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Asia 2017AudioVideo Coverage

Jeremy Goh: Making Voice-Overs Work in Perfect Harmony | Casual Connect Video

October 28, 2017 — by David Radd

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Music and sound effects are commonplace in a mobile game, but often the use of voice work is overlooked. Usual reasons include a lack of budget or experience working with voice talents. See the session video below if you want to learn about how the use of voice can bring your characters and stories to life, and if you’re taking the first steps into casting, creating a script and working with voice talents. At Casual Connect Asia, Jeremy Goh, Co-Founder of IMBA Interactive, discussed voice work, noting that “good voice work can give your game relatability and personality, as well as a source of rich feedback for your players.”

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AudioExclusive Interviews

Rob Zahn: Making the Most of Music

May 7, 2017 — by David Radd

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Rob Zahn is a composer that has worked on a variety of genres including horror, fantasy, science fiction and more. Rob says that more than enjoying it, this makes him into a better composer.

“Regardless of whether you like it or not, it’s absolutely essential to know how to handle different styles of music if you want to get hired on a consistent basis,” noted Rob. “Having said that, I don’t think it’s an especially healthy habit to get too comfortable with labels like ‘horror’ or ‘fantasy’ because they’re much too broad and imply the overuse of tropes that can quickly make your stuff sound extremely tired and generic. But yeah, obviously variety is spicy, or something!”

One of the various musical experiences Rob has had is with the band Dead Wake. “I kind of grew up on rock and metal and there was a time when I didn’t listen to very much other than Dream Theater and Opeth and guys like that…but after a while I sort of abandoned it for various reasons,” said Rob. “I’ve gotten to stretch out a bit with Dead Wake as a bassist, vocalist, lyricist and arranger. Metal is definitely not a style I’m often asked to write in for gigs – hopefully that’ll change though! We recently finished tracking our debut album ‘Ghost Stories’ with Kevin Antreassian of The Dillinger Escape Plan and are looking forward to releasing it within the next few months.”

AudioExclusive Interviews

Rich Aitken: Driving for the Right Mix

March 23, 2017 — by David Radd

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Rich Aitken is a composer, producer and sound mixer who has worked on a variety of TV, movie and video game projects over the years. Rich is and in many ways has always been more focused on being a mixer and producer than being a composer of music.

“I’ve had a long career mixing records, TV scores, film scores and game scores,” detailed Rich. “I’ve written for all those media too but games often require a lot of music so there is more opportunity to write more! I’ve been mixing since 1990. The composition part reflects that I was a songwriter on EMI for many years so maybe that’s where the writing part still pokes its head up. Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoy writing and composing but production is where I contribute the most. I mean, I get to work with wonderful composers like Joris de Man or Andrew Barnabas and Paul Arnold. I wouldn’t be able to do that if I was exclusively a composer…. there are such incredibly creative people out there and I’m stunned at the talents I see in the composition world. I like to work with those people.”

AudioExclusive Interviews

Jeff Broadbent: Championing Epic Game Music

September 29, 2016 — by David Radd

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Jeff Broadbent is a composer who has worked on multiple game soundtracks, including Planetside 2, Monster Hunter Online and the very recent Champions of Anteria. Growing up, he was encouraged to study music by his parents, and loving the music of games like Final Fantasy, Street Fighter II, Myst, and Panzer Dragoon pushed him towards composition in the interactive entertainment sphere.

Photo by Portland Oregon Photographer Craig Mitchelldyer www.craigmitchelldyer.com 503.513.0550

“I’ve had a love of music my whole life, starting piano lessons at an early age, soon thereafter learning to play alto saxophone and later studying composition at BYU and UCLA,” Jeff detailed. “I became specifically interested in composing when I was in high school, taking jazz piano and improvisation lessons. The theory of jazz music and creativity of improvising are what really sparked my interest in composing, as improvising and composing are closely related.

AudioExclusive Interviews

Rob King: The Might and Majesty of Sound

August 6, 2016 — by David Radd

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Rob King has been doing sound work in the video gaming industry since the early ’90s. While he’s probably best known for his work on the Might & Magic and EverQuest series, he’s also done work on Prototype 2, Jade Empire, and the Fable series.

