Friday, February 28, 2014

Bonus Feature: Music Game Developer Interviews

On Thursday, Kill Screen published my entry in their weeklong "Future of Genre" series. Mine is about music games, and how they're evolving into and out of their genre label. Check it out.

I'm ever grateful of the musicians and developers who took the time to answer my questions as research for this piece, but you may have noticed that I was only able to quote a little bit from each of them. As you might imagine, these folks had a lot more to say on the subjects at hand, and so I want to share my full text interviews with them, conducted over email. For most of the interviewees, I asked the same crop of questions, but by the time I got around to speaking with Rich Vreeland, I had new questions, so I've separated his Q/A from the rest below. There are some really interesting insights here, especially when comparing how different developers approach the same questions.

LOW CUTOFF: If you had to describe your game for a general audience or assign it to a genre (could be an entirely new category) in as few words as possible, what would you say? Why did you choose that description and why did you include/exclude a reference to music/audio?

Marc Flury (Thumper): We've been calling it a "rhythm-racing" game because elements of those two genres can be found in the game. That's nice and short and seems to work from a marketing perspective, but it's probably not the best way to describe the game. We're trying to do something new rather than hybridize existing games, so genre labels aren't that useful. Our core concept is to take simple step-sequencer patterns, interpret them as audio, 3D space, and movement, and then build gameplay that is intense, physical, and mind-expanding. One might call it "physical rhythm action," but that sounds too much like jazzercise or something. Usually we just tell people it's a game where you're a bug and there's a giant creepy head that wants to kill you.

Brian Gibson (Thumper): No reference to music because I think people might make certain assumptions when they hear the term "music game" that don't apply at all to Thumper.

Samantha Kalman (Sentris): I'd love to just call Sentris a Music game. I can't really do that because the audience associates the term "music game" with games like Rock Band and DDR. Those games are about rhythm and perfect performance. Sentris is explicitly about creating music of your own. So, I call it a musical puzzle game because it differentiates the game from the preconception of music games. At first thought people probably compare it to Lumines, which still isn't ideal. The puzzles in Sentris are all compositional puzzles. I'm trying to not abstract the game mechanics from the act of making music. I'm trying to make them into the same thing. Nobody has really done this before, and I guess I'm facing the problem of invention: how do you describe a thing that is similar but different from everything the audience is already familiar with. I don't know! Maybe by the time the game is done and shipped, then I'll know.

Quynh Nguyen (FRACT): FRACT is a musical exploration game. To be honest, it took us awhile to figure out a good way to describe the game, because it doesn't necessarily fit nicely into already-existing genres. It's not just a puzzle game, or adventure game, or music game. While it does have all of those elements, assigning it to one of those genres doesn't quite capture the experience that we're trying to achieve. FRACT is about exploring a forgotten world, but also about exploring music at the same time - it's part of the same experience. As you explore the world and try to make sense of it, you're also discovering ways to shape sound and make music within that world. And as you continue along, you're given tools to make your own music and invited to explore your own musical creativity. So including a reference to music was definitely necessarily, as it's intrinsic to the game.

Ryan Roth (Starseed Pilgrim): I know we're talking dynamic/generative audio here, but I would still say that Starseed Pilgrim is, at it's core, still a puzzle platformer. I wouldn't classify Starseed Pilgrim as a music game, per se, but it certainly is important to the gameplay in terms of giving the player a reason to continue planting and exploring the world that they are creating. Since the game is sometimes difficult to grasp in terms of what the player should be doing, it's important for the player to have something they can enjoy sonically, that they also feel as though they're creating.

LCO: Is it important to distinguish different kinds of music games from one another (generative vs reactive vs hybrid) or does the general term “music games” serve that purpose just as well? Why?

