INTERVIEW: Vice Audio Director of Tencent Games, Cheney Wu Discusses Honor of Kings & More

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Next to the visuals, what is the second most important aspect of any video game? The audio.  Knowing when evil is lurking, understanding you have just accomplished another level or task, amping up the final showdown between two rivals, it is all comprehended through what the gamer hears. As games have become more advanced, greater emphasis has been placed in this area. A veteran who can attest to this, Cheney Wu. Wu, who is now the Vice Director of TiMi Studios Audio Center, has 18 years of experience in audio and the game audio industry. To put that into perspective, when Wu first started the whole game industry in China was still very new with the memory of a computer being only 1 to 2G. Wu has served as the Audio Lead for several games, including: “Moonlight Blade”, “Monster Hunter Online”, “Arena of Valor” and many other audio award-winning titles from Tencent Games. His latest Tencent project being “Honor of Kings,” which has already earned over $4.5 billion dollars since October 2015. Volume 1 of the game’s score was just released internationally by Unisonar, below Wu talks exclusively about this and working in the audio field in general.

You are the Vice Audio Director of Tencent Games TiMi Audio Center. What are some of your specific job responsibilities?

A large portion of my work is leading the sound design of several key game projects. In addition, I am responsible for the audio support for all TiMi projects. In short, the main responsibility is to enhance the professionalism of some special modules, help TiMi Audio better integrate with the global game audio industry, make good use of outsourcing resources, and build the global influence of the team.

You have worked in the game industry for 18 years now. In what ways has the audio/sound aspect of games changed from when you first starting working, until now?

There’s been a lot of change. When I first started, the whole game industry in China was in its infancy. At that time, there were no real game audio designers in the industry here, and the audio people hired by the company mainly did sound resources like sound effects production and music composition. There was no middleware, and there were no special tools for integration. And the approach was very simple, basically only trigger random playback of sound samples and other basic functions. At that time, the game music was all made by MIDI, so it was very difficult for any project to record real musical instruments. I remember at that time, the memory of the computer was only 1 to 2G, the timbre that could be used was minimal, and the overall quality of the music was still relatively low.

However, it was precisely because of functional limitations that the expressive requirements for sound samples were very high at that time, and it was necessary to be able to perform good results with very few sounds. In retrospect, I think this experience is a good exercise for my career.

You have been a game sound effects creator, composer, sound designer and audio team manager. What would you say was the most challenging role out of all of those? 

I think the biggest challenge in each of those roles was just to achieve a high bar of quality. Every role has its own difficulties so it is difficult to compare.

For myself, I do feel that the threshold for composing music was relatively higher. I am not a composer, but I have been very fond of music since I was in college. I spent several years studying theories and practicing tools. I think I can pass with the bare minimum for commercial music composition today.

The four professional directions mentioned here should be the most popular career choices in the game audio industry. In my opinion, a solid foundation is the most difficult to come by. What is needed is more than just knowledge of music but also long time training. Based on adequate training, the biggest factor affecting whether we can achieve something is thinking. This thinking includes our comprehensive understanding of art, industry, products, etc.

The foundation determines the lower limit and the thinking determines the upper limit that can be achieved, both of which are indispensable.

When it comes to management level of an audio team, requirements are different though specifically how to make outstanding talents cooperate better and give full play to their respective values, so as to ensure the direction and quality of the products. Observation, thinking and communication are of higher importance to this position, and it can be said that it is more necessary to have these comprehensive qualities in addition to the professional ability of sound.

How closely do you work with the game’s composers? In your opinion, what makes a good game score?

When the composition begins, I am not deeply involved in the creation of the composition. In my opinion, the job is to be a music director rather than composer, in addition to the integration of interactive music design, the focus of artistic work should be on a broader vision and musical aesthetic ability. That means I’m more responsible for finding the right composer, working with the composer to explore a music style that is both suitable for the project and unique and in-depth, and then control the quality. The creation itself should be controlled by the composer.

Finding the right composer for the project and trusting them through communication, mutual inspiration and guidance, and to tolerate certain mistakes, are all important factors in creating good music from the perspective of game music directors. On the other hand, a music director also needs a very deep understanding of the game, the culture in and around the game, and should be able to sort out the expression of expectations which can often jump out of the specific music. In short, good game music involves a lot of people, and each process involved must be professional and collaborative as a whole in order to finally create good game music.

What direction do you see game audio going in the next 20 years?

The nature of games will not change over time, it is still about creating fun. Therefore, the part of game audio related to “human nature”, including emotional touch, artistic sense, culture and so on, will not change with time. However, the development of technology does have a great impact on the way we experience, and is likely to create new fun. In the foreseeable future, with the development of artificial intelligence, it is likely to enable future game audio to achieve more “organic” interaction. In addition, auditory analog reality, spatial audio and other technologies can also make the sound in the game more like the real voice around you. Very much looking forward to the arrival of all this!

What is one thing you have really enjoyed about working on Honor of Kings?

Honor of Kings is already a game with great influence in China. The most enjoyable thing about working for such a project is that it can bring happiness to a large number of players, and your sounds are heard by hundreds of millions of people. In addition, Honor of Kings has a very large world outlook setting, a large number of heroic roles, and the unique “fusion” culture of MOBA games, as well as a series of derivative content such as the extremely influential esports competitions, which brings additional space for our sounds. If you follow the original music of Honor of Kings, you will find that the whole style is very wide. The main tone is “Asian Fantasy” style, which combines Chinese Asian aesthetics and epic Hollywood soundtrack style, but often expands new expressions according to some versions, such as pure Chinese style, electronic music, rock, cyberpunk, and so on, so that every creation can become a new beginning, with great room for imagination. The first thing we think about is how to bring a unified auditory logo to Honor of Kings, and make every creation “have a feeling”. To be able to do such a deep design is what makes this project so exciting and brings joy to all who are participating in the process.

 

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