The Sound Architect speaks to renowned game audio professionals and authors of The Essential Guide to Game Audio, Scott Looney and Steve Horowitz.
Scott Looney: Is a passionate artist, educator, and curriculum developer who has been helping students understand the basic concepts and practices behind interactive media for over ten years. He pioneered online audio courses for the Academy of Art University, and has also taught at Ex’pression College, Cogswell College, and Pyramind Training. Scott creates compelling sounds for audiences, game developers, and ad agencies across a broad spectrum of genres and styles. He also performs at experimental festivals, designs custom instruments, and creates performance interfaces utilizing sensors and micro-controllers. Currently researching procedural sound applications in games, and mastering the art of code, he lives in Berkeley.
Steve Horowitz: Perhaps best known for his original soundtrack to the Academy Award-nominated film Super Size Me, Steve is also a noted expert in the field of sound for games. He has worked on literally hundreds of titles, including a ten year run at Nickelodeon Digital, where he garnered both Webby and Broadcast Design awards. Horowitz also has a Grammy Award in recognition of his engineering work on the multi-artist release, True Life Blues: The Songs of Bill Monroe (Sugar Hill; Best Bluegrass Album, 1996). Currently living in San Francisco with his wife and son, he composes, teaches, consults, plays bass and continues to release strange and beautiful new sounds on an unsuspecting world.
Read our full interview below:
Thank you very much for speaking with us, we’re very much looking forward to the reading The Essential Guide to Game Audio released back on 17th March 2014.
First tell us a bit about yourselves, how did your journeys begin in game audio?
Steve: Good questions. Mine began completely by chance. I had just finished studying composition at Cal Arts in Los Angeles, figured I would make strange noises and die poor but, when I moved back up to the Bay Area, my cousin introduced me to Mark Miller and things kind of changed. (FYI-Mark is the holder of the first GANG lifetime achievement award) I still made strange noises but now people actually wanted to pay me for them, go figure. Mark at the time ran a company that provided audio for companies like Sega, SONY, Crystal Dynamics and Broderbund. For those that still recall, that was back in the days of “SillyWood” when Silicon Valley and Hollywood were merging to make games in the early 1990’s. I worked on a bunch of titles, from Dante’s inferno on CD ROM to Cadillacs and Dinosaurs made by Rocket Science Games for Sega CD. After that I went on to run the audio department at Nickelodeon Digital in New York City where I worked on literally hundreds of games in all kinds of formats from Online to console, from SpongeBob to Dora before moving back to San Francisco and teaming up with Scott to develop classes and curriculum.
Scott: It’s been a more recent trip for me. I’ve come at this from the position of an experimenter and educator. I’ve got a pretty deep background in improvised live electronic music and music improvisation in general, and that I would say gave me a good conceptual background on thinking non-linearly, as well as to be open to many different sound approaches. I put some of this into practice designing courses at the AAU and got my first taste in 2007 doing sounds and music for a Flash based website with some small games. But when I started working with Steve I got much more intense about it, and started diving right in, learning everything I could on the subject, as well as on coding and scripting in Unity.
Did you always want to work in games?
Scott: No, I wasn’t a huge fanboy type of personality. I never owned a console, though my experience goes back to playing arcade games at the local pizza parlor, and with my cousin’s Atari 2600. I liked strategy games and turn based games, as well as the early game constructing kits from EA to make my own variants. I never thought of myself as working in this genre, but at some point I realized a lot of other friends into experimental audio had day jobs for game companies, and started thinking about it more seriously.
Steve: Like I said, games found me, not the other way around, but I am sure glad they did. I had no idea at the time how much I would love working in game space. I really dig working on interactive media and have been lucky enough to work on some really cool games over the years!
What games have really inspired you with their audio?
Steve: I go back to Mario and Joust on the old school side of things. The early games set the tone for many of the conventions we still use today. Folks like Koji Kondo and Eugene Jarvis were way ahead of their time. I also love recent titles like Limbo, Naughty Bear or Red Dead Redemption. I really look for games and audio that break the mold, does something unique. A small game like BIT.TRIP RUNNER is a good example.
Scott: The Bioshock series is definitely up there near the top. Assassin’s Creed, Red Dead Redemption, LA Noire are great examples of largely story-driven audio. I loved the generative sounds of Spore as well, plus a lot of the Lucky Frame titles like Bad Hotel. I’m quite excited by generative and procedural audio and music. Also looking forward to playing Fract!
When did you first start collaborating together?
Scott: About 3 years ago I was tasked with creating a game audio course for the Academy of Art University, and very soon after that I met Steve and brought him in on the project. Things seemed to progress from there really well. We did two tutorial videos for macProVideo afterwards and the relationship deepened into a pretty effective collaboration, with each of us contributing to our different strengths.
How did the idea of your book first come about?
Scott: I think it was simply a logical extension of spreading our ideas outwards, trying to reach larger audiences. Probably the biggest problem we had about the way others were teaching the subject is that it was all about audio, and the interactive part of it simply never surfaced. Someone would be in ProTools or Logic or even in FMOD or Wwise and just play back their project while we were supposed to imagine what it would be like in the game. That didn’t sit right with us, because games offer a non-linear environment and it’s really vital to understand the difference between the two in games. In fact, the non-linear aspect is the whole crux of the matter and forces you to change basically everything about how you think about audio, how you prepare assets for it, the whole package.
Steve: Like Scott said, it has been an organic process. We went from online to classroom to video tutorials to meeting Sean Connelly from Focal Press. The whole Focal team has been amazing. They are very supportive and committed to putting out high quality educational materials.
What were the main challenges with writing this book?
