From Scarface to Simlish

Oct 1, 2006 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson

BAY AREA TALENT TACKLES A SPECTRUM OF GAME SOUND

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The San Francisco Bay Area was the birthplace of the personal computer revolution and also a primary starting point for the computer videogame industry. Today, it is the home of game companies large and small, and there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people who make their primary living catering to the audio needs of videogame publishers and producers. This month, we take a look at three diverse Bay Area — based videogame projects to get a snapshot of what's going on.

“SAY HELLO TO MY SCARFACE GAME”
It's a sign of the times in the increasingly high-stakes world of videogames that media giant Vivendi, publisher of this fall's hotly anticipated Scarface: The World Is Yours game, would pay to fly journalists from Germany and England to Skywalker Ranch in rural Marin County in Northern California so they could write stories about the game's sound, of all things. With the game costing in the millions already, what's a few thousand more for some worldwide promotion? And it is a pretty good story: Vancouver-based game producers Radical Entertainment (Simpsons: Hit & Run, The Incredible Hulk: Ultimate Destruction) decided to enlist a crew of Skywalker's sound pros — including multi-Oscar — winner Randy Thom — to give the game the Hollywood sheen it needed. The foreign guests were duly impressed by Skywalker's genteel, golden California setting and were perhaps even a little awestruck by the presence of George Lucas in the main house's dining room that day.

Though Thom will get most of the ink, the sound director and driving force behind the audio for Scarface was actually Radical's Rob Bridgett, who worked on the game for three years (compared with two weeks for Thom). It was he who was tasked with putting together the game's soundtrack, working with a combination of sound effects libraries and some original recordings (“It's amazing how good breaking dried pasta sounds for certain gunshots,” Bridgett says) in an attempt to convey the story's different ambiences and incredible mayhem. Although drug-dealing lead character Tony Montana (played by Al Pacino in the film and a sound-alike in the game) met a cruel end in the original, the game gives players the chance to have Montana survive the climactic shoot-out in his mansion and proceed to other violent adventures around Miami and the Caribbean that show what a bad, macho dude he is. The gunshots are unending, the bloodletting prolific, the language profane — this is not one for the kiddies, folks.

Radical Entertainment’s Rob Sparks (left) and Rob Bridgett worked on the sound for Scarface: The World Is Yours at both Radical Entertainment and Skywalker Ranch.

Bridgett worked on the game's audio temp track in Vancouver, creating what he calls “placeholders” for sounds he knew would be improved upon once the action shifted to Skywalker. He spent a total of about five weeks in Marin. “We got very rough mixes in place before we set foot on the stage at Skywalker, just to give us a starting point to go from,” he says. “Then we replaced a lot of the sounds and created a lot of new mix snapshots. The first week was with Randy doing mainly sound effects consultation. The second week was actually hands-on, in-game sound effects replacement with Randy. Then we spent two weeks on the mix stage with [mixer] Juan Peralta and [effects editor] Mac Smith mixing the Sony PlayStation 2 version and then another week mixing the Xbox Dolby Digital version.” Throughout the process, Bridgett worked closely with Radical sound programmer Rob Sparks, who was charged with implementing the sounds into the game on-site for three of the five weeks at Skywalker. Sparks would write the necessary code, and by the following day, the game would reflect the new mix decisions. At the end of each day, changes would be sent back to Vancouver via a secure Virtual Private Network.

Peralta and Smith both had high praise for the Mackie Control Universal unit that became a key element in mixing the game. Peralta notes, “This is the first time we've done a videogame this way, where we have the Mackie controlling an audio builder program that Radical has created. It gives us volume and pitch control, sends for subs, low-end information and auxiliary sends for reverb control. It's more tactile than just mouse-clicking on a computer, which is traditionally how games have been done. We approached it like we would a film; that's what we do here. Mac got some Foley to cover footsteps and cloth movements and stuff like that, and Rob [Bridgett] brought in all the effects, and we sweetened [them] with some new effects that we thought might be more dramatic.

