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AudioDevelopmentExclusive Interviews

Rich “Disasterpeace” Vreeland on FEZ, His Love Of Music, and Videogame Soundtracks

September 5, 2013 — by Nicholas Yanes

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Rich Vreeland, more commonly known as Disasterpeace, has always had a passion for music. After playing the guitar throughout childhood and his teenage years, Vreeland pursued his interest in music by going to Berklee College of Music. After college, Vreeland interned at the Singapore-MIT Game Lab where he worked on the puzzle games Waker and Woosh. This experience would not only further solidify his love for music and gaming, he would use this experience to build a career designing sound and music for videogames.

GameSauce was recently able to interview Disasterpeace about his background, his experience at MIT Game Lab, working on Bomberman, developing January, crafting the soundtrack for Fez, and his general thoughts on music in gaming.

Beginning of Disasterpeace

Rich Vreeland
Rich Vreeland

Rich Vreeland always had a love for music. As a teenager, he was into “Nu Metal and pretty much anything that was guitar heavy and riff oriented,” with two of his favorite bands at the time being Tool and Rage Against the Machine. It was around this time that Vreeland became interested in videogame music. One of the first projects to truly get Vreeland’s attention was Metroid Metal – a website dedicated to the soundtrack of the Metroid videogame franchise.

It was also during his teenage years that Vreeland created the name that many know him by: Disasterpeace. Coined in 2004, Vreeland says, “Disasterpeace came out of ‘masterpiece’, and I changed piece to peace to give it an additional meaning, in the sense that disaster and peace are sort of diametrically opposed to one another.” It is a name that Vreeland not only feels accurately represents his approach to music and sound, it is the name that Vreeland would take with him through college and into his professional career.

Vreeland began his college career in 2006 at Berklee College of Music and graduated in 2009 with a Bachelor’s of Music in Music Synthesis. Due to Berklee being located in Boston, Massachusetts, and his interest in videogame music, Vreeland eventually learned of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Game Lab and its internship opportunities. Vreeland was able to earn an audio intern at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab.

Getting into Gaming – MIT’s Game Lab

Taking place from June 2009 to August 2009, Vreeland’s internship at the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab involved him being placed into a team that, as he told GameSauce, “worked together to create games that solved specific educational problems.”  One game that his team created “attempted to help teach math concepts like acceleration and velocity.” Moreover, he continued, they “created two versions as a side effort to determine if narrative had any impact on the success of such an experience.”

“But I think it’s important to recognize your strengths and to interface with the world around you and react to what they seem to want/need from you.”

Vreeland’s experience at MIT’s Game Lab also made it clear to him that music is his skill. “Music is what I do best…, so it’s been a relatively easy choice for me to keep music as my primary focus.” It was a realization that confirmed his passion and cemented his desire to pursue a career in game music and sound design. His experience also taught him the importance of exploring areas outside of his comfort zone while keeping in mind his strengths. “I don’t have any qualms exploring areas that I’m not comfortable or the best in,” says Vreeland, “But I think it’s important to recognize your strengths and to interface with the world around you and react to what they seem to want/need from you.”

This internship proved to be more than just a line on his resume, but rather an experience that would help him throughout his career. “Above and beyond anything else, I think I learned a lot about working with others in a creative environment,” he says.

Approach to Sounds, Music, and Franchise Games

After his internship, Vreeland went on to write music for games such as Bomberman Live: Battlefest and Drawn to Life: The Next Chapter. During this time, he learned how a work environment could affect his creativity. “As a general rule of thumb, I’ve found that smaller teams tend to allow you more creative freedom to do the kind of work you want to do, and to do it in the way that you want,” says Vreeland. “Large teams tend to have layers of abstraction which make it difficult to communicate with others at times, and to get the right piece of information from the right person.”

“As a general rule of thumb, I’ve found that smaller teams tend to allow you more creative freedom to do the kind of work you want to do, and to do it in the way that you want.”

