Overwatch‘s newest map – Blizzard World – is a celebration of all things Blizzard. 

If you’ve played the new map in the colourful first person shooter, you may have noticed that throughout the theme park are dotted speakers that play music relative to each of the different areas you’re in.

We were lucky enough to get some questions answered by a bunch of the sound team at Blizzard about how they went about recording theme park sounds, some of the Blizzard universe Easter Eggs you might’ve missed, where Blizzard World is actually set, and the nitty-gritty technicalities of getting the perfect sound effects in the games; just the coding itself sounds intense.

On answering duties:

  • Scott Lawlor – Project Audio Director, Overwatch
  • Paul Lackey – Supervisor, Sound Design, Overwatch
  • Justin DeCloedt – Sound Designer, Overwatch
  • Geoffrey Garnett – Senior Sound Designer, Overwatch
  • Chris De La Pena – Senior Sound Designer, Overwatch
  • Tomas Neumann – Senior Software Engineer, Overwatch

Where did you start out with the sound design for Blizzard World?

Scott Lawlor – The Overwatch team had been kicking around the concept of a Blizzard World map for years.  It is something the entire development team was excited about, especially since so many of us have spent time working on the other Blizzard franchises.  The process of map creation generally starts with a rough block-out where the level design is hammered out. The art team then starts to plan the layout of the level based on that design.  Once the art team gets far enough along, and they have established a theme for each area in a level, we can start to get to work.

Going to a theme park is sensory overload, and a very audio-heavy experience. We needed to lean on music, sound FX and voice over to keep that authentic feel.  One of the first things we did is look into the back catalogue of Blizzard music and place it throughout the levels from park speakers.  We then decided to cast some of the most recognisable characters from WoW, Diablo and StarCraft to be the park announcers.  As the level was finalised, we were able to drill into all of the details of the ambient sound in the level and the little sound Easter eggs we hid across the soundscape of the map.

How much did you have to collaborate with the teams on Blizzard’s other properties to get the required sounds for what you wanted to create just right?

Justin DeCloedt – I’ve been a huge fan of Blizzard for as long as I can remember, so as soon as this map started coming to life I had a tonne of ideas as to how I wanted it to sound. We initially reached out to the other sound teams here at Blizzard to let them know we were working on such a cool map and that we may be reaching out to them for assets or assistance. For the StarCraft area we had Evan Chen, the Sound Supervisor for that property, come by and we showed him what would be in the map and worked with him to come up with a list of assets we could repurpose. For the World of Warcraft area of the park, it pretty much consisted of me going through their massive asset library in order to come up with all the various things we’d need.

“Going to a theme park is sensory overload, and a very audio-heavy experience.”

Chris de la Pena – I worked closely with Kris Giampa, the Sound Supervisor for Diablo in picking the right sounds for the Diablo area of Blizzard World. Kris was instrumental in helping me select the various ghouls and creatures we randomised in audio emitters strategically placed throughout the Diablo section of the map. The Diablo III sounds were so good, we barely had to process any of them before putting them in!

Where is Blizzard World theoretically ‘set’ and how did this influence the kinds of music you used within the park?

Paul Lackey – The attractions and park zones are, of course, based on Blizzard franchises and lore. So selecting music meant going through the archives and finding music that would resonate with the players of our games while capturing the correct energy for the different spaces being dressed with music.  The Valley of Heroes area needed to sound majestic, while the Ancient Curios shop needed something with more of a medieval retail [What a phrase!] feel.  So much wonderful music has been composed over the years that making selections was fairly tough.

The entire park is imagined to be located in Irvine, CA, where our headquarters and development studios are located.  I wanted the park to sound familiar to our employees so I stepped outside to capture the essence of our campus to use as the outdoor “air” tone for our theme park.  I recorded several locations around campus but the best sounding balance of birds, air, building vents, and distant hums came from a quiet moment in our large courtyard between buildings.  In fact, it was the first bit I recorded.  I should have stopped then and saved myself another hour!