Rob’s work extends out from music composition to general sound production, having won the Grand-Prize for the 2004 Yamaha International Music Production Contest and winning of the 2004 Los Angeles Music Awards for “Best Engineer”. He has also worked various film and TV projects, including The Legend of Korra. Rob has also made music with various bands, winning “Modern Rock Album of the Year” for his work on the CD Addictions & Scars by his band Red Delicious.

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Winning Innovations in Casino Games

November 5, 2014 — by Industry Contributions

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featureAdam Levenson, COO of SomaTone Interactive, looks at the expansion of the game industry and talks to GTECH about their latest project in this latest Game Audio Artistry article.


As evidenced at the recent Global Gaming Expo (G2E) in Las Vegas, the fast-growing, highly lucrative global gaming industry continues to expand and evolve, with tremendous creativity on display at every turn.

As our VP of business development Ben Brown observed after his inspiring experience at this major industry expo, “The place was buzzing with so many creative developers! Gameplay, sound, and visuals are all being pushed to the limit and the casino experience is becoming more competitive and exciting with all these new games.” Ben enthusiastically reported that there were signs of “innovation everywhere”, reflecting trends such as binaural sound speakers, more sophisticated game mechanics and advances in game screens.

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“Gameplay, sound, and visuals are all being pushed to the limit and the casino experience is becoming more competitive and exciting with all these new games.”

Taking it a Step Further

One of the great highlights was connected to one of our longtime partners, GTECH, who introduced a re-imagined version of the mega-hit franchise Bejeweled as a 3D casino experience. Our creative team had worked on the sound design and music for the original mobile game, so we were particularly excited about this latest invention.

GTECH Senior Game Producer Peter Post comments that “so far, the game has been presented to focus groups and the industry, and the reaction has been very positive. Everyone for whom I’ve demoed it consistently comes up with the same word: ‘Wow.’ There are so many fans of the (Bejeweled) brand that it’s hard not to be attracted to it when it’s in real-time 3D that doesn’t need clunky glasses.”

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GTECH Senior Game Producer, Peter Post (left) with Ben Brown, Somatone VP of Business Development, shown together at G2E 2014 in Las Vegas recently.

When asked what it was like re-imagining this highly popular game with 3D graphics and sound, Peter says, “Our favorite brands are always the ones that have a natural gaming mechanic built in because it makes it so much easier to translate to the casino world, and Bejeweled fits the bill perfectly. The license has so much to work with when it comes to assets, yet there’s so much that’s yet to be explored. No one had ever gone inside the famous Bejeweled castle, for instance.  The resulting visuals and audio are completely new, yet fit well into the Bejeweled narrative. PopCap®, which owns the license to Bejeweled, was totally cool with us experimenting with things like that.”

Immersed in Sound

As part of the game’s special features, the speaker set-up in the machine is noteworthy. Peter explains, “the box has two smaller speakers in front facing the player at head-level, then two more behind the player embedded in the chair. We also have a larger woofer in the base of the machine, as well as a rumble pack in the chair. We mix everything in 7.1 surround, so we have control over what goes where. It really helps us enhance the 3D nature of the visuals. Unlike most 3D gaming, which players usually experience with handhelds, we can really complete the audiovisual experience by having sound come from behind you or move past you. The rumble helps us emphasize features, too, but like any new effect, we have to be careful not to overuse it.”

The Bejeweled™ 3D machine serves as a shining example of how advances in technology and creativity can bring multi-sensory effects to deliver a more engrossing gameplay experience.

The Bejeweled™ 3D machine is truly immersive from both a sound and a visual experience—serving as a shining example of how advances in technology and creativity can bring multi-sensory effects to deliver a more engrossing gameplay experience. And working with a beloved brand such as Bejeweled, it’s a BIG win.

Given the phenomenal growth of the overall gaming industry, and particularly the social casino games sector, we’re fascinated by the new opportunities to raise the bar on sound and music for the next generation of casino games. In a future column, we’ll look at the keys to making casino games sound great across multiple platforms, including mobile, online, and hardware-based slot machines.