“Mac and I have been working on films for a while now, so every little cutaway scene in the videogame is treated like part of a film. We attack it that way — background music, ambiences, Foley; getting as much coverage as possible. Rob had a pretty good base mix of what he intended for the scenes, and all we did was add to it to make it more realistic — boost that up, turn that down, clear the dialog a little more or even EQ the dialog in some cases.” Peralta and Smith admit to some frustration while mixing for the PlayStation 2 format because of the lack of separation, “but the Xbox was much better. There was more clarity and the stereo surrounds had better imaging,” Peralta says.

And what was the experience of the always sage Thom? “Obviously, there are a lot of [game platform] technical limitations we hope will disappear in the next-generation [Xbox 360 and the soon-to-be-released PlayStation 3],” Thom says. “It's frustrating for someone who's used to getting at least 44.1 playing 22Hz samples. It was definitely a challenge trying to shoehorn these high-fidelity sounds into restricted bandwidth. But it was still fun and still very much like what we do in sound and storytelling for movies.”

Thom helped guide Bridgett through Skywalker's massive effects libraries, which, not surprisingly, include thousands of gunshots of every variety, not to mention all sorts of base sounds that could be used to polish ambiences and add hard effects. Verisimilitude is important, Thom says, but in both films and in games, “You're also going to be exaggerating for the sake of drama,” he says. “One of the big [sound] elements in Tony Montana's 50-caliber machine gun is a Howitzer, a gun he could never dream of actually carrying around — it's a full-blown cannon.” [Laughs]

“We had to do lot of experimenting and trial-and-error to get gunshots and explosions to sound as good as possible,” Thom continues. “We would get something and listen to it at 48k or 44.1, and stereo, and it would sound pretty impressive to us. We'd feed it into the game, and [with the reduced bandwidth] it would sound terrible. Sometimes there would be virtually no attack on a sound — an explosion or a gunshot would sound muffled or like it was being faded up. Some of it seems like voodoo in terms of how you get things to work in a game. But we ended up modifying sounds in certain ways to make them sound better coming out of the game.”

Telltale Games’ episodic, playful adventure game Sam & Max is found online.

SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL AT TELLTALE
The folks at Marin County — based Telltale Games definitely know a thing or two about the high-end videogame industry: Some of them got their starts working for another local giant, LucasArts. And since starting Telltale, they have made some games adhering to the conventional retail model — CSI: 3 Dimensions of Murder is theirs, “but it's unconventional in that the audience is the show's audience, which is mostly women over 25,” says Telltale CEO Dan Connors. “The audience is less gamer-centric and more fans of the license, so we're trying to go after an audience that the gaming world hasn't really figured out how to tap into yet. There's this larger mass audience that's slowly moving toward interactivity, but does not want to go in and wear their thumbs out playing games where you kill everyone you see without asking any questions.”

But what has Connors really excited is a different approach to making and marketing videogames altogether: releasing them online first. “When we think about the goal of our company,” he says, “we see ourselves as trying to switch development to kind of a television production model vs. the blockbuster film mentality. Most of the industry has moved to a place where they're making huge bets on huge licenses with huge budgets: You spend millions on the game and millions promoting it and getting it in the stores. But when you look at the Internet, you see that its accessibility actually gives you a more direct and cost-effective line to the consumer.”

And so, Telltale has begun marketing its own line of clever, playful adventure games on the Internet. Sam & Max, a witty game about a Sam Spade — like dog and his “rabbity-thing” partner, had been a relatively successful title for LucasArts several years ago. Now it has returned in the form of an episodic game on the Web for Telltale. The first “season” will comprise six monthly adventures, and, presumably, it can continue on indefinitely.

Telltale Games CEO Don Connors

“There's no way you could deal with creating a half-hour piece of gaming content every month and then try to get that content on the store shelves,” Connors says. “That's unsustainable. But online does allow that.”

