Secrets of Sound Design with Paula Karbowniczek

What does the sound design process look like?

The entire process starts at an early stage of production, right after confirming the expansion concept and we reach a certain level of common understanding about its themes and characters. We start by brainstorming within the audio team, thinking about sound pools and techniques, which will not only work for the new expansion but will also fit general themes of every faction in the game. We put a lot of thought and effort into maintaining consistency and making sure the assets we create fit the Witcher world well.

At that point, we also try to narrow down the type of sounds we might want to record. The actual sound design is the very last step of the process of creating a card. We have to wait for animations and VFX-es to make sure the sounds we create are perfectly in sync with the visuals. Apart from myself, there are two other sound designers in the team. We assign premium cards to team members based on personal preferences: some of us have a better feel for grim and dark atmospheres, others might feel inspired by specific card art; on top of that, each of us has their own original style that fits some cards better than the others.

While creating sounds for premium cards, we put a lot of thought into making them feel like actual short stories, full scenes taken straight out of the Witcher world. Jutta is a good example here: at first glance, she is just a warrior defeated in some fight, but if you listen carefully, you can learn that her opponent was actually Geralt himself, which is a direct reference to a scene from The Witcher 3. Even though the sound design process is very personal and gives us a lot of creative freedom, finalizing sound for a card is a team effort. We meet regularly to listen to each other’s work, discuss how it fits the general design we established before and give feedback on our likes and dislikes. Quality is something that we never want to compromise on, so sometimes it takes up to two or three iterations to achieve the result we’re happy with.

What are your inspirations?

The Witcher series with its huge sound base is still the foundation for our work. We often come back to it to make sure our new assets are artistically similar to what already has been introduced to the players. Monsters are a good example here - we don't always want to work with the exact same sounds that were used in TW3, but we also cannot make them completely different since that would create confusion for those familiar with the game. Many of our ideas come from other games or movies. Every now and then, I hear this cool sound or scene and even if I’m working on something completely different, I come back to it whenever I feel it somehow fits the designs we're creating.

I also cannot stress enough how important our team effort is. Whenever we see cool illustrations or anything inspiring, we share it on our group chat and discuss. We bounce ideas off each other all the time and the outcome is simply amazing. Sometimes, it ends up being completely silly - those results often end up as easter eggs for premium cards. You might notice that every now and then, some of the cards change their premium sound to something unexpected.

What is your favourite card you designed sound for and why?

I've been here from the very beginning so choosing just one is difficult. I think I would pick Roach, even though it's one of my earliest creations and probably not the best from a technical standpoint, but I remember having tons of fun working on it. When I first started working on it, I got totally stuck because nothing I came up with seemed interesting enough for such an important character. I put it aside for a while and the final idea came to me while I was watching some silly animal compilations on YouTube. I think it came out great: it’s fun, catchy and a bit glitchy (to honor all those TW3 Roach bugs).

What would be the one thing you’d like people to know about card sound design?

That it's there! For some reason, card sound is often overlooked by many people, as if they’re taking it for granted. I treat it as a compliment - that means our card sounds are so realistic, fitting and natural that for them, audio is an integral part of it. The visuals are fantastic, no doubt about that, but the amount of effort we put into supporting it with great audio tends to get overlooked. I think it would mean a lot for everyone in the audio team to learn what people think of their work.

What are some of the challenges you face in the design process?

Time constraints, first and foremost. There are so many elements of the game that we support with audio - apart from the cards themselves - that it takes a lot of scheduling to keep up with everything. I think our processes improved significantly, but sometimes the creative process such as sound design does not want to follow time estimates. Another big challenge is that our card base at this point is really huge and there are only so many new and fresh ideas to approach a knight on a horse. The further we go, the more often we find ourselves in a situation where most of our ideas seem repetitive and it takes extra effort just to find a new angle.

Do you have an example of a sound sample used in a surprising way?

I think the most surprising ones are monster sounds. It takes a bit of trial and error to find a good foundation. For example, Gernichora is in fact a very processed vulture sound; the Forest Protector is an alligator, and monsters in Dol Dhu Lokke are actually camels.

What would you say is the most common sound used for GWENT cards?

We definitely use a lot of generic 'medieval' samples: armors, swords, etc., although they are vague enough that it's not that audible. Grunts on the other hand - all those small sighs, screams, breaths - became a prominent part of premium cards. When we first introduced them, our pool of recordings was quite small, so you might notice that some early characters use the same (or slightly altered) voice.

After a while, it became a real problem, so we took time to record more and more people. You might be surprised to hear that most of the grunts used for characters on premium cards are current or former GWENT developers that were kind enough to volunteer for the task.

Any final words for the community?

Yes! We read Reddit and forums regularly and take screenshots whenever we see any audio related topics. I wish we had more screenshots!