Look forward to finding out more in the next Game Audio Artistry article!

 

Asia 2014Video Coverage

Gwen Guo: Sound Decisions in the Game Development Pipeline| Casual Connect Video

May 21, 2014 — by Catherine Quinton

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“When you want to hire a sound designer, look out for portfolios that specifically talk about sound design,” Gwen Guo advises her audience at Casual Connect Asia 2014. “A composer will be able to have a portfolio that illustrates good music composition, but they may not necessarily have the portfolio that illustrates good sound design, so make sure there is that distinction when you go on looking for people to hire.”

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IMBA Interactive just turned one!” Co-Founder Gwen Guo proudly announces. IMBA began when Guo and Co-Founders Sharon Kho and Jeremy Goh came out of the research program, Singapore-MIT Gambit Gamelab, where they had been prototyping and developing games based on research topics. They were inspired by how the audio designers were involved with the development team from the start of pre-production, and they wanted to bring this culture to Singapore. The three of them decided to form a company to provide high quality audio at reasonable rates. Guo states, “When you’re a company, you are in a better position to educate clients about how important audio is.” They also began forming a community of audio freelancers to share knowledge and open full-time jobs, since they prefer collaboration over competition.

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IMBA celebrating their first birthday

Beauty of Collaboration

Guo is proud to be a part of the indie community and is inspired by the positivity it spreads, especially in Singapore, where competition is rampant. She feels encouraged to see developers and creatives beginning to recognize the beauty and merits of collaboration rather than rivalry.

There are two emerging trends that Guo believes will significantly impact the games industry in the near future. The first is the increasing accessibility of audio middleware to indie developers. Wwise and FMOD, two of the most widely used audio implementation tools, recently changed their licenses favorably for indies. Now, if your total game development budget is USD $100,000 or less, FMOD is available to license at no cost. Wwise has a free license if there are fewer than 200 audio assets in the project. Guo believes this change will give rise to greater experimentation with audio implementation in a way that was not previously possible due to time and manpower constraints. She says, “Indies now have the power to push the boundaries of game audio.”

Since middleware is relatively new to Asia, IMBA must educate clients that value can be added to the game with compelling, well-executed audio. Eventually, Guo expects that developers will think about audio early in the production process rather than leaving it to the end.

Guo taking a group pic with Inzen Studio, the team behind Amazing Studly Strikes, which got Best in Sound and Music for Indie Prize CCAsia 2013
Guo with Inzen Studio, the team behind Amazing Studly Strikes, which got Best in Sound and Music for Indie Prize CCAsia 2013

The second trend she sees results from better cloud storage and version control. Guo claims, “Service providers like ourselves can now work remotely while maintaining a solid working pipeline.” This is more efficient for the client because the service provider goes to them, rather than the reverse; equally important, companies could be visiting three different clients in a day using either a laptop or their desktop, and still communicate with the programmer who is physically present. Guo believes the increased contact will allow a more personal relationship with a client, adding to the positive work experience.

Rise of the Indies

Guo feels the biggest impact on the games industry as a whole will come from the rise of indie studios, with the possible decline of AAA studios. Indies now have tools, at a reasonable cost, to make great games. New ways to raise funds for the development of indie games, such as crowdfunding, are also available. Massive promotions from platforms, such as Steam’s Greenlight and the Humble Bundle, have led to the popularity of many indie games. For example, the complementary sale or gift of game soundtracks alongside the games themselves have proven popular and effective in boosting market exposure for indie games.

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IMBA posing in front of artwork from Witching Hour Studio’s upcoming game, Romans in My Carpet, a project they worked on.

When not at work, Guo’s activities are still closely connected to the games industry. Most often, she can be found gaming, sound recording, checking out electronic musicians, and reading about feminism, especially female/LGBTQ representation in games.

Having Fun

She prefers playing on PC, since this is what she grew up with. She enjoys the process of completely customizing it to best suit the games she plays, feeling this gives her a close connection that she can’t get on console.

