You hear it long before you arrive. In the distance, there is an ever-present hum, a constant ringing of loops, bleeps, guitar solos, and shouts of glee. Another ding-ding-ding punctuates the player’s unspoken sentence, a secular prayer repeated across a filled room without pews or stained-glass windows: The sound of perpetual potential.
Electronic entertainment has always hinged on sound’s ability to match the action on-screen with our growing anticipation of what happens next. Tetris uses an ear-wormy loop of music to focus our attention on the chaotic playfield; Space Invaders’ thumping heart-beat tone grows faster and faster as the aliens descend.
In his book on the music of Super Mario Bros., Andrew Schartmann explains the musical philosophy of the great Nintendo composer Koji Kondo: “Writing a catchy tune is only half the battle. The other half is matching the music to both the game environment and the experience of the player.”
Sound has also always played a large role in the allure of slot machines. But the very experience of playing has changed. With the explosion of online gaming, the evocative din of the casino has been replaced by the more player-controlled environment of a home computer or smartphone device. This shift, along with advancing technology and decades of experience, has combined to make music and sound even more important than it is on the crowded floor of Bellagio.
Just as the rudimentary blips and bleeps of the arcade era have evolved into today’s orchestral game soundtracks performed by touring symphonies, the sounds of slots have too changed over time. It’s not enough to hear that telltale winning alarm bell; we want to be transported. So, what is music’s influence on our favourite pastime? Three industry veterans share their secrets, stories, and a few hints for the discerning, and listening, player.
Dan Lamond is a designer and producer at Gaming Realms. With over a decade in the industry, he has seen the rise of online gaming from the ground floor. Before joining Gaming Realms, he was head of content at Videobet. He has an eye for the creative as well as the business side, having graduated from Nottingham University Business School in 2003.
Philip Tuck, a graduate of the University of Essex, is Gaming Realm’s Head of Business Intelligence. With a deep interest in predictive modelling and a keen understanding of behavioral science, Tuck knows the power of music and its influence on a player’s experience.
How can music and sound impact the player’s experience?
I would definitely consider music, and audio in general, a key component of any game. Done well, it can build anticipation and excitement and be a major factor in successfully implementing positive feedback to the player, all of which can enhance playability and extend session times.
Positive feedback sounds are important in any game, and the sound played when cash has been won is the best opportunity to reward the player and build a positive association with a particular sound. A great way to do this is to use the same sound, possibly with some progression or enhancement, whenever a win is achieved across multiple games. We want to create a mood that for the players through the excitement of winning.
But not all wins can be big. Having a sound that the player associates with winning—no matter how big—can be a powerful tool.
More alchemy than science this, but it is certainly considered a key part of the game experience. Many slots flow along at specific speeds. Retaining a rhythm obviously complements this very well if executed properly.
What are some examples of music working really well within a certain game? And why?
In all of the Slingo games I have produced (Slingo Riches, Slingo Extreme, Deal or No Deal) we have used the ambient audio track to build excitement and anticipation as the game progresses. The track has five loops, each with an increased tempo and intensity, that the game moves through depending on how many Slingos have been completed. This links the music to the state of each game and builds up along with the player expectation, particularly when making decisions on taking extra spins.
In slot games, I really favour using multiple reel spin tracks that combine to make one tune when played in quick succession. It builds an extended loop that delivers the escapism that some players want without becoming too repetitive. Any gaps between spins really break the rhythm of the loop and can be a strong driver to naturally continue play when compared to an ambient music loop.
The bizarrely named Lucky Larry’s Lobstermania 2 is a super-example of very interesting sound. It utilises popular music blended with a specific rhythm that fits the game really well.
Another example of a powerful positive sound is the use of an alarm bell when a big win is achieved. I like to play the alarm and pause the game completely for a few seconds. This instantly lets the player know there is a big win and creates a winning atmosphere compared to just displaying the amount.
While things like progression and rewards are important, often it is more challenging to design audio for periods of games when there isn't much happening. The balance has to be to keep the player engaged while the most exciting elements are naturally less frequent.