In regards to his work on Bomberman Live, a franchise that has been around since the 1980s, Vreeland remembers how he and his colleague aimed to honor “the aesthetic style of the more recent games by creating music that was high fidelity but had lots of ‘gamey’ charm and energy.” He does admit, however, that he “would have liked to have paid more tribute to the older games,” but was more focused on meeting the required standards.

Vreeland learned during this time that his approach to sound design had to differ from job to job. “Developers want you to handle most of the conceptual legwork yourself, which is great fun, but other times, they want to work more closely with you,” he explains. Overall, he feels that a significant aspect of designing a game’s sound is letting the person with the “strongest vision for the work” lead you through the design. An example of this was his next project: designing sound for Fez.

Fez

Released in April 2012, Fez is a puzzle/platform game created by Phil Fish and developed by Fish and his company, Polytron.  First announced in July 2007, the highly anticipated game took much longer than expected to be built. Upon the game’s release, Fez was not only met with critical and commercial success, its soundtrack was also well-received. It was so well-received that the soundtrack could be purchased, and an official remix version has been released.

Though Fez became known for its long development time, Vreeland only joined the project after the game’s visuals were established. “When I joined the project, the game’s visuals were largely set in place,” he says. “All that was left was figuring out how the levels worked together, some mechanical adjustments and lots of tweaking, as far as I can tell.” As such, Vreeland and Fish instead focused on how to develop a soundtrack that complimented the game’s unique mechanics.

Originally, he and Fish discussed using music that “tapped into the mechanics”. “It turned out to not really make much sense, so we ended up taking a more traditional approach,” Vreeland says. However, Vreeland pointed out that “one area in which the music takes advantage of the structure of the game is in the fact that the game is highly modular, and in some places, the music is as well.” Vreeland described this aspect as “layers com[ing] in and out and the music shifts as you move through various levels that are similar, but different.”

Snowflakes and Music – Developing January

January Screen
In January, the player moves the character in order to lick the falling snowflakes – with each snowflake touching the character’s tongue creating a musical note.

Prior to working on Fez, Vreeland had been playing with ideas for games that would allow him to strengthen his programming skills. After finding a tutorial in Flixel on how to make Space Invaders in Actionscript 3, Vreeland felt that it would be the perfect opportunity to make a game about falling snow. This game concept eventually evolved into January.

Centering on a person outside while it’s snowing, the player moves the character in order to lick the falling snowflakes – with each snowflake touching the character’s tongue creating a musical note. “In the beginning, I didn’t even know it was going to be a strictly music-related experience, but that is sort of how it evolved as I got deeper and deeper into the code and trying to see what I could do with it.” As such, it is a game that uniquely displays how gameplay can be utilized to create original music.

The Shift to Mobile

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Vreeland’s understanding of the industry grew just as much as his understanding and passion for music has.

Being involved in games, Vreeland noticed the significant change in consumer habits that is affecting all aspects of the gaming industry: the shift from consoles to mobile devices. Though this reallocation of consumers has impacted those that code and design games, Vreeland feels that “the difference between these two is still tantamount. In the beginning, I was writing music for cell phone games as MIDI files to be delivered, so in that regard, things have converged a bit.”

However, he doesn’t view mobile devices as having the hardware needed to a sound experience comparable to consoles.“Cell phones still have terrible speakers, and oftentimes, you have to adjust your sound and how it’s mixed accordingly so that it doesn’t get washed out by low frequency content that it simply cannot handle.”

Looking Back – Lessons Learned and Future Goals

During his time as a videogame music producer, Vreeland’s understanding of the industry grew just as much as his understanding and passion for music has. “I think seeing people experiment and create music that has so many nonlinear possibilities has given me a lot of perspective about music that I didn’t have before,” Vreeland reflected. “When paired with other media, it can really take you places you wouldn’t even think to go, and that’s one of the things that I think is so great about games and music in games.” Though he is amazed by the near limitless potential of games and music, Vreeland pointed out that “there are a lot of times at the end of the day that I still just want to listen to a good record. It’s funny that way.”