For the past 12 years, she has been playing Team Fortress, ever since it was TFC; now she plays TF2, and, for a short time, played it competitively. She likes MMO games which have a social aspect, such as Lord of the Rings Online and Guild Wars 2,  which she has been playing recently. She suggests, “The whole ecosystem of successful guilds brings out the best in people; for example, you craft items for newbies, expecting nothing in return.” As a self-described Tolkien geek, she admits that some of the side stories woven into the lore of Lord of the Rings Online have her completely hooked.

 

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Best Practices for Fine-Tuning and Polishing in Casual Game Audio Implementation

May 2, 2014 — by Mariia Lototska

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Matt Bruun is the Studio Director at SomaTone Interactive. He has worked on hundreds of games, including some of the most successful titles in social and mobile gaming. He shares his ideas on polishing casual game audio in this next installment of the Game Audio Artistry series.

Matt Bruun
Matt Bruun, Studio Director, SomaTone Interactive

The Circle of Development Trends

Casual and mobile game development tends to be cyclical, with a big hit game leading developers to create games with similar themes and gameplay. In the early and mid-2000’s, we worked on a lot of Match-3 style games that followed in the wake of the success of titles like Bejeweled and Zuma. Then came a period of games with a Time Management theme, riding a wave of popularity that likely had a lot to do with the success of the Diner Dash series from Playfirst. After that came a long run of Hidden Object games that were successful in both the downloadable market and in mobile. Now the Match-3 is back, with quite a few popular titles available in the App Store, and many more in development.

It’s just as important that the sounds and music are created from the ground up, with the goal of having these elements work seamlessly and smoothly together.

With any Match-3 game, it is not especially difficult to create serviceable audio that covers the basic events in the game. However, simply adequate sound design in this type of game is not enough to make a gameplay experience that stands out from the crowd of other similar titles. While the sound design and music composition must be the highest quality, of course, it’s just as important that the sounds and music are created from the ground up, with the goal of having these elements work seamlessly and smoothly together. Then, there needs to be excellent communication and coordination between the individual(s) who will be implementing the assets into the game and the audio lead who oversaw the creation of them.

Creating Great Music

On a title in the Match-3 genre with a major publisher last year, we were able to partner with a great composer whom we hadn’t had the chance to work with before, Grant Kirkhope. From the start, we designed our sound effects to work seamlessly with the score that he would be creating, and made sure there was a cohesive overall plan for how the pieces would fit together. I really like what Grant came up with, and it was a lot of fun to create sound design around that music. His score is simultaneously melodic and engaging, while not being distracting or fatiguing if heard on a loop while playing a longer level. This combination is what makes for great casual game music.

Creating Audio
From the start, we designed our sound effects to work seamlessly with the score that he would be creating, and made sure there was a cohesive overall plan for how the pieces would fit together. Pictured here is Dominic Vega, Sound Designer, who contributes to many games at SomaTone.

For this project, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit the development team in Seattle for a few days to assist in the implementation of the assets, once production on our end was complete. This is a luxury that time in a developer’s schedule does not always allow for, but we take the opportunity to conduct on-site work whenever possible, as the polish at that stage of implementation can make a huge difference in the final product.

Simple Steps Lead to Great Results

Until recently, most casual and mobile game developers would have considered audio middleware tools such as Wwise to be out of reach for the budget in a game of this type. Audio Kinetic, the makers of Wwise, have changed that. They now offer a pricing structure that accommodates developers who are producing games with modest budgets (more details on this can be found in this blog post from SomaTone Executive Director Michael Bross). With middleware in place, the audio team is then free to make all of the many small adjustments that are needed to get a polished result. Even without the use of a great tool like Wwise, good coordination between the audio team and the person doing the implementing can assure a good final product.

Good coordination between the audio team and the person doing the implementing can assure a good final product.

For example, at the end of a level in this particular game, there is a bonus sequence that takes over, making matches for you and adding to your score. The length of this sequence depends on the number of moves that you have left when you beat the level. At first, we had the gameplay music loop just continuing during the sequence, but for the player, it was a little confusing. The gameplay music was still playing, but the mouse would no longer respond to input, because the sequence was automated at that point. So we created a second loop just for this sequence, and then a music sting for the score count-up screen that appears as that sequence ends. Once these were implemented with smooth crossfades and sound effects to help cover the transitions between them, the problem of confusion about the automated sequence was solved. The “level complete” experience in general was much improved. These are simple changes to make – a crossfade here, a fade there, adding a sound effect to cover and smooth a transition, etc. – but they go a long way in making a polished game. It’s these many small, simple steps that add up to a quality result.

