Casually Classic: The brilliance of World of Warcraft’s sound design


Can you hear pictures? Well, I bet you heard the banner graphic for today’s column because that level-up sound from World of Warcraft is burned into pretty much all of our brains. And if you think about it, it’s only one of a thousand thousand sounds from this game that you’re intimately familiar on some level.

Think of the murloc’s gurgle when it spots you. The whoosh of a wand attack. The audio cues for each type of spell being cast. The crunching of walking through snow. The tink-tink of mining. The roar of Ironforge’s great furnace. The double ship bell whenever you leave an auction house. The muffled ambiance of a corpse run.

You may not think a lot about sound design or even notice it on a conscious level when you’re playing an MMORPG, but trust me, you are noticing it. It’s the kind of thing that adds greatly to immersion and connectiveness when it’s done right — and it’s jarring and annoying when it’s absent or off somehow.

We just don’t think or talk about sound design that often with MMOs, which is a shame because it’s such an important part of these game worlds. I remember back when I was first playing Anarchy Online and feeling as if something was missing from the combat experience, only to realize that it was audio cues. There were no sounds telling me that my hits were landing, what kind of attacks I was doing, or any grunts or response from the mobs. It was a lot of silence and numbers going by and me feeling like I was being largely ineffective.

It’s amazing what good sound design can lend to a game. Since I’ve played World of Warcraft an awful lot, I’ve spend a great deal of time observing the genius — and I’m not being sarcastic or hyperbolic there — that the audio team put into the game. I’m not talking about the music here (although that’s one element), but all of the other sound layers: zone ambiance, footfalls, weapon strikes, UI interactions, dialogue snippets from NPCs, death grunts, and so on.

Have you ever noticed that even the items in your inventory make sounds when you move them around? And they don’t make the same sound, but rather fit into certain categories. Gems will trigger a crystalline noise, while bullets will sound like a bag of dry rice being moved and a sword will be represented by a piece of metal being dragged across a floor.

Blizzard totally didn’t have to do any of that, but it did because it gives those items a weird physicality in your brainspace. You notice without noticing the type of item being manipulated and kind of thinking of that item as existing in a reality.

Like its graphics, WoW’s sound design eschews subtlety for bold, stylized statements. It’s far more in-your-face than you might find elsewhere. You finish a quest and the game has a mini-explosion of joy and happiness as it roars out a brief fanfare. You hearth, and there’s a build up of audible pressure until it goes “pop.” If you aggro a mob, you’ll instantly know it, because that creature or being will make an excited noise of some kind.

Having immersed myself deeply into WoW Classic this year, I’ve rediscovered the simple, unassuming artistry of the sound design of this game. It’s made me wonder, yet again, whether it’s more the art team than any other part of Blizzard that pulls me into this game.

For a little more on this topic, I’ll leave you with an incredibly young Chris Metzen talking about the sound effects that Blizzard put into The Burning Crusade:

Stepping back into the MMO time machine of WoW Classic, Justin Olivetti offers up observations and ground-level analysis as a Gnome with a view. Casually Classic is a more laid-back look at this legacy ruleset for those of us who’ve never stepped into a raid or seen more than 200 gold to our names.
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