There will be a number of ways to find the adventures: It will first be available to subscribers of Turner's GameTap PC gaming site, “then it moves out to other distribution channels — Telltale's Website, Yahoo games, Macrovision, other downloadable game sites,” Connors says. “So it's almost like Sam & Max is syndicated, in a sense. Then we do some work and move it onto the consoles as part of their digital distribution system. Finally, at the end of the day, we package it up as Season One and we bring it into stores at retail.”

Telltale is fortunate in that it is VC-funded and thus has no large corporate superstructure to finance. So far, the company has been able to keep itself small, manageable and efficient, while also bringing plenty of work to independent vendors.

Jory Prum did dialog for Sam & Max at his studio.

One of those is Jory Prum, another LucasArts alumnus who has been doing dialog recording for the Sam & Max Series (and other Telltale games) at his Fairfax (Marin County) facility called studio.jory.org. Prum has worked on many games during the years, doing everything from sound design to technical support, but now feels that he's found his true niche doing dialog primarily. Jobs run from large (America's Army had 16,000 lines and required more than four months) to small (a day or two to a week). Big or little, the requirements are the same.

“You're always listening for quality, for performance and to make sure everything's going to match what you recorded of somebody else's character yesterday or three weeks ago,” Prum says. “We can typically record between 90 and 120 lines of dialog per hour, which is about as much as anyone else. We have some cool technology for that: There's a company in Los Altos [Calif.] called FreeHand Systems that makes a nifty little device called the MusicPad Pro, which is basically a touchscreen tablet that's designed for displaying scores for musicians. Well, we figured out a way that it could be used for displaying scripts. It has a little highlighter tool in it — you can write notes on it and it has no problem with putting in hundreds and hundreds of pages. It runs on Linux, so it's pretty fast, it connects to both Mac and PC, and at the end of the day, I can grab the script off of the pad and it keeps all the notes, and I can make a PDF of that and give it to the editor.”

Studio.jory.org has an 11×17 live room with variable acoustics, a Pro Tools system, some excellent outboard gear (including Millennia HV-3D preamps) and Prum's favorite mic — “a BLUE Kiwi, which is just remarkable,” he says.

Prum cherishes his ongoing relationship with Telltale: “They're really nice people, and they do great work,” he says. “Adventure games have sort of gone by the wayside, especially the funny adventure games. It's a different market: They don't sell zillions of copies and they usually don't make a ton of money. So if you're the [Electronic Arts] of the world, what's your incentive for making an adventure game that sells 200,000 copies and makes its money back, but not a huge chunk of change, vs. making something that's massively popular? Well, to make a game that people love and that's fun to make, that should be enough.”

In a sense, Sims 2 players create their own complex audio mix.

PARLEZ VOUS SIMLISH?
With sales of more than 70 million units worldwide, The Sims game franchise is among the most successful in history; in fact, it is the most popular PC game of all time. Created by Will Wright as an outgrowth (of sorts) of his smashingly successful and incalculably influential Sim-City games, The Sims are yet another Bay Area product: Wright's company, Maxis, was spawned in the East Bay town of Walnut Creek in the mid-'80s, and in 1997 was absorbed into the Electronic Arts empire across the bay in Redwood City. The first version of The Sims, an open-story game that allowed players to create a family (and their environment) from scratch and control their lives as they interact with each other, caused an immediate sensation when it was introduced in 2000.

Since then, the game has become an industry unto itself, with a second base game (The Sims 2), bi-annual specialized “expansion” packs (Makin' Magic, House Party, Superstar, Unleashed, et al), an online community and millions of players all over the world. (The game comes in 18 different languages, or, more accurately, the game-play instructions come in that many languages.) The language of the actual Sims characters is a made-up tongue called Simlish, an emotion-filled language that defies translation. In creating Simlish, the development team experimented with fractured Ukrainian and Tagalog, the language of the Phillipines. Inspired by the code talkers of World War II, Wright also suggested Navajo.

