José González, the creator of subROV: Underwater Discoveries, talked about his sound designer background and how it influenced the game and discussed how close to life the experience is.
My name is José González, I'm a Spanish composer and sound designer. That's what I studied and I've been working on games for a very long time now, probably around 20 years. I've worked on all kinds of games, doing all kinds of things, mostly sound design, but I've done other things as well. I've done production a few times and this is my first game of this scope that I do on my own. I've worked with smaller teams before and I've done smaller games and smaller apps myself, but nothing of this size working alone.
subROV: Underwater Discoveries
An ROV is a Remotely Operated Vehicle and in this case, it's a submarine remotely operated vehicle. To put it in perspective, it's a robot the size of a compact car that's operated from a vessel on the surface and is connected with a cable that goes all the way down to where the submarine is. That way they can work in real time and they can control it from the vessel. These robots are used for many things, like offshore operations to inspect wells and possible sites of explosions in the middle of the Baltic Sea. They are also used for exploration, these are mostly custom models because they are fitting state-of-the-art technology for the sake of surveying biological sites and exploring in general. Their operations are usually streamed online, so you can watch them.
When I found the stream, I was impressed that these people were exploring some place in the ocean, 4,000 meters under the sea and I was able to watch it from home as it was happening in real time.
The first time I saw it I was really impressed and wondered if there was a game where I could try this, just out of curiosity, I was not incredibly invested at the moment. I didn't really find anything aside from very expensive simulators that are intended for pilots to train before they get their certification. It's very professional stuff, not even for the general public.
That kind of stayed in my mind, I was surprised that there was nothing of the sort. At the same time, for the sake of my profession, I was thinking about a project that I could use to train in a very specific sound design middleware called Wwise that I really wanted to keep working with. So I thought, let's see if I can come up with my own project.
Over the years, I would reluctantly call myself a programmer because I have a lot of respect for the profession. I learned to program and I had some skills, enough that I considered making my own project using Unity.
I found these live streams when I was thinking about a theme for this project. I decided that they would make a very compelling theme or setting for a sound design project because they have a little bit of everything.
Since the vessel is on the surface but the submarine is underwater, you have those two different very different settings to work with. And sometimes you have to work with them at the same time. You also have the inside and the outside world because the operators of these submarines are in controlled rooms, with screens everywhere, so you have the ambience and sounds of the room but at the same time, you might be getting sounds from the ocean recorded by the ROV. So I had to think about all those things and all the mechanical elements: whales, dolphins, different situations, and even rain. This is something that I plan to do in the future, but it's very interesting that you can hear the sound of rain falling on the surface of the ocean from quite a big distance underwater.
It's an incredible setting for sound design. Even if I was not making a game, it's something I would like to work on as a sound designer because there's so much to do, and it's not trivial, it's challenging to figure out ways of mixing all these things together in a compelling way.
The last thing that made me work on this particular project was that my last project in a big company was sound design for Elite Dangerous, I was the lead of that project since the beginning of the sound design implementation for about a year. So if I was going to do something that was my own project, I thought I would go for a spaceship first. But since I had already done Elite Dangerous, I thought it would be good to do something that was not the same but similar. And in all honesty, what I'm doing is a spaceship project in a way because I consider submarine exploration very similar in so many ways to space exploration. It's just inner space instead of outer space.
So when I put all these things together, I thought it was a great thing to try and I started working on that as a personal project. Then over time, as circumstances like the pandemic and all kinds of things happened, I started leaning more and more into it exclusively, and eventually, it became the project, a game that I thought I could finish to a successful end.
Underwater Exploration Appeal
Underwater exploration is compelling because the ocean is something that we have next to us. Yet, despite it being so close, it's inscrutable, and not so long ago we couldn't really explore that far away into the ocean. That in itself makes it compelling, it's mysterious, it's a great unknown.
I love the ocean and I have an equal amount of fear of it, I don't know exactly why. I cannot live very far from it, I feel this longing for the sea, but at the same time, when I think of that immense mass of stuff that we have so close, I get an ominous feeling. So it's a subject that I find very emotional, very intriguing. There's so much that we can do to explore the oceans, there's such a pressing need to do it.
