SFP: The Magical World of "Spore"

Sep 1, 2008 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson



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“All the intelligent insect and bird stuff was done by a guy named Dee Baker in L.A. who's an incredibly talented voice actor who does amazing things with his mouth. He gets this liquid-y, crunch-y sound. We put a little processing on it, but no additional animal sounds. The mammalian intelligent VO was done by Roger Jackson.”

Jolly continues, “The footstep system is also complicated because you never knew what kind of foot [the player] will put on or how many feet a creature will have. The front two can be humanoid and the back can be hooves, and the hooves can be huge and the front feet tiny. We did a lot of recording of footsteps at Skywalker [Sound Studios, Marin County]. We have barefoot on dirt, barefoot on grass — all these surface types. Then on top of that, the bigger the foot is, there would be a filter on it [within the game], so as the foot gets bigger you lower the setting on the highpass filter and let more low end through. If you have lots and lots of feet, it tries to bring out the highpass a little bit so it skitters more, distributing more of their weight across the creature. We also recorded the right foot and the left foot, so we bisect the creature and it gets assigned right foot or left foot and there's a cadence to it. It helps the naturalness of the sound, but it's incredibly complicated.”

Other creature sound sessions took place at the studios of EA's Redwood Shores headquarters (across San Francisco Bay from Maxis), at Shoreline Studios in Santa Monica and at Live Oak Studios in Berkeley. “We recorded all the sounds using a custom tool we wrote here that we would bring to the studio and hook up over a network to the actual animation tool that the animators used.”

Many of the background ambiences came from various libraries — Jolly singles out the recordings of Douglas Quin, who has recorded all over the world, from jungles to Antarctica — and libraries also helped when it came to the sounds of wars (from medieval swords to modern armaments) and cities in the game's civilization part.

Another fascinating aspect of Spore's audio is the music, which necessarily reflects the different stages of the game — from primal to futuristic — and is both ever-changing and, at certain points, controllable by the player. Jolly was involved in writing/designing quite a bit of the music, but he also had some help from a couple of notable sources. Some of the space music was written by Cliff Martinez — best known for scoring several Steven Soderbergh features, including the sci-fi flick Solaris — and British composer/musician/producer Brian Eno also became a valuable contributor and collaborator.

“Brian was involved in a lot of general music design with me, so he came here and I also went to London and worked in his studio,” Jolly says. “He'd come with his Mac and Logic and he'd be generating sounds. We would sample them, get them in as instruments into the game and play with them together.

“There are two kinds of generative music in the game. One is sort of MIDI note-based — that happened much more here from samples made by Brian by ourselves. But there's also a whole area that's more like Brian's ambient music, where he made it using software he called ‘Shuffler.’ The software was based on earlier pieces where he would make 10 CDs and they'd all have a set of tracks, and then he'd set them on ‘random shuffle’ and they'd play randomly and we'd make ambient music that way. We re-created that system in the game, especially in the space game: When you go to a planet, [there's a music] system there that plays a different sample every 10 to 30 seconds, and this group [of samples] has this volume range and this pan setting, and a whole group of those forms one track. You end up wending through these tracks that are changing all the time.”

Speaking of the music more generally, Jolly notes, “Unlike a lot of games, most of it is not looped — it's being generated in real time. There might be chunks of drum loops that are being re-sequenced randomly, and then all the pads and other sounds are basically MIDI but we're generating them randomly.”

And in the “Civ Game,” as Jolly calls it, “the user gets some control over the music: You can pick beats — some were made by Brian, some were made by me and my assistant Aaron McLeran, and then reprocessed and changed — and then you can pick a melody instrument and design your own little melody, and also pick up ambience tracks. Using a note editor, you can set the tempo, get rid of notes, change the length of how they play…and there's an algorithm [built in] that will randomly form melodies.” The note editor was conceived in stages by Jolly, Eno, Wright and engineer Cyril Saint Girons, who has helped develop other systems for Maxis.

As you might imagine, the combination of effects and music possibilities takes up a lot of space — indeed, Jolly says there is “days of stuff on there. It's more than two gigs of compressed audio.” Asked whether the sheer number of audio events planned for the game inhibited the sound work, Jolly says, “Our biggest concessions were CPU-oriented. Our approach was sort of, ‘Okay, let's do it, whatever it is!’ That was great, but what it meant was at the end of the project we had to do a lot of intense LOD — level of detail — removing of sounds that were not needed and not necessary: ‘No, you're only allowed to have, at most, five of these or six of those.’ What are the sounds you absolutely have to hear? Balancing that with what you want was one of the biggest challenges.

“At one point, we thought we might have to go to 22k for all of our samples, but in the end we didn't have to. Some of them are 22k, but most of the voices are 44 MP3 and most of the music is 44 MP3.” It was determined early on that a dedicated surround mix would eat up far too much real estate in the game so most of it is stereo. “It gets multed out to surround, but we did very little in 5.1 for CPU reasons,” Jolly explains.

On the day in late July when I interview Jolly, I can sense his relief that he's almost at the end of what has been a very long road working on Spore. Predictably, there were a few weeks of nights and weekends trying to meet the (latest) deadline. I mention that it's a miracle he could keep all of it straight in his head over the months and years. He responds, laughing, “The truth is, it was like working on five games at once — Cell, Creature, Tribes, Civilization and Space — plus all the editors. And it's so complicated making everything work together. Assets that you created in one area might show up in another area, even though the context and everything about it is completely different. Then there's the whole online component where you can populate your game with content made by other users. The possibilities literally seem endless, so yes, it was a lot to figure out and keep in mind.”

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