Ensemble Studios on Gods, Trolls and Minotaurs

Mar 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By Blair Jackson

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Ensemble Studios in Dallas is one of the most successful publishers of what are known as real-time strategy games. These games have a completely different perspective than third-person character games, such as The Lord of the Rings, or first-person shooter games. The vantage point is higher and wider — you're looking down on the action from above — and the games usually involve a range of methodical tasks to advance in the game: constructing villages from scratch, figuring out ways to keep workers motivated, building armies, figuring out how to defend your city, etc. Ensemble, which was acquired by Microsoft in 2001, is responsible for such popular game series as Age of Empires and Age of Mythology. Though not requiring the same level of audio sophistication as third- or first-person games, the real-time genre still demands evocative sound and music.

“A number of years ago, while I was in college,” notes Ensemble's music and sound director, Stephen Rippy, “I did half the music for Age of Empires out of my apartment. Back then, the music was done on a little general MIDI synth, and the big innovation for us at the time is we got an E-mu sampler; that opened up a lot of doors for us. Our first few games were done with a lot of MIDI stuff, and starting with Age of Mythology, we started incorporating more live instruments and even orchestra. Our latest Age of Mythology expansion — The Titans — has lots of guitars and percussion, and, in general, the music and effects are more sophisticated than they were in the past. I have a partner named Kevin McMullan who's responsible for creating about half the content with me, so it's basically a two-person job.” In all, Ensemble employs about 80 people, mostly on the visual side.

STRATEGIZING A STRATEGY GAME

“The original Age of Mythology game had a couple-year-long development cycle,” Rippy continues. “I'm present from the concept stage of it on through to the end. So when people are talking about, ‘Wouldn't it be cool to have a game with minotaurs in it?’ I start thinking about what a mintoaur might sound like. From there, we'll see concept sketches and follow the visual side as it develops. In terms of the musical direction, quite independent of the topic of the game, we knew we wanted to move more into live playing and actual audio recording. As the game was being ramped up, we put together a CD of things we liked — we had some tracks from Passion by Peter Gabriel on there and things like that — and it was sort of like a temp dub. We brought that to the designers and told them that this is sort of what we were shooting for and then started recording things.

“We always need to support what's going on visually, but that doesn't mean we can't be creative with the audio and the music, too. Like with Age of Mythology, we wound up coming up with a system where if you lose a large part of your army, it starts to play a different mix of the music track; it'll go half-time, it'll drop out half the instruments and become somber. It's pretty subtle, but it's cool if you notice it. Conversely, if you attack certain buildings, it plays a whole different track that's very exciting.”

SMALL STUDIO, BIG SOUNDS

Much of the recording takes place in Rippy's own office, which is about 10×15 feet. “We can even do drums in here without driving everyone bananas,” he says. “Kevin has a separate writing room.” Most of the original sound effects were recorded in the field using a portable DAT recorder. The in-studio music was recorded to Cakewalk, mixed to DAT and then put in the game as MP3 audio.

“The higher perspective [known as isometric] of real-time strategy games has its own requirements,” Rippy says. “You have to fudge a lot of stuff. Given that you're that high up, you wouldn't hear a lot of swords clinking against things, but we put it in there anyway. Also, you're dealing with a couple of dozen little characters on the screen at once, so it's finding a balance between hearing general mayhem and being able to identify what you're selecting and, ‘Is this thing responding to what I'm telling it to do?’

“It gets more and more like working on a movie every year,” he concludes. “Just the fact that we could go up to Seattle and record an orchestra [for Titans] was a dream come true for me and for Kevin. Beyond that, it's always fun coming up with sounds for the characters. We had a three-headed dog, which is Greek, and a Norse troll, so they had to get their own sounds. The troll is mostly me grunting. There's a lot of that: Me going into the studio and screaming, slowing it down and adding Waves plug-ins to it. We'll try just about anything to come up with something cool.”






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