Balancing Sounds and Music for the Most Polished Effect

The overall mix between the different audio assets (the music, sound effects, and voice effects) is critical. We often need to have audio implemented into the games we work on without being able to go on-site with the developer. In these cases, providing the assets already mixed and ready to drop in the game is helpful. Getting a good balance between the sounds and the music before sending it out is the goal. Our usual process involves us making detailed video captures that demonstrate the way that the sounds and music are meant to work once properly implemented into the game, so that the person handling the integration can refer to them, sure of what was intended by the sound design team. Having the audio lead involved closely at this stage with the person doing the implementation is the difference between an average audio experience in a game, and something polished and compelling.

Audio Design
Having the audio lead involved closely at this stage with the person doing the implementation is the difference between an average audio experience in a game, and something polished and compelling.

Knowing how much there can be on the game development team’s plate, it’s understandable to us that there is a temptation to have some of these audio implementation details made lower in priority. This is especially true at the end of a production cycle leading up to a release, which is usually when the audio team is most critically involved in the project. Considering the huge improvement in the overall experience for the player, it’s well worth the effort!

Next month’s installment will explore the role of game audio and discuss the creative journey, so look forward to it!

 

AudioExclusive Interviews

Peter Inouye on Scoring for Games, Scratching the Surface of Music in Games, and Making Music for Slot Machines

March 5, 2014 — by Vlad Micu

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Scoring orchestral music for games, slamming some Taiko drums under a trailer video, picking up a banjo, writing music for slot machines: it’s all in a day’s work for composer Peter Inouye. We had an opportunity to talk to him about his love for composing, working in the videogames industry, and what slot machines have to do with any of all that.

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Peter Inouye

Being a Part of it

When Peter first started studying composition, his original goal was to write for film. “My first love of music started with John Williams, and progressed through every soundtrack he has done. Eventually though, I started thinking about video games, and all of my favorite tunes from the games of my past. When I started seeing the caliber of the music start to step up from FM synth and general midi to full orchestral scores, I knew the industry was starting to focus more on audio.” As soon as the technology allowed for music to be an integral part of the player experience, evolving with the events happening on the screen, he hopped to it, knowing he “had to be a part of it.”

Getting into game audio proved difficult, but was made possible by attending networking events such as GDC (Game Developer Conference) and other meetup groups. “It really helped to find other fledgling game studios and developers that were willing to take chances on new composers.” Peter also found game jams and hack-a-thons to prove useful, since they “force you to be very team-oriented.” Plus, he made a lot of great connections that he still keeps in touch with to this day.

Like most people, Peter has his heroes, those people that help push you in the right direction simply by inspiring you. One of those heroes is Koji Kondo, a Japanese video game composer with an amazing track record. “His original Zelda theme still blows me away to this day. It’s so memorable, and he was so adept at getting as much sound out of the hardware, despite the limitations. Even his modern orchestral work for games like Super Mario Galaxy and The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword continues to inspire me.” Peter still looks to Ocarina of Time and Twilight Princess frequently as a reference whenever he needs to compose for what he considers the “light orchestral fantasy” genre.

Koji Kondo’s original Zelda theme still blows me away to this day.

Irish Pennywhistle, Banjo, and Taiko Drums

That doesn’t mean he limits himself to traditional orchestral music, no sir. His tastes range far and wide when it comes to musical styles. As he says himself, his influences are probably “too many to mention.” “I have always had a deep love for Irish and Scottish Celtic music. I started playing a little bit of renaissance recorder for a while, which paved the way to playing Irish pennywhistle in college. That led to a deep appreciation for early American ‘old-time’ music, and I still play clawhammer 5-string banjo whenever I can get time.” It should come as no surprise then that he very much would like to incorporate some banjo music into his soundtracks soon.