When you put all that together, there are plenty of space games already but not so many games about the ocean. And it's something I don't quite understand because people do like it as a setting.
There are a few relatively recent games, like Abzû or Beyond Blue, the latter is a bit more similar to what I do, even though it's scuba diving rather than a submarine game. And those games are well received, people like to explore the ocean, and I think that fascination is universal. So I don't quite understand why there aren't more games. I love spaceship games, don't take me wrong, but why don't we have more ocean games? It is such a fascinating subject.
Becoming a Developer
It's something that kind of grows over time. If you work in game development, eventually you get to touch every single aspect just because you work with people doing those things. And if you have curiosity for anything other than what you're doing, eventually you're going to want to do something yourself, whether big or small.
In my case, I always wanted to make my own games and my own apps, like designing my own synthesizers, which I eventually did. I always felt like not being a good programmer or not knowing how to program in the first place was a real obstacle because I always depended on someone else.
Over time, I decided to study by myself. As it was self-studying, I am wary of calling myself an engineer. I wouldn't dare to go to the labs that the people that work with me go to on a daily basis or even try to do the things that they do. But fortunately, we have very good tools such as Unity and Unreal, engines that do that part of the work that you wouldn't be able to do or it would take your whole life.
My expertise in video games comes from working with other people, seeing what they do in every single area, and then trying myself and asking questions. I'm blessed with friends that are incredibly talented. Even though I'm not working with them right now, I keep in touch and I'm always a Telegram message away from an expert.
That's how I've learned, and there's a lot of banging my head against the wall. Since I started learning to program, it's been about ten years. Maybe the biggest pothole in the road was me believing that I would never be able to program because if instead of trying to lean on friends to do these things for me I had started just learning on my own, then I would have probably made this game ten years ago.
I think every game has its own set of goals. To me, Subnautica is a game that best captures the feeling and the dread of being underwater. It's not a simulator, but simulation is a word that tends to be dropped into a certain frame of mind, where you are trying to simulate the physics of something with mathematical accuracy. And Subnautica is a simulator, but it simulates the experience of being underwater better than any other game I've ever seen, even though it's not a simulator in the sense that it recreates the physics of the machinery that you're using. Abzû is a different kind of game. It's also very interesting in the way it simulates a school of fish really nicely and it has its own goals. It's more artistic, in a sense.
In my game, I'm not trying to simulate driving a submarine robot. I'm interested in recreating the experience of the live streams that I saw on YouTube where you could see the whole process since they are on the ship, and they have a frame that the ROVs are attached to, and the first thing they do is deploy it in the water and you can actually see it.
Then they spend hours trying to reach the bottom of the sea. When they get there, they move around, explore, and see what they find. So my goal, rather than to simulate the behavior of the mechanic elements, is to recreate the whole experience. And in that sense, I take liberties.
If I can make it realistic and it works, I keep it. I don't have any reason why I cannot make the creatures behave as they would in real life if I can, and there's no reason why the current in the water, what they call the wind, wouldn't have the actual speed of the real wind that these pilots would encounter. But if it gets in the way of the experience, then I will change it, if I have a very good reason.
When I take liberties, I try to be organized about them. There are a few elements in my game that you won't find in real-time ROVs, for instance, a sonar that works a lot like in No Man's Sky. You see this ring when you hit the sonar, it's a visual aid. Pilots don't have these, but it works well for the game because then you can see points of interest. Otherwise, exploration would be like in real life, "let's see what happens". And then you could spend 4 hours not finding anything. So I don't go to that extreme, I give aids.
But those elements that I have, the user interface elements that you won't find in real life, are tied to one specific camera. So if you don't want to use them, you can just not use that camera at all, and then it is more realistic. My intention is never to be accurate in the functioning of things but to give a realistic impression to the point that if you play the game enough and then get to see the real thing, you will feel familiarity. That also allows me to touch many areas that are real and that a traditional simulator wouldn't touch.
For instance, I care not only about driving the vessel or operating the ROV but also about the creatures and the corals that you find at depth, some of which come straight from observations that happened just a few months ago, and you can find them in the game.
Because I'm not hyper-focused on a certain kind of simulation, I make the whole thing feel more realistic. Commercial simulators focus on getting all the physics because they have to, you have pilots training on them. But of course, you're not going to find real species of corals there because that's not their point.
