Below is an interview I conducted between Capcom’s Tomoya Kishi and Media Molecule’s Kenneth Young. I started them off with a few questions and let them go back and forth from there. I hope you enjoy reading the interview as much as we had putting it together.
Jack: Please introduce yourself and tell us about your experience in audio.
Kenny: My name is Kenny Young and I’m the Head of Audio at Media Molecule, one of Sony’s first party (wholly owned) game development studios, based in Guildford, UK. I had a fairly strong musical background as a kid, but sealed my fate by doing an undergraduate degree in Music Technology at the University of Edinburgh, which turned me on to working creatively with sound before then going on to specialise a bit more by doing a masters degree in sound design down at Bournemouth Uni. I landed my first full-time job in the industry 10 years ago as a junior sound designer at Sony’s London Studio, working in their centralised audio department on a wide variety of games in different genres and on different platforms. That broad experience stood me in good stead for when I joined Media Molecule in 2007, setting up their audio department and trying my best to make LittleBigPlanet sound awesome. That involved me doing the vast majority of the sound work, some of the music, directing the composers and the creative side of the music licensing process, producing the voice localisation from the Mm side of things, not to mention being heavily involved in the design of the audio-centric UGC features of the game. That led to the inevitable sequel, and the joys of trying to juggle the managing and directing of my staff whilst remaining a hands-on sound designer and composer. Most recently, we just released Tearaway, which I wrote about in December for Designing Sound, where I supervised a team of talented sound designers and managed to keep my hand in there whilst also co-writing the original score (with Brian D’Oliveira), co-writing the voice script (with Tearaway’s creative director, Rex Crowle) and generally just trying to help the project in whatever way I could. All of which is why I’ve been on holiday for the last two months! But I’m just back in the saddle and trying to get our unannounced PS4 project into good audio shape having ignored it for a while :)
Tomoya: My name is Tomoya Kishi and I’m the Senior Manager of audio production at Capcom. I’ve worked in game audio for 13 years, starting my career in cut-scene sound design, followed by audio direction for Lost Planet 1 and 2 as well as Dragon’s Dogma. Since joining Capcom I’ve always found myself on relatively large-scale projects, and as such I don’t have a massive number of titles under my belt – but I do have a wide range of experience including implementing AAA quality audio, investigating new audio technologies, team management and outsource collaboration. I’ve done a lot of collaboration with Hollywood on audio post production. We put a lot of effort into combining their incredible composition and sound design abilities with our sound implementation knowledge to deliver the best possible quality to players. I may have even been the first person to bring proprietary tools there, on-site, to collaborate on sound design by actually playing the audio in-game. All the while I’ve also contributed to development of other internal proprietary sound drivers, helped determine application specifications, participated in next-generation research with educational institutions and industry, and given presentations at conferences like CEDEC and AES in addition to my usual title development duties. Finally, since 2012 I’ve been the senior manager of our group – supervising each title in development and essentially managing human resources, budgets, facilities and equipment. (For more details please see our previous interview.)
Jack: We are just a few weeks into the new console generation with the Xbox One and Playstation 4. These devices afford audio much more space and DSP capabilities. What are you looking forward to seeing (or more importantly hearing) in this new console generation in terms of audio?
Kenny: I’m definitely less interested in the hardware side of what this new generation has to offer – it really is all about the software. I think recent history backs that up – with the last generation change (from a Sony-centric P.O.V. anyways), there was real concern about doing away with the dedicated “audio memory” of PS2 to the free-for-all of shared memory on PS3 – that turned out not to be the trauma we had feared. There was a definite desire to make great use of the amazing DSP potential of the new machines (because we had none on PS2!), but that was a bit misguided in that we didn’t massively push forward “real-time sound mangling” or sound synthesis (baby steps in both areas perhaps) and instead ended up making use of more CPU for audio related tasks needed by the runtime tools and systems. This is where the biggest change was. The widespread adoption of a really small number of robust and powerful audio middleware tools, with way less prevalence of bespoke and proprietary tech (and a lot of the progress here eventually finding its way into the middleware!), enabled the current renaissance in creative uses of sound and music in both AAA and indie games. I think that’s a really healthy position for us to move into this new generation, with an emphasis on innovative and sophisticated uses of sound as a central part of the player experience, and exploring ways to get better at that. Finally, we’re at a place where tech has allowed game audio to not be about the tech any more! Or, at least, the conversations are no-longer so tech-centric.
