Adaptive Audio in Menus: An Untapped Opportunity for Game Development
When developing a game, it’s easy to focus on the obvious sound elements, like quick scores and uplifting sound effects, but some of the most influential moments in the game happen even before or in between gameplay.
Today, we shine our audio and music spotlight on menus, tutorials, lobbies and more – all unsung heroes of the gaming experience – and draw attention to a generally overlooked opportunity to deliver more attractive.
Think of it this way: Games that deliver stunning gameplay sound but still suffer from a bland menu or lobby sound are as common as they come. But games that pay attention to these interfaces that players have no choice but to engage with are a magical experience all their own. In particular, adaptive music offers developers a tangible way to turn menus and lobbies into much more than an atmospheric void between spectacular realms.
First things first: what is adaptive music?
Simply put, adaptive music means that the music in your game actively changes to adapt to changing environments, atmospheres, and evolving gameplay. This change often happens in a subtle or smooth way, feeling more like a natural progression than an abrupt cut between tracks.
This dynamic approach to in-game music reinforces the cohesiveness of the overall player experience, empowering them to make decisions
This dynamic approach to game music reinforces the cohesiveness of the player’s overall experience, reinforcing their decisions and sense of progress while minimizing the moments that could drag them out of the game.
What’s particularly nice about adaptive music is that it sounds player-focused. As the person behind the controls, you begin to feel that your decisions or your movements make a real difference based only on subtle changes in what you hear. Something as simple as a change in tone could imply a hidden change waiting to be discovered. Or it may confirm what your eyes are already telling you – that you’ve crossed a threshold from one area to another, while a familiar pattern tells you, “You’re still in Kansas, Dorothy.”
Be immersive from the start
Imagine that you are launching a new game for the first time. What are you waiting for?
After a quick splash of graphics or a cinematic video, you’re probably anticipating an encounter with the ubiquitous splash screen. Nothing crazy or unusual – just a well traveled springboard to get your gameplay off the ground. Here, you’re usually presented with around three standard options: New Game/Start, Controls, and Settings.
As soon as a player chooses New Game/Start, a world of opportunity opens up, especially if a tutorial or integration is needed. This is where music can really enhance a player’s experience, drawing them in deeply from the start and fueling their expectations of whatever style, tone and complexity of gameplay awaits them.
Adaptive music and sound help provide even more clues, big and small, for players to glean important information from.
And what is gameplay if not a relationship between the players, their imagination and the stories shared through visual, sound and tactile experiences? As in any relationship, understanding comes from recognizing signs (obvious or not). Adaptive music and sound help provide even more clues, big and small, for players to glean important insights and deepen their connection to the game.
As a player’s first impression, gameplay menus and intros are a crucial opportunity for your player to feel truly engaged. Just as studios entrust those initial interfaces to the keen eyesight of UI designers, the listening ears and input of a sound designer or audio partner can (and should!) advance the role of music and sound in amplifying the player experience.
Do like the pros
Let’s take a look at a great example of this principle with a game from none other than Nintendo. Nintendo pays incredible attention to the musicality of its franchises, resulting in masterclass after masterclass in the game’s dynamic sound.
For our purposes, we’ll be reviewing Mario Kart Wii using Project Longplay’s game intro.
The menu magic begins the moment we “press the A button” to begin (1:54). After selecting the number of players involved, we see a Jumbotron with four playstyles to choose from. The backtrack kicks off with a fast, rhythmic bass line and light piano trills, immediately giving the energy and encouraging us to move forward. When choosing our race mode, the menu asks us for one more detail: what speed (or difficulty) would we like to race with — 50cc, 100cc or 150cc?
On the selection of our speed (2:32), the music immediately becomes more complex, introducing new elements right at the point where we were already in the backtrack. Now the rolling rhythm track bounces with upbeat piano chords. Are you starting to feel excited? U.S. too.
Next, we select the character and vehicle combo. Fairly easy, but there is still another layer. After choosing our driver and our car, we slide to a screen offering different circuits (2:52), and the music takes on even more complexity, letting us know that the thrill of racing is just around the corner. We choose our courses, and the starting line appears.
Use audio and music to generate momentum and excitement to lead your player into gameplay
Every step of the way, Nintendo uses simple, adaptive music to direct our attention, instill a sense of power in our decisions, and increase the energy around the gameplay to come. They could have slapped a simple loop back and called it a day, but their dynamic approach is so much more rewarding for the player.
Use audio and music to generate momentum and excitement to lead your player through gameplay. Tips like this are one of the many reasons Nintendo maintains its reputation for user-friendly and accessible gaming experiences.
Pass the elevator music
Think of menus and lobbies as an elevator for a while. These interfaces fill the gaps between gameplay much like an elevator does between floors. But the elevators lack a sense of direction. You don’t feel like you’re moving anywhere, you’ve just arrived. The only real clue in context that a change is happening might be the ping of a bright new number. And the stagnant soundtrack of your ride is dull and indifferent to your journey. In an elevator, you simply exist.
This scenario is suitable if your game is an elevator simulator. But for other, more dynamic experiences, adaptive music offers a better alternative. The adaptive approach takes into account both your origin and destination and adjusts to optimize your journey, helping you feel like you’re actually going somewhere.
Challenge stagnation by letting go of static sound. Consider the music that ebbs, flows, and ultimately propels players into their first glimpse of gameplay.
How might your audio evolve differently as your players progress through fantasy RPG character creation or delve into the mysteries and suspense of a survival horror game?
Make menus more than an afterthought
Music and sound are incredible tools to generate energy and provide information, improving the quality of the game. Adaptive music allows developers to transform otherwise neglected menus and lobbies into a central part of the experience overall gameplay and create smoother games. This dynamic, underutilized approach to game sound gives players a greater sense of control and influence while helping them along the way, even in the moments in between.
Treat menus and in-between moments as “levels” in their own right. By more creatively licensing audio partners or sound departments into standard game interfaces, studios can turn these carefully crafted visual tools into multi-sensory experiences that let gamers feel that every keystroke or button press makes a difference. as they delve into new worlds and stories.
Elliot Callighan is a composer and sound designer, and the owner of Unlock Audio. He is also a captain in the Army National Guard and teaches music and audio program as an adjunct professor in the games and film programs at DePaul University in Chicago.