Adam Levenson‘s career has evolved from performing as a classically trained percussionist to overseeing the busy operations of SomaTone’s creative teams in Emeryville and Vancouver while focusing on leading the company’s growth and expansion into new arenas in his latest role as the COO of SomaTone Interactive. In this latest Game Audio Artistry article, Adam and other members of SomaTone talk about using sound to improve a game.
Great games have great audio. Developers who focus and execute on high quality and attention to detail know that audio adds high production value to the overall experience for a relatively low cost. With a plethora of choices flooding the digital marketplace, great game sound is that “secret sauce” that can make mobile games and apps stand out.
Well-conceived and expertly executed game audio contributes mightily toward delivering an immersive and engaging experience that can feel much bigger than the small mobile device nestled in a player’s hands. The name of the game for us as creative partners is to focus on effectively creating and incorporating original music, sound design, and VO into the mobile experience so that players keep coming back for more.
To this end, here’s what some members of SomaTone’s creative team have to say about using sound to make great games.
1.Understand the importance of game sound, and treat audio production NOT as something that comes last in the pipeline, but rather an important component of game design that should be thought out creatively and technically from the inception of your game.
—Eric Van Amerongen, Senior Sound Designer
2. Establish a clear idea of what the creative style and aesthetic of the audio should be and define important delivery milestones.
—Ollie Glatzer, Audio Producer
3. Pay attention to detail and keeping that in line with an overall, inspired vision.
—Michael Bross, Chief Creative Officer
4. Creative and effective integration – You can have the greatest SFX on the planet, but if they’re not playing back correctly, or mixed just right, the audio experience won’t be good.
—Ben Gabaldon, Sr. Sound Designer
5. Passion! Pre Production! Strive for a cohesive, focused audio experience. The audio should be engaging and captivate the players to want more.
—Ben Brown, VP Business Development
Sound and music truly make visual entertainment come alive. Fun, memorable moments that we experience when playing our favorite games are often tied to a great character line, or a catchy melody, or a sound effect that thrills. Savvy game makers know this, and whether the project is a new slots game or a point-and-click survival horror game, smart developers use sound and music to deliver more entertainment value to the audience.
Adam Levenson‘s career has evolved from performing as a classically trained percussionist, then serving as a composer and sound designer in the burgeoning multimedia industry in the early 90’s—“before anyone knew what a video game sound designer even was,” as he put it—followed by sound and music director positions at Interplay, Electronic Arts, and Shiny Entertainment. During his tenure as Senior Director at Activision from 2006 – 2011, Adam established and managed both the Central Audio and Central Talent teams supporting work on major franchises. In 2011, he launched Levenson Artists Agency, providing representation to clients such as celebrity composers Hans Zimmer and Lorne Balfe. Now, Adam oversees the busy operations of SomaTone’s creative teams in Emeryville and Vancouver while focusing on leading the company’s growth and expansion into new arenas in his latest role as the COO of SomaTone Interactive.
In this latest Game Audio Artistry article, Adam examines how new sensorial technologies can take the immersive gameplay experience to heightened and even more engaging levels of player fascination and enjoyment.
Immersificationnoun \i-ˈmərs-ə-fə-ˈkā-shən\: the process of creating enhanced involvement in a particular activity
In 1974, the blockbuster disaster film Earthquake wowed movie theater audiences with Sensurround effects. Low frequency sounds were pumped through big Cerwin-Vega subwoofers that sent vibrations through the seats during the film’s tremor scenes. It physically involved theatergoers in the drama and, like an amusement park ride, the result was thrilling. In some theaters, Sensurround effects sent pieces of ceiling plaster falling into the audience and shook seats in neighboring theaters showing The Godfather Part II. Sensurround was audience immersion on an epic scale, a bold experiment in producing a multi-sensorial experience.
Now, 40 years later, consumers of mobile interactive entertainment are also seeking deeper engagement. Giant leaps in display technology have provided intensely vivid visual experiences, but humans have five senses, and with the advent of sophisticated digital devices with built-in functionality to stimulate those sensations, it’s now up to content creators to take full advantage and rock audiences in their virtual theater seats.
