Communication between departments is a huge challenge at any game studio and Telltale Games certainly was no exception. This document is something I wrote as the Audio Director at Telltale to help explain how I approached preparing the audio budgets and staffing for our projects to the Production team at the studio. I wanted to provide some context for my data so they didn’t feel that I was just pulling numbers out of thin air.
At the end of this document I included a few formulas that hopefully provided an easy reference for Production for the numbers I was coming up with. This formula is based around the basic blueprint for how Telltale set episode production schedules.
An explanation of terms:
Tool: The Telltale Tool, the game engine used by the studio.
Dialogue Files: The part of the Telltale Tool containing the script for the episode.
Chore: The Chore team at Telltale was the cinematics department who put the episode together visually.
Chores: The name of the files where the cinematics were created. Short for Choreography.
First Playable Milestone: Rough first pass of the episode as a whole for team review.
Ratings Milestone: The episode should be playable front to back with most content implemented for evaluation by the team and studio leadership.
Chore Lock: No more camera or animation timing changes should occur, only polish.
Submission: The episode should be finished with the team only addressing bug fixes.
Understanding the Telltale Audio Process
Basic Episode Staffing
Each Telltale episode requires a minimum of three Audio team members made up of one Lead and two sound designers. If an episode is a 101 (the first episode of a new series at Telltale), there should be a minimum of four sound designers assigned in order to help establish the sound design for the series. If an entire season is determined to be sfx heavy, a total of four Audio team members may be needed per episode and should be considered when budgeting.
If the music for the show is being done by a composer that will not be implementing their own work, then an additional Audio team member will be required for the season to interface with the composer and implement the music files into the Tool and should be budgeted appropriately.
Additional Staffing Assessments
When the Lead and/or Audio Director first evaluates an episode, they may determine that another sound designer may be necessary for all or part of the episodes audio production. If it is determined that an additional team member is necessary, the Lead needs to communicate to Production how much estimated extra time is needed by Audio to complete the episode to quality. Production can then decide to a) accept the overages, b) scope the episode appropriately, or c) accept an overall lower quality audio experience for the episode.
During the Pre-Ratings and Pre-Submission Audio review session, each episode’s audio work will be assessed for quality and schedule. The Audio Director or Audio Lead may determine at that time that some extra designer work will be needed to deliver the milestone on time and/or to quality. If it is determined that extra help is needed, Production will be informed of the estimated number of designer days is needed to adequately deliver the milestone.
Step 0: Season Set-up
When a season is kicked off, there is a certain amount of prep and set-up that is required for the Audio department. The Fmod project has to be created and audio files integrated into the Tool folder hierarchy, the project’s audio library has to be built, and the overall audio vision of the project has to be determined. The season Audio Lead for the project should be budgeted at least 2 weeks of time for initial project set-up and to prepare for the designers to be able to jump right in and begin working when the project approaches its first milestone.
Step 1: Episode Set-up
When kicking off an episode, the Audio Lead will review the episode via the Dialogue Files and assess the size and scope of the audio needs for the episode. The Lead will also need to communicate with the episode producers and directors to understand any special requested creative or technical audio needs for the episode. The Lead will assign each scene of an episode to a sound designer based on the complexity of the scene and the skill level of the designer.
Step 2: First Playable Milestone
A First Playable milestone requires a rough first pass at the episodes audio that includes ambiences and temp music. Also the episode director may request any audio be added that is needed for clarity. Any other work that can be accomplished before the milestone to create a more complete experience is encouraged but not required. 2 worker weeks of time is required for this milestone.
Occasionally, scratch VO will be needed for the milestone. If a VO Director is not available, then an Audio team member will be able to engineer the recording session using the VO booth. The recorded tracks will then need to be passed off to an outside contractor for editorial processing.
Step 3: Ratings Milestone
Ratings requires a full but unpolished sound design pass from the Audio department. All necessary sound design must be created and implemented, especially all audio related to violence that will affect the rating of the episode (fights, guns, gore, etc).
