What made you interested in video games?
I have been playing video games since I was a kid. While my friend was out playing soccer, I was playing King Bounty, Star Control II, Crusader, etc. The evolution of my equipment that I had growing up went smoothly – I started with the ZX Spectrum, then I owned almost every step of IBM-compatible computers as they released new technology. My friend was always so excited when he got a new ball, but when I got a new CD-ROM disc in a shiny plastic case to put into my 4-speed CD-ROM player, I thought I was the king of the world. So you can see my entire life has been connected to computers and video games.
When did you realize that sound design is an important concept to games?
Back then, in the nineties, computers didn’t have built-in soundcards. You would buy a computer that only had a simple PC-speaker – a very primitive sound device which generated quite disturbing and annoying sounds. I remember the exact moment when I was a teenager with a crumpled $100 bill in my hand on my way to the local store to buy a separate soundcard. Since then I began to truly enjoy the variety of sounds and music in games such as The Dig, Alone in the Dark, Mortal Kombat, Full Throttle and etc.
At the same time I was a huge fan of electronic music. The musicians who were iconic to me included Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis, Alan Parsons and other composers whose music is based strictly on the sound design. I knew a lot about their sound equipment, especially about the synthesizers that they were using.
So – if you’re a teenager who loves music and video games, and your parents aren’t too stern so you find yourself with a lot of spare time – you have a chance to grow up to become an audio specialist for video games in the future.
Can you tell us more about Strategic Music? Why did you decide to found it?
I started the company in May 2003 with my girlfriend (who eventually became my wife) while studying musical arts as a sophomore at a local university. My specialization was “sound editor”.
I found the phrase “Strategic Music” in a dictionary of musical definitions. After working for two years on composing music and making sounds with Kate, we decided to expand and started to create the team.
It used to be that our first task for an applicant to Strategic Music was to compose music for a game about sassy cats stealing fish – we believe that if a composer has sense of humor and could transfer it into his music – then this guy could do almost everything. Our demands on new composers have gotten even tougher, however. We need to truly be able to do everything.
Now, Strategic Music is a team of high-level professionals. Everyone on the team can be completely relied on. Everyone has a creative mind. Our sound designers are music composers as well, which helps them to think widely and gives huge space for maneuvering. Our composers have strong educations and feel absolutely free in composing any kind of music.
What past experiences helped you to establish Strategic Music?
Well, before founding Strategic Music and attending my musical university, I had studied in a military academy for four years. Somehow, those officers taught me a little discipline and gave me some managerial skills. I guess it’s the best experience you can get to help run your own company.
Now the basic idea of Strategic Music is creativity based on focus, and I can tell you that it’s pretty easy to say but hard to do. It’s quite a difficult task to make creative people obey rules. Managing these kinds of people is a complex mixture of focus, flexibility, humor and openness.
What common mistakes do developers make with game audio? Why do you think it happens so frequently?
The first mistake is to underestimate the power of audio. Some developers tend to think that sounds and music are nothing but a few paragraphs in an agreement with their publishers. They can’t even imagine how drastically well-crafted audio atmosphere can increase how much people are attracted to video games.
The second mistake – believing that having some experience as a listener and a concert goer makes for a good basis to rule the sound guys with. No, that’s totally not true. How about studying music or sound design for 15 years? How about playing Chopin, Bach or Bruckner’s plays for six hours a day in preparation before the exams? Or analyzing modern pop music during lectures of history of music? Our knowledge is based on our education, which has then been polished by working on the many, many games in our portfolio.
While working with developers, I always emphasize the fact that we work directly with the game’s audience. We believe that we know what people would like to listen to, because we’ve been taught to. So letting the experts use their expertise is the best way to create truly amazing pieces of commercial art.
So, if you really want to rule the sound team, you have to dedicate your life to the world of audio completely.
