This is an interview with our guest poster for November – Ariel Gross, Audio Director of game development studio Volition Inc, which produces such PC and console titles as the Saint’s Row and Red Faction series. Check out Ariel’s introduction post, and his blog ‘I Feel Like a Fraud and So Can You!‘
Can you tell us a little about how you got into audio, and your audio career in the games industry so far?
My dad brought home a Roland MT-32 in like, 1988. He wanted to hear Sierra games in all their glory, but he also liked to compose music as a hobby. So, we would play Space Quest and then crack open Cakewalk for DOS and compose little songs for fun. I’d been playing piano with him for a long time, and he’d always had a couple of synths, but I remember being blown away at the fidelity and variety of instruments on the MT-32. This is when I started fantasizing in earnest about being a professional musician of some sort. I would play some giant chords with a string patch and then bow for the applause in my head. Just one chord, then a bow. Over and over. I had a pretty good bow by the time I was 10.
A little later, I got a Sega Genesis, which had an eighth-inch headphone jack on the front. I remember putting in Sonic the Hedgehog, performing some wacky combination of button presses on the controller to get to the debug screen, and listening to the soundtrack over and over with headphones on. At some point, probably during my 500th listen of Spring Yard Zone, it occurred to me that someone out there was a professional musician for games. More fantasies! More fantasies and even more bowing to imaginary audiences.
Then I got involved with an ANSI art group called ACiD. I was composing songs for their music arm, PHLuiD. Christian Wirth, a.k.a. RaD Man, one of the founders of the group, sent me an e-mail when I was 16 that would change my life. He said that he had picked up a contract gig as an artist with a company called Webfoot Games, and asked if I’d be interested in composing music for them. I accepted, and grossly underbid, as all 17 year old kids would do.
I continued working for Webfoot Games as a contractor until they were able to bring me on in-house to work on Dragon Ball Z: The Legacy of Goku for the Game Boy Advance. I got to work with Jeffrey Lim, the creator of Impulse Tracker, on that title. It was a major milestone for me since I had been using Impulse Tracker for years and years by then.
After working on a slew of games for Webfoot, I decided to go to school for audio. I attended the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences in Arizona. Poured myself into it. Did some contract music composition and sound design for some puzzle games on the side for a company called Enkord. After school, I spammed planet Earth with my resume and demo reel, and through no small effort, landed an in-house gig at Volition, where I remain to this day.
Volition has been incredible. I started as an Audio Designer on Saints Row 2, designing and implementing sounds for every system in the game. Then I switched over to Red Faction: Guerrilla, where I focused mostly on vehicles, cut scenes, and multiplayer sound design. Then I become the Audio Lead on Saints Row: The Third, which mostly involved leading the audio team to the greatness of which they were already very capable. I also focused on voice, radio, and cut scenes. And now I’m Studio Audio Director, focusing on anything that I feel I can add value to, and I endeavour to provide the same autonomy and creative freedom to my team.
Is there an area of audio production that you’re particularly drawn to? Why does that particular field excite you?
These days it seems like wherever potential collaboration leads me is where I’m drawn. There is an audio component to just about everything in a game, and that’s convenient, because what gets me excited is working with lots of talented people to solve complex problems. I think this craving for collaboration is what causes me to tend to end up being more on the systems design side of things. I work a lot with others to create prototypes of potential systems, and whatever sound design I do will usually shake out of the need to validate a system.
Maybe a shorter way of describing what excites me about this field is collaborative system design? Something like that.
What do you feel is the most satisfying aspect of sound design?
For me, it’s the act of being creative. Making something from nothing. It can be infuriating at times, and exhausting, but I need it. I can feel myself growing with every sound that I design, sometimes just a little, sometimes a ton. It’s the challenge of trying something new, trying to do something different. But I wouldn’t limit this satisfaction to just sound design. I get the same feeling when working with other people or when getting really deep into the technical side of things. That’s what I love about sound design as it pertains to game development. It’s not limited to content creation. There’s always so much more to do and to learn.
Do you have a personal favorite sound, or audio system from your last project?
My favorite sound in Saints Row: The Third is an easter egg that Byron Evora made of a guy taking the most hideous dump I’ve ever heard in my life. It has me in tears every time I hear it. Super hard to find in the game. Super hard to find! But if you find it, you’re in for true corporeal hilarity.