Vreeland is currently working on other several projects, with the next game to be released featuring his music being Cannon Brawl. In addition to making games, Vreeland wants to continue to develop his potential as a musician. “I really want to explore some different spaces, work my way into areas that are not all necessarily game related,” says Vreeland. “I really want to make some traditional albums, because it’s something I’ve been flirting with for years but have never done.” He has also become interested in scoring, an interest he describes as “refreshing and requires an entirely different set of parameters to accomplish.”  Overall, though Vreeand doesn’t know exactly where his love of music will take him, he does know what he wants: “to be doing music-related things for a long, long time.”

ContributionsPostmortem

The Story of Crypt Run

September 3, 2013 — by Mariia Lototska

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Lost Decade Games got its name from the perceived notion that its two founders had spent 10 years in the wrong career. Geoff Blair and Matt Hackett share similar backgrounds; their previous experience includes senior engineering roles at Yahoo! and gameplay aggregator Raptr. The word “decade” also tends to make gamers, like themselves, think fondly of classic gaming experiences. But its future was put at risk when its realtime multiplayer game was cancelled. Crypt Run is their attempt to salvage the wreckage and turn it into the best single player experience they can make. Matt describes their experience.

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Matt Hackett (left) and Geoff Blair (right).

A Doomed Contract

It was July 2012 when a local startup reached out to us to work on a realtime multiplayer game in the browser. At that time, we’d only been independent for about six months and were still relatively inexperienced game developers. This project also came with many difficulties. Realtime, socket-based connections in the browser were still quite new and somewhat unstable at the time. Our partner had implemented the lockstep protocol, which was invented to handle the unique problems that RTS games face. But they wanted to push the envelope to improve their tech stack, so they requested an arcade-style action game.

The provided API only supported keyboard input, and had a lobbying system that required 2-10 players in a game session. So we had several unique challenges to face, and a tight deadline of only three months in which to do it. Given all of these constraints, we aimed to design the simplest game we could…at least at first.

Our initial design involved players controlling dwarves in a 2D obstacle course. Players explore a town, which is full of traps and bars. When players went into bars, they’d get drinks and become intoxicated. At the end of the time period, the drunkest player won! But this design had some issues, one of which was that we’re not big drinkers ourselves and couldn’t really relate to our own game. We felt like it was a fine idea in general, but just not for us. This, combined with us being undisciplined designers, obviously led to a bizarre robot crafting game inspired by Magic: The Gathering.

Robot Gathering
Doodles for our bizarre robot crafting game.

I blame myself for this. I pushed on this design because I felt it had merit, but I knew it was much too ambitious for a three month project. These days, I try to remember this mistake to help myself focus.

About halfway through development, we realized we’d never get this crazy game done on time. So we threw out all the designs we had and reduced the core engine down to just a shell of a realtime multiplayer game. Cutting so much definitely had an impact on us. We lost some confidence, and it took us a few days to get back into the development groove.

We decided to pivot back to medieval fantasy, because that’s what we know and love. Our inspiration at this point was to build a “realtime roguelike” that would play like standard roguelike dungeon crawlers, except realtime instead of turn-based, and multiplayer instead of single player. Early prototypes were very promising, and things were finally going smoothly.

As we built the game, we realized that dying was boring because you just had to sit there and watch other people play. Inspired by the Bomberman franchise, we came up with the idea that when you die, your spirit goes on, and you can still affect the game (albeit now in minor ways).

An early beta of this new game we called Crypt Run was ready for launch in January 2013, when we received some bad news…

Realtime Multiplayer
Early realtime multiplayer screenshot from December 2012.

