Vladimir Gerasimov
on the path to sound design, Playrix and sound prices
In the gaming industry for 10 years. For the last 5 years he has been engaged in sound design and production of sounds and music in games. He took part in the voice acting of more than 20 mobile game projects, including Fishdom, Homescapes, Wildscapes, Township. He teaches Fmod and adaptive sound at the Sound Design Institute.
— You said that for a long time you sent your portfolio to customers, developed at the Institute of Sound Design. Is this still happening now?

— Yes, you are correct, and, moreover, I have never changed it since the end of the course. It is now exactly the same as I showed it at graduation. Didn't even add any new work there. And so far, the result is 100%. Those customers to whom I threw the portfolio said: “Wow, cool, awesome! Let's keep working." There has never been a single “dump”, despite the fact that in some places there are rather damp works. Works that I already understand that I would redo, complete, update. However, it turns out that this level is more than sufficient, at least to continue the dialogue.

Vladimir Gerasimov
Producer, sound designer
I decided to take a face-to-face course in order to close all the gaps in dramaturgy, sound design, plugins, everything in general: in technology, software — to the maximum, take it and pump it over
— How did you end up in Playrix?

— Here is the story itself. I realised pretty late what I really wanted to do in life, somewhere, probably, around the age of 22. I realised that I want to make games or even be somewhere nearby where games are made. Due to the fact that no one taught this, there were no institutes, there were no courses, no one talked about it - it was more like a “Wishlist”, a hobby, something impossible. I just thought that, well, there are games, someone makes them, but it’s impossible for me to get there. Then I gradually realised that this is exactly what I want to do, and began to move in this direction.

The dream, of course, was to combine the love of sound and the love of games into one thing. And while I was working in board games, in mobile games, social games, I understood that there are some highly specialised and single positions in the market, where it is, in principle, impossible to get into. Somehow I left this idea for myself and began to pump further in game design. Then I became a lead game designer, became a PM (project manager - ed. note ), a project producer, but somewhere in the subconscious held a thought that it would be cool to work with games. I graduated from a music school, a couple of courses in sound engineering - purely for myself.
And at some point, one guy with whom we worked together at Game Garden, left for Playrix and, being already at Playrix, wrote to me. He knew that I was living in sound engineering, in music, and he said: “Listen, man, can you find a person for me - we are opening the position of a sound producer here at Playrix - I need a person who is also cool in games, and knows something about sound”.

The dream, of course, was to combine the love of sound and the love of games into something
— And you found the person.

— I'm like: "I know such a person". I decided to try it myself, I did a test task, it was very quickly feedbacked, it was cool, and literally in five or six days they offered me a place. And so it happened. A pure accident, but at the same time, I initially had the intention to get into the game audio.

— How does Playrix feel about the sound of the game? What is their approach? What is done as in the manual, and what needs special keys?

— First of all, all things that relate to the product should be focused on a certain gaming experience. We know that we have games for a certain audience, most of them are people over the age of 25, not teenagers, not children. With us, people play in order to relax, in some places to get a little out of the harsh reality, to give themselves time for a break. I mean, this is such a game as refreshment, a game like leisure time. It's not to cheer up or fight another player, so all things - game mechanics, visuals, and sound - they all need to work for a calming game experience. We try to make the most comfortable and pleasant environment for our players.

We would rather try to make it simpler but more enjoyable for the player than try to do something innovative in order to surprise everyone. My only point is that we treat our players very carefully

— What does this mean for sound?

— This means that the music must be of a certain dynamic, not higher than a certain tempo. It should match the rhythm of the gameplay itself. Don't be too fast, don't push the player, don't make him nervous. It is important to understand that there are sounds that are needed in order to simply emphasise what is happening in the game. If the hammer hits the boards, then the player should hear the appropriate sound. Therefore, I can call such things streaming: they are generally made according to certain patterns - technical, stylistic. And if we are talking about unique things: about jingles, about music, about audio systems, what happens at the level of large events in the garden atmosphere of the same Gardenscapes, or what happens in events - there is already room for creativity here.

