Here, he shares his insights into what it took to create the sound for critically-acclaimed Total War: Warhammer II's epic fantasy realm, where magic and medieval elements mesh with murderous monsters:
Written by Jennifer Walden
Creative Assembly has been releasing games since the ’90s but they really hit their stride with their Total War franchise, starting with Shogun: Total War in 2000. The historic-themed, turn-based strategy games allows PC gamers to build empires and battle other nations in a quest for dominance. But what sets Total War apart from similar strategy games is the ability to control, regroup, and easily maneuver large faction of troops in real-time. It’s a battle experience like no other.
In 2016, Creative Assembly explored a new direction with the Total War franchise. Instead of being set in a historical era, their Total War: Warhammer game is set in the fantasy universe of Games Workshops’s Warhammer. And now there’s Total War: Warhammer II, which is available for the Microsoft Windows platform. This sequel offers new races and places, and new campaigns. Audio director/lead composer Richard Beddow shares insight into what it took to create the sound for this epic fantasy realm, where magic and medieval elements mesh with monsters (including tricked-out dinosaurs!).
Hi Richard, can you please introduce yourself and the sound team on Total War: Warhammer II ?
Richard Beddow (RB): Hello! My name is Richard Beddow. I am the audio director and lead composer on the Total War series, which includes Warhammer II.
Our core in-house audio team consisted of the following:
• Sound/audio designers: Peter Tolnay, Jon Newman, Tom McCaren, David Osternacher, Jack Melham, Valentin Goellner, and Graham Schroeter.
• Dialogue engineers: Rosalie Wilson, Naomi Jenkin, Nick Gratwick and William Tidman.
• Audio programmers: Andrew Smith and Jon Raftery
• Audio QA: Jonathan Diamond, Sam Hart, David Hawkes, and James Shacklock
Warhammer II is the sequel to the award-winning Total War: Warhammer. Sound-wise, what can fans of that game look forward to in this game?
RB: As Warhammer II is the second part of a trilogy, you’ll find things that feel both familiar and new at the same time. Conceptually, sound-wise, we’re still working in the same pseudo-medieval fantasy universe, but here we have four all-new races, and new schools of magic and monsters — for which we had to create a vast array of new sound effects, music, and dialogue stylings to help bring these to life.
Part of the beauty of working on a game series like Total War is that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel (unless we want to) with each new release. As such, ideas and concepts that we explored in the original Total War: Warhammer has been further expanded on to enrich the experience, such as further refinements in our adaptive mixing process, which helps to keep the mix dynamic, exciting and as clean as possible through the clever use of how our audio engine is configured and our own control logic. We’ve further expanded the interactive music system to incorporate dynamic transitions on the campaign map area of the game, in addition to adding ‘threat’ states to this. These allow a more responsive and immersive experience.
The Total War franchise has been around since 2000. How has it grown from a sound standpoint? What are some technological advances that have had the most impact in regards to sound and what you are able to do with sound?
RB: With each new release, we learn from our process and results. We look back and question what things worked well and what things we could improve — whether it be in quality, production speed or cost. It is the focus on these things that have, over the years, led us to refine the sound and approach that we have in our current generations of TW products.
In three words I could probably describe the journey as having improved the fidelity, depth, and realism of the soundscape in the game.
In three words I could probably describe the journey as having improved the fidelity, depth, and realism of the soundscape in the game. We did this largely by investing in our asset production, by moving the infrastructure from one of folks wearing multiple hats to having discrete responsibilities, by hiring the best specialists we could find in those disciplines whether they be in-house, contract staff or partner companies and by continued technological improvements.
Want to hear what the game sounds like? Experience the first 19 minutes of the game here
The most significant improvements have been the result of many factors: larger team size and specialism, the introduction of large-scale ensemble and specialist soloist live music recordings, a focus on custom sound effects recording, setting up a dedicated audio QA department (that’s focused on audio as an extension of our team) with rigorous and detailed test plans to ensure audio functionality and playback is as intended, recording all dialogue production in-house with dedicated specialists, the introduction of dynamic adaptive music systems with Total War: Attila, and the technology and system improvements as noted below.
Technological improvements have had a large impact on the evolution of the sound of Total War. The result is a combination of moving to the audio engine Wwise (and its capability) and our control technology that interfaces between Wwise and the game and in-house tools — developments that allow us to implement audio into the game in increasingly creative and quicker ways.
Looking at the creature sounds, how many new creatures/monsters were designed for Warhammer II ? Roughly how many assets were created for each one?
RB: For WH2 we created around 20 new creature sets of vocalizations. The amount of assets for each creature varies depending on its animations and abilities within the game. Fundamentally though, we create pools of assets used for animations like attack, running/walking, injury, death, idle, etc. These are then tagged to the animations using our in-house tools.
Sound-wise, what were your favorite creatures/monsters in this game? What do you like about their sound specifically?
RB: I wouldn’t limit this to just creatures, for instance, the dragons sound great and the team went to some really creative lengths to make these sound interesting, such as recording very obscure sounding items and using DSP to morph them with other creature or vocal recordings to produce something fresh and interesting. But, equally as creatively demanding and important to the WH soundscape is the development of some of the voice styling on characters. A great example of this would be Malekith, the Dark Elf lord, who, with his styling, performance and processing, perfectly embodies the personification of evil.
Can you tell me about your weapon and battle sounds? Do you record your own sounds or do you have favorite libraries you like to pull those sounds from?
RB: Obviously, with a game like Warhammer or wider TW titles, with so many cultures and styles, there are always broad arrays of battlefield sounds required from armour, shields, hand to hand combat weapons through to small arms, artillery, siege engines, and character vocalizations, in addition to many control systems that trigger them in the game.
The battlefield in a TW game is the most complex, dynamic and dense sound area of the game.
