Fascinating Games of E3

ImageEvery year, I head to the Electronic Entertainment Expo with the hope that my creative energies will be stimulated by some incredibly unique game that I’ll see on the show floor. While my primary mission at E3 is to meet with other developers and talk about future projects, I’m always keeping an eye out for what’s happening in the two major expo halls.  Because of that, I tend to view my E3 experience as a series of hunting trips. Each time, I hope that my expo floor excursion will be interrupted by a moment of surprise and inspiration, as I discover a game I hadn’t seen before. In previous years I’ve had my attention arrested by the fantastical world of El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, the visual artistry of Trine, the hypnotically unique game-play of From Dust, and many others.

Last year, I couldn’t attend E3 because I was working on the music of Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. Because of that, I was doubly eager to see what games would be on display this year, and what would capture my attention. There’s something about the way in which games are gathered together at E3… wandering through this collection of game exhibits never fails to fills me with creative fuel, helping me to stay energized throughout the year.

At this E3, the two games I remember most are Rain and Dragon’s Prophet.

Rain is a poetic game in which you play as an invisible little boy, searching for a mysterious girl through a dilapidated and inexplicably empty city soaked by an eternal rainfall. The boy is only visible in the rain, which reveals him to the creatures that hunt him. The visual presentation of the game blends realism with a stark stylized lighting and texture. The game makes use of licensed music well, particularly Debussy’s Clair de Lune. I must admit that, since Debussy is one of my favorite composers, my immediate affection for this game might have been influenced by its musical accompaniment.

Dragon’s Prophet, on the other hand, is a free-to-play MMORPG that focuses on obtaining, training and riding dragons. The appeal of the game, for me, rested almost completely in the lush details in the landscape and the opportunities for exploration. Flying on the back of a dragon over a glittering waterfall is a deeply enjoyable experience in Dragon’s Prophet, enhanced by a very effective orchestral score written by Alexander Roeder, Mindy Lo and Rmoney Chen. The soundtrack is not available for sale, but it can be heard in a playlist on the developer’s YouTube Channel. The track I remember hearing during my playtime at E3 was “Auratia” – a grandly thematic musical backdrop for gliding on the back of a dragon.

Rest in Peace, Game Developer Magazine

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I was incredibly saddened to hear that Game Developer Magazine was to cease publication. I’m looking at the magazine as I write this. It has a bleak jet-black cover with the words GAME OVER, dead center in plain white lettering. Those two words bring a pang to my heart.

When I attended my first Game Developers Conference, I was offered a free subscription to the magazine as part of my registration process. I signed up for the subscription right away – it was a bit of a thrill for me. For someone so new to game development, being offered that free subscription felt a little like a secret initiation – as though I had been found worthy of joining the community and would now receive the benefit of knowledge that only the insiders knew. Of course, I was well aware that this was a tremendous exaggeration, but a part of me clung to the conceit that the magazine subscription was a little rite of passage.

I rarely read the magazine in any organized, consecutive manner. Mostly, I enjoyed opening to random pages and reading whatever article I saw there. The Design of the Times articles were eye opening for me, providing tremendous insight into the struggles of designers. I had no idea that the pursuit of the fun factor would be so remarkably complex, requiring such a deep knowledge of psychology, economics, and the long and rich history of game systems from both the ancient past and the present day. With every issue, my appreciation for the struggles of game designers grew.

Articles about programming languages, artificial intelligence and physics were written in an arcane lingo that skimmed my consciousness in the same way that liturgical Latin might have done. This was the language of the ancient society of technicians, engineers and coders – it wasn’t meant for me. Nonetheless, I did read a lot of these articles, because now and then there would be a moment of humor, a glimpse of pathos and exhausted camaraderie, or a spark of enthusiasm and inspiration that would reach out of the labyrinthine text and capture my imagination. If I had overheard such a conversation at the watercooler, and one of the engineers noticed me listening and gave me a shrug and a smile… that feeling is close to how I sometimes felt, reading those articles.

The interviews were always surprising and interesting. It seemed to me that there must have been something about the journalists of Game Developer Magazine that inspired people to speak with startling frankness and gritty honesty. I read blunt observations about the video game marketplace. Successes and failures of games were discussed in the context of economic realities and the changing expectations of gamers. Prominent developers openly grappled with the problem of fitting their creative aspirations into a business model that sometimes couldn’t accommodate them. Triumphant developers crowed about their bestselling games, and hardened veterans shared war stories about the big hits that almost were.