Gardenscapes is a free-to-play mobile game. Released in 2016. The game is available on many platforms, including iOS, Android, Amazon App Store and Facebook. Gardenscapes are Match-3 mechanics combined with a storyline.

I really like the zoo system that we have built in Wildscapes. There, for example, there is one big complex event that is responsible for the atmosphere of the zoo. And our zoo is divided into several areas: there are snow areas, desert ones, there are different forests. When the player looks at a certain area, the sound reacts accordingly. If he looks at a snowy area, the air becomes colder, howling, with some snow elements, the sounds of the characters' walks change because the surface they walk on changes. These are the things.

Plus I really like how we made music in Wildscapes. Our music reacts to what happens at match-3 levels. As the player progresses through the level, the music becomes more complex, adding a crescendo that emphasises that the player is reaching the goal. Generally speaking, the music is divided into some parts: 0% progress, 30% progress, 50%, 70% and 100%. And as the player progresses, more layers are added to the music, it becomes a little faster, drum parts are added. Plus, every time the music is reassembled in a new way, because there are several instruments in each musical layer, each instrument has several parts. For the player, it seems like a slightly different track sounds every time, but in fact it is a large audio system that works in the gameplay. And I'm very happy that I was able to work on it. For me, this is a bliss.

Gardenscapes is a free-to-play mobile game. Released in 2016. The game is available on many platforms, including iOS, Android, Amazon App Store and Facebook. Gardenscapes are Match-3 mechanics combined with a storyline.

— How much should sound cost for a mobile game?

— A good question, because I don’t work directly with money, and here, of course, everything depends on how big the product is, how big the team is. So, honestly, it's hard for me to say. Let's try to outline some games and try to calculate how much the sound will cost in it. For example, let's take Hearthstone (Blizzard's card game - ed.) and imagine that we are preparing the game for a soft launch. We have music in the meta game - everything that happens in the meta; this is the menu, everything that happens to you with a set of cards; choice of modes and direct gameplay. In general, we have two audio systems. I would do this - one audio system is responsible for the music in the menu, the second - the gameplay. In total, I would have already laid a thousand and a half dollars for music. It would be a complete audio system, where the music would be randomised so that it would be enough for long gaming sessions, so that it would not get bored and at the same time respond responsively to what is happening in the game.

— And how long should this be done?

— I think that one and a half to two months for such a system would be enough. Considering all iterations, considering testing, tuning in the engine. I would bet like this. I don't like to rush into music. Music is super important and it takes a very long time to work: it’s better to work here, it seems to me, more slowly and do a lot of work at the pre-production stage, prepare a large complete TOR (terms of reference - ed. note ), prepare a bunch of references, convey to the composer what you want, and move in small steps, than to redo it later.

— What about sound design?

- Hearthstone has about 10 - 20 basic interface sounds - all kinds of buttons, sliders, dragging cards, plus probably a bunch of voice overs - what happens in the game, because there are a lot of characters, a lot of voice acting. This is probably the most difficult thing in sound production.
Imagine that we are preparing a game for a soft launch. There will be, for example, 200 lines of text - this is the base pack. And gameplay sounds - 300. Total 500 - 550 sounds, 200 of them need to be translated into other languages.
It's a big price tag, really. For example, if we are talking about 550 sounds, and each will cost $15 - $20 - it comes out to about $10,000 dollars. Kinda expensive.
And, of course, it's big. Mostly with voice actors, because castings would have to be booked. It would be necessary to carefully work with the supervisor-voice director. These are the things. The total is around $12,000. An impressive budget. But this is also Hearthstone.

— Something tells me that they spent a lot more money.

