Welcome to the first part of a three-part article that tries to shed some light on the use of surround sound in 2D games, which I think it’s a very cool thing to have and I miss it every time I play a 2D game that doesn’t feature it.

You can read the rest of the parts and learn why you should do it anyway and also read the last part with our recommendations on how to do it right.

We recommend you start reading here and learn the common pitfalls and what game developers fear.

So let’s start our journey towards a more immersive sound field for 2D games, right?

In 2D game development it’s common practice not to use surround sound. In this article I will try to explain why this happens as opposed to the film industry which uses it with success, why anybody should try it and also share some solid guidelines on how to do it the right way. So, if you are a game developer and you have second thoughts, or you never really thought about it, now is the perfect time to create your game featuring surround sound. Apart from making your game far more exciting for the players, it can really help separate your game from the rest of the competition.

Let’s take it from the start.

For years now, both in game development forums online and discussions that I had with many game developers in person, it really impressed me that they all fear surround sound. I know “fear” is a powerful word but I use it because they really express fear.

What they feel is fear of the unknown, and not because they don’t understand the technology or they don’t have a good idea how their game should play sound. Their decision not to “go there” with their game, is a logical one, it’s a production decision, where experienced people with good logic decide not to include this feature in their final product.

The problem is that more channels surely offer more immersion, but as we know from engineering, more features means also more issues, problems or ways for things to go wrong. It’s a know philosophy in computer programming, that by adding 1 feature in your program, you introduce 2 bugs. Funny and true.

The common 7.1 surround setup

Before we continue I think it’s a good idea to first define, which is the common surround setup that we are going to base our logic upon for the rest of this article.

I choose the 7.1 surround setup (see picture below), as this is what is most commonly offered by sound card outputs and also from that format, we can easily derive the lesser ones.

For this setup, we use 7 speakers, usually all full-range, and one sub-woofer that plays back the low frequency effects and sometimes the low end frequencies of music.

The first speakers are the front left and right, followed by one in the center. Those 3 are located in front of the player. Then 2 surround satellites are located in the back and 2 more on the sides of the player, making up 4 satellites for the extra surround content. Finally, there is the sub-woofer that carries the low frequencies.

At the last part of the article series, I give specific instructions on what each speaker should play, but first we must define the common problems that come with using surround in your 2D games, defining the fears of any developer in a concrete way.

A common format many sound cards support is the 7.1 surround. The common setup is 3 speakers in the front, 2 in the back and 2 more on the sides, with the sub-woofer usually located in the front too, but not necessarily as humans cannot easily pinpoint low frequencies in space. So the sub can be placed anywhere, as long as the location does not compromise the quality of the sound.

In film industry, the immersive quality of sound was utilized early on and we all now enjoy the sound surrounding us while watching our favorite films.

Common issues found in games with surround sound

To understand what is happening in the real world, we can look into 3 of the most common issues found in games with surround sound:

Differences in user’s LFE setup

Many of them have a specific implementation for the LFE (Low Frequency Effect aka “sub-woofer” or simply “sub”) channel. That creates a condition issue for almost half of the players that have a different routing type in their system. So half the times, a player will not hear correctly the low frequency effect, if present. The problem gets deeper, if the developers didn’t use the LFE channel properly and some sounds play their sub frequencies from the LFE while some others play it back from the front left and right speakers, assuming that those speakers are full range. That creates more issues with the sound feedback from the game to the player and has a negative impact to the game’s audio consistency and therefore its perceived quality and immersion strength.

Center speaker internal routing

Other games have similar problems with the center speaker. In some cases there is no sound at all. In other cases, the voice doesn’t play from the center speaker but certain GUI sounds do. The center speaker is a problematic one as developers don’t seem to agree on how to use it in combination with dialog, ambience and the reverberation output of the level.

Side channels in 7.1 configurations

Many developers have only a 5.1 setup and they forget to include the side speakers in some of the sound events their game features. That creates strange mixes for players that use the extra 2 side speakers of the 7.1 configuration. For example, level ambience doesn’t render from those speakers, yet standalone 3D sounds are, creating bizarre soundscapes that don’t reflect the nature of the game’s environment, or the movement of the player’s camera (and the listener object).

The bad results

All those and many other issues that appear with surround sound, can easily break immersion and even worse, when the player loses because of said inaccuracies in sound feedback, she becomes angry and the psychological flow breaks. And these issues occur independently of the budget of the production and the size of the team, they are equally distributed to any level of game production.

Regarding 2D games

The examples of issues mentioned above, are here to show us, that surround sound can be a pain to implement in your game, especially when it comes to indie developers or small teams. And even if you do, there are scenarios that it will work against the experience.

Now imagine how much of a task can this be for a small indie development team, that wants to create a 2D game. It’s a difficult task if you don’t have someone on your team to work exclusively on that solution and any development tools or game-logic that will create the framework that will allow good translation to various gaming setups.

Add to that the fact that for some – unknown – reasons, when someone develops a 2D game, never thinks about surround sound anyway. As if surround sound is something that can only benefit a 3-dimensional game. Yet, in all the history of entertainment media, we have countless examples that show that there is no such link. Take film for example. A traditionally 2D medium, with a linear display of 3 dimensions, but not really any option for the viewer to change angles, turn the camera and experience the environment in any way. Furthermore, films have no need for surround sound to guide the viewer or give feedback for decision making and acting upon the environment. No! Movies are all about immersing the viewers in the story and they use surround sound to do it right. Any educated sound designer or music composer will tell you that if you use surround sound correctly you will achieve great immersion for your audience.

In film industry, the immersive quality of sound was utilized early on and we all now enjoy the sound surrounding us while watching our favorite films. So, we see that in movies surround sound is combined with a simple screen-based experience from early on. We can understand why this is not happening today with 2D games, but on the same time, we can see the potential benefits of using surround sound for 2D games..

So there are two common issues that we face when we try to setup surround sound playback for our game.

The first one is that there are no hard rules about how to use surround channel configurations. And that is a good thing, as it allows artistic expression to come out of the medium. But it leaves a lot of uncovered ground for mistakes to be made.

The second one is that surround sound mixing is usually done using specific management for different groups of sounds withing one project. Game authoring tools and frameworks usually offer a generic way of mixing surround or even worse don’t offer anything out of the box.

Read on to the second part of this article to learn why you should do it anyway. Or if you are already convinced, head on directly on the third and last installment of the article and ready our recommendation on how to do it right.

About Panagiotis Kouvelis

The founder and leader of SoundFellas. An audio engineer with old-school roots in game audio and a passion for sound design and psychoacoustics. He is also an educator and an instructional designer specialized in creative media. Website | LinkedIn | Twitter | Facebook