Of course, I eagerly pored over the Aural Fixation column, since it focused on the audio side of game development. The technical articles were always fascinating, and this extended into the audio product reviews. Several products that I first learned about in Game Developer Magazine are now a part of my working life.

I loved the Arrested Development column at the back of the magazine, where the keenest observations about game development would come leaping out of the magazine, dressed in the disguise of sharp and irreverent humor. This sweetly acidic dessert at the end of the meal was always the perfect finish… but I’ll admit that I often ate dessert first.

As a magazine that depended on advertising revenue to stay afloat, Game Developer Magazine was wounded deeply when many of the companies making software development tools consolidated. Where before, there were many software companies buying ad space in the magazine, now there were only a few. For the magazine’s parent company, the meager profits simply couldn’t justify the continuation of Game Developer Magazine. The decision was made, and that final issue with the stark black cover was shipped out. GAME OVER.

Nothing I can write here could adequately pay tribute to Game Developer Magazine.  It provided me with a connection to an industry I loved. Every month, the magazine helped me to cultivate a deeper understanding of the struggles and successes of my fellow developers, and for that I am grateful. My heartfelt thanks go out to the writers and editors of Game Developer Magazine, for their creativity and their passion.  I’m sure that they will all find great opportunities awaiting them in the field of digital games journalism, and I am looking forward to reading their contributions… but I will miss the unique combination of talents and personalities that made up this dynamic team of writers.  Thanks to one and all for the many years of insight, instruction, and community spirit that you shared with me.  I’ll never forget it.

You can read the entire final issue of Game Developer Magazine in a free PDF that they’ve made available at this link. Below you’ll find a list of the former editors-in-chief of Game Developer Magazine, along with either their Twitter pages (if applicable) or their LinkedIn profiles.

Patrick Miller @pattheflip

Brandon Sheffield @necrosofty

Alex Handy

Jamil Moledina @jmoledina

Simon Carless @simoncarless

Jennifer Yeamans (Olsen)

Alex Dunne @adunne

Mark DeLoura @markdeloura

Larry O’Brien @lobrien

Hearing is Believing: E3 2013

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I attended my first E3 in 2004. It was the last hurrah for the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox, with next-gen consoles set to make their debut the following year. I was a newcomer to the video game industry, and I’d never been to a large tech-industry convention before. My memories of that E3 are two-fold:

First, I remember taking meetings to discuss the music needs of two projects that would become my first two gigs in the video game industry – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2K Games) and God of War (Sony Computer Entertainment America). These meetings would mark the beginning of my full-fledged career in game development.

Second, I remember not being able to hear any of the playable games in any of the kiosks on the show floor at E3. Developer representatives at the show would admit this pretty quickly when I asked them about it. “No, you can’t really hear the games here,” they’d say with a shrug and a smile. “There are speakers, but we turned those off. The noise level is too much, nobody can hear anything.” At the time, that really surprised me, but after several years of seeing that same E3 phenomenon repeated over and over, the surprise wore off.

Traditionally, the E3 show has relied heavily on visuals to propel excitement. In the past, seeing was believing, and audio couldn’t be experienced except in the big video trailers for the most important games being presented that year. These trailers were typically shown on towering screens on the show floor, where they dwarfed the demo kiosks and emitted thunderously epic music in a cyclical pattern, all day long. This often meant that the trailer music for the company’s tent-pole game accompanied the playing experience for every game in that booth. It could be a weird experience, particularly if you were playing a snowboarding title or a brightly colored platformer while listening to angry apocalyptic choirs and orchestral explosions of mayhem and despair.

The audio and music components of video games don’t tend to be acknowledged in early press coverage for an upcoming game title. Graphics, physics, story, design, controls… all these are discussed, sometimes at length, but audio and music tend to be missing from the discussion. At an event where the audio and music of a game are missing, this phenomenon is perhaps unintentionally reinforced.

As I write this, I’m about to embark on my second day wandering the E3 2013 show floor at the LA Convention Center. This year, I have been pleasantly surprised to see that some changes have been made. Headphones are all over the convention floor, waiting invitingly at nearly every game demo kiosk I’ve seen. While some of these headphones are clearly present to enable chat during multiplayer matches, others are there simply to afford retailers, press and industry reps the chance to hear the games they are playing. It’s a subtle but powerful change in the way games are promoted in the industry, and one that makes me hopeful that the music and sound of games will be more recognized moving forward.