But really, I’m extremely proud of all of the audio from Saints Row: The Third. The vast majority of what you hear is not me, but I did have a hand in just about every aspect of how you hear it. I designed a large amount of the systems in the game, and worked with some very bright programmers to create many of the initial working prototypes. I worked with our physics programmer to create the first working prototype of our brand new vehicle engine system. I was really proud of that.
How do you & your team approach pre-production for a project? (defining aesthetic, creating a palette, communicating vision)
We’ve done something different for every project that I’ve been on. For Saints Row: The Third, we pushed a good amount of paper during pre-pro. Lots of words written in documents attempting to describe things like aesthetic and vision. There was an audio vision document. That cracks me up now. Honestly, most of that stuff was read a couple of times and then discarded. I believe it’s more accurate to say that the audio aesthetic of Saints Row: The Third emerged through our work and through our collaboration with each other throughout the project. We learned a lot, though, which is important.
Now we’re changing things up. We’re grabbing audio reference material from wherever our grubby hands can reach. We’re experimenting with ways that we can inspire ourselves and the team very early with music, sound, and voice. We’re finding ways to get the whole team in a similar frame of mind while simultaneously exploring how our games could sound.
Can you describe a difficult creative / technical challenge you have faced in achieving your vision on a previous project? How did you overcome this issue?
One of the craziest challenges on Saints Row: The Third was simply getting everything to play when we needed it to play. The go-anywhere-do-anything nature of the game meant that the game could be trying to play an absurd amount of sounds at any given time. You’d be driving along with your radio on, then plow into five cars, two of them explode, pedestrians are screaming bloody murder, masked wrestlers are firing grenade launchers and shotguns at you, a police helicopter is flying in, flanked by a tank, and it’s just another day in The Row. Meanwhile, we’re freaking out in audio land because only half of those things were playing their related audio because the hardware just couldn’t handle it.
I can’t count how many times we would optimize our assets, put the squeeze on our playback limitations, toss a couple more sounds into RAM at boot, and then profile the game again. Day after day, night after night, profiling on the consoles to figure out why certain sounds were dropping and making tweaks so that the player could hear what we thought would be most important to them. It was a ton of difficult and extremely complicated work is what it was. That’s how we overcame it. We threw our brains at it as hard as we could.
How do you approach communication with the other disciplines on the team? Do you find it difficult keep audio in the minds of producers and other disciplines?
Communication and collaboration is hugely important to me. It takes serious willpower and patience to make sure that audio is front-of-mind for the other disciplines. I’ve seen plenty of other people out there throw up their hands and give up, but we don’t do that at Volition. We’re actively engage our colleagues about audio. I feel like I’m always in someone’s office, talking to them about how we can work together.
Because of that, I don’t find it too terribly difficult to keep audio in peoples’ minds. It was a little more difficult at first, when we really started advocating for a culture of audio inclusion at the studio, but I’ve found support around every corner.
One way to look at it is that if people want to work with you, then they’re more likely to remember you. We try to be people that others want to work with. We’re to the point at Volition that people are usually seeking us out before making decisions that would effect us. We’ve done a lot of education and advocacy at Volition and it has definitely paid off.
And I haven’t met anyone at Volition that would intentionally exclude audio. It’s never been like that.
What are your preferred tools for working with? Do you have any software suites, plugins, or apps that you consider essential to your everyday work?
Reaper is my favorite DAW, BaseHead is my SFX search engine of choice, and I can’t live without NI Komplete. There are a lot of Waves plug-ins that I love, despite the fact that Waves goes in and out of vogue over time. And then I have my glorious and fairly extensive stash of boutique plug-ins, many of which were free or super cheap. I’ve been touting a suite of plug-ins from xoxos for a while now. Some amazing potential in his plug-ins.
Volition is known for developing the Saint’s Row and Red Faction franchises; These projects are very different in tone, how do you and the rest of the audio team maintain the focus and aesthetic vision when back-and-forthing between the two?
By and large they are two discrete teams, typically with an all-hands-on-deck towards the end of each project. The poor souls that have had to bounce between the projects more than once have said that its hellish. I personally haven’t had to do a lot of bouncing between projects, so I can’t really say from personal experience, at least not at Volition. I had the fortune of being dedicated to Saints Row 2 until it shipped. When I rolled on to Red Faction: Guerrilla, it took a couple weeks to get into a new creative space, but the tone in general was already established.
