ELK Studios breaking through the sound barrier
John Berg & Mikael Blanc sound designers at ELK Studios.
The evolution of online slots has been on an absolute tear the last couple of years with leading gaming studios sparing no expense in their efforts to stay ahead of the competition.
ELK Studios has recently taken steps to differentiate themselves in the slot audio department.
It seems ELKs approach to sound is a bit different than most other game providers. Why is that?
I think our overall approach is based on the fact that we create games more than we are creating slots. Confronting that fundamental insight enables us to break barriers and explore untouched areas beyond what is already out there.
Each of our games has a clear backstory and that identity must permeate audio as well as the visual design. The game sound should align with and enhance the story that is being told. When you can identify our games simply by hearing them then we think that we are on the right track.
Are you saying that classic slot sound is a thing of the past?
We see the charm in classic sounds and are not at all moving away from it, but we do have a strong belief in adding our twist, making it the ELK way.
Is there a magic formula for making slot music?
Fundamentally producing slot games is a hit driven business. Like with any pop culture there exist no formula that guarantees a successful product, this since the customers taste and expectations are constantly evolving. The only viable strategy for us is to always strive to make the best games possible and not be afraid of trying new unproven ideas.
How much of a games success is due to the audio experience?
We come from a mindset where we believed that the main aspects of slot games were the core mechanic, the balance of the game and audio visuals. I would say that we now lean more towards viewing it as a more balanced mix between mechanics, visuals and audio.
Expectations from players have certainly gone up in the last few years and significantly more players now play the games with sound enabled. This change is especially notable in the segment of mobile players.
It is no longer enough to just make music to accompany the game. The music must communicate the identity of the game. We must be flexible enough to effectively go from a chill backdrop during attract mode to big win highlights. The goal is to structure the music in such way that there is an feeling of infinite raising of tension and potential. A challenge not unlike mimicking the famous paradoxical Shepard scale as seen in such wildly different settings as The Beatles “I am the Walrus” and the game Super Mario 64, “The endless staircase”. The music and sounds should mirror the game’s dynamic range in terms of levels of excitement as well as the actual win potential. Emphasis must be on the important moments and we try our hardest not waste the players time.
This is a challenge both in terms of the composition and the playback mechanisms used by the game engine.
How is the audio experience created?
In the last few years the ambition regarding audio and music in our games have radically increased. Gone are the days when programmers got finished audio from external musicians and painstakingly mechanically incorporated them into the game. Today we have in-house musicians who are fully empowered and able to add, change and tweak all aspects of the audio experience throughout all stages of development. We have custom built tools and processes to enable them work freely, without involvement from programmers. The current way of working more resembles how a composer would score a motion picture than the detailed technical fiddling of the past.
Any new challenges?
A flew years ago ELK introduces the X-Iter Feature Buy-mechanism which in itself creates a whole new set of challenges. All of a sudden we have a situation where big wins in some of the modes of play are very common and the cadence of the whole game experience needs to be adjusted. This is a cross cutting concern that affects all aspects of the game. It turns out that this requires the game to be aware of subtle differences between different modes of play. Each modes needs to be individually adjusted to cater for a pleasing experience. A super bonus for instance need an increase of the speed of the execution of the game.
Luckily ELK has since day one utilised a novel timeline based approach, very similar to the methods used when working with video production, which makes dynamic alterations of this kind really easy. Here we differ from the rest of the industry who mostly uses other means to express animations. When everything is paced right the sense of continuity between purchases is increased.
Are people playing online slots with sound?
Our research shows us that the number of players that play with sound enabled have increased in tandem with our increased ambitions. Especially in our later releases where we have ”turned up the volume” so to say. In the end we want to maximise the player experience and we feel that our sound direction is doing that.