Playing in various groups, ranging from concert bands to orchestral ensembles, has contributed in defining his own music. ”Everything I’ve played or listened to influences my style in some way. Playing trumpet in concert bands all through grade school made me love brass in general, so I tend to overuse brass sometimes. Playing in an orchestra made me really see all of the different sounds a string instrument can make, and really examine what was written to get that exact sound.” If there’s one more experience he craves, it’s playing in a Taiko group, since he loves putting Taiko rhythms in his soundtracks. “Heck, I even did a flamenco-style trailer recently, and threw Taiko drums underneath. That’s just how I roll.”

Everything I’ve played or listened to influences my style in some way.

Too Distracting

Although a love for music and composing is key, there are particular things to consider when writing for games. “Your music is not the reason the player is there.” Much like writing for film, the music is there to “immerse the player, and possibly communicate some subtext that is not explained directly through the game.” While a memorable theme is very important, the music is still there to support the rest of the game. “Sometimes, I think I have this amazing piece written, with complex melodies, countermelodies, and rhythmic accompaniment, but it’s actually too distracting in-game until I remove everything but the accompaniment.”

It’s actually too distracting in-game until I remove everything but the accompaniment.

As far as the development process itself, Peter wishes he would be brought on to big games in the beginning. “It would let you be more of a part of the design process.” Asking questions like “what if every time this thing happens, this audio plays?” can help the audio director integrate it into the whole “brand” of the game. “But it depends on your relationship to the director, too.” The possible downside of being involved that early, though, is that the game concept can “keep pivoting, and your lush orchestral music no longer fits the new steampunk visual theme.” Much like in film, there’s benefit to someone coming to you with an almost complete game, “with a list of assets they need, knowing exactly what they want.” As long as the producer isn’t overly attached to the temporary tracks they used, it can be very efficient. That kind of scenario can also put you in a tough spot, though, since you have to fully embody the essence of a game in a short amount of time. “After all, you’ve only been working on it for a few weeks, while everyone else has lived and breathed that game for the last year or two.”

Scratching the Surface

Whatever the situation, it doesn’t diminish Peter’s enthusiasm when working on game music. “I’m actually very excited and optimistic for the future of music in games. We’re just starting to scratch the surface with the new ways of creating interactive music scores.” File size limitations will slowly vanish, letting us have more tracks of music in games. “And processor power increases will allow us to have more tracks of audio playing simultaneously, letting us mix individual instruments on the fly.” This makes him think “this will let us have huge immersive music beds, with lots of variation, and without ever getting too repetitive.”

We’re just starting to scratch the surface with the new ways of creating interactive music scores.

One of his more recent projects, Minion Master, taught him something outside of sound design. “I think the biggest lesson the devs [from Bitflip Games] and I learned is that no matter how good the game is, or how many people try the game and love it, there’s still no guarantee of success.” He points out that even with advertising budgets, releasing an indie game “into the wild” isn’t actually much different than app-store roulette: “you release a game and hope it takes off.” Peter’s biggest concern is for indie developers that spend years on a game, and never recoup their costs. “I’d hate to see the indie devs start to build games more like mobile companies–where you spend only two months on a game, kick it out, and move on to something else. It could cause us to lose the deep and complex games.”

Rewarding the Player

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Peter hard at work

At last year’s Game Developer Conference in San Francisco, Peter talked about designing music and sounds for slot machines. This might sound a bit detached from videogames, but the philosophy is quite similar. “It’s really more just the idea of remembering that your music and sounds are part of the reward.” With every slot machine having a theme, it’s what makes players sit down and start dropping money in. “So your sounds should fit into that theme, and really mean something to the player when they hear them. You want the player to hear certain sounds and get excited that something big might hit.” When something big does hit, “something big should happen to confirm that for them.” He also notes that it seems to make players happy when that audio draws attention from other people too.

The reason he got into sound design for slot machines is simple: “just like the advances in audio for video games, slot machines are quickly evolving as well.” According to Peter, they’re becoming more like video games, “being able to have more and higher quality sounds, and matching them to the animations on the screen.” Whenever he tells people that he creates music and sounds for slots, they instantly think of the annoying standard sounds they used to make when the reels spin. “I’ll admit that I had the same thoughts when I got my first gig with Bally Technologies, but slots have evolved way beyond that.”