Did you know? The sound of a ringing bell has been a part of slot-machine sound design since the very beginning, a span of over a century.
When is the sound design of a game implemented? Is it laid on top of an existing game, or is it considered during the building of the experience itself?
I always prefer to wait as long as possible before implementing the audio for a game. So much changes in terms of timings and other adjustments once we start play testing.
The actual sound design will be considered and planned very early on and many elements can be worked on in advance of a playable demo, but when timescales allow, I would generally not start working with the audio engineer until we can play the game.
It's usually designed bespoke to a game, but this can vary. Series of games will usually retain similar sound libraries. Often it will be considered a great deal in the overall design process, particularly in terms of how [the audio] interacts with graphics.
Are there kinds of music that you would not incorporate into a game for one reason or another?
The sky's the limit, virtually. Our many slots incorporate musical genres from death metal through to the B-52’s.
Personally, I would consider any music that was in keeping with the style, aesthetics and feel of the game. For our style of games, you wouldn't want to alienate players, so anything too extreme in any direction would probably be ruled out. We offer mute options on our games but, in my opinion, the games play so much better with the audio feedback… we obviously want to avoid anyone using that.
What’s something about the sound design of an online game that some players might not realize?
PT: Some slot providers will often add in specific sounds or visuals that hit early in a feature game that let you know you're going to win one of the top prizes, but they are often very hard to spot.
Did you know? A brand-new slots game can take between four and five months to be fully developed, tested, and certified.
If you’ve played slots online or off-, you’ve likely spotted the work of Rob Anderson. His career began in advertising, working as a visual artist. Anderson then transitioned to working for a slot machine company, creating simple graphics and play-testing new games. And 14 years later in 2004, he finally branched out on his own. His latest (and third) company, Spike Games, was established in 2014. Their first marquee release will be an online game based on Alice Cooper and his classic hit, “School’s Out.”
He spoke from his office at SUM Studios in Sheffield, England about nabbing the shock-rocker, the euphoria of music, and how gaming’s sound has evolved since the early ’90s.
How important was audio when you first broke into the industry?
Twenty-five years ago, the technology itself was much more primitive. When I started, it was just MIDI sounds. You couldn’t sample, for instance. There wasn’t the computer power to sample. It was just beeps. To be honest… I don’t think sound was that important back then. It was basic.
If you sat in a pub, you didn’t really want to listen to the machines repeat again and again and again. If you sat next to it in a pub or a club, it’s something that probably used to get turned down or turned off. But if you sit at home or a private space… it’s very important really. It ties you to the game.
Did you know? In a 2014 study published in the Journal of Gambling Studies, researchers found that 72% of players preferred playing with the sound on as opposed to hearing no sound at all.
What lessons have you learned when implementing music into a game?
RA: [When] there’s a continuous background sound, that’s not so intrusive. We have an Irish game coming out very soon, and we’ve put this traditional old Irish song playing lightly in the background, with other sounds coming over the top of it to tell you what’s going on. You would never get that back in . You couldn’t do that. It ties you to that kind of emotion. It creates a mood.
A lot of the time, the noises were put into the game to sell the game to a distributor. It was more important to say, ‘Look at this sound!’ knowing full well that when it got to a pub or a club, it’d be switched off.
But these days, you can turn the volume down if you want to. The player can switch it off if he wants, or he can switch part of it off, or keep the background music going. It’s part of the game.
Let’s say the player won. You need to make sure the player [knows they] got a big win. It’s more about making that feeling hit home. ‘Big win celebration!’ It’s just a simple, euphoric sound when you get a big win.
Or to introduce a feature, a fanfare. Free Spins have a certain sound, an ongoing loop, for instance, [that] you put in to indicate you’re in Free Spins. To denote you’re in a separate mode.
How do you know when the audio design works?