The Apple iPad Air features dual microphones, Amazon’s Fire Phone sports dynamic perspective, and Samsung Galaxy smartphones include tactile feedback. These are just a few of the offerings in the development of recent mobile technologies that provide sensory engagement. Although both smell and taste are primary and essential senses, there isn’t much being done with olfactory and gustatory digital transmissions (putting experiments such as Smell-O-Vision and Nokia’s Scentsory Phone aside). Maybe that’s OK. But entertainment technologies and content designed to stimulate hearing and touch are engaging consumers, and a resurgence of virtual reality points to a trend towards greater immersification.
Realizing the potential means being creative with music and sound implementation.
Dolby has always been at the leading edge of sound technologies that improve sound quality and envelope the listener. Even on smartphones, Dolby Digital Plus delivers virtualized surround sound through headphones or even with built-in mobile device speakers. This opens the door for app and video game developers to provide a more engaging experience. Realizing the potential means being creative with music and sound implementation. That starts with developing rich audio environments, including layers of ambient sound, music, voice performances, and specific sound effects to make all the game mechanics come to life.
Despite recent advances, music in games generally plays in a linear manner, just like it did when Edison invented the phonograph cylinder in the 19th century. Amazingly, visionaries in music technology have been working on concepts in “real-time composition” since the 90’s. It has been called many names like computational music and algorithmic composition, and much of this research has been academic. With vastly increased processing power, new devices may soon present an opportunity to implement fully responsive music. Music adds an emotional dimension that makes us laugh out loud at funny scenes, jump out of our seats when surprised, or get choked up during sad dialog. How much more immersive would a Star Wars game experience be if the score could build and sting with each dramatic Jedi lightsaber hit?
On one hand, the virtuality of new smartphone and tablet interfaces promotes a whole new physical language of gestures. We can push, swipe, sweep, and slide. But on the other hand, we lose the satisfaction of getting real world physical feedback when we perform the gesture. We type, press buttons, turn pages, move objects, throw switches, but for the most part, we don’t feel anything. In our mobile entertainment, explosions, cars racing by, or feats of strength that we experience visually lack any sense of physicality. Haptics technology changes all of that. Haptic effects are touch or tactile feedback events produced by actuators (a kind of motor) integrated into our devices. Video game console controllers have used haptic type feedback, or rumble effects, for years. But with newer technologies from companies like Immersion, users feel customized force or resistance as they perform virtual activities. Sensing the impact of a soccer ball kick, the recoil of a gun, or the mechanical click of a button push brings the experience to life, providing a deep level of immersification.
By combining high-resolution imagery with high fidelity sound and haptics feedback, VR has the potential to offer practically total immersion.
Although VR still calls to mind images of disoriented people at 90’s tech conferences stumbling around in bulky headsets, advances in virtual reality technology have reinvigorated consumer interest. Earlier this year, Facebook acquired innovators Oculus VR for $2 billion – imagine simulated social networking, and the motivation for the acquisition becomes clear. By combining high-resolution imagery with high fidelity sound and haptics feedback, VR has the potential to offer practically total immersion. The potential applications for VR range from therapeutic uses, to military training, to entertainment media, and beyond. Although VR doesn’t currently have the portability and accessibility of more mobile technologies, the renewed interest and innovation in the field do reflect growing consumer demand for immersification of our digital experiences.
Contemporary immersion relies on rich creative content like engaging stories, great music, impactful sound, and believable physics. Developers and publishers that incorporate those elements into their entertainment media have already taken the first step towards immersion. New technologies allow for the completed, multi-sensorial experience without the inconvenience of falling ceiling plaster.
The thrilling part is, it all just keeps getting more and more immersive.
Aaron Walz has known since he was 10 years old what he wanted to do with his life. “I’ve been into music and games my whole life,” he says. It’s no surprise then that he has embedded himself deeply in the audio sector of the gaming industry. With his experience, he was able to provide some tips during Casual Connect USA 2014: “Sometimes, limitations can help you compose things you otherwise wouldn’t.”
Having a unique perspective due to being long-time game player and classical musician with a theory-based music degree, Walz took things a step further in 2007 by creating Walz Music and Sound. He lists his creativity and the fact he is easy to work with as business assets and notes that his time as an HR director well-prepared him for running a business. “I know what developers want, and can create things that gamers want to hear, while staying interesting and cutting edge.”
In the Workplace
When Walz was first getting Walz Music and Sound on its feet, there were several things he had to adjust to. First and foremost was shifting away from the “paycheck mentality” and learn to budget. He also had to buckle down and improve his sound design skills. Most importantly, he had to learn to market himself and charge what he was worth. “I had to learn to have faith, not give up, believe in myself,” he says. “The biggest obstacle was me limiting myself!”
Now that Walz Music and Sound is up and running, Walz can focus on the work of running a business and making music and sound. His schedule is varied, and he finds himself working both in-house and at home. His responsibilities include sound creation, composition, and “lots of communication” — as well as the typical business-related tasks.
He works with all sorts of clients, most notably Kabam and John Romero (which Walz considers a couple of his biggest accomplishments), and his projects can vary greatly. He has put together a game in a week, while another game may take a year. One day can include a combination of music, voice over recording and editing, design sound for a marketing video or cutscene, and creating custom sounds. The technical specs of the game’s platform must also be taken into consideration when putting a game together. Music length and smooth looping are just a couple of the things that need to be considered.
Collaboration between the different game teams is also important to Walz, who says that a better game is made with more collaboration. “Even better is if I get to do integration and implementation,” he says. “At the very least, you should always be able to test sound in a game and have access to all art assets and a build.”
While he can take on an excessive amount of work at crunch time, Walz prefers to pace himself in his work. “Through the years, I’ve learned to stay realistic with my daily and weekly goals, focused and productive,” he says. “Some work is tiring emotionally, and some is tiring mentally. In fact, even physically. You have to be careful not to tire your ears out and work through that, or things don’t sound good.”
Building Alliances and Raising Awareness
One of the things Walz laments about the audio sector is the lack of recognition those in the sector receive relative to the rest of the gaming industry. “Sound is a huge part of the experience in almost any good game,” he says, noting that composers and sound designers should always be credited both online and in-game. He’d also like to see more budget designated for audio and more time and thought devoted towards it.
In an effort to combat these issues, Walz and others in the audio sector have come together to form the Game Audio Alliance. Along with tackling compensation and recognition issues, the Game Audio Alliance hopes to work toward audio standardization and increased audio quality in the game sector as well.
The group met and came together at a Casual Connect conference years ago. “We decided there were not a lot of big companies for audio, and we had a unique vision and wanted to all work together,” Walz says. “We strive to build a sense of community and connectedness among casual/social/mobile audio folks. This helps us all remember that aside from competing, we can come together to make sure audio is highly valued and of excellent quality.”
The group has published articles and materials advancing their goals and Walz answers questions behind the scenes all year long to encourage those starting out in the sector. Currently, the group also plans to create a more formal association for members to join and receive special perks.
Things Still to Do
Walz looks forward to the audio process becoming more streamlined in the future, with more tools for game audio creation and integration available to audio developers. “Hopefully, and probably, we will raise the quality of the bit rates and get out of this 128k world in mobile, especially,” he says. “I’m really excited about that!”
He’d also like to create his own game app at some point, saying that he has some great ideas for some original games. He’d also love to have his music performed by an orchestra someday — and possibly conduct — as well as do the same with choral music, as he’s quite familiar with the genre.
In the meantime though, whenever he has free time, he hones his tennis and bowling skills — and wins gold medals as a part of choral group Golden Gate Men’s Chorus, which just competed in the World Choir Games and came home with two gold medals and a silver medal.
As a composer, it’s no surprise Jesper Kyd loves music. Even from a young age, when Kyd started playing classic guitar and piano, his passion for melodies and harmonies was evident.
As he grew, so did his musical expertise. He started messing with music in an electronic medium when he got his first computer, a Commodore 64, at age 13. At 15, he got his first keyboard, a Roland D-20, and began composing music with that as well. “I’ve always loved experimenting with electronics and creating unique sounds,” he says.
Once More, With Feeling
Some of Kyd’s favorite bands and influences include The Knife and Royksopp, as well as classical composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Ottorino Respighi. For him, music is all about the feeling. “Music can take you far away and make you feel something different,” he notes. “I’m drawn to the emotion of music.”
This fundamental trait of music is what makes it so enjoyable to work with and is a component of the music-making process for Kyd — allowing him to find inspiration in whatever the focus of his latest project is. “There is always a lot of inspiration when working on games, film, and TV as your music needs to fit into a certain world so that world should always be able to inspire ideas.”
“Music is there to set the mood and deepen the experience, to add atmosphere and immerse you in the world.”
Regardless of the platform or genre, music has the same purpose in a game. “Music is there to set the mood and deepen the experience, to add atmosphere and immerse you in the world,” Kyd says. “Music can also make you play a game longer. For example, if some music comes on that you feel like listening to, then you might stay in the game world longer and that might be all it took for you to find something new and now you end up playing the game for another hour or more.”
The process is also the same no matter the game. Kyd will generally work alongside the creative director, audio director, or game director, discussing what the music needs to do along with the wider game story and its characters. At times, he will be directly involved with how the music is applied in the game, and other times everything has already been sorted before he’s even brought in. He loves being involved as much as possible in the process though. A score can take anywhere from three to nine months to put together, depending on how early he is brought in to the process and how much music is required — and it’s not unusual for him to write around three hours of music on a single project.
Reflections and Pushing Forward
“I’m always trying to push my music forward so there is not really a project where I can say ‘that’s the one.’ I think there is always room to improve and that is something I feel when listening to my music.”
There’s no such thing as a crowning accomplishment for Kyd and each project brings more knowledge and new ways of thinking to the table. “I’m always trying to push my music forward so there is not really a project where I can say ‘that’s the one.’ I think there is always room to improve and that is something I feel when listening to my music. I develop my music all the time and so when I go back to listen to a score after I have grown in other areas of music making, I feel I can go back to that style and add something new.”
Even though he won’t call it a crowning achievement, his scores on the first four Assassin’s Creed games were certainly a milestone, and it makes him happy to know the Assassin’s Creed community still enjoys the “Ezio’s Family” theme and connects to it, noting it was intended to go beyond gameplay. He is also proud to have established the sound of Assassin’s Creed, saying “It seems there now are very high expectations from the music in the Assassin’s Creed series, and I feel good about having planted that seed.”
In keeping with his theme of pushing forward, Kyd has recently made the jump to social games. He was approached by Plarium, who were looking to create interesting and unique music for their games. “Plarium gave me full creative reign and that’s (one thing) I look for when working on a project. I liked their ideas and they were very open to mine, so we connected on a creative level and started working together.”
Whatever projects may come in the future, for Kyd, “It’s always about working in a fun environment with creative people who share the same kind of enthusiasm and passion.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“You want to use time rather than assets to define your scope,” Nick Thomas advised his audience at Casual Connect Europe 2014. “So you can adapt to the game, you can react to the game, and you put the priority on the quality of the product not the asset list.”
Nick Thomas is Co-founder and CEO of SomaTone Interactive, a company which provides music, sound design, voice over, and audio integration services for gaming and interactive entertainment companies. 2013 was the ten-year anniversary for the company. It was also its most successful year, posting its best financial performance and the release of its best work to date.
Mixing it Up
As a founder of SomaTone, Nick has been involved in every role in the company, including music composition, SFX design, voice over production, mixing, and field/foley recording, as well as everything necessary to grow the company, such as business development, accounting and marketing. As the company expanded, they hired content producers to create the audio assets, and his position transitioned into a creative management role. He now manages the network of studios, leads business development efforts, and creates strategic partnerships with publishers to create the best service pipeline possible.
Over the past ten years, SomaTone has produced music for hundreds of games. This fall, with the release of the soundtrack for the latest Ratchet and Clank PS3 title, Into the Nexus, Nick experienced the greatest moment of his career. The soundtrack included over 100 minutes of music composed by SomaTone’s Michael Bross and Senior Composer Mike Raznik. It also includes a live orchestra recorded in Nashville and mixed in their studio in Emeryville. Nick feels, “The results are truly fantastic. Ratchet and Clank represents a significant milestone in the quality of content we are producing and is a real achievement for SomaTone Interactive.”
Advancements in Audio
Nick believes the emerging trend that will have the most impact on the games industry is integration. He tells us, “We are on the cusp of a major advance in the technical capabilities of mobile games when it comes to audio management.” Wwise and fMod have both released mobile versions of their audio middleware technologies; Unity has bundled audio management tools in their dev environment. The result is a huge advance in creative resources for audio designers, game designers, and game programmers in audio integration. Games of all types are beginning to take advantage of more advanced audio tools, making the work of creating and integrating high quality audio experiences much more rewarding. He expects to see much higher investment in these tools as mobile games introduce dynamic music and SFX into casual and mid-core games.
SomaTone is now aggressively advocating these technologies to their partners and working to increase awareness and expectations from game developers and game players. Since implementation has traditionally been lacking in mobile games, Nick finds this trend a refreshing and welcome change.
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.
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.
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
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.
Aaron Walz, Owner, Lead Composer, Sound Designer and Producer of Walz Music and Sound, tells us he is “so proud and honored to be at the helm of the audio track and bring it to my home territory and a new audience for Casual Connect in one of the hearts of mobile and social technology and game creation.”
Inspired by John Romero
Aaron has been a game fan since the age of six; naturally he knew the work of John Romero. So he feels the greatest time in his career was working alongside him to compose the music for the top ranking Facebook adventure, Ravenwood Fair, a game which received 30 million plays each month at the height of its popularity. He insists that many things led up to this, reminding him that he had indeed arrived at his dream.
Audio will always be extremely important for a game, and hopefully will continue getting more and more recognition, appreciation in the industry, as well as budgeted dollars.
For Love of Music
Aaron had been freelancing since 1997 in game audio, but the greatest challenge Aaron has worked through was starting Walz Music and Sound in 2007, his childhood dream and a move which required leaving his career in HR. It took him between two and three years to make his new career sustainable full time. In the process, he had to learn to delegate better, spend better and not underestimate the value of his worth and his time. He also had to say yes a lot, learn new skills and hone the ones he already had.
Aaron describes himself as zesty and full of life. He likes to use Pop-Dance music to keep him moving in the gym and alert while driving. His many free time adventures include bowling, tennis, singing in a chorus, yoga, food, wine and rooftop gardening.
Creating More Dynamic Music
The emerging trend offering new opportunities for Aaron’s company is the development of audio middleware that makes sound programming in casual games more dynamic. He plans to make use of this trend by working with developers more closely to change how audio is implemented, and, as he says, “It won’t be just thrown over the fence.”
Games Need Better Audio
Aaron claims the trend that will most affect the industry as a whole is “The slow possible eventual death, or massive rethinking and restructuring of the console systems and portals as well as the exodus to mobile.” But he believes more unification and standardization of software and hardware, especially with audio, will also be very important. “What I know is that audio will always be extremely important for a game, and hopefully will continue getting more and more recognition, appreciation in the industry, as well as budgeted dollars.”
Creating Another G.A.N.G, Designed for Casual Games
Aaron is very excited about creating and strengthening an audio community for Casual Games, similar to what G.A.N.G. did for consoles back in the day, in order to raise the quality, standardize systems, rates and expectations, and raise developer appreciation and compensation. This organization is Game Audio Alliance. It is their audio design company that is branching out to include membership, networking, education and resources.
Barking Mouse Studio is a two-person indie game studio in San Francisco, consisting of Danielle Swank and Jim Fleming. They consider Lost Toys to be their first full game. While both are software engineers and artists, they come from opposite backgrounds. Jim took computer science in college and is a self-taught artist. Danielle took ceramics in college and is a self-taught engineer. Together, they tell the story of Lost Toys.
Wandering Through Projects
We met when Danielle hired Jim to work at an interactive media agency. From the start, we wanted to work on our own projects together, but finding the right one took a bit longer than expected. Financial management app? Built it. News reader? Yep, several of them. Database GUI? Yup, it’s open-sourced here. With each new project, we learned a lot, but none of them ever felt quite right.
We did a couple of game jams and had a great time making the (often less than) 48 hour games. With every new jam, we would brainstorm ideas ahead of time. Suddenly, we were talking about games all the time. So naturally, we thought, “We’ll make a game to sell on the App Store! It’ll make a million dollars, and only take a month or so!” We barely knew game-making, we didn’t know mobile, and we really didn’t know 3D. It was nearly a year later before we were finally ready to launch our first game.
Our old GUI system, and the first time we were able to play a level.
Our first attempt at Lost Toys was with HTML5 and WebGL (using Three.js). For us, it was a nightmare. It felt like we had to re-invent the wheel, the scene view, the model importer, the audio player, the renderer, the camera, and… you get the idea. We struggled for about a month, and then realized that we needed something that would just work. After noticing a lot of fellow game jammers using Unity, we switched. In addition to being easier to develop in, this opened up a lot of doors for us, since we could now publish on nearly any platform.
