Examining Success: How SIDE Produces Award-Winning Game Performances

March 2023


One of the challenges SIDE regularly encounters is tackling game projects of vast scope and deep complexity, like the kinds found in RPGs, fantasy, and historical games.

Typically, these tend to have a large cast, requiring finding an equally large range of voice actors. Additionally, the characters themselves might consist of varying races and ethnicities, which necessitates locating the right voice talent for authentic casting—not to mention the hurdle of localizing this type of intricacy into other languages and cultures. Finally, regardless of content, it can be difficult to work with new developers without proper planning in place.

Fortunately, we’re a veteran studio who has seen enough of these projects over the course of our career that we’ve developed and refined our processes to handle them. Let’s investigate how this works.

Creating difference

One of the joys of playing video games is the ability to experience cultures different from one’s own. When a developer invents such cultures using fictional places and names, it can be difficult for creatives to ground those cultures in such a way as to seem realistic. As an example, the Witcher franchise contains the regions Redania, Skellige, and Novigrad, which don’t necessarily have real-world analogues.

To manage this, we asked the developer about the kind of tone they were aiming for in specific regions. If a UK English accent was desired, we clarified if that meant “from England only” or if Scottish, Welsh, and Irish accents were included. Further, we suggested accessing our wide range of available accents to broaden the spectrum.

We differentiated the dialects of each region by assigning specific cultures to them: Redanians used Northern English accents, inhabitants of Skellige employed Northern Irish accents, and characters from Novigrad spoke with posh English accents. To round out the setting, characters of the working class had London accents. Even when overseas developers might not be able to hear the differences in accents, our history of seeking diverse voices helps a narrative team map out our recommendations to make clear how everything fits together.

Maintaining accuracy

Historical games like Age of Empires IV present almost the opposite problem: finding actors able to faithfully represent actual dialects from bygone languages. Among the civilizations available to players are the Mongolian, Delhi Sultans, and Abbasid Kingdom. As might be expected, we had a huge challenge before us to provide expert speakers of these cultures’ languages, especially as the developer requested the ancient forms of their dialects, most of which are not widely spoken today.

Lacking source recordings made this an even more difficult task, but we stepped up to the problem, setting up temporary studios in locations including Mongolia and Southern Turkey, where we spread a wide net to find scholars able to speak these ancient tongues. The result: over 150 voice actors speaking 8 different languages across 7 countries, and a historically accurate game that educated as well as it entertained.

Recreating atmosphere

Though some might not realize it, a game’s sound is perhaps the key component in generating immersion. For the World War One game Battlefield 1, we knew that providing weapon reports and ordnance explosions was not enough to truly recreate the exhaustion and stress of the battle atmosphere.

We knew from our research that we didn’t want to record action-hero dialogue, but rather the kind of desperate emotion that real warfare evokes from real people. Changing recording from enclosed booths to a vast, open space allowed us to put actors through actual physical labor while delivering their lines, carrying heavy loads and pulling each other along on ropes. The rigorous exercise paid off in performances that felt fatigued and anxious, adding weight to the lines that pushed the narrative forward.

Managing processes

Recording voiceover and generating audio special effects are the flashier aspects of what we do, but arguably more important are the workflow and processes we’ve evolved over the course of SIDE’s existence. Without a rigorous and well-coordinated management plan, production becomes chaotic and haphazard, leading to delayed releases and a poorly received product.

One of the most ambitious projects in video game history came to us from CD Projekt Red: Cyberpunk 2077. The numbers alone speak to its complexity: 125 actors, 2,500 hours of recording time, 120,000 audio files, 250 characters, and around 1,100 hours of post-production time were totaled over the course of its duration. Only careful management with our optimized script development tools kept the project on track. From the start, we recorded with an eye toward the post-production team’s involvement closer to the delivery milestone, utilizing a systematic process that accounted for every file generated.

A smooth delivery doesn’t happen accidentally; it’s the result of diligence and exacting preparation. We customize solutions for every project, eschewing cookie-cutter methods that won’t always work for every game. From casting to recording to post-editing, our seasoned professionals work carefully to ensure that a project sticks to its schedule and budget.

Collaborating overseas

The video game market is rapidly increasing in size and scope. Digital delivery ensures that any country with working internet access is a potential customer, which means that regions that have been historically underserved are now producing games themselves. This leads to atypical languages needing translation, localization, and culturalization.

SIDE understands that the first step in working with a new or infrequently seen language is proper translation. Bad translations lead to rewrites, which can cost time and money, throwing a carefully planned schedule into disarray. It’s worth taking the time to work with a linguist or expert in the target language to get the translation right the first time. The script should flow well when read aloud by actors.

And perhaps more importantly, references, slang, and sometimes even proper nouns should be culturalized appropriately to avoid inaccuracy at best and inadvertent offense at worst. Players have shown that they will embrace a game that feels authentic to their culture, even if the game’s setting is outside of their own.

Casting successfully

No matter the region or audience, it’s up to the audio studio to cast actors appropriate to the characters they play. We’ve found it invaluable to provide voice actors with as much supplemental material as possible: character backgrounds, artwork, any existing animation, and pre-recorded audio, in addition to the basic information that includes age, gender, accent, and tone. SIDE London’s Casting Director, Martin Vaughan, CDG, elaborates: “The great thing about working with CD Projekt Red is they were very generous throughout all the stages of casting, providing us with early character art, detailed backstories, and rough cuts of cinematics to help ground who these characters were and the context they existed in.”

A detail that might slip by a developer is casting actors using undirected video. That is, actors simply reading the provided lines without the benefit of a professional director to guide them. While it might save time, undirected performances do not present the viewer with enough information to properly cast the role. Good direction will always help the actor understand the proper approach to a character, and thus enable them to give the casting agent more of what they might be looking for.

Before or even during the casting process, it’s also important to understand the regulations and policies in place for the region in which the casting occurs. Elements like how the actor is paid or the length of time beyond which a recording cannot run are important to consider. These elements are usually settled before any actual casting is accomplished.

Collaborating well

Lastly, it cannot be overstated how important proper planning and timely communication are to the success of any project. Not only should every aspect of the production process be scheduled, but contingencies should be put into place in the event of unforeseen emergencies. We evaluated our processes carefully after the COVID pandemic changed the way things were done and we’ve become nimbler as a result.

There should be clear and free communication between studio and developer at all stages, not merely to keep track of milestones, but also to include the developer in creative matters. A subtlety might be exposed that only the developer would catch, leading to a change in the script; or technical challenges on the development side might alter the delivery timelines to an important extent. Close collaboration is always worth the effort on both sides.

In an interview with Behind the Glass magazine, our Technical Director, Anthony Hales, sums up: “The core process is we need to speak and engage with the client and ask them in detail about what their project will entail. We can then work out the resources needed for the project. We can offer casting, direction, recording, editorial, mastering, and facial capture. Once we have established this, we can then offer the correct director for the project, put them in the correct studio for recording, and let them know they may need to record in LA or London.”

A video game project is executed best with open communication, trust in the ability of each party, and adherence to tested-and-true methods developed over time. We’ve proven the wisdom of our processes in the number of awards we’ve won over the years and the happy developers, publishers, and players our titles have reached.