Slot machines are quickly evolving as well.

Other than writing for slot machines, Peter has also being doing something else entirely. He recently completed the game Change Happens for a proprietary Android tablet for kids called the VINCI Tab. “It’s a game for young children starring Jim Henson’s characters from Sid the Science Kid.” It’s been an interesting experience for him, challenging him to do more than he usually does. “I’m normally just the audio guy. On this game, I’ve done most of the concept, design, script, some artwork, and edited music from the show, all while managing contract programmers, artists, and animators.” Though seemingly happy about this experience, he seems more than happy to be “going back to just being the audio guy.” Check out his portfolio on his website: peterinouye.wordpress.com.

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Penka Kouneva on Game Audio Enhancing the Narrative Experience, the Interactive Design of Music, and Cinematic Experiences in Games

April 22, 2013 — by Nicholas Yanes

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Penka Kouneva was born and raised in Sofia, Bulgaria, where she began piano lessons at an early age, and wrote music for children’s theater as a teenager. In 1990, she arrived in the US to study composition at Duke University on a graduate fellowship. In 1999, she moved to Los Angeles to begin her career as a composer for film, and eventually expanded into video games. Kouneva has composed on Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and Gears of War 3 games, and has orchestrated for the Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean films, on Angels and Demons, and most recently, as a Lead orchestrator on Sony’s Elysium. Her game orchestration credits include World of Warcraft, Starcraft II, Diablo III. Last year, Penka released an artist album with orchestral music titled A Warrior’s Odyssey available on iTunes and Amazon.com.

Nicholas Yanes: According to IMDB, you started working in the entertainment industry in 1999.  What inspired you to want to pursue this career?

Penka Kouneva
Penka Kouneva

Penka Kouneva: I arrived in LA in 1999. I love collaborating with other creative artists, and have loved film since childhood.  Scoring for media felt like the most natural vocation for me, since my music is evocative and dramatic. I was very passionate about becoming a film composer. I still am, but my heart these days is in games. I find game scoring to be more energizing and inspiring.

Lots of people want to have careers in entertainment, what do you think you did right to make it in your field?  Did formal education help you?

Formal education is essential, in my opinion. I came to LA recommended very highly by my Duke mentors, and my first mentor in LA was the Emmy-winning TV composer Patrick Williams, who is also a Duke alum. I connected with busy professionals right away. In 2000, I met my other most significant mentor, Bruce Fowler, Hans Zimmer’s orchestrator. It was not until 2004 that Bruce started giving me jobs. He also introduced me to Steve Jablonsky who later plugged me in on Transformers films and games, Gears of War 2 and 3 and on Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands, for which I composed 2 hours of game music.

As to what I did right…I have always been extremely passionate, devoted, hard-working and loyal to my clients. The hard work on a great variety of projects allowed me to develop great skills. I am also very proactive, stay in touch with my collaborators, foster new relationships. I am a good collaborator and try to be always positive and constructive, even in the heat of the battle.

To me, it seems that working as a composer on a film means creating an audio environment that adds to the narrative experience.  What does being a composer mean to you?

My job is to support the vision of the game makers (or filmmakers) by creating an environment of music and sound to support the characters, emotions, genre and, most importantly, the story. I breathe life into the images and add emotional depth to the story. With my music, I make the audience or the gamers feel deeply, laugh, cry, connect with the film or game and remember viscerally the experience of watching or playing.

What are some challenges you’ve encountered while being a composer for a film? For instance, was there ever a time you felt that the music should be significantly different from what the director wanted?

“To understand the director’s vision and support their vision, it sometimes takes more than one conversation.”

I work hard to understand the director’s vision and support their vision. Sometimes it takes more than one conversation, especially if they are unsure, or willing to explore various ideas. Usually good, open communication solves all problems. Composers learn to ask insightful questions of their collaborators. I ask a lot of questions, take notes and then think about it.

