P(l)aying for a Free Gold Jet

On June 10th, 2015, Rockstar Games release fresh downloadable content for Grand Theft Auto V title, Ill-Gotten Gains. The Ill-Gotten Gains DLC included the most expensive in-game items to date. Emblematic of the exorbitant prices was the Luxor Deluxe, a gold-plated version of the Luxor jet, which sold for $10M, 8.35M more than the standard Luxor.

LuxorDeluxe-GTAV

The ostensible reason for the release of such expensive materials was to rebalance the cost of in-game items after the release of the previous DLC update, which introduced the much anticipated Heists game mode. Heists offer the greatest payouts for any single mission in GTAV. The final mission in the Pacific Standard Job offers a potential payout of a whopping $1.25M for completing the mission on Hard Mode to be divided among the 4 participants. Even with Heist’s remarkable payouts, the cost in-game currency of the Ill-Gotten Gains DLC represented a significant time investment. Assuming an even split of the final payout, it would take 23 runs of the entire Pacific Standard Heist to be able to afford the Luxor Deluxe’s 10 million dollar pricetag. Last week a few crew members and I timed a run through all of the missions of the Pacific Standard Heist–not going for speed, just to see how long it takes–it came out to around two hours and thirty minutes. 23 runs at 2.5 hours per run would total 57.5 hours. At that pace, earning a Luxor Deluxe would require playing just about the entire playtime of Dragon Age: Origins or a full standard work week and half of another.

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Surround Sound

Eyebots in Fallout 3 play music from the '40s

The current HASTAC forum on Sound and Technology has me thinking about the way sound is used in video games. In particular, I have been thinking about the difference between the way sound is used to create atmosphere and the way it is used to create a sense of space. Below is the basic distinction I made on the forum with a bit more consideration.

By “atmosphere” I mean how sound plays into the overall aesthetic and feel of the world being presented. It is the way Bioshock uses sound effects, NPC dialogue, and music to flesh out the richness of Rapture. Another example is Fallout 3, the game I am currently playing (finally), which punctuates a near future post-apocalyptic landscape with ‘40s Big Band music. Together they give the game a bizarre tone that feels both historical and futuristic, but at the same time it is a perfect extension of the game’s central alt-history conceit which basically wonders what would happen if WWII led into a nuclear holocaust.

This is something different from the way sound contributes to an experience of 3D space. In Fallout 3, again, because it is an open-world game and enemies can come at your character from any angle, one has to rely on hearing the enemies when they are not in one’s line of vision. There is no peripheral vision in games, the limit of onscreen display is a hard limit, so sound becomes really important for locating one’s character – and potential threats – in virtual space.

From the point of view of immersion, sound should ideally blend into the background. Atmpospheric sounds work seemlessly with spatial sounds to compose the virtual world without becoming singularly noticable in doing so. I have found Fallout 3‘s background soundtrack, for example, to be pretty successful at this, as most of the time I am not aware there is any music is playing at all.

And, yet, there are often those times in games in which the relationship between atmospheric and spatial sounds is more complicated. Take for example, driving in Grand Theft Auto 4. The sound of the engine, tires, other cars contribute to the sense of moving through space. At the same time, the radio station one selects changes the tenor of that movement. There is something really cold about mowing down pedestrians while listening to talk radio, while listening to Barry White as you ramp your motorbike into the Hudson is pretty funny.

So, video game sound can mix atmosphere and space in lots of different ways. For example, the moments when the instrumental background soundtrack and sound effects give way to full vocal tracks in Red Dead Redemption produced some of the most substantial emotional experiences I’ve ever had with a game. Sound in games, then, is not just about creating a world, but also the affect that can emerge from an unexpected confluence of atmosphere and space.