Audio designer and composer Jonathan van den Wijngaarden has had a career where illusions got broken and fairy tales did not really end happily ever after. After working at two of the Netherlands’ most promising studios that failed for aiming too high, he remains optimistic and takes the lessons learned into his own endeavors as a freelance audio designer and composer. Van den Wijngaarden gives us a first quick post mortem look of Fairytale Fights. The final project of the fallen Dutch game studio, Playlogic Game Factory.
Long Distance Mentor
In the era where the highest tech in the house was probably the VCR, Van den Wijngaarden was one of the first few privileged kids to have an expensive PC in his household. His dad worked in IT, which made him and his family one of the early adopters in the Netherlands. “He used to bring me floppies with games like Pac Man and Dig Dug but soon enough I got my own PC to mess around with and play a lot of shareware games”.
A few PCs later, 14 year-old Van den Wijngaarden found himself making his own scenarios and mods of Command & Conquer. “I used to put my taperecorder next to the PC to record the Command & Conquer music so I could listen to it even when I wasn’t playing,” he recalls. Through the C&C modding community he decided to get in touch through email with the musical genius behind the game, Frank Klepacki . They started exchanging emails for about 4 years in which Klepacki gave feedback on Van den Wijngaarden’s music. He followed keyboard lessons at that time, but that never satisfied his craving to make his own music. “I quit the lessons, so I could pour my heart into tracking (sample based music, red.) and composing music. Frank Klepacki took me under his wing and became my official mentor giving me something close to a full scholarship in game audio design.”
Van den Wijngaarden’s first professional job in the game industry was at Coded Illusions. He got in touch with the founder, Richard Stitselaar. Stitselaar had just left the upcoming Guerrilla Games to start his own company. They shared the same interests in games, especially Command & Conquer, and when Stitselaar learned about his “scholarship” with Klepacki, he was as good as hired.
Their first idea became the illusion they never got to finish, Nomos (in the early days also called ‘Haven’): a sci-fi, Blade Runner-esque game with religious elements. “Huddled together in a small office, I used to work on the audio with my headphones on while the rest would sit a few meters away listening to Elvis loud through the speakers. We didn’t take things very professionally then,” he recalls. When Coded Illusions got its first funding, things started to get more professional with its first official employees, many of them coming from Guerrilla. Van den Wijngaarden remained as an all-rounder in the office not only doing audio design but also being involved in management, level design, pitching game design ideas, story and dialogue writing.
Illusions Breaking the Code
In 2004, the future for Coded Illusions looked bright and for four and a half years the team worked very ambitiously as what Van den Wijngaarden fondly remembers “a group of friends making cool stuff. What we lacked in experience, we definitely made up for in enthusiasm.” Unfortunately the team’s enthusiasm is what may have put an end to the illusion. In the end of 2008, Coded Illusion went bankrupt quite instantly and the close group of friends found themselves on the street before they knew it. What went wrong? “Things started well building our own engine for the game,” Van den Wijngaarden says. “But in summer 2004, some of our managers went to GDC and got their first taste of the Unreal Engine 3. At the same time, the Xbox360 had just been announced and things looked very tempting to start working with a new engine.” His explanation: “the industry was on the front of a major turning point, getting ready to develop for next-gen consoles. “ The new promosing tool in the studio became the Unreal Engine 3. “It was too tempting,” he recalls. “The Unreal Engine 3 made our project grow disproportionately because it enabled us to pour in so many ideas we could not develop. [Nomos] wasn’t a small humble title anymore, but a full blown Unreal Engine 3 title.” The enthusiasm made them want to add an endless list of features that this shooter-oriented engine offered, including RPG-elements, more action, more story. In other words, more illusions than the code could handle.
“What we had was not bad, but there was no way of getting our project sold to a publisher.” The team’s enthusiasm and creativity ironically started to become a burden. “We couldn’t sell this to publishers, because it was not finished enough and no one was willing to admit that the game needed a lot of cutting.”
Nowadays, smaller games, including bigger projects that got cut down, are easier to market through digital distribution and a broad market of casual gamers, “but in that period the market of digital indie games was not taken seriously yet”, Van den Wijngaarden explains. So he and his teammates got stuck with an overambitious project that had nowhere to go and an economic crisis that did not make things easier. Van den Wijngaarden admits: “it would have been a lot smarter to think and start small. Starting with a lower budget and consequently attempt to take a bigger step. We were not able to build a track record as a company and a lot of good work has gone to waste.”