Marc Flury (Thumper): I'm not interested in splitting semantic hairs, so if it's convenient to call Thumper a "music game," that's fine. But to me, "music game" typically means reactive gameplay built around traditionally structured songs. These games are designed to let the player (re)consume music they already know and like. For a player, playing along with their favorite music can be fun and gratifying, but it's also predictable and assumption reaffirming. In that sense, the term "music game" feels limiting. For Thumper, we don't want the player to feel like they're just playing music. We want the audio, visuals, and gameplay to create a world where the player can get lost and be surprised.

Brian Gibson (Thumper): Whatever describes the game best (with as few words as possible). It seems like over the years art and music genres have branched and subdivided so it makes sense that the same will happen over time with games. Interacting with music should be a core element of any game. In film, a soundtrack is a critical component of storytelling. But people don't consider films with prominent soundtracks musicals. A video game is a little like a film where the player helps tell the story, so ideally the soundtrack is also dynamic and reflects the player's choices. That quality alone shouldn't be what makes a game a "music game."

Samantha Kalman (Sentris): It's kind of a silly situation because pretty much all games have some kind of music in them. Where do you draw the line between "a game that has music" and "a music game?" How much influence on the music do you need to have before you bridge this gap? Even Super Mario World had dynamic music based on whether or not you were riding Yoshi. I would prefer to call out a category of "creative games", where the game mechanics are based around the player creating something explicitly -- not just consuming it. In this way, Sentris has more in common with Draw Something than with Rez. Generally with all other "music games" out there, I would tend to call most of them "rhythm games" instead.

Quynh Nguyen (FRACT): It all comes down to context. If the discussion is about very general categories of games, or the participants in that discussion are completely unfamiliar with that concept or idea of music games, I think the general term can be appropriate. That said, I think more specificity is important if you want to convey a more precise idea about a game or games, especially as more and more diverse sound- and music-oriented games come out. It's just like how musical genres can be pretty broad, but then can also drill down to super precise (you know, like downtempo celtic stoner sludge instru-metal or something like that) terms, depending on who you're talking to.

Ryan Roth (Starseed Pilgrim): I think "music games" to be something more along the lines of Electroplankton where the game could be almost considered an instrument (I actually wrote a piece for the game when it came out in a university composition class, haha). FRACT is another game that's doing a lot of cool things with synths being built in the game. Music and audio that's used as an experience; that creates a mood or generates emotions to enhance or drive gameplay should be viewed as the norm. Dynamic music/audio that drives gameplay situations should be the focal point of a sound designer's ideal for the sonic aspect of a game. I don't think just because you have some interesting generative or dynamic music working in a game, it should be classified as a "music game."

LCO: Do you want players to make music by playing your game? If so, do you want them to be aware that they are making music or is music making just a byproduct of some other form of play?

Marc Flury (Thumper): Having players "make music" is not our goal, although if it's an incidental byproduct of the gameplay, that might be interesting. We want the player's actions to result in compelling audio, but the kind of music that works while you're actively engaged in a fast-paced game is not necessarily going be interesting to listen to outside of that context, like when you're just chilling on the couch.

Brian Gibson (Thumper): The less aware they are of 'making music' the better. We want it to feel more like magic or a vivid dream. The syncopated interactions should seep into the player's subconscious. We want the player interacting with the audio and the visuals in such a way that creates a powerful sense of immersion. The goal is to make the game a potent emotional experience, therefore it's better not to draw attention to how it works.

Samantha Kalman (Sentris): Absolutely, yes! I want everyone to create their own unique music and be acutely aware of it as they do it. The puzzle mechanics are such that the game should still be fun if you have the sound off. But it's a huge goal of mine to make players aware that the puzzles are abstractions of musical concepts. Other elements play into this, like letting the player choose different instruments for any given level.

Quynh Nguyen (FRACT): Ideally, we want both. As we mentioned, FRACT is a process of musical exploration. At first, players might not be entirely conscious of how they're influencing sound and music in the world, but as they continue playing, we do want to them to become more aware of it, and take more ownership of it. The music making is pretty tied to the gameplay, but as they progress through the game, we also give them tools to make music on their own. We're hoping that by tying music making into play, it's more accessible at the beginning - and that hopefully players will get to the point where they feel comfortable creating on their own, outside of the world.