Scott: Trying to get it concise. I’m a bit wordy at times and we needed to whittle things down mainly to their essence. There were times I thought that something needed to be there, and after we looked and looked at it we realized we couldn’t be all things to all people. So we jettisoned a lot of detailed stuff. At the time I was likely a little disappointed, but when I look at it now, I still see a lot of useful information.
Steve: Well you have to remember that this is really a first of its kind textbook and it’s easy to get caught in the weeds. This book can function as a complete course or an off the shelf book for people interested in the subject. We follow a full course overview in sound for games with Unity Implementation, and that’s a tall order so, like Scott says, we had to pick and choose and whittle things down to the most essential theoretical and practical information.
What should we expect from The Essential Guide to Game Audio?
Scott: I would say this book, more than most, goes into the process behind how game audio works in a practical way. We keep trying to tie things to in-production game scenario thinking and real world solutions to the problems posed by game audio. We also have a fairly deep section on Unity’s basic structure and audio setup that even game audio pros may find useful. Most importantly we tie these concepts to the iOS App, which is another first. You can play Videos, do Quizzes and Word Search puzzles on the subject, and most importantly you get some simple, effective in game tutorial examples, developed in Unity that address a lot of these audio issues discussed in the book.
Steve: Agreed – the book is designed to help break down and expose the essentials of game audio workflow. Perfect for game designers who need to understand more about how sound works, or composers and sound designers in the Film/TV industry wanting to break into the game business. Even professional audio instructors who are creating courses in game audio at various schools will find it invaluable.
And also, I can’t stress that enough that the free iOS application is made to work in tandem with the book and is based on our educational philosophy of Theory, Comprehension and Interaction. The interaction part is essential – it is what separates game sound from other forms of linear media like film and TV, so we’ve made sure to cover that base in the application – hopefully in a fun way!
Is there anything in particular readers should know about this book?
Steve: Games have grown in popularity. Gamification continues to permeate our everyday lives. Year after year, we continue to meet teachers and students from around the country and the globe that are getting interested in how sound for games works. Many of these wonderful folks have tons of linear sound experience and even DAW skills galore, but they lack a fundamental understanding of interactive design, that’s where this book comes in!
Scott: Right! This is a book about the process of game audio creation, and we cover the understanding of vital game audio concepts contextually. It’s not generally a book about what kind of gear to buy, or how to record foley, or even how to negotiate your first contract. We do give a lot of hardware and platform information on the mobile and social front. We also give helpful tips on how to present yourself in the best light, how to network and participate and practice enlightened self-interest to further your contacts in the field. If you’re already an audio expert in terms of content creation, and you want to know what kind of hard work is involved in designing, implementing, or integrating game audio behind all the gear and hype, you’ve got the right book in your hands.
Were you inspired by any other authors or books?
Scott: Aaron Marks book on game audio is a definite influence, as is Richard Stevens excellent Game Audio Tutorial book based on the UDK. Personally I was also very interested in environments like the Code Hero app, where you learn to code inside the app itself. We scaled that concept way back in the app, but I’m still excited by this principle.
Steve: Just to pick up on what Scott said, what better way to learn about game audio than inside a game? Our goal is to educate a new generation of game audio professionals who are able to understand and in some cases integrate their own designs into actual game levels. Imagine the power of this proposition. The audio director at a game or interactive media company that is handed two demo reels, one showing off someone’s work inside a game in real time, the other a linear QuickTime or Youtube movie. Which demo do you think would better demonstrate that the perspective candidate understands game sound? We want composers, sound designers, producers and audio professionals of all kinds to be familiar and comfortable with the very unique workflow associated with sound for games and interactive environments.
What lies in the future for you both?
Scott: The biggest announcement we have is the debut of our new website for the Game Audio Institute (www.gameaudioinstitute.com). Again, this grew out of our desire to spread our teaching methods and materials beyond our current schools. We started to ask ourselves what would help teachers who might not have any background in game audio what we could do to help them out. We started out just offering Workshops, originally, but recently we’ve expanded into offering downloadable Unity projects and lesson plans for students, teachers and schools. These are implemented with various kinds of middleware like MasterAudio, Fabric and FMOD (with more to follow). This will hopefully allow us to reach more students, teachers, and schools that are just coming to terms with finding the most effective way to learn the craft of game audio. Additionally I’m also involved with sounds and music for a few iOS titles that are still being finalized.
Steve: I just finished off writing music for FarmVille 2: Country Escape By Zynga and another cool title that I cant tell you about yet but, look to the gamo-sphere for some cool titles coming out soon – wish I could spill the beans but I would get in trouble. Also, Lets Get Phat! The Super Size Me (10th Anniversary Edition) [Original Motion Picture Soundtrack] just launched, check it all out here…http://sensitiveskinmagazine.com/downloads/super-size-me/
or at my home page http://www.thecodeinternational.com/
As for the Game Audio Institute, we started it based on our experience in the classroom over the last four years, where we have been developing curriculum and teaching both graduate and undergraduate courses in game audio. Interactive media is very different from linear media like film and TV. The current state of game audio education often glosses over this point completely. Can you image a film scoring class where there was no discussion of Digital Audio Workstations? Game audio students and professionals alike, must understand what’s under the hood of a game engine. They must be able to speak the language of game design and implementation. They don’t have to be programmers, but they must have a general understanding of how games work. Our hope is that the Game Audio Institute can help to raise the bar and educate the next generation, so check us out!
The Book The Essential Guide to Game Audio is available right here: http://www.focalpress.com/books/details/9780415706704/
Don’t forget to check out the Game Audio Institute at: www.gameaudioinstitute.com
Hope you enjoyed that interview and learn a lot about game audio!
The Sound Architect
Interview by Sam Hughes