With the outgoing generation of consoles, there was a very particular issue relating to surround sound that developers of cross-platform titles had to reconcile. This was whether to support 7.1 on the PS3 or whether to stick to the standard 5.1 surround formats available over on the Xbox360. The issue was a thorny one because if you decided to go for the full discreet 7.1 experience on the PS3, your audio engine had to support the 8 channels of output. This meant that you had to somehow decide what to do with those extra two channels when it came to rendering on the 360 - did you fold them into the Ls and Rs channels and risk having a muddy surround image, or did you scale the amount of channels based on the platform? Or did you simply say screw it and support only 5.1 on both the PS3 and the 360?. Either way, it usually led to a compromise in quality and vision for your surround mix. The mingling of these two surround formats on a cross-platform game also introduced a layer of confusion for the consumer, with so many differing and competing technologies and products in the market, it made it difficult for the consumer to make a choice. Of course, platform exclusive titles, like Uncharted, were able to really make the most of the 7.1 and all the other supported output configurations on the PS3, likewise 360 exclusive titles could focus their attention on the 5.1 and stereo mixes to maximize the experience of the user on those titles.
In the outgoing generation, for developers, it often felt like 7.1 was a bridge too far, especially for the limited number of consumers who would be able to experience this at home.
Flash forward to late 2013 and we have two new consoles about to hit the consumer, the PS4 and the XboxOne. Both of these now support 7.1 surround, so a case for supporting a 7.1 surround mix can now more easily be made. This is good news for the mix of a multi-platform title focussing on those two platforms, and to some extent even the PC, which has for some time supported 7.1 surround (and upwards) via various surround sound card configurations. I would argue that perhaps one of the biggest hindrances to consumers adopting 7.1 in any significant numbers has been down to the format not having widespread support through consumer technology like video games consoles.
The question still remains, from a consumer perspective, which format is the most popular? My own take on this is one that looks at it from the consumer’s perspective, and is that whatever configuration the consumer listens on, it should be the best experience possible on that system, and this usually takes the form, at least from the developer’s side, of mix scaling - which is often achieved via the introduction of either user-definable options in the sound menu for supporting the various configurations - which in turn switch between different custom authored mixes (via middleware or proprietary audio engine technology) of the game’s content, tailored specifically for those configurations (such as a stereo mix with subtle compression and slightly higher dialogue levels, and/or specific 5.1 and 7.1 tweaked mixes) or whether the game uses the currently selected output configuration set in the console’s sound settings and automatically selects the most appropriate mix based on that setting.
In my own experience, we’ve always tended to mix for the highest possible spec end-user, in this case a 7.1 home theatre, and get a mix that can deliver that experience in the best possible home-set-up. Once that mix is complete, the process of scaling occurs, whereby the ‘ideal’ 7.1 mix is cloned (or ‘adapted’, depending on your authoring technology), and tuned for a 5.1 set-up, and again for a 2.0 set-up with the intention of re-focussing the experience for a completely different speaker array.
The difference between 5.1 and 7.1 may not seem like a big deal, but in games where a player is using sound, and sound positioning in particular for enemy intel, it can make or break the player’s experience if that intel is in any way compromised. Being a player at the centre of a discreet 7.1 mix works really well for the FPS genre for example. The difference between 5.1 and 2.0 is massively significant and requires a very different mix approach to both music, vo, fx and all kinds of dynamic ducking as well as limiting and compression. The days of just hoping a surround home theatre mix will just sum down perfectly to a stereo mix experienced on TV speakers is thankfully behind us. This all points to the need for more advocacy for time on the mix, both during, and at the end of production.
I think both the continuation of 7.1 from the PS3 to PS4, and the addition of 7.1 to the Xbox lineage are great boosts in quality for sound in console gaming - this consistency is also good for both developers (those authoring the surround mix content) as well as consumers. By focussing the console experience on 7.1, I believe certain consumers will be more curious to investigate this format.
Whether the 7.1 home consumer market grows remains to be seen, but there is certainly now more incentive to push this format due to both of these consoles supporting that array.