Ryan Roth (Starseed Pilgrim): I certainly think it's cool if people decide to use the seeds to plant something that sounds interesting to them, but this isn't the mechanic of the game, it's more a result of the player exploring the gameplay mechanics. Also, the game really isn't set up to handle the exact things that a player is going to want to hear - the player is just being lead through a dynamic music "path" that they are unable to completely melodically or harmonically control. This is definitely interesting though, since most players aren't musically trained, so giving them a color or shape to their seed, so that they know what instrument they'll be "playing" next. I feel like most players become aware of this and they may even get excited when they come across a certain combination of seeds that will be important for them gameplay wise, but also associate the sonic harmonies with a gameplay strategy as well.

LCO: Do you feel that sound/music design as a component of game design is understood and recognized for its merits by critics and players on a similar level to character design, level design, puzzle design, etc? If not, why do you think this is?

Marc Flury (Thumper): In general, the creative importance of sound/music design in games is overlooked. A big reason for that is that it's often undervalued by game developers. Music tends to be considered late in the development process. It's often outsourced and smeared over existing games like a magic ointment to enhance the mood or "vibe." But I don't think this phenomenon is unique to games. For whatever reason, our culture seems to almost always emphasize the visual over the aural. Looking at Hollywood, for example, the sound design of most mainstream films follow standard conventions and are basically interchangeable. Music is often forgettable by design. That's not necessarily a bad thing. And it means there are lots of opportunities to do interesting things with audio in games.

Brian Gibson (Thumper): It's probably under appreciated because music naturally targets the subconscious and the emotions. A person may get a vivid and emotional feeling from a game, but it might take some work to see concretely how the audio and visual elements worked together to create such an evocative mood. This under appreciation is fine with us though, the gaming experience should be mysterious.

Samantha Kalman (Sentris): I'd say sound design is much better understood by creators than anyone else. Usually sound and music are used to create some emotion in the player. It's usually important for the player to feel the emotion without wondering how or why the sound is driving them toward it. When that's done well, it's effective and transparent. It's a lot more difficult to be transparent in the same way regarding characters, worlds/levels, or puzzles.

Quynh Nguyen (FRACT): The short answer is no. But to expand on that, I feel that music and sound design, like interface design, are hugely underrated in games. Part of it boils down to the fact that if it's well executed, you're not consciously aware of it. Essentially, the better it is, the more it should disappear, while at the same time heightening and reinforcing everything a game has to offer. But as more games put music and sound to the forefront, I'm hoping that this can change people's perceptions of the value of music and sound in games.

Ryan Roth (Starseed Pilgrim): I feel as though there really should be a similar thought process when discussing gameplay, audio and general design. I think that most people feel as though sound design or music composition for games should be thought as in a similar vein to post production for film or television. I think a huge reason that game sound is sometimes not viewed as an important part of a game is that a lot of the people doing audio come from these very static media outlets. Static foley/sound effects or music synced to a specific event in a game should not be how we view game sound. We are not watching a movie. We are not watching a television show or cartoon. We are playing a game, and we have control. Dynamic/layered/generative sound that is being utilized to enhance or drive the gameplay should be the norm, and should be what game sound should be striving to achieve and I don't think that music and audio will be viewed in the same light as the other elements of a game until that is more widely understood by sound designers and composers alike.

LOW CUTOFF: Going off of your recent Coding for Music post, could you speak a bit more on the value you feel can be added to games when the music is generated through code via player actions?

