Fighting Loudness
Inspired by Dylan Hairston on Twitter the other day, I took a quick look at loudness in fighting games.

When I think of the soundscape of an arcade, my mind's ear is always split between loud retro beeps and the cutting punch SFX of Street Fighter, Tekken etc. It's a genre synonymous with iconic sound and music. Yet it's also a genre common for players to listen to their own music or to be played in environments with poor acoustics (convention halls, bars and arcade basements). This made me wonder what effect those conditions could have on the mix, and what the likelihood is that the resulting mixing practices are pushing people to mute the game altogether. So I took note things I perceived from the mixes of a handful of titles, backed by loudness measurements. If you're interested in the terminology/units used here, Jay Fernandes and Anne-Sophie Mongeau have some great posts on modern loudness standards and it's game audio applications.

Here's the rules I set to keep some consistency in the results:

1. Default audio settings (worth pointing out that all games had at least a few volume sliders so there's good room for players to fine tune despite the results shown here)
2. Gameplay sequence around 2-3 minutes including; character intros, 2 rounds of fighting with one special move and the results screen
3. Audio recorded in Audacity, analysed in RX according to the ITU-R BS.1770 recommendation

The games range from doujin soft to Western AAA, all played on PC with the exception of a PS4 title for comparison. First up, indie titles:

Golden Fantasia was definitely perceived as the loudest title, not helped by how dense the mix is with a lot of repeated and overlapping dialogue. I think this serves as a prime example of how overwhelming 'anime fighters' can become in regards to their memetic use of VO and music; it's as explosive in the soundtrack as it is visually. This is also a 07th Expansion game based on their renowned Umineko ‘sound novels’ and so carries a lot of expectations in regards to fan favourite dialogue/music/SFX. Sensory overload is by design here considering the small niche of hardcore fans it’s aimed at. However the important information such as hitbox confirmations and character changes is audible (and all the games tested here nail that crucial element).

Skullgirls' mix is as well defined as it's character line art, and the jazz soundtrack actually works perfectly as a contrast to how punchy/transient heavy the SFX need to be. I feel it's important to factor in the visual information fighting games give because not only is consistency in the presentation vital for players to learn a game's systems but striking a good balance between sound and vision helps keep players engaged without having to rely on one sense over the other. In that regard Skullgirls is a great example of audio-visual clarity and despite the loudness measurements here, didn't come off as tiring to listen to.

This time two games from the same series because I wanted to highlight how much louder PC ports seems to run. Sign was played on a PS4 so would have had to have gone through Sony's loudness certification, hence the big difference in numbers here. Although the loudness range is more consistent which would be the primary value for gauging the potential of fatigue. Guilty Gear's hard rock soundtrack is huge part of its aesthetic and is really pushed forward in the mix here, unfortunately it can fall into the same territory as Golden Fantasia of auditory overload with the frequency of dialogue.

Of course the biggest conceptual hurdle fighting games face regarding loudness range is that they aren't controlled linear experiences on the level of something like Inside, it’s rapid action that has to convey the intensity of a life of death fight in 90 seconds or less. Not a lot leeway for dynamic range given the aesthetic choices of something like Guilty Gear although I think Skullgirls shows it's possible depending on the overall artistic direction of the game. Unfortunately, I believe it's likely players would at least mute Guilty Gear’s soundtrack over longer periods of play.

Perhaps predictably, games in the highest tier of production had the most balanced mix, although it's worth pointing out the flow of gameplay is a bit different here; Street Fighter and especially Mortal Kombat play in a slower, 'weightier' fashion with shorter burst combos compared to the frenetic speed of an Arc Systems Works' fighter. Street Fighter does feel like it's cut from the same cloth as Guilty Gear due to its arcade history but one aspect I think Street Fighter is more accomplished in is maintaining the sense of power Critical Arts/Special moves have by the jump in volume (aided by dropping other sounds out with a bass drop transition).

Despite its gruesome nature, I believe Mortal Kombat would be the most pleasing to listen to over longer periods in part because of the relatively isolated SFX. Music is low in the mix and with little actual dialogue there's a lot of space for sound design to breathe in. Especially with everything ducking out during slow motion X-Ray Attacks. This game definitely had the most pleasing dynamic range of all the titles here.

A more comprehensive study could include a wider range of home and portable consoles and even arcade builds played for much longer periods of time. Also considering this genre’s global e-sports appeal, how the games are presented at events and how much that range of scale (from living room to stadium) is a factor in the game’s mix is worth considering.

I also think there's historical value in tracing fighting games arcade roots and how much they still influence the audio aesthetics to this day, particularly in contrast with Japanese to American fighters. It’s an aspect Vincent Diamante touches upon here and I think an in-depth comparison between the sound design philosophies of a game like Guilty Gear or BlazBlue versus Mortal Kombat or Injustice could be an interesting cultural exercise.