Fighting for Fairytales
The whole team of Coded Illusions ended up on the street at the beginning in fall 2008. Founder Richard Stitselaar managed to keep the IPs and start another company, Vertigo Games. He was able to hire some of his old team members to start developing Adam’s Venture. Like many of his former team members, Van den Wijngaarden wound up at the Playlogic Game Factory, a studio that was set full sail to release its first next-gen cross-platform title, Fairytale Fights. “I got in there very easily. I had built up a lot of experience with Unreal Engine and audio at Coded Illusion and I hardly had to do a job interview.” Working at Playlogic at that time was not that easy. He started at the company in holiday season and Fairytale Fights had to go gold after the summer. Van den Wijngaarden had his worries. “How was I going to finish this project in eight months with no plan ready yet and no audio design document? What problems am I going to encounter in crunch time in a team I’m not used to work with yet? I decided to get all those thoughts and worries out of my head and go for it.” Van den Wijngaarden has to dig deep into his memories to recall how that process was. “It was such an intense period, it kind of turned into a black hole in my memory”.
“The main thing I had to get used to was that this was not MY project anymore,” he recalls. “Others already mostly worked the concept of Fairytale Fights out and was long past its prototyping.” With only eight months time to get the game on the shelves, there was no audio yet and Van den Wijngaarden had to dive into the documentation to get submerged in underlying ideas and feeling of the game. “My main focus on this project was to make it feel like my own project and give this game its own identity in audio”. Fairytale Fights already had its unique colorful art style, looking like a plasticine version of Happy Tree Friends. “Psychonauts was the game that inspired me the most. I tried to convey its diversity in settings to give Fairytale Fights its distinct character in sound. Especially giving all the weapons unique firing and handling sounds was a huge workload for me but crucial in giving the game its own identity.” This was one of the many lessons Van den Wijngaarden had learned from his mentor and inspiration, Klepacki: “always try to put your own signature on the music and sound. That’s what I admire about Klepacki, he always knows how to stick to his own style and sound. I can recognize the games he has worked on immediately, even without knowing he worked on it.”
So, what went wrong in this process? Again, it was the double-edged sword of ambition that killed the cat in boots. “We were under a lot of time pressure and in the end we had to cut about 25% percent of what we had made. Otherwise we never would have made it. Among the things we cut was a final chapter with four levels. This meant having to come up with a new final boss and invent a new main villain. Originally we also wanted to add some RPG elements and conversations with NPCs. There was absolutely no time for spoken dialogue, since that meant we had to localize it too. All kinds of drastic changes were made in a short time which stripped Fairytale Fights down to a pure brawler game.” At least this time the cuts were made and the game went gold. One of the main forces for getting the title shipped on time was managing director Olivier Lhermite. “He performed miracles. Not only by creating the right workflows but changing the focus on what was needed the most: game design.” Van den Wijngaarden admits that the game design aspect came late, maybe too late. During the process, the main focus and strength of the project had been its art style and setting, but somehow it lost it focus on the kind of game it should be. “Olivier made sure everybody picked up on the gameplay and worked fulltime on making sure everything worked and felt right.”
Another of Klepacki’s wise lessons that echoed through Van den Wijngaarden’s mind throughout the tough process is one seems applicable for any game development process. “As a creative person it can be difficult to balance the fact that on one side you are making an artistic creation and on the other side you are working on an entertainment product. As an artist you are primarily concerned with creating the best quality, but at the same time you will have to deliver a certain amount of quantity. Therefore you have to find balance between quality and quantity and make sure that each sound is equally great. You can’t make everything as perfect as you want it to be, it is more important that all the components you make work in harmony and offer a complete package. That’s a lesson that I got to experience very closely while working on Fairytale Fights.”
Van den Wijngaarden is currently working as freelance composer and audio designer. He most recently created music and sound design for the official Need For Speed Hot Pursuit webgame and is now wrapping up music and sound design for Adam’s Venture 2 by Vertigo Games.