The Audio worker weeks needed should be relative to the number of Chore worker weeks leading up to the Ratings milestone but should also be determined by the complexity and intensity of the episode. After their initial review, the Audio Lead will have an idea of how much effort will need to go into the episodes audio completion and communicate that clearly to Production.
Step 4: Post Readiness
Post Readiness is the point at which Chore Lock is supposed to happen. All chores are supposed to be timing and animation locked so that the post teams can confidently complete their work. Between Chore Lock and Code Lock, Audio should be finalizing their scenes with last minute fixes and polish work. Mix passes can begin on scenes as soon as they are audio locked. The worker weeks needed should be relative to the number of weeks chore has to work leading up to Chore Lock. Ideally the time for the post teams to complete their passes is no less than three days.
If there are going to be any large changes to the structure of a scene in an episode (especially post-Ratings), Production needs to communicate the extent of the changes to the Audio Lead and Audio Director. Any changes will greatly impact the time needed by Audio to finish the scene to quality. The longer the scene remains incomplete approaching submission, the less likely a scene will have a polished/mixed audio pass. Occasionally, chores will change after they have been released to post for Chore Lock. If this happens, Production needs to communicate these changes to the Audio Lead as soon as possible.
Step 5: Submission Milestone
Submission requires a fully complete and polished audio experience for the episode. Final passes on all scenes must be completed by Code Lock to allow the Lead and/or the Audio Director a chance to review and do any final mix passes needed to complete the episode to quality.
The Lead and/or Director is also working with the submission and compliance teams on any content or technical audio bugs that are found during the submission process.
Episode Audio Reviews
Each episode will have two scheduled audio reviews, one a week before Ratings and one a week before Submission. This review will be led by the Audio Director and the Lead. All designers assigned to the episode will attend.
The goal of the Pre-Ratings review is to get an idea of where the episode is currently at in terms of audio coverage for Ratings and to determine if the amount of work needed to meet the Ratings deadline fits within the remaining time. This is also a chance for the Audio Director to give feedback on the episode as a whole and make sure the design fits within expectations.
The goal of the Pre-Submission review is to make sure that the Audio team is on schedule and to allow the Audio Director and Audio Lead to give designers any feedback on the audio design leading up to episode submission.
One Audio category which will impact the budgets on a per-episode basis is Walla.
The Audio Lead will review the episode for scenes which may call for the recording of specific background crowd presence or individual call-outs and provide a list of potential needs to Production. The Audio Lead can then contact our vendor and request a quote for the recording and editorial of the required walla tracks. If the quote is approved, the Audio Lead will then coordinate and direct the walla session. The vendor will then edit the walla tracks and deliver the final files. The Audio team will then integrate the walla into the appropriate scenes.
It is generally ideal that the walla be integrated before the Ratings milestone but if necessary, the tracks can be added to the episode post-Ratings as long as there are appropriate temp tracks in place for Ratings coverage.
Audio Staffing Formulas
Note: These formulas are just a place to start from. Each project will be evaluated based on need.
Minimum number of Audio team to be budgeted per episode: 3 (1 Lead + 2 Designers)
Is the episode a 101?: +1
SFX/Action heavy episode?: +1
Music Implementation needed by Audio?: +1
Minimum worker weeks needed per episode: 18 (6 weeks * 3 Designers)
Is the episode a x01?: +2 (2 weeks additional prep)
Is the episode a 101?: +6 (1 Designer)
SFX/Action heavy episode?: +6 (1 Designer)
Music Implementation needed by Audio?: +6 (+1 Designer)
Minimum Audio budget for season: 92 weeks/21.4 months (18 weeks * 5 Eps)+(2 weeks prep)
Is the season a 100?: +6 weeks/1.4 months
SFX/Action heavy season?: +30 weeks/7 months (6 weeks * 5 Eps)
Music Implementation needed by Audio?: +30 weeks/7 months (6 weeks * 5 Eps)