The battlefield in a TW game is the most complex, dynamic and dense sound area of the game. A typical battle, in terms of battle sounds, could consist of numerous elements. There are group sounds for the armies and creatures, and/or individual characters of different sizes and speeds moving on varying surfaces. Plus, group and individual melee sounds, impacts for different weapons, shields and other varieties of armor. There are group and individual character vocalizations. Also, there’s group and individual projectile weapons, for which there are launching, in-flight and impact sounds on varying surfaces. There are explosions. There are artillery, siege engines, vehicles and/or creatures (in the case of Warhammer) moving or in-flight. And, there are distant versions for many of the above assets.
Many of these sounds are controlled by separate systems which are custom set up to deliver a particular functionality and respond in a specific way. We’ll decide on how we want a system to work and then design or record the assets to work with it.
We do a lot of custom sound effects recordings, whether in-house at our studio, in the field, or at third-party facilities. This could entail anything from recording re-enactment weapons, armor, shields and props, group or individual animal recordings, ambient and elemental sounds such as water, fire, oceans, group melee and marching/movement recordings and so on.
In terms of commercial libraries, we have a wide range, but we tend to focus at the moment on smaller boutique libraries that fill specific niches.
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How do you keep the battles sounding fresh after all these years?
RB: This is perhaps more of a challenge where expansions or sequels are concerned rather than a wholesale brand new product. With new products there will be a collection of features, assets, styles, and designs that will change, which will naturally differentiate themselves from prior products such as music for new cultures, unique dialogue for new cultures, new weapon, shield and armour types and therefore Foley sounds based on time period and culture, new environmental sounds depending on the locale and so on, as well as continued technical improvements and new ways of implementing and mixing the audio.
Total War: Warhammer II not only features great sound design – it has an excellent score as well. And on the composing team is none other than Simon Ravn, my long-time composer colleague in Epic Sound. Simon has been one of the composers on Richard Beddow’s team for a number of titles from Creative Assembly.
Can you talk about the character recordings? Players can choose from 8 Legendary Lords from four different playable races (Lizardmen, High Elves, Dark Elves and Skaven). What went into voicing the characters of the different races? How does their dialogue fit into the game?
RB: Unlike most video game studios, Creative Assembly has a team of in-house dialogue engineers dedicated to the recording and production of dialogue, working across the whole output of Total War.
The typical process for voicing a character would see the dialogue engineer working with designers to determine character attributes, styling and so on. The scriptwriters develop the words. Actors, conducting many auditions, work to develop vocal stylings, honing the perfect match that delivers on the game IP. The audio programmers define how the dialogue is played back when and where.
While the above is in progress, the engineers will work on any processing, special creative or editorial treatments that a particular character will require to deliver on the IP requirements. For instance, how to make something sound like a talking lizard!
It’s often useful to think about some of these in the early concept stages in terms of film sound
Creatively, the process can be very challenging, particularly when voicing some of the non-humanoid characters or those that are undead. It’s often useful to think about some of these in the early concept stages in terms of film sound — looking at examples of things that do and don’t work well in films and whether we think that any of those approaches are like what we might require or could just inform a starting point for ideas, or if they are something we want to avoid.
One of the significant things that make dialogue production challenging is that a game like Total War features a lot of different talking characters. Of the 80+ characters in Warhammer II, around half of them would be non-humanoid so there’s a huge creative challenge to keep coming up with new and interesting sounding character voices, styles and processing to keep things sounding interesting and unique.
As part of the Warhammer IP, some of the races have their own unique languages. We have taken this onboard and you can hear this with races such as Beastmen or in Warhammer II with Lizardmen for example. Recording custom languages like these give these cultures a unique feel in the game and help sell the idea that these characters really are from a different world.
What about the Norsca race? What do they sound like?
RB: The Norsca race is a sub-faction of Chaos, vocally similar to the Chaos Marauders. They are predominantly human units but also feature a troll lord. They sound Nordic.
During the battles, you have music, magic, hand-to-hand combat, monsters, and character vocalizations. Did I miss anything? That’s a ton of elements. How do you keep that from turning into an overwhelming cacophony of sound?
RB: Quite! Balancing the thousands of dynamic elements in a Total War game is one of the most demanding production jobs. It’s a multi-part process. There is general balancing of the audio where the basic levels of audio (sound effects, music, dialogue) are set against each other, where perspective balance and things like distance attenuations, filtering, EQ and pitching is set.
On top of that there is the dynamic control … ducking, adaptive EQing, HDR and our own coded systems to massage the mix in real-time, decluttering the soundscape
On top of that there is the dynamic control which is where we will use the engine tools such as ducking, adaptive EQing, HDR and our own coded systems to massage the mix in real-time, decluttering the soundscape, creating space for important effects, dialogue or specific events, removing mud and things that are not being deemed important at a specific perspective or moment in time.
Finally, we tune our systems to make sure they are as optimized as possible — i.e., keeping a check on the amount of voices (audio elements) being played, monitoring where bottlenecks are building up, ensuring sample rates, compression, sound priorities and probabilities are set correctly and so on.
What are you most proud of in terms of sound on Warhammer II ?
RB: When we set out to produce the audio for this project (given that it’s a sequel and also part of a larger whole) we had to keep one foot in the world we had already established with Warhammer and the other foot in a new creative realm. I feel that we have managed to build well on the foundation we established with the first game, and with our focus on creating a cleaner and more adaptive in-game mix. With a drive from the team to surpass our previous achievements, Warhammer II has ended up with a very colorful, exciting and dynamic audio experience and I cannot be happier that we were able to do that.
A big thanks to Richard Beddow for giving us a look at the massive yet finely balanced battlefields of Total War: Warhammer II – and to Jennifer Walden for the interview!
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