Cancelled

Our partner informed us that they were pivoting away from providing a realtime multiplayer service. They were a very young startup, with brand new money, and they were trying to find their footing. They had no issues with the game we delivered. We still got paid, and we got to keep the rights to our game. Our relationship with them is fine, and there are no hurt feelings.

However, all the planning and preparation we’d done for the last few months was now moot. All of the ideas, marketing plans, and concepts we had bouncing around pretty much had to be thrown out. Almost everything depended on the multiplayer aspect, and that wasn’t something we were prepared to attempt ourselves.

Getting Back to Our Roots

The lion’s share of the Crypt Run source code was hacked to work with our previous partner’s SDK, and Geoff wasn’t happy with its architecture anyway. We decided to toss the vast majority of the game code and start from scratch. This increased our interest in retaining something from this cancelled project.

However, we decided to build on the artwork that we had. I had spent months creating art assets for monsters, swords, treasure, and more, and we felt like that was a valuable thing that we should utilize. Since our old game design depended heavily on the missing multiplayer element, we decided to get back to our roots by designing a spiritual successor to our first game Onslaught! Arena.

Screenshot from Onslaught! Arena in 2010
Screenshot from Onslaught! Arena in 2010

This was good. We’d been wanting to build a sequel to Onslaught! for many years; we had even put together a quick prototype for a sequel, but never found the time to fully explore it.

My art style had also changed drastically since then. Over the years, I moved away from pixel art, as it felt like the general gaming audience was growing fatigued with it. Instead, I moved towards smoother shapes like in Lunch Bug (2012) and Lava Blade (2013).

We felt that in order to be a substantially more compelling game, all Onslaught! Arena really needed was an exploration mechanic. If players could navigate the arena via doors that scrolled to other rooms, we’d have that easily. So we borrowed heavily from some of our classic favorites like Smash TV and the original Legend of Zelda.

Designing a game based on the Zelda dungeon framework can be a slippery slope. Additions like the map and compass become obvious, but we tried to design organically as much as possible. By adding bouncing axes, freezing ice swords, and unique monster behaviors, we hoped to make Crypt Run feel less like Zelda and more like an evolution of a genre. Yet this didn’t feel like enough. We wanted a feature that would really set Crypt Run apart, something that was unique and unexplored, at least in this genre. And then it came to us!

Death is Just the Beginning

It occurred to us to dig through our old, deprecated realtime multiplayer design documents to look for clues on which direction to go. We found the feature that lets players remain in the game when they die, and thought that it might be a fun mechanic to explore.

Our aim is to make this feature feel less like a “corpse run” that gamers might remember from World of Warcraft, and more like a whole new world, like from The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. Unfortunately, this part of the game is largely unfinished. Almost immediately after getting it into the game, we pivoted to work fulltime on a Kickstarter campaign and our first ever live demo!

Kickstarter and California Extreme

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The Crypt Run live demo at California Extreme 2013.

California Extreme is an annual pinball and arcade celebration in the California bay area. It’s basically a huge room packed with arcade cabinets and pinball machines, all set on free play. It’s magical.

Although we weren’t quite ready to demo Crypt Run, we felt that doing a live demo at a popular conference was a great way to launch a crowdfunding campaign. We were right! On our first day, $1,760 worth of pledges came in and by the end of the weekend Crypt Run was 58 percent funded. Over this tiring but super fun weekend, we watched hundreds of gamers play Crypt Run, added 50 new mailing list signups, met a ton of great people, and made some promising connections. We even met a business developer from Sony!

If you’d like to work with us, we’re particularly interested in bringing Crypt Run to consoles. Eventually, we plan to launch on mobile as well, so if you’re in a position to help indies with marketing or publishing, please do get in touch. Game on!

Crypt Run‘s Kickstarter was successfully funnded and is set to launch on Windows, Mac, and Linux this Halloween. Stay in touch with Lost Decade Games through Twitter and Facebook, as well as Lostcast, their game development podcast.

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