My aim is the general experience, I try to make some elements as accurate as I can, but that's not the end objective. And if something gets in the way, I will take some liberties.
This also comes from the live stream experience, control rooms of research vessels are surrounded by screens because the people there need cameras to see what's happening around them at all times. Since my game all happens on a single screen, I couldn't add a million cameras, but I felt that I needed to have at least an external camera and a first-person camera, one that's right in front of the submarine. The external camera can focus either on the ROV or on the vessel. The idea is to be able to give you a decent situation report of what's happening.
The third-person camera is not exactly unrealistic. Some of the ROVs have cameras as well. What I do that's unique to my game and is not realistic is you can move the external camera around like it's fixed in distance, always pointing at the ROV, it's like a drone hovering around it. That bit is not realistic, although not completely impossible. I don't mind it that much because even in hardcore simulations, you always have an external camera. I don't think anyone will die if an external camera is present. And in my case, I think it's useful.
The vessels are equipped with several kinds of sonars because they are going to places that haven't been explored. They also chart the depths and make elaborate maps of the seafloor. In my game, you can do the same. Usually, you have a view of three or four different depths, they're not very detailed. As you explore them, you reveal the contours of the seafloor in detail. And you can use that before you decide to deploy the ROV to see if there are points of interest. Maybe you can find the wreckage or a special rock that looks suspicious. That map is present in my game.
I have another sonar that it's half-real and half-fantasy. I made it work a lot like real sonar in the sense that it gives you the contours of the things that are surrounding you. It took me a while to figure out how to model this in a game, and to my surprise, it works really well. I added a passive sonar so you can hear the sounds of everything surrounding you, like whales and whatever life is around. There are also what I call tracking dots, which help you see objects of interest.
Underwater Sound Design
The ocean is anything but silent, you hear all kinds of things. I never specialized in underwater sounds, that's a huge area of sonography that I didn't know about in sound recordings. And that's something I'm learning myself as we speak.
The ocean sounds are not what we are accustomed to and they travel differently. There are sounds that we don't even know what they are.
I said I started the game because I wanted a project for sound design but then I became a game developer. When I was in the sound department, they said leaving sound design for the end is not a good idea. I'm not guilty of that because I plan for all the issues that I could have, but I can now see very well the other side of game development.
I added sound to lots of things, the general sound and soundscapes of the ocean are something that I really want to get into as soon as the early access starts. So I can focus on a few things that have been pending because I had to make the rest of the game. Something that I really want to do is, for instance, when it rains on the surface, you can hear it.
There are some things that I have to think about, for example, the sound of the vessel and the engines can become part of the soundscape to a point that it might be annoying. And this is what I call taking liberties, I have to balance such things. If there's a sperm whale kilometers away from you, you should be able to hear it, but it might be misleading from the point of view of sound design because that is a goal that you might never reach because it's very far away.
Sound is not an afterthought, and good companies do have good sound design teams and they do take care of their sounds. But in this particular field of underwater exploration, I do think I can make a difference because this is, after all, my specialty.
Secret of Success
I think what makes games successful is consistency of vision. A game doesn't need to be the shiniest thing ever in any given department. If it is well-thought and coherent, this is more important than it being flashy. Because flashy is something that saves the game in the trailer, but then you get to play it and it doesn't make sense.
You can call lots of things games equally, but they can be so different. Is my game a simulator? Not exactly. Is it an arcade game? Not exactly. So what is it that I'm doing? What's the coherence of my vision?
The coherence of my vision is the recreation of experience, and that's what I'm trying to transmit. When you start playing the game, you can get that feeling that someone was thinking this through very hard and very seriously: how to recreate this, how to give you the feeling that you're actually launching your own ROV, and that ominous feeling when you plunge into the water and it gets all dark, this kind of coherence. And then there's great design, of course, it has to be there. But what is great design? It's a number of things, and they all have to work together for a pleasant experience.
You have to focus on different things before players can play your game, you have to sell something nice and shiny. But like I said, coherence is paramount. It doesn't have to be a single person's vision, but that coherence informs everything else that you do. If there's no vision, then your systems, mechanics, and other things that you throw together because they work well in other games don't make any sense in yours.