Tell us about the actual theme park that you went to to get recordings – how much access were you given? Was there anything you didn’t go there planning to record that you ended up coming back to the studio with?

Scott Lawlor – We are very fortunate to have a number of theme parks in Southern California, one of which is Knott’s Berry Farm.  Through a connection to a close family member, we were able to setup a time before the park opened to come by and get the test runs of the rides before the park music was turned on.  This allowed us to get very clean and authentic recordings of the rides in a nice quiet environment.  After the park opened, we spent a few more hours getting sounds of machinery and rollercoasters from backstage. These recordings were infused into all of the background audio in the level.  While we went there primarily to record the rides, we also got a bunch of backstage machinery, various pneumatic devices and even a couple of squeaky metal gates.

What were some of the specific sounds you set out to record when you went to the park?

Geoff Garnett – I think the obvious things we wanted to tackle were any sounds relative to theme park rides. e.g. gears, cranks, hydraulics chuffing, turnstile gates, rollercoaster cars on tracks, and of course capturing whiz-bys with passengers screaming. I don’t think there is any bigger of a sonic fingerprint for theme parks than a car full of screaming people roaring past and fading into the distance.

What were some of the more extreme lengths you had to go to to get recordings?

Geoff Garnett – I wish I could say that we did something super ninja-daredevil style on this recording adventure, but fortunately we didn’t have to do anything very unusual or dangerous. I think the most difficult scenario for us was recording an old mine cart ride. The attraction has all kinds of great-sounding animatronics, steam, levers, and the carts themselves sounded amazing on their respective tracks. The catch was that the ride had its own soundtrack that played over a PA system, so it was tricky to coordinate running the ride without all the speakers on. We only had a small window of time to run the ride before the park opened, but the staff was very helpful and we were able to pull it off. A lot of the sounds we recorded were purposed for the Flight to Duskwood ride in Blizzard World.

How many times did you need to go on each of the individual rides/attractions to be able to capture the right sounds?

Geoff Garnett – Though a few of us did ride some of the coasters at the park, we didn’t need any sound perspectives for riding ON any of the fast-moving rides. The aforementioned Mine Cart ride only required us to run it twice to make sure we had all the perspectives we needed. However, when the park opened we set up a bunch of recording rigs at variable distances both near, mid, and far. I was under the wooden coaster tracks and recorded 15 takes of the ride being run myself. We tried to capture 2-5 takes of all of the other coasters in the park, but the wooden coaster just has so much character, and that iconic sound of a theme park, so we spent most of our energy there.

“…the wooden coaster just has so much character, and that iconic sound of a theme park, so we spent most of our energy there.”

What was involved in the implementation of the speakers within the game itself? Are they able to independently broadcast sound?

Justin DeCloedt – Getting those little speakers working in the map has been a feature I’ve been asking for since the project first started and I was pretty excited once our audio programmer, Tomas, was able to get the code implemented for them to work. Normally all of the sound emitters we place in the world are unique instances of a sound object. If we have a row of torches for instance, they all might play the same sound but they will be playing it at different points within its loop. With the syncing feature that Tomas came up with, if we place multiple instances of the same emitter in a map and then active this setting, they will all start to play the same looping file and try to match the same point within it.

Tomas Neumann – Normally, when we place sound emitters in a map we intentionally want to avoid them playing identical audio data, because that can lead to unwanted phasing and loss of immersion. To prevent this our Sound Designers can define random start point in loops, and even author loop segments, which cross fade at different times, to guarantee that similar objects in the game world do not play identical sounds. To create the best virtual amusement park speakers in Blizzard World we needed exactly the opposite: perfectly synced emitters.

