My Suggestions for Improving Audio Presentation in Arcade Games
Yes, I know the Exa-Arcadia kit system was just revealed on Arcade Heroes. I promise to write an article about that. Unfortunately for me, I had already used all of my time and resources on this article (and a few others) before the news dropped on Wednesday. Since I want to ensure my Exa-Arcadia article is really, really good, I'm delaying it until later this week or maybe next week. Stay tuned.
Now for the article I originally wrote.
It has long been known that arcade games provide these really neat out-of-experiences that can’t be matched at home. That’s a near-universal truth. However, there’s always been this one area in which I believe consoles have the upper-hand: audio.
The quality of your auditory experience can vary wildly from game-to-game and from arcade-to-arcade. At a small, quiet arcade or street venue, you can often hear each arcade machine individually. Because the game your playing isn’t competing with the hustle and bustle of a busy location, you can hear everything and get sucked into the experience. However, even at these quiet locations, you’ll sometimes find that the arcade operator sets the volume a bit too low on the machine. This naturally makes it harder for you to perceive the audio, even if the arcade venue itself is quiet.
And then there’s gigantic arcade venues like Dave and Buster’s, where there are so many people and each game is so loud that you can’t make out much of what’s going on within your own game. While the volume may be cranked up on the arcade machine you’re playing on, the volume is also cranked up on every other game, too. You might be blasted with bombastic and immersive sound effects, sure; but it’s very likely that, because of this configuration, you can’t hear the music in your game. (And that’s assuming that the arcade your at isn’t also playing pop music from overhead speakers, too.)
There are so many, many variables and competing sound channels that it becomes almost impossible to achieve a perfect audio experience at any given arcade. To make matters worse, it seems to me as if arcade game developers are increasingly prioritizing loud, booming sound effects over memorable music compositions. What would Double Dragon, The House of the Dead, or CarnEvil be without their music? I’ll tell you: They’d be drastically lesser game experiences.
That’s why, for quite a while now, I’ve been seeking solutions to this industry-wide dilemma. My solution might be somewhat difficult to implement, but I implore you to “hear” me out. (Yeah, that was a 100 percent intentional pun. I have no shame.) I guarantee that you wanna hear some music in your arcade games as much as I do. By the end of this article, I hope you’ll find my solutions fitting.
My first suggestion for arcade developers is one that would admittedly put a lot of power into the player’s hands: console-style audio settings. I want to be able to fine-tune my personal listening experience by adjusting the volumes for music, sound effects, and voice clips individually. My personal tastes are to crank the music and voices way up so that I can A) hear whatever the composer intended me to hear, and B) hear the story and such in cutscenes. Beyond allowing players to control individual aspects of the audio, I believe that we should be able to turn the “master sound” down, as well. Note that I say we should be able to turn it down, not up. Operators choose the maximum volume for a reason; players shouldn’t be allowed to mess with that. However, if the sound is a bit too loud for comfort, we should be allowed to turn it down a bit. I oftentimes finish an arcade game (particularly racing games) feeling a bit disoriented due to the bombastic sound and intense force-feedback vibration. An option to turn down the master volume would be a fantastic addition for those of us with more sensitive hearing.
Players could access these audio settings in a menu before starting the game or adjust volume throughout their playthrough with buttons or sliders on the control panel. (I recommend buttons.) I’m not a developer, so I don’t know what would be easiest for players as a whole, but I highly recommend putting small buttons on the control panel for those of us who are observant enough to change the sound settings.
Of course, players shouldn’t be able to mess with everything, but I do think that audio settings would go a long way toward improving the overall arcade experience. To alleviate the concerns of developers and operators, the game could reset the audio settings to default once a player ends their game (either by beating it or not continuing). I know it’s super unlikely that we’ll ever get to mess with audio settings, but I’m gonna beg for it on my blog anyway. Gosh, would I love to crank up the music on some Raw Thrills games….
Another arcade audio improvement that I recommend even more highly than sound settings are headphone jacks. Please, please, give the players some headphone jacks! Listen, I get that arcade sound systems are cool. The “Thrill-D” sound system in Jurassic Park Arcade and the 5.1 surround sound in Dark Escape 4D are truly immersive experiences. However, that doesn’t change the fact that sometimes—just sometimes—you really want to listen through headphones.
As I mentioned earlier, some arcades are noisy, bustling places. No matter how wicked that sound system is, I’m still not gonna be able to hear the audio in the game. (Cough, Dave and Buster’s, cough.) With headphone jacks, players could centralize the audio within the chambers of their own eardrums. As a bonus, if many players are using headphones, the arcade has a whole becomes much more forgiving on the ears. Imagine how much easier you could hear your own game if A) you used headphones, or B) the player next to you used headphones! I wish I could say it was a no-brainer, but it seems as if arcade game developers in the U.S. don’t want to add headphone jacks to games. (I’ve seen some on Japanese arcade games, though. Shout-out to Attack on Titan: Team Battle from Capcom.)
I’ll admit; there are few potential problems that could arise with headphones. Comfortable headphone jack placement could be an issue for some players with short cords; but then again, that’s their problem, not the developer’s. Also, I could see some issues with the headphone volume being way too loud, but once again, that could easily be solved with audio settings. I’m no developer, but I’m sure it wouldn’t be horrendously difficult to add headphones. I just want ‘em so badly. Imagine how much easier it would be to hear all of music, voice clips, and sound effects in arcade games!
And heck, maybe it's not just the developers that can chip in. Maybe we'll find a way to build arcade facilities that are "aurally conducive", so to speak. All I know is that I wanna hear music in arcade games. (And speaking of music in arcade games, I've got an article about the House of the Dead soundtrack on the way!)
This may have been a "filler" article, but I still think it was necessary. Player input ain't bad, especially when it's on something as important as audio. I hope you kiddos enjoyed this article. I plan to do a few more like 'em. Simple, unobtrusive articles that politely request change in the arcade industry. You know how it is.
Anyway, see ya soon. I promise that I'll get an Exa-Arcadia article out at some point. (Please don't hold me to that. But in the meantime, if you agreed with this article, send it to your favorite developer. Maybe Griffin Aerotech could add headphone jacks to the Airframe cabinet! That's actually a pretty good idea, actually....
Now scat. I'm busy with school and stuff.