— Absolutely. Because there is a state - be healthy. It seems to me that there is only an internal staff of 8-10 people.
— And it also depends, probably, on where the sound designer will be located, what level he has, what experience.
— Yes it is. I've only recently discovered for myself the entry into the market of performers outside the CIS. I'm just starting to work in Playrix with some foreign studios: American and European. And they have a much higher price tag. In many respects, of course, because of taxes, because they pay taxes completely different from those paid by a conditional executor from the CIS. But the total price tag becomes much higher in comparison with exactly the same task given, for example, to CIS studios.

— By the way, why do Playrix prefer to work with western sound contractors?

— It’s not quite true. For me personally, this is a first experience. We mainly work with guys from the CIS. This is an unannounced project. We just started working with this studio, and in fact this is the first case of this kind in 5 years, and before that, all our work on sound design was done by guys from the former CIS.

I want to make an audio game where the gameplay will be entirely based on sounds
— Tell us about your solo projects. Are you doing something on your own?

— Well, sometimes in my free time I help guys from different friendly studios - just to do something on the weekends, they sometimes turn for vision or for sound design tasks - I am currently working on my own game. I want to make an audio game where the gameplay will be completely based on sounds. This game will be for voice assistants.
So far, it is still in deep pre-production, but there is a cool idea. I am now looking for a smart screenwriter so they can write me the coolest dialogues.

— So, will the voice be the “controller” of the game?

— Yes, it will be a human voice, and on the other end there will be some kind of bot or not quite a bot that will process these commands. In fact, it will be such a Tarantino thing, an exclusively dialogue game, narrative entirely. It will be very short, but very concentrated. I want it to be about a very understandable gaming experience, about the feeling - you know, when you are chatting with a person and at some point you understand: it's like a fellow traveller's syndrome, when you tell a stranger things that are very close to you. I want to make sure the game is about that.

— Audio novel. Looks like a new genre.

— Well, if we are talking about interactive things, then I have not seen this yet. And if it’s about linear ones, then, for example, Apple recently made its multi-episode audio series, I don’t remember what it’s called (we are talking about the series “Calls” - ed. note). There, the main idea is that you listen to other people's telephone conversations, this is the whole experience. You are not watching some events that are happening on the screen, but you are listening, and the voice tells you the whole story. In general, I like the fact that a new method of communicating with information, with the media, and such a common method, has just become — sound.

— Wwise or fmod?

— Both!

— And if you make a choice? Here's the task of the general producer of the game.

— I'll see what the game is. If this is some kind of fierce AAA with a lot of assets, highly loaded, I will definitely choose Wwise. If it's indie or something simpler, or a mobile game, not Genshin Impact, then I will choose fmod. And he's more familiar to me. It all depends on the toolkit very much. It's a tool, either of them.
For me, fmod is much simpler and clearer, plus I’m more experienced on fmod, simply because more projects are done on fmod. Therefore, it is much easier for me to implement some of my Wishlist in a small game in fmod. But if we are talking about Wwise, its filling is more powerful, better and the engine is more flexible. Obviously, if your project is complicated, you will have a lot of problems with the implementation of ideas in fmod. And in Wwise there will be no such problems. I can always get under the hood of containers, parameters, and reconfigure everything the way I need. These features will not be available in fmod. Plus, I really like how Wwise works with sources. Much steeper presses the source. fmod is worse, but on a small number of assets it is not so critical. Therefore, in fact, we do not use Wwise.
I have a greater difficulty in that the team is distributed and it is constantly growing, and it is very difficult to train every new person Wwise.

— Is it more difficult to learn than fmod?

— Yes. For me personally, Wwise was much more difficult. I made some kind of internal fmod course for “young fighters” in Playrix, and in general, in 4-5 hours of just watching videos with parallel work in the engine in fmod, a person can definitely complete some basic tasks. It does not experience difficulties and so far the conversion in students is 100%. It definitely works. In Wwise, this would be much more difficult. It would be more difficult to explain to a new person how to work in Wwise, how not to get lost, how to do some typical tasks quickly and painlessly. Entering fmod is much easier.

Interviewed by Alexander Milovanov