“EA's Number One all-time help desk call was, ‘My Sims aren't speaking the right language — I installed English, but they're speaking German or something,’” says Robbie Kauker, audio director of The Sims. If you have The Sims or the Sims 2 at home (or, as likely, have teens and tweens who play it obsessively, as in my house), you might be living under the delusion that it's a relatively simple game from an audio perspective — after all, they have none of the flashy sound moments that dominate games from Grand Theft Auto to the Battlefield Series.

The Sims audio team, from left: Jackie Gratz, Jason Reinier, Jeff Lillard, Thomas Day, Bill Cameron. Seated: Robbie Kauker.

“It's not fair to say it's ‘simpler’; it's different,” says Kauker, who is in his ninth year with EA and has worked on The Sims since the beginning. “We don't have one big sound — we don't have a car, we don't have guns. But we have everyday life — a toilet flush, a sink, footsteps. In [The Sims 2 Nightlife] we have karaoke, which I guarantee you is as challenging as doing a good car engine. It's not easy doing karaoke in Simlish — it depends on the creative skill of the player to determine how well they sing. There are nine different songs and a whole range of skill levels.”

In a very real sense, it is the player who determines the game's audio mix; it is Kauker and his team's job to make that sound world as rich as they can. “In The Sims, you want it to sound natural; you want it to reflect real life to a degree,” he says. “There's no orchestra going off when you trip and fall. It's a user-constructed world, so the track limit varies with what the user builds. You can premix some ideal situations and allow for various awkward situations, but on our end, we can only speculate what the user will do. [The number of tracks] at any given time can run anywhere from 24 for basic ambience and voices, up to 60 sounds going at the same time, and all that has to be dynamically done. Of course, that's for the top-of-the-line beautiful PC that we wish every user had,” he says with a chuckle.

As you might imagine, recording dialog in Simlish is an interesting experience for both the actors and the engineers. “And the sheer scale of the games has gotten bigger and bigger,” Kauker says. “The Sims 1 had 3,000 to 4,000 voice events; now [with The Sims 2], we're up 50,000 lines of dialog across a cast of 11. The acting is more improv than scripted. We have the animations and we have the design for how they're used, so although the actors don't have a physical script, they know what we want to communicate and we're relying on the actors to get that across. I've also collaborated with many talented groups over the years — from Cowboy Troy and Depeche Mode to the Pussycat Dolls and Aly & AJ. They've all been phenomenal to work with. Fans will be able to check out the latter two bands in The Sims 2 Pets [expansion pack] this fall.

“We record to a custom tool written in [Cycling '74's] Max, MSP and Jitter [interactive data-flow environments], allowing us to do object-oriented programming, more or less, and designed very particularly to our pathways, naming conventions and all the things that go into our pipeline of making the game. Then, on the other side, we have an editor companion that works off the same kind of spreadsheet-driven system. So we can very quickly turn around voice events. We run a very small team here. The Sims 2 team was three full-time content guys and two production-type people, and a voice director in the studio.”

The audio team at The Sims division at EA is responsible for creating many of the effects found in The Sims games. Foley is done on-site, “and all of us are always out there recording things, using home rigs or portable laptops — whatever's around. The sound of the kitchen in The Sims 2 is mostly the sound of my kitchen,” Kauker says. However, for The Sims 2 Pets, which comes out this month, “We used the Victory Foley stage for the pet Foley, and they did most of it wild because we were ahead of [video] production at that point.”

Coming from Maxis sometime in 2007 is the next generation of game from Wright and company — the much-hyped SPORE, which will allow players to experience evolutionary history from single-celled creatures millions of years ago to races of creatures who can conquer planets and galaxies in the far future. Sounds bizarre, but also very cool. We'll be sure to cover the audio angle of what looks to be a fascinating game when the time comes.


Blair Jackson is the senior editor at Mix.






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