Your LinkedIn profile states you worked on the 2002 videogame, Enter the Matrix.  Why did you decide to begin working on videogames?

Actually, I became really passionate about games a bit later, with us getting a PS2, then PS3 and Xbox. The game narratives and visuals were stunning, the stories were engaging and the music was fantastic – inspired, ground-breaking and fun. The turning point for me was the BioShock games, Uncharted 2, and Gears of War 2. I decided to devote my full focus to games. I had never before felt so energized and inspired as I felt by these games. Enter the Matrix was a very complicated job, and my task was to support the composers on it. I didn’t play it until later.

Most people simply watch a movie from start to finish, but with videogames, there is the expectation that players will fail a level at first and have to replay a section of the game multiple times.  Does this affect how you approach composing for videogames?

Yes, it very much affects the interactive (dynamic) design of the music. The score has many elements (Drums, low strings, melodies, embellishments) and each layer is combined with various elements on consecutive plays, so that there is some difference and it’s not totally repetitive. I remember once playing Modern Warfare 2 and got stuck on a level for 2 weeks, and the same music kept playing over and over again.

I can’t imagine composing music for a film and not watching the movie.  How many times do you play a videogame in order to get sense of how the music should be developed?

Usually I receive concept art, characters, some early prototypes (stick figures and grey blobby 2D figures, with no color, no movement). On GOW3, we did receive animation (for the cinematics) but no one moved their hands or feet, they were just floating. I can imagine quite well how the animation would look in its final rendition. I also love art, architecture and design, so I am very visually oriented composer.

I’ve never felt inhibited by lack of moving picture. Usually the music is implemented before the game is playable, so I get “level walkthroughs” but never play the game myself while composing. My composing process is all based upon a combination of images, prototypes, written briefs about the story, and conversations about concepts, style, tone and ideas with my collaborators.

On this note, what are some differences between composing for videogames and for movies? In your experience, do the industrial differences between games and movies impact your work?

The similarities are being able to write great themes, to support characters and genre, and to create a sonic imprint for the world of the game or film. This is where the similarities end. While in film, all the music is composed to picture, in games, only the cinematics are composed to picture. The rest of the score is based on the concepts and function of the music. The score is delivered with a high degree of technical rigor – in stems, in 2 or 3-minute loops, in stingers, themes, variations. We receive incredibly detailed audio briefs that list 100’s of bits and pieces of music that are needed by the game. Then we have to deliver with utmost technical precision.

While I’m sure you’re proud of all your work, have there been some games that have stood out the most to you?

Prince of Persia: Forgotten Sands (PS3, Xbox, PC) was my break-through job and my most cherished experience, because I was able to combine my Bulgarian background and deep knowledge of Eastern music with knowing the epic Hollywood sound. I also loved composing on Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen a few big battle pieces and right now, I love the iOS games I am scoring (one Medieval and another exploration game).

There have been several debates about if videogames are becoming too cinematic. However, these discussions are usually about a game’s visuals. Why do you think gamers are more willingly to accept movie quality sound effects, but struggle with movie-like scenes?

In my opinion, some games benefit from being more cinematic (most console games like Uncharted, which is a very cinematic game).  On another hand, other games have absolutely no need to be cinematic (e.g., platformers, experimental games).  Probably gamers want to feel that gameplay is distinctive and different than sitting on your sofa watching a movie. I think as long as a game creates its own unique world with a vision for the art, sound, game mechanics and game play, I’ll enjoy it.

“I think as long as a game creates its own unique world with a vision for the art, sound, game mechanics and game play, I’ll enjoy it.”

With more and more games being developed for cell phones and other mobile devices that lack the sound systems found in theaters or houses, how do you think sound develop for games will be affected?

Well, most iOS games have slightly less elaborate and complex scores anyway. I think the quality of earphones is pretty advanced.  We are all required to submit stereo mixes for iOS games, not super-complicated stems as for console games which are mixed in “surround sound.”

Penka Kouneva is currently working on two iPhone games – Rollers of the Realm and Black Hole Explorer, via Indie Game Audio based in Toronto (and her collaborative partners) and another which she’ll announce when it’s released.

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