With Red Faction: Guerilla & Saints Row games, you are creating audio for an open world in which the player has free reign to interact with. How does such open non-linearity affect your goals and process for audio production?
Man, let me tell you, it’s really hard to work on open world games. The non-modal sandbox gameplay is a heck of a thing to figure out. For Saints Row: The Third, we also had these massive, set-piece missions, many of which were completely custom. So, with that one, we had to have systems that would handle non-linear and linear gameplay.
Our high level goals were probably not too different than other audio teams out there. We want our players to feel something. We want to make them laugh and scream with giant smiles on their faces. We want to craft moments that create a real, lasting impression on them. Something they gotta tell their friends about. And not just because it means we can keep getting paid to make games. That’s a valid reason, but that’s not what drives us. It’s because we want to feel something. We want to laugh and scream and text our friends about some face-melting game moment.
To the point about process for a sandbox game, things can get really unwieldy, really fast, especially during co-op and when the players are being random. When they’re making their own gameplay up on the fly. It means that when we design our systems and sounds and mix the game, we need to account for the unpredictable. It’s pretty ridiculous, really. It can get pretty silly when we try to wrap our heads around the endless possibilities that could happen to the player in our games, and then ask ourselves how the hell we’re supposed to make sure it always sounds good. One time, after we had been discussing this very subject, I found one of our audio guys curled up in a ball in the Volition showers, water running, clothes still on, rocking back and forth, ranting incoherently. I gently draped a shawl around his shoulders and lead him back to his chair so he could get back to work for the rest of the night while I whipped him.
What do you consider to be the hardest part of creating sound for interactive vs linear media?
The thing that immediately comes to mind is the wonderful wildcard that is the player. We have way less control than a film does. People aren’t controlling the film like they’re controlling the game. And depending on the player and how they play, the game could go on for a hundred hours, and they might sit at it for 10 hours in a row. So we have to ask ourselves, how can we make it so that after playing the game for 100 hours, they’ll still think that this pistol still sounds cool? That they’ll still feel rewarded by the audio for what they’re doing in the game? It’s a different kind of mindset than crafting a 2-hour linear experience.
Since linear media doesn’t have a player, they can count on things playing out exactly how they want it to. They can make it so that the visuals, the music, the sounds, the words, all line up in perfect harmony to falcon punch the viewer in their emotion glands. We can accomplish some of that through more controlled moments in the game, but the player has all kinds of opportunities to screw it up for us, to somehow botch the timing of a joke or otherwise lessen the emotional impact of what we’re trying to convey.
I have tremendous respect for those people that work in linear media, by the way. I resist when people try to say one form is better or more challenging than the other. Just want to be clear about that.
On your last project, is there anything you would approach differently?
Oh, yeah, definitely. I would approach plenty of things differently. I mean, that’s actually kind of tricky, because I don’t mean to say that I wish I could change how it all went down. Like, I wouldn’t want to go back in time and fix some failure, because it’s that failure that teaches me and pushes me to be better at what I do…
Maybe how I’d like to answer this is that going forward, I will intentionally be making changes, and will probably make some changes unintentionally by virtue of being changed myself. For example, I’d like to make sure that the audio team always takes at least one day off per week. No more working months straight without a day off. We take pride in it, we feel like brothers-in-arms, but I’m convinced that we can a day off each week no matter what and maintain that bond and shared sense of purpose. I think we’ll find that we do better work when we’re able to rest.
Finally, are there developments in game audio, or audio production in general, you would like to see in the future?
Absolutely. I’d like to see in-house audio teams continue to grow in size and diversity. I’d like to see in-house audio teams getting paid more. I’d like to see the rise of apprenticeships in this field, so that more aspiring audio designers are able to get practical, paid training.
And of course I’d like to see more experimentation with ideas that are considered more fringe, like binaural beats and brainwave entrainment, and all manner of fun and zany ideas that are sure to come. I want to be a part of all of that. That’s one of the things that I love about this industry. It’s so young and innovative. We may not be at the ground floor any more, but maybe we’re on floor two or three in an elevator that goes all the way up. I’m really optimistic about being part of the future of game audio.