The third mistake – not paying attention to the fact that the audio atmosphere consists of three parts – music, sound design and voice-overs. And all three of these parts can’t work separately from each other. You have to be sure that your sound contractors work in very close collaboration with each other or you need to order the whole thing from one specialist of one team.
Bad sounds can spoil an amazing soundtrack in the blink of an eye and vice versa, just like how every other aspect of the audio which wasn’t done correctly can completely ruin the whole appearance of the game.
How can sound evoke an emotional response from a player? Why is it important that it does?
Music is language, an international language and it has a ton of different emotions. Our whole lives are surrounded by music. We associate our emotional experiences with music such as Mendelssohn’s Wedding March which we strictly connect to the brightest event in our life. Knowing this language allows us to evoke any specific emotion from a player at a needed time.
In every lecture of mine, I always make a point that people love sounds in their everyday life. Maybe we don’t pay attention to it, but we actually are obsessed with sounds. The cocking of a shotgun, the purring of powerful engine, babies giggling, a bobber splashing on the surface of the water, cats purring and meowing, the clicking sounds of a jewelry box opening, and so on. We also know that some sounds indicate danger, like wolves howling, tires skidding, etc.
People bind their emotions to sounds, so the sounds in a game can make people feel almost everything and create a much more immersive feeling.
What benefits can developers expect from using good audio?
The first benefit is the most profitable benefit – good audio advertises a game absolutely for free. We only have to compose a memorable melody and people memorize it and recite afterward. It’s an extremely important part of game audio – the capability of the music to be memorized. People can’t do it with anything else from a game; you can’t sing part of a program code or hum a picture while taking a shower.
The second major benefit – the atmosphere. When great music, cool sound design, and radiant voice-overs work perfectly together, an atmosphere which immerses people fully into a game is created. They can’t feel anything but the shivers on their necks. It’s like an opera where you can find yourself crying with joy. Great audio provides great benefits.
People would be glad to share this wonderful emotional experience they had from a game with others, thus multiplying a fan base for upcoming sequels or new products from the same developers.
What can good voice-overs do to help a game retain an audience?
Voice-overs are the realm in which character can truly be added to a game. Beautiful, intricate drawings of characters – no matter how cartoonish or realistic – still lack something. They’re flat, 2-dimensional (regardless of whether they were rendered using 3-D technology) and giving them a voice suddenly brings you into their world. If the script is good and the actors do a good job with it, even (dare I say) ugly games can gain some character and draw the gamers into the experience.
The two main characteristics of voice-overs is that they can increase the drama of a game, or the humor. Drama is the obvious element, as we hear people in games struggling for their lives we can connect to their voices and the emotional content of their acting (again, hoping that the script leads to believable character development). But humor is where voice-overs can truly shine.
Since so many games are abstract with fantastical elements, giving a voice to these characters and these moments can bring a new dimension to the game. Voices literally pop out of the game and into your head, and the warmer and more enticing these voices are – whether they’re orcs, penguins or blocks – the more the player wants to associate himself into the life of these voices. The voices create the world more than the images.
Good voice-overs can be the difference between making a game seem boring or flat, or creating an entirely new world that the gamer wants to be a part of and keep returning to.
How have the changes in video game industry affected the audio in games?
If we are talking about casual or iOS games, then we are getting more and more capabilities for making good audio. Any barriers (mostly connected with the physical size of games) are gone. Now a game for iOS can obtain a soundtrack the same as if from a movie – 20-40 minutes long. The same is true about sound design. What about voice-overs? Will Bucknum – the voice-over director reports that now he can do almost everything. Every human being or any other form of life – even artificial – can talk from now on in all games.
What new projects can we look forward to from Strategic Music?
Many games for all of platforms fully-loaded with audio. More and more developers are trusting us and give us freedom in using our skills in games, and the results are becoming more and more dynamic. So these upcoming projects will definitely be memorable, atmospheric and bright.Casual Connect Asia Highlight: Dmitry Kuzmenko, Strategic Music,