Rich Vreeland (Disasterpeace): I think there is limitless potential in this approach, because it could move the music experience more into the realm of instantaneous intelligent feedback, on a level far more detailed than what is typically possible only using loops, layers and other recording-based techniques. The thought of a complex yet highly curated system that composes music on the fly is akin to having a musical genius, someone like Keith Jarrett for instance, living in your game and improvising music to underscore what is happening. I think a system that could render lots of permutations with meaningful differences, while also managing to sound musical, could really add so much more value to a game. The quality of these systems is really the issue at this point. There have not been many systems of this scope that actually manage to create appropriate music. Generated music tends to be pretty freeform and loose, I suppose because that's the easiest format of music to generate. I think we have all the tools and knowledge to create something far superior than what we've seen to this point. It's just a matter of desire and having the resources to make it happen. I think games where every player's experience is truly unique, are some of the games we tend to cherish the most, because it creates personality, and it gives us a story to tell that no one else can. Games like Spelunky come to mind.

LCO: Is there a distinction that should be made between "sound effects" and "musical sound effects?" How much of this is tied to diegetic / non-diegetic sounds?

Vreeland: Great question. I think it depends who you ask, and it really depends on the context, too. There are a lot of music games that feel as if the sound effects are both diegetic and non-diegetic at the same time ... it's underscoring the emotions and narrative of the experience, but also emanating from sources within the game world. This has become more prevalent lately, and can really add to the experience in an interesting way, by tying the underscore into the actual sources of the world, adding a layer of cohesion. In FEZ we made the sounds for collecting cubes based on musical scales, relative to the current musical underscore. This is not always an appropriate solution though, and sometimes I think that making sound effects too musical can actually confuse the experience, so it has to be done with careful consideration.

It would be pretty interesting to see a game where all of the sound effects that emanate from the world are musical, and the underscore is all sound effects. What would that sound like?

LCO: Do you feel that sound/music design as a component of game design is understood and recognized for its merits by critics and players on a similar level to character design, level design, puzzle design, etc? If not, why do you think this is?

Vreeland: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I think it's far enough to say that the world has become highly domesticated and in many places our ears have become far less crucial to our survival. I think that has something to do with it, but I also think that while we all manage to have so much in common, we also experience things very differently, and gravitate towards different aspects of a game. I have a friend who never really liked playing video games growing up, he just wanted to watch other people play and listen to the music. Now he writes music for games for a living. I've read countless game reviews where sound is hardly mentioned at all. That being said, it's clear that in some games music or sound was clearly deemed not as important to the experience as other aspects, and that may be apparent when you play it. Sound is a wonderful tool, but it's not one that has to be used every single time, to solve every single problem. Overusing sound can cheapen its impact.

LCO: On the subject of genre, do you feel it's important to draw attention to new and interesting uses of music in games at the genre level, applying labels such as "music games" to titles like Rez or Sound Shapes which visibly implement shooter and platformer mechanics?

Vreeland: I have mixed feelings about genres. I don't look at them anymore, because it's such a common denominator and I've played games in every commonly listed genre and I know what the generic ideas behind all of those mechanics are. That information no longer tells me what I need to know in order to make an informed decision about whether I want to check out that game or not. In one way, music games as a genre is an easy way for folks who are interested in music applications in games to find titles to check out, but on another level it's an easy way for everyone else to straight up overlook all of those games, because of personal experience and bias with other games. I much prefer the idea of curation as a way of finding new content to enjoy. For instance, I generally check out the games that you guys write about, or the recommendations of friends who usually share my taste.

LCO: Lastly, do you have a favorite musical moment from a game?

Vreeland: I'm not sure. The entire experience of playing Journey was quite wonderful, but I remember most of my game experiences holistically, so it's hard for me to pinpoint, but that being said I can definitely recognize when the music is having a significant impact. Playing Chrono Cross as a 14 year old was definitely a landmark moment for me. That was one of the first RPGs I'd ever played, and everything about it was so fresh and inspiring to me. The music was unlike anything I'd ever heard before. Also I would say some really simple things, like the beat that gets added to music in Super Mario World when you hop on Yoshi, or the layers that get added as you progress through a world in Yoshi's Island. In Tecmo Super Bowl for NES and SNES, the background music for home and away teams was different, and you got unique songs in the preseason, regular season, and playoffs. I definitely noticed stuff like that and it felt like a nice little treat.

:top image by Zack Kugler:

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