could be on expanding the gaming experience.
Then something happened, I am not sure if the tech had reached its limits or some other factor was at play, but development of sound technology for gaming seemed to slow and then even halt. Compared to the early days of gaming sound was massively better in all games. However, the promise that we had seen in Thief: The Dark Project never seemed to progress further.
Over time, the tech moved from full add-on cards to simple chips that could be built onto your motherboard. There were advantages to using the add-on card still, but those advantages began to slowly erode. We saw a movement to external sound solutions which brought new advantages, but the change was in sound quality, truly innovative or revolutionary changes were not forthcoming.
Today we are at basically the same point in sound tech that we were over a decade ago. Onboard sound has reached the point on good gaming motherboards, that there is no need to look for other solutions. If you’re an audiophile that demands the best in all audio aspects, external sound devices are now common and easy to find. The traditional sound card has all but vanished from the world of PC Gaming.
So too has the effort being put into great sound. The best example of this was seen in 2014. Eidos had decided we needed a new version of Thief. We all boarded the hype train for what was supposed to be an amazing sound experience, better than the original we were told.
If you played the original and also bought this game; well you know what is coming next. The disappointment we felt was palatable. The game has good sound, when compared to other modern games. However, it was actually worse than the original in how the sound gave clues to what was going on around you.
In new releases today the trend seems to hold. We have good sound in games, there is no doubt. However; the innovation and amazing experience we had in the early days are all gone. Sound and the development of the technology seems to have stagnated. We used to wait on pins and needles for the next sound card release, see what new tech and sound quality we would have in the next product.
Today’s sound and its hardware is almost an after thought and that is sad. Great graphics can go a long way to create an immersive experience, there is no doubt of that. But, truly amazing sound, in conjunction with great graphics takes the gaming experience to a whole other level.
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