We tried an approach to mix a single sound into different playback positions, but we ran into problems with our obstruction and occlusion feature, because one speaker left of you could be blocked, but the one on the right is not. We had to come up with a special solution, because just starting them at the same time was not reliable enough for them to stay in sync. Our solution is, that we randomly pick a master instance and essentially feed its audio stream into the other instances. To make sure my code was correct I was using a sound that was a voice counting up numbers from one to ten. It was a little spooky walking through Blizzard World hearing this voice counting, but at least I knew the sync code was working.

Does the sound coming out of the speakers in the park bounce off other surfaces at all?

Scott Lawlor – One of the key signature sounds of a theme park is how the music reacts in the environment.  Hearing the echo as you stroll down the corridors is something that we really wanted to get right.  Thankfully, Overwatch has a feature that was made to do this.  We call it Quad Delay.  It works by trying to simulate the sound reflections off of nearby surfaces.  We test the game environment to determine the distance to the walls around the player, and reproduce a “slap back” delay from each direction.  This allows the music to sound like it’s bouncing off all of the corridors and walls in the level.  It’s a really fascinating effect, and really makes the music feel like it is part of the world.

“you don’t actually notice how much is going on…it just sounds right.”

How did you decide on the placement of these speakers?

Paul Lackey – Hearing music as you stroll through a theme park is so essential to the experience that we knew these speakers would be the primary ambience for the map.  Even though we did not yet have the tech to synchronise the music being distributed across multiple speakers, we had to get started.  I began making top down views of the various parts of the park and drawing in speaker locations that would project the correct way, provide the needed coverage, and not bleed into unwanted areas.  Since the music was not yet synchronised the zones sounded pretty chaotic, but as a proof of concept it was a solid start.  Once Tomas got us the tech we needed, the final speaker locations were tuned and then our environment art team went in and made the speakers look like they are camouflaged into the park’s walls and buildings, just like in real theme parks.

How do you manage the fades between music in different areas of the park while players are running around? How difficult was this to implement?

Paul Lackey – Managing the fades between the different outdoor areas was mostly about having a slightly wider gap between speakers as you moved between the zones, so that the music would just be fading away as you start hearing the next area’s music.  Where it got tricky was with some of the interior spaces.  Many of the indoor shops and rides have their own music and the problem was with keeping the outdoor park music from bleeding in.  We addressed this by giving the indoor and outdoor spaces their own “mixes” so that you can only hear the speakers that are supposed to be heard depending on the space you are in.  What’s funny is an awful lot of work went into making the park music feel natural and seamless, so you don’t actually notice how much is going on…it just sounds right.

In your opinion, what do you think is the most realistic/immersive part about the Blizzard World map, or one of the more interesting sounds you managed to include?

Chris de la Pena – I had a great time working on the Diablo area of Blizzard World. I never thought I’d get the opportunity to implement Diablo style sounds in Overwatch! My past experience working on Diablo III helped inform me on what appropriate sounds to use for reflecting the size of the opening chamber of the Diablo area (Reign of the Black King).  The basic background ambience was taken from one of the Diablo III Cathedral areas which you battle through on your way to fight the Skeleton King (The Black King). So not only is the ambience appropriate for the size, it also stays true to the Diablo III lore. If you walk past the entrance of the Diablo area there is a deep steaming pit. I placed an audio emitter of some ambient sounds I created for the Abattoir pits in the area of Westmarch found in the Diablo III expansion, Reaper of Souls. The sounds reflect an ominous hot breeze coming from the unknown deeps of the pit. I also used audio emitters for randomised creature sounds you might recognise from different areas of Diablo III. A few more sounds I had a blast implementing in the Blizzard World Diablo area are the torches and urns, which you can hear crackling as you pass by. One last thing, if you by chance pass by one of the lore books in the area, go up to it and listen. You just might hear the ghost of Deckard Cain scribbling notes and turning the pages!

If by some miracle you’re not playing Overwatch – get your copy now

We also managed to get a hold of some footage of the guys trawling around Knott’s Berry Farm – have a look: