I have some great news that I wanted to share with my fellow G.A.N.G. members. I was interviewed by senior editor Kevin VanOrd of GameSpot for a profile article which is now featured on the home page of GameSpot.com.
The article discusses my career in the game industry, from my first job as a game composer to my latest project, Assassin's Creed III Liberation. You can read the article here:
You can hear some samples from the Assassin's Creed III Liberation soundtrack here:
(From the February, 2007 issue of Game Developer Magazine)
Few phrases carry more weight in the industry now than the magic words “Next-Gen.” From the Wii to Gears of War’s cover mechanics, developers and consumers alike are trying to figure out what that phrase means. However, before audio professionals can delve into the finer points of surround mixing or user-driven content, there are still unresolved issues from the current generation that need to be addressed.
This list represents features that have all too frequently been brushed under the Current-Gen audio rug. Their industry-wide standardization should represent the first steps towards the definition of Next-Gen Audio.
Disc space is no longer an issue. The only things standing between diverse audio and two-footstep characters are old habits and narrow aesthetics. As games got bigger, Current-Gen audio strove for coverage. The results were often little more than a sketch. Next-Gen audio should now strive to fill in the canvas. The solution is simple: if the player will hear the sound frequently, there should be five to ten randomized versions so as prevent fatigue. Hit impacts, foley, weapons, environmental sounds – real worlds are rich with variation. Ours should be, too.
It’s happened to every gamer. Their character enters a new area. There’s no map. Their radar malfunctions. The power has been cut and surprises lurk in the shadows. Regardless of the visual mood, a lack of occlusion means that they can hear the signature vocalizations and foley sounds for each enemy around every corner and know exactly what to expect next. At that moment, the lack of occlusion has completely destroyed all drama, tension, and anticipation that the level designers and environmental artists have painstakingly worked to create. To lack occlusion is to undercut the efforts of the other game designers.
There’s nothing immersive about a loading bar. While dynamic loading is a battle that must be planned for and waged across all disciplines, it’s the responsibility of the Audio Lead to initially request dynamic loading of audio assets. With the launch titles launched on the new consoles, it’s clear that “Next-Gen gaming” means little more right now than prettier graphics. Eventually this will expand to all disciplines as greater immersion is inevitable throughout the next console cycle. The ability to load and unload sounds only when needed will be vital for audio. Smarter memory management should be one of the primary goals of all audio tech moving forward.
Much like occlusion, robust DSP systems speak directly to the heart of immersion. DSP effects like filtering and reverb place our sounds in the spaces the characters inhabit. Unfortunately, with surprising frequency, Real-Time DSP is a casualty of poor planning, poor tech, or both. Foley in outside spaces should sound different than the same foley files played inside interior spaces. If characters are grunting and groaning inside of a cave, their utterances should be processed with a cavernous reverb (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy XII).
Abandoning Chipset MIDI
You only have to look as far as GameSpot’s review of The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess to see that chipset MIDI scores aren’t going to pass muster with the gaming press in the Next-Gen age – and rightfully so. Enough game scores over the last console cycle ditched the old tech and embraced digital recordings that gamers’ tastes have largely evolved. Consumers have come to expect their epic games to have epic orchestras. It might be excusable were every game using chipset MIDI doing so because they were implementing an extremely interactive music system that digital recordings can’t achieve. They’re not, though, and chipset MIDI should go the way of 2D sprites and text MUDs.
Interactive music made strides over the last round of consoles. Unfortunately, thousands of new games come out each year, only a fraction of which have interactive scores. The majority of games still have “trigger and forget” loops tied to in-game locations. This fatiguing approach leads many players to turn music off in their Options menus. What’s worse, it’s led to Microsoft’s insistence that music in every Xbox 360 game be replaceable with the user’s own music files. This should be seen as a great failing on our parts as game composers. We can make music systems that don’t fatigue users. The goal of all game sound should be to make it as integral to the gameplay experience as maps, NPC objectives, and weapon upgrades – music included.
Story, characterization, and gameplay are rapidly distancing themselves from the text-scrawl days of games’ 1980s Neanderthal forefathers. Like chipset MIDI, voiceless games are already getting dinged in their reviews for their lack of dialogue. Again, disc space limitations are crumbling and localizing dialogue for a global market isn’t only doable, it’s proven to have tremendous benefits in opening up new markets to titles. Words like “toy” and “diversion” used to describe our games in the mass media. Soon, we will be the mass media and already terms like “art” and “cinematic experience” are replacing the labels of the past. Voice is crucial to this transition.
Obviously, not all of these issues are going to be applicable to all titles, all platforms, and all audio teams. Madden doesn’t need interactive music any more than Dragon Quest IX could possibly be fully voiced on the DS. None the less, this list will hopefully serve as a jumping-off point for debate and innovation.
(From the January, 2007 issue of Game Developer Magazine)
The music revolution has arrived and in its wake lay the bankrupt husks of once-mighty megaliths like Tower and Sam Goody. While Napster struck the first blow, the undisputed successor to the throne of legal music downloading is Apple’s iTunes Music Store. By offering decent quality downloads at reasonable prices, iTunes is largely driving the changes reshaping media distribution channels in the 21st century.
While seemingly every film gets a soundtrack release these days, game soundtracks are still extreme rarities outside of Japan. This is largely attributed to the limited return game soundtracks bring in when compared to the costs involved in production, distribution, and marketing of the discs themselves. However, an online distribution model changes this dramatically and already music by Chance Thomas, Jack Wall, and Marty O’Donnell sits under the iTunes “Soundtrack” category.
Convincing your publisher that a game soundtrack is a good idea is a topic all its own. This month, though, we’re going to look at what it takes to get your music listed on iTunes. There are essentially two methods: directly through Apple or through a digital distributor.
THE APPLE WAY
iTunes is a great opportunity for independent artists and smaller labels to easily distribute their music world wide. However, finding their online application can be difficult as all of the necessary links are in out of the way places on Apple.com. Start at www.apple.com/itunes and click on the light gray hypertext link at the bottom of the screen that reads “Working With iTunes: Labels & Artists.” On the following “Labels & Artists” page, the application to apply is linked to in the first blue box on the right side of the screen, conveniently labeled “iTunes Music Store Online Application.”
After complying with a brief “don’t call us, we’ll call you” and “you better own the rights to this stuff” warning from Apple, you’re ready to apply. The application comes in two relatively short parts. The first section is all about contact info and where globally you have the rights to distribute the music. The second part of the application is about the content – is it music, how many albums, how many tracks, and any other info you’d like to let Apple know. Pretty simple stuff.
Here’s the snag with the Apple method. As Apple is fond of telling you, real people read and evaluate every application that comes through their site. As such, the word on the street is that Apple can take a very long time to get back to artists, if ever. Since Apple doesn’t approve every artist who applies and you already clicked on the “don’t call us” button, the whole process can feel a bit like throwing a feather down a deep well and waiting to hear some sort of splash.
If you do hear back from Apple, you’ll need to download their free iTunes Producer software to edit track metadata, attach album artwork, and convert tracks into the necessary AAC file format. Monetarily, there is no fee to apply, but Apple will take 35% of all sales. The other 65% goes to the record label, which in this case might be the game’s publisher, the artist, or an actual record label. How much you as the artist will see of that remaining 65% is completely dependent upon the specifics of your individual deal.
You will also need to set up your music with a UPC code for each album and ISRC codes for each track. The UPC barcode is used to track individual albums sold and the ISRC codes function as a digital fingerprint for every song in distribution. To create your own barcodes, you need to become a member of GS1 US and obtain a unique company prefix. This can cost as much as $750. If you’re going through your publisher or an established record label, you may be able to get a UPC code through them. ISRC codes can be obtained for free from the Recording Industry Association of America (www.riaa.com).
THE OTHER WAY
The other option is to contract with a digital distributor. A digital distributor works just like their real-world counterparts. You give them music and they work on getting it distributed to vendors. In this case, that means online music retail services such as iTunes, Napster, Rhapsody, etc. Digital distributors do the legwork for their artists and then take a small percentage of the return from sales as commission. Distributor legwork includes digitizing the music and converting it into all required file formats for the various retail outlets. Turn around times range from about 2 weeks to 4 months, depending on the retailer.
The leading digital distributor right now is CD Baby, though others such as IRIS, indie911 and the IODA also exist. Artists are charged an initial “set-up” fee of $35 and $20 per UPC code. For their part, though, CD Baby then handles all necessary file format conversions, acquisition of ISRC numbers, and then the actual distribution. Payment is then made a week after they receive the money from the retailers.
While primarily established to aid independent and unsigned bands, digital distributors can remove many of the hassles associated with the Apple method. Additionally, your music will find its way to more than just iTunes. The downside however is a smaller monetary return and the insertion of a middle-man between you and your music on iTunes.
(From the November, 2006 issue of Game Developer Magazine)
Games have been chasing after film since the 1990s to compete in terms of production values, budgets, and audience. For game composers this has meant shaking off the shackles of chip-set MIDI and stepping onto the recording stage. However, the arrival of live recording to game music introduced a question that film composers have been wrestling with for years: is it a union-date or not?
The answer has almost exclusively been "non-union" due to budgetary restraints and a union interactive media contract that doesn't keep pace with the evolving technology of our industry. This has meant a choice between hiring non-union musicians, paying union musicians under-the-table, or turning to alternative musical enclaves for larger orchestral sessions. By far the most successful of these alternatives has been Seattle, Washington.
Most professional musicians in the United States belong to the American Federation of Musicians (AFM) and it's the AFM’s contracts that have dictated the terms for film and television music usage for decades. Seattle musicians, however, are part of the separate International Guild of Symphony, Opera, & Ballet Musicians and work from a different standard of contracts. Their no-fuss "buy-out" payment policies have made Seattle the new go-to location for a vast portion of scoring sessions. In addition to Seattle, recent improvements in telephony and data transfer technologies have made outsourcing orchestral recording to European non-union orchestras a viable option for budget-conscious composers.
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH
For years, AFM has watched unhappily as more and more professional recording dates slip from the union into the non-union column. Despite their displeasure, there was little movement from AFM in terms of a resolution. All of that changed this past July.
After watching a century's worth of protections for professional musicians slowly erode, AFM president Thomas F. Lee issued a press release that officially took a bold stand on the issue of Seattle. According to Mr. Lee's statement, as of October 1, 2006 The Union now holds all members involved in non-Union Seattle recording sessions to be in violation of AFM bylaws. Article 15, Section 3 of the AFM bylaws states:
“No AFM member may perform services (whether as composer, arranger, copyist, proofreader, instrumentalist, leader, contractor, cutter, editor, or in any other capacity): (1) where the product of the services is intended to result in, or be embodied in, recorded music made outside of the United Sates and Canada and the possessions of either; or (2) for the purpose of producing, editing, or dubbing recorded music except where expressly authorized and covered by a contract with the AFM or when expressly authorized by the AFM.”
Additionally, Mr. Lee clarified that - as stated in the AFM bylaws - any member found to violate Section 3 "shall be subject to a fine not exceeding $50,000 and/or expulsion."
These rules aren’t new and have been part of the union bylaws for some time. What is new is the aggressive nature AFM is now taking with enforcing their existing policies. As for the means of enforcement, the AFM is counting on its smaller local chapters to report members that are in violation and file official charges against them.
WHAT IT ALL MEANS
While the new hard-line stance is clearly aimed at stemming the tide of film work headed towards Seattle, there is nothing in Mr. Lee's statement that exempts game or television work. As such, any members of the union who finds themselves involved in game production should be aware of the potential for fines. Although the AFM doesn’t cover the craft of composition, many composers join in ancillary roles such as orchestrators, conductors, or instrumentalists in order to take advantage of union benefits. In addition, AFM members such as orchestrators or copyists often have little - if any - say over whether or not their work goes to Seattle. It remains to be seen if there will be any leniency when it comes to the filing of official charges. As it stands, there are no distinctions made in the AFM's policy based upon role or level of involvement and any union member involved in any capacity with a game project headed for Seattle should be cautious.
For composers looking to avoid the issue all together, it should be no surprise that in addition to non-AFM instrumentalists, Seattle also contains non-AFM conductors, copyists, and music preparation houses. As would be expected, the quality of their work is top-notch and pricing comparable to that of AFM contractors. Furthermore, orchestras in the Eastern European cities of Prague and Bratislava are now servicing media projects. These non-union options cost roughly fifty percent less than recording in The States. However, the level of musicianship does not match that of their domestic counterparts. While the quality of these recording sessions has been improving over time, composers going this route should be aware that their strengths still lie with music in a traditional classical vein.
It remains to be seen what the AFM’s new policy of directly targeting its members will do to the issue of orchestral outsourcing. With enforcement dependent upon local chapters and low-cost options a tempting draw, many union members may adopt a “wait and see” policy as the story evolves. What is clear is that the AFM is tired of sitting idly by while globalization spreads to the scoring stage.
The full text of AFM’s July press release can be found at http://www.afm.org/public/press/seattle.pdf.
(From the October, 2006 issue of Game Developer Magazine)
The Video Game industry is nomadic by nature and no field more transient than Audio. As a result, every audio professional is forced throughout their career to prove and reprove their worth solely on the strength of their résumé and the first 30 seconds of their demo.
Freelance audio folks rarely get to see the demos of their competition and Audio Directors don’t have time to give critiques on the demos that end up in their “No” pile. So how do you know if you’re a “No” or not? More importantly, how can you ensure you’re in the “Yes” pile?
PRESENTATION IS EVERYTHING
No demo exists in a vacuum. To the contrary, every demo will almost always find itself sitting in the middle of a stack of demos. Before any tracks can be heard, the first impression your demo will always make is a visual one. As such, presentation is everything. Imagine an Audio Director staring down a stack of CDs without any idea of what the audio on them sounds like. At that moment, the selection of one demo over another is almost completely arbitrary. The only advantage your demo has is its ability to stand out from the crowd.
This means that CD- and DVD-Rs that have been written on with a Sharpie marker are automatically at a disadvantage. At their best, they look sloppy. Far too frequently, however, they contain illegible or incomplete text. No matter how attractive you may think your handwriting is, it can’t compare to a printed CD label. But what do you print on the label?
First and foremost, always include your name and contact information on every part of your demo – whether it’s the case, the disc, the résumé, or a business card you tossed in for good measure. Discs and cases are easily separated and if there isn’t any clue as to whose audio the disc contains, that nameless disc just lost itself a gig.
Secondly, if you’re looking to stand out, avoid the standard cliché images common to the industry. For composers, this means never cover your demo with pictures of sheet music, treble clefs, noteheads, violins, etc.
So many composers use these images as the easy way of saying “This is a music disc.” The problem is that hundreds of composers are all using the same imagery. For sound designers, stay clear of pictures of waveforms, speakers, or screenshots from Protools as they’re all overdone. Both disciplines are also guilty of another common cliché. If you include a photo of yourself, don’t take it while sitting in front of your gear. Take a picture of yourself anywhere else. You’re looking to stand out and be different. Trust me. Audio Directors will still believe you know a mod wheel from a pan pot if they don’t see you beside one.
If you don’t have the graphic design or Photoshop skills to design something other than the clichés for yourself, hire a graphic designer to do it for you. It’s that important. You’re creating a brand of yourself that you’re then marketing throughout the industry. You owe it to yourself to do everything you can to ensure that your disc stands out from the pile of unknowns.
(From the September, 2006 issue of Game Developer Magazine)
Over the life of the medium, games have been defined in large part by their role as marketing-driven assistants to the grand Hollywood machine. Additionally, in no other form of entertainment does the concept of sequels flourish quite as much as it does in the world of games. Endemic to both cases is one central truth: games frequently exist solely to give the player more of what they already love.
As such, everyone involved in the work of expanding an existing franchise plays a delicate balancing act between faithfully rendering what the players expect while infusing their own creative mark on the title. A team of artists and designers tackles the look of the franchise while an army of production staff tackles level design, gameplay, script writing, and voice casting. Only when it comes to music is a large chunk of responsibility for the game’s faithfulness to player expectations frequently placed into the hands of a single person: the game’s composer.
TO TEMP OR NOT TO TEMP
With so much riding on the composer’s shoulders, the first step in any franchise game is to understand the intent of the project. A franchise game will only ever do one of two things: either stay true to the original material that came before it or veer off into a new direction in an attempt to reshape an existing intellectual property (IP).
Any composer working on a franchise that is faithful to its predecessors must begin by doing their homework. Consider all of the music that came before you to be the temp track for your game and the overriding creative direction to which you’re being asked to adhere. Watch the film(s) or play the original game(s). Familiarize yourself with the musical language of the original source score. Make sure that you’re familiar with any and all thematic material that may be applicable to the game including character, location, or key event themes. Take note of the original instrumentation or any signature production techniques that help to define the original’s identity. Firmly ground yourself in the music of the world into which you’ve stepped. Your music is a linear continuation of work already familiar to an established audience and needs to fit as a natural extension of the existing musical language.
However, a new Star Wars game does not necessarily mean the exclusive use of John Williams’ music any more than a new Spyro game means music akin to Stewart Copeland’s work on the original Spyro The Dragon. Games aren’t movies and the characters of a film can sometimes find themselves engaged in everything from dodgeball to vehicular combat to button-mashing fight combos once they make their move to the interactive screen. Because games are a great way to expand the universe of an existing IP into different genres, composers will frequently find that they’re being asked to reinvent the musical language of the franchise rather than faithfully recreate it.
When this is the case, the composer must first distill the essence of the original music. The challenge is to depart from the existing musical language without stepping so far away that the soundtrack makes the game feel as though it’s not part of the same universe anymore. Again, established thematic motifs, signature instruments, or stylistic genres will provide the framework within which your reinvention can take shape. Here input from the Production team - as well as concept art and design docs – will help you to determine the new tone and direction of the IP.
FRANCHISES THAT AREN’T YET
One of the more challenging creative jobs facing composers is the task of scoring a game tie-in to a movie that is still in production. When the film comes out, the movie’s score will become the definitive soundtrack for that new universe. However, due to differences between the production schedules for games and films, its entirely possible that the game will have a composer writing material before the film’s composer has even started, let alone finished their score.
These days, game composers can benefit tremendously from the recent strides made across the industry to better integrate film and game production teams. If the film already has a composer, the game’s Producers can most likely arrange for you to have a conversation via phone or email. If you get the opportunity, pick their brain about everything from instrumentation to thematic motifs. Push the game’s production staff to assist in acquiring any assets that might be helpful and available – rough mixes of the film score, DATs or Pro Tools sessions of the film’s scoring sessions, even photocopies of the conductor scores. While you’re unlikely to get all of these, any one of these can be a huge help in miming something as-yet unreleased.
If the film’s composer is unavailable or none of the final score is accessible to hear, ask if you can either see a rough cut of the film or hear the film’s temp track. While not as helpful as the actual score, the film’s temp track will give you an idea of the direction in which the film’s score is moving.
(From the August, 2006 issue of Game Developer Magazine)
When recorded dialogue came to the big screen, the film industry changed overnight. By contrast, the advent of recorded dialogue for games has been a slow trickle over the last three generations of gaming technology. Only now is voice finally approaching “must-have” status for developers and consumers. As such, voice is a new challenge for many developers. Even for seasoned audio professionals, recent advances in technology mean that game dialogue is still a rapidly expanding area of game design.
Voice comes in three distinct flavors. Conversational dialogue is the bulk of any game’s voice system and covers story, tutorials, cutscenes, sports play-by-plays, or any other linear in-game voice. Utterances are voice files that include hit impacts, taunts, and other short, non-linear pieces of dialogue. Localization is the process of translating your domestic voice set into foreign language sets for European and Asian markets. Each area of voice represents its own unique set of challenges. While each subject could easily fill its own column, this month we’re going to focus on the process of producing convincing conversational dialogue.
Metal Gear Solid, Ratchet & Clank, and Madden all share one thing in common. At the heart of each is a conversational voice system that delivers critical information to the player about story, setting, characterization, and progression through the game. With games continually growing in size and scope, even a small game these days will contain many thousands of voice lines. These thousands of lines get recorded one character at a time with fragmented scripts often performed out of context and without the benefit of any rehearsal time for the actors.
Though most practical and efficient, this approach is counter-intuitive to the goal of cohesive conversational dialogue. Far too often, the end result is a voice system riddled with dialogue that sounds glaringly unnatural. Wrong words are stressed for the actual meaning of the sentence. Emotion levels don’t follow normal human speech patterns. At its best, badly done dialogue is simply an awkward annoyance to the player. At its worst, badly produced dialogue becomes fodder for endless Internet mockery.
With so much of the game experience relying on delivery of convincing voice chatter, how can audio professionals ensure that these disjointed script lines become engaging in-game dialogue?There are two invaluable tools that are a script’s best allies. The first tool is a robust dialogue database using database management software such as FileMaker Pro or Microsoft Access. Each record in the voice database represents an individual line of dialogue and contains fields to denote critical information for each file such as Character, Level, a unique Filename, and the line of dialogue itself. Additionally, each conversation in the game should be numbered with a unique Conversation ID number. Each line of dialogue within a conversation is then given a unique Dialogue ID number. When the writer delivers the script, it should be should be delivered as a Microsoft Excel document within which a separate column represents each of these distinct database fields. This spreadsheet is then imported directly into the voice database.
Once imported, the database can be used via Macros to search for and sort by Conversation IDs and Dialogue IDs, organize these lines by Character, and output them as a theatrically-formatted script where conversational voice is preceded and followed by lines that help to give context and meaning to otherwise disjointed sentences.
Additionally, don’t discount the benefits of simply formatting a script’s text so as to portray intention. For example:
The Force fights with me!
This line of dialogue from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic represents the inherent ambiguity of a game script. Taken completely out of context, the intent of the sentence is unclear. Is “Force,” “fights,” or “me” the main point of the sentence? Each one radically changes the meaning and delivery of the line. The standard arsenal of punctuation – in addition to bold, italic, and underlined text – will go a long way towards communicating performance intent.
THE RIGHT DIRECTION
The second secret weapon in your arsenal should be a dedicated Voice Director. A Voice Director is tasked with running the recording session and represents the last bastion of quality control over dialogue before it’s edited and implemented. As such, it’s the Voice Director’s responsibility to ensure that lines are recorded as written, all performances are convincing, and critical issues such as pronunciation of character, planet, or weapon names are consistent and correct. Voice Directors often handle the casting of your game’s actors, as well. This includes dealing with agencies, sending out casting packages, and ultimately guiding the talent through the session itself.
It’s important to note that your Voice Director should have previous game experience. Game voice is a very different beast from traditional animation. A single line of dialogue might be heard thousands of times over the course of a game. A game Voice Director is savvy enough to know which is the right take for a game, and which is going to drive players crazy or not serve the game well.
In the end, every step you take to ensure clarity of intent will bring the script closer to being cohesive and convincing. By taking care to meticulously prepare the script and place it into the hands of a professional Voice Director, you give the script its best chance of fully engaging both actors and audience.