Some sounds sound great when you play them once. Some sounds only deserve to be heard once. Even a sound that’s really good… play it again and again and again, and it becomes, ‘Oh my god, I can’t stand that anymore.’ There are some sounds that will piss everyone off, in plain English.
Some sounds are not quite as engaging and you don’t really notice them. Take that Irish game. We have two types of arpeggio on a harp. One going up, one coming down again. They’re not that remarkable. They will stand to be played again and again and again because they don’t stand out.
Once you’ve played the game, you’ll soon notice a sound in there that really upsets you. Someone was trying something the other day on a game that we’re developing, and it was obvious. It was a great sound, but it played every time you hit the Start button. We had to take it out. It was detracting from everything, and people would stop playing. That sort of sound would be better used another way, when it doesn’t happen on every spin.
Did you know? Lemmy Kilmister of Motörhead was an avid slots player.
What are some different ways you incorporate voice or popular music into games?
I used to do a few impressions. If you needed a game show host-type guy… I could do it. I came across a game this time last year in Vegas. I’m 49 now, and there was a 23-year-old me sample in the actual game that I played. I heard my voice from 20-odd years ago.
We used to use a musician, Stuart Whitcomb, that would compose music for the game. He’d done quite a lot of work. He played every instrument, the works. For instance, we did a game called Jumpin’ Jack Cash, which was themed around the Rolling Stones. But it wasn’t the Rolling Stones, if you know what I mean. We needed someone to write “Jumpin’ Jack Cash,” which was legally ours, but sounded like “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Stuart would do that. We would use different parts of the song to introduce different features; Jackpot features and stuff like that.
You play-test it so many times, you play 10,000 games of it, and you start singing “Jumpin’ Jack Cash” as opposed to the actual famous version. You start singing it in your head.
We just got sampling. And it was an attempt to be able to put music on a game and make people feel engaged in it. Playing a slot machine, there’s a lot of rhythm to it, a certain amount of time a spin must take. So if you include music with that, there’s a rhythm to it and it’s engaging.
We were doing that in an attempt to stop people from turning the machine completely off. ‘Cause it wasn’t that repetitive. It wasn’t just bleeps. It was decent music.
Did you know? Up until the 1990s, games featured on average about 15 separate sound effects. Today, a standard slots game has over 400 different sounds.
Your new game is based on shock-rocker Alice Cooper. How did that partnership begin?
To be honest, I was listening to an interview on Radio 4 (in the U.K.) with Lemmy [Kilmister] from Motörhead. Lemmy was a big slots player. So my wife said, ‘You should do a Motörhead slots.’ I thought, ‘It’s probably already been done.’
Well it hadn’t been done. I sent an email off to his agent, found his agent on Google. I sent an email off to his manager. His manager put me in touch with his merchandising. And we did a deal with his merchandising. Unfortunately Motörhead didn’t turn out. But the guy said, “I can probably get you Alice Cooper.” So we did that deal with Alice Cooper. Simple, really.
The company I was with at the moment didn’t want to do it. As soon as I got Spike set up, that’s probably the first thing I did. I’m the new guy on the block, Spike Games, unproven. So if you get a game like this, it gives your company some gravity. It opens door for you.
Why is Alice Cooper a good fit for slots? And how can a popular artist be an effective tool to make a more enjoyable game?
It’s an iconic song, I think that’s the key. “School’s Out” is a really iconic song. You can almost hear that—duh duh da, duh duh da—that sort of thing is loopable, before you have the “School’s Out” feature [audio].
There’s no one better than Alice Cooper. Everybody knows his face. He’s a world product. He’s someone the Chinese know, the Russians know, the Americans know. Even Africans have heard of him.
He does a world tour every third year. I don’t know how he does it. He goes all over the world. That’s what we look for. Hopefully [the game] goes everywhere, too.
Did you know? The online slots game “Grand Master Cash” is not, in fact, based on rap icon Grandmaster Flash, whose influential hit “The Message” was a pivotal song in introducing hip-hop culture to a wider audience in the early 1980s. It’s actually based on a shadowy, James Dean-like figure.