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Overwatch devs on creating a game you can “play by sound”, and announcing Dolby Atmos support


Due as soon as May 24, Overwatch is Blizzard’s surprising and character-filled entry into the online shooter space. As part of the final day’s proceedings of GDC 2016, senior sound designer Scott Lawlor and software engineer Tomas Neumann described to the audience that they had been set the daunting task of creating a shooter that you could “play by sound.”

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The reason for this request was to offer the player “as much information as possible,” Lawlor said, “so they can be a better player in the game, and to make the game more enjoyable.”

The team had some pillars of audio design at heart when attempting to create a game that could be played by sound, such as ensuring a clean mix, providing sounds that could be accurately pinpointed, that sounds would provide gameplay information and that character voice-overs would be descriptive.

They went to lengths that can be easily overlooked, thanks to Blizzard’s decision to create a whole new engine in-house for Overwatch. A clean mix, for example, means more than just discernible audio: Neumann explained that every other player in the level (Overwatch offers six versus six play) was given an “importance” in the mix, starting as basic as reflecting how large the player was on an enemy’s screen, rather than how large the enemy is on their own screen.

“If you have an enemy nearby who isn’t looking at you or interacting with you, compared to an enemy who is further away but is actually aiming at you, he would receive less ‘threat points’ and be lower in the mix.”

It wasn’t as simple as that, however, with aspects such as walls and 3D space still affecting how dangerous opponents could be to the player and affect their threat level. Neumann admitted that with just that system in place, players still had a hard time telling when they were in danger: an enemy very close to them but in a room above them (with no quick path to them) could still register as a threat without other enemies nearby, and be high in the mix.

“Players would be spinning around, asking, ‘where are they? Where are they?’” he said. “So while working on the flight-path AI for our flying characters, we thought ‘what if we just measured how long an enemy’s path is to you?’”

This additional system gave new richness to the audio: with the feeling of “safety” as enemy footsteps and battle sounds becoming more muffled in hiding spots, but also a clear sense of looming threat as enemies approach.

Indeed, Lawlor emphasised that even just the footsteps were an important audio cue, as every character in Overwatch has their own unique footstep sound.

“A player recorded a video showing every single character in the game approaching from around a corner,” he said, “to help teach other players how to know who is coming. We thought that was really cool.”

They closed the session by announcing that Overwatch will support Dolby Atmos. While that doesn’t initially seem too exciting–it is, after all, a system largely only available in large-scale movie theatres, they’re claiming to be the first game to support Dolby Atmos truly over regular stereo headphones. That’ll be available in the next beta, and will be included in the open beta due in early may–PC only.