In the trough of doubt between the switch from HTML5 to Unity, we questioned our initial game mechanic. It just wasn’t fitting with the aesthetic (creepy toys) and wasn’t as immersive as we wanted. Our budget was too tight to let us hire voice actors. We needed the environment alone to convey our story, and an unsettling theme can convey a lot of emotion. In the end, we drew inspiration from a lot of sources like Leonardo DaVinci to Apple to the San Francisco Exploratorium and games like The Room, Zen Bound and Cogs.
Scope and Resource Restrictions
Neither of us has any audio background, but we know the value of it. It was important to us not to compromise the game aesthetic. Having no soundtrack was better than having one that didn’t fit, and the budget wasn’t there for something custom. Fortunately, we found the beautiful, classical and free Creative Commons licensed work of pianist composer Peter Rudenko. We’ve listened to “The Fall” about a thousand times during development. It’s one of our favorite pieces of music ever, and it fits the tone and aesthetic of Lost Toys perfectly.
We also didn’t have the budget for any kind of custom audio samples or to hire a sound engineer. We looked at a number of websites that sold or offered free stock audio. Most of the sites didn’t offer trial samples, and we needed to playtest different sounds as cheaply as possible. Pond5 was great for this, we could download watermarked audio clips and see if they matched what we were going for.
Since the game needed to be as immersive as possible, we felt that everything should be a part of the game world – including the GUI elements. At first, we tried to make everything skeumorphic, “physical” elements of the game. The first version of Lost Toys was more of a ghost story with little “wisps” that flew around and “oozed” off of the toy at the start of each level. Made up of little puffs of glowing smoke, wisps were ethereal “undo” buttons. Unfortunately, the wisps complicated the code and gameplay quite a bit. None of our playtesters understood what to do with them. So they fell into the dung heap of history, in favor of a minimalist on-screen GUI. Surprisingly, we found that the new GUI helped players remain immersed in the game because they didn’t have to learn how to interact with the wisps.
For us, building a 2D game was never an option we considered. Neither of us are 2D illustrators, and Jim had some old experience with 3D graphics. Plus, we really like the aesthetics of minimal but realistic games (think Zen Bound and The Room) and enjoy puzzle games like Cogs and Flow that take advantage of a touch interface. Because of our 3D requirement, keeping development time under a year was very hard work. We ruthlessly limited the scope over and over again. Despite this, our main rotational mechanic in this “simple” game took three months, several revisions and many individual attempts before we pair programmed a solution.
Getting The Word Out
Why do we need a trailer? We’ve got a laggy video of the whole first chapter!
Lost Toys is our first attempt at a professional game, and rotational math was only one of the many things we didn’t know how to do when we started. We had no idea how to market or distribute a game. We just assumed that was what app stores were for. Fortunately for us, we live in San Francisco, where there is a wealth of established indie developers that are incredibly generous with their time and advice (thank you, thank you, thank you!) Many of them we met through our local IGDA chapter, which is a great organization to join if you’re interested in indie game development.
The biggest advice we received was to start reaching out to potential players immediately. To do that, we needed a great trailer. Like with the rest of our game, and indie development in general, we didn’t have the budget to hire someone to make our trailer. We had to figure out how to make it ourselves with zero film-editing experience. It took us about a week of studying movie trailers to come up with a rough storyboard. From there, we needed to figure out how to make what we wanted. The solution we came up with was to turn exported image sequences into movie clips. The problem with this method is that in-game audio can’t be used. To get around that limitation we borrowed a trick from all those movie trailers, and have a single piece of music playing throughout the trailer which helps tie together all the different bits of gameplay.
Everything Comes Together
The finished trailer
So here we are, almost a year from when we started. Lost Toys won “Most Promising Game” as part of the Indie Prize at Casual Connect, and we’re launching on iOS at the end of October with Android and BlackBerry to follow. As part of the process, we learned to say “no” to every idea we had that wasn’t in direct support of launching a solid game and that building the game is only half of the job.
You can keep up to date with launch notices for Lost Toys by following them on Facebook or Twitter.