E3 is an event primarily geared towards presenting a strong marketing pitch to retailers and journalists, and it’s well known that the world of marketing depends on the importance of music in reinforcing its messages. “The association of music with the identity of a certain product may substantially aid product recall,” writes professor David Huron, head of the Cognitive and Systematic Musicology Laboratory of Ohio State University. “Despite the largely visual orientation of human beings, photographs and visual images do not infect human consciousness to the same extent that some melodies do.”

Seeing pairs of headphones hanging next to displays at so many demo kiosks at E3 has been a great surprise, and I think it’s a very hopeful sign. I’ll be reading the E3 hands-on articles with great interest this year, looking for signs that journalists are getting an earful as well as an eyeful. Hearing is believing.

Organic Sound in a Virtual Environment, Pt. 2

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When I talked about some basic techniques for achieving a more organic sound with virtual instruments, I didn’t mention any mixing considerations. Since this is a complex subject that goes far beyond the scope of a single blog, I’ll probably be returning to it several times… but let’s start with a general overview, and some thoughts about the orchestral recording environment. Mixing for a virtual orchestra can be a highly contentious subject, with controversy pursuing nearly every topic of conversation from reverb to volume levels to panning. It’s good to remember, though, that there is a pretty broad range of recording environments and mixing approaches in live orchestral tracks, which means that there can’t (and shouldn’t) be just one “correct” approach when working with virtual orchestras.

Some live orchestral recordings take the studio approach, in that they are fairly dry and close-mic’d in a small recording environment that’s buffered to eliminate acoustic artifacts, leaving only the original sound. Other orchestral recording sessions are clearly conducted in a very large space such as a concert hall, which gives the sensation of both distance and complex reverberation, reflections and tonal coloration caused by the unique properties of the space. Both the studio and the concert hall environments for orchestral recordings are entirely legitimate and afford the composer a set of advantages and disadvantages. The concert hall environment provides a richness of tone and texture from the acoustic properties of the room, but instruments in this space can sound distant and small performance details may not come through clearly. The studio approach allows the instruments of the orchestra to be captured with greater sonic detail and intimacy, but the dryness of the space may have a detrimental effect on the ability of the orchestral sections to blend properly, requiring artificial reverb to be applied during the mixing process.

What does this mean for virtual orchestras? Well, before we think about the recording environment that we’d like to simulate, we have to evaluate our orchestral sample libraries in terms of the environments in which they were originally recorded. Are they wet or dry? Some libraries are reverberant to the point of sounding dripping wet. Others are dry as a bone. This can make it difficult to use these libraries in tandem, but I usually don’t let this deter me. We can apply reverb to the dry instrumental samples so that they match the acoustic properties of the wet ones. I find that a process of trial-and-error can yield satisfying results here. However, there’s no way to completely remove the reverb from an orchestral library that was recorded wet… so what if our hearts were set on that intimate studio sound? Well, there are ways to address this issue. For instance, we can assume that our orchestral recording was captured in a large space, but that many microphones were positioned in tight proximity to the important players so that the subtle nuances of their performances would come through. When we layer our dry instruments with our wet ones, we can send some of the dry signal out for reverb processing (to account for the larger space) and mix those echoes and reflections with the reverb tail found naturally in the wet recordings. This will allow the dry instrument groups to sit in the larger space, but still feel intimate.

Now, what do we do about the orchestral sections that still feel purely wet? They’ll likely sound quite distant and washy. We can counteract this by layering dry instrumental soloists into these sections, sending their signal out for reverb processing as we did before. This can work very well for section leaders such as the first violin. When I’m applying this technique, I’ll sometimes evaluate the number of players in wet orchestral sections, and if it would be realistically feasible, I will boost this number by adding a dry chamber section. For instance, I might add a dry chamber violin section consisting of 4 players to a very wet 1st violin orchestral section consisting of 11 players. This will give me a resulting 1st violin section with fifteen players, which is large but not unreasonable. I’ll add some reverb to the dry instruments so that they’ll give the impression that they exist in the same space as the others, but that they are more closely mic’d.

These are just a few ideas on how to reconcile wet and dry instrumental recordings. As always, experimentation and close listening will be our best guide in determining if these techniques are achieving the desired results. In the future, I’ll talk a bit more about other mixing concerns, such as panning, level balancing, and mastering techniques. Hope you enjoyed this blog entry, and please share your own methods and questions in the comments below!