Having said all that, this probably will be the generation that has the significant increase in DSP use we were expecting last time around – the aforementioned “standardisation” of audio technology means that the bumps in memory size and CPU power are more likely to be spent on the exotic than the utilitarian. Those GPUs sure have potential…
More space is a contentious point though – if digital distribution is the future then audio’s footprint is a problem for a lot of consumers. You can see the effect of this in the mobile space at the moment in the kind of game and audio experiences on offer there.
If I was going to take a punt on disruptive audio technologies in the near future then it’d be in wearable computing – the challenges, contradictions and unexplored world of the audio experience in augmented reality really fascinates me. I don’t know anything about bone conduction of sound, but it’s the way forward I tell you!
Tomoya: Actually we haven’t quite entered into next-gen yet here in Japan. (This interview was conducted in January.) As you mentioned, we’ll be much less worried about how much RAM we’re allocated compared to current-gen, so I think we’ll be able to do more with procedural audio, for instance. Although, personally, I think the “new” things we’ll be able to do visually will be more impactful than what we’ll be able to do with audio. The DSP capabilities of this next generation will still be an extension of the same line of thought used during the previous generation, but we will be able to expand what’s possible– being enabled to do things that were impossible before. However from the dev perspective, the amount of work necessary for the best possible product will increase – yet we’re still searching for the most efficient tools and solutions to dramatically improve on workflows from last gen! So that presents a dilemma for us, in that we have a wider range of possibilities, but we don’t necessarily have the time to do it all. I know that’s a really negative way to start out the interview – and I apologize for that! But I feel like it’s vital to rethink audio starting at the absolute, most fundamental level as the player experiences it.
Jack: Can you elaborate on that?
Tomoya: A player’s impression of what he hears goes hand-in-hand with the accompanying visuals. So for instance, even when using the exact same audio – it will give off a different impression even if you just change the resolution of the visuals. We’ll have to implement audio that’s that much richer for every graphical jump that next-gen hardware enables. We’re not going to be able to pull the wool over the players’ eyes, so to speak. The in-game audio “presentation”, if you will, is going to be as important as ever.
Jack: Can you explain what you mean by “audio presentation”?
Tomoya: Obviously it depends on the game’s genre, and whether you’re viewing a cut-scene, or are in some other context – but there are certain effects, or tricks – ways that you use the audio – that lend themselves to expressing information in games. Just as there are specific tricks that work in tv or cinema. Things like slow motion, or how should we express game progression in a way that best fits the scenario? How do we show changes in the player’s status – such as when the player is low on health and in critical condition? Games are these interactive, ever changing experiences that can be manipulated by the player and so if the sound design fits with the player’s immersion – that improves their overall experience. Games are just one home entertainment medium of many that we experience every single day, and so I think that our ears have been trained to pick up on these different nuances from tv and movies.
That being the case, I think it’s vital that you have a sense for audio that doesn’t stray from that. Obviously you also need to understand that those aspects that work specifically for video games, as well as those that are fundamental to the core of your game relate directly to the user experience, but fundamentally speaking you should have a grasp on all of that stuff before you even entertain the thought of using things like DSP or procedural audio. Whenever the spotlight is directed at game audio the conversation tends to move towards the technology, but even if you’re talking about development on next-gen I think you still need to consider things like how you’re going to provide a next-gen feel, that your goal is to provide enjoyment to the player, and that it is a game that you’re making, first and foremost.
Kenny: I think that’s a really good point – the tech needs to serve the game experience you are creating for the player. It is indisputably a really techy job that we do, but it’s also incredibly creative and, like I was alluding to earlier, I think it’s great that the conversations are increasingly less tech-centirc and more about how to support the player experience in as deep and sophisticated way as possible. Not that it’s wrong to talk about tech, I mean, as long as you’re talking about tech in the context of serving the game then it’s all good!
Tomoya: That being said, it seems to me that for Little Big Planet, you decided that physics was going to be a core aspect of your game, and then from there you naturally proceeded to flesh out how the audio would express that. Is that correct?
Kenny: For sure, yeah – physics was a core part of the platforming experience in the game and we needed to find ways of supporting that in the audio. Crucially, though, was the fact that it was a User Generated Content game and the physicality of the materials was an important part of that construction experience – that meant the player could create an object of any size, and could even re-size that object whilst it was sounding, and the audio system had to cope with that in a robust and aesthetically pleasing way.
The main driver of our approach to the technical implementation we took was actually how horrible physics audio systems were to work with – the typical approach (that I knew) involved a matrix of materials and you had to specify what sound to play for every single combination of materials in the game. So, if you add a new material to the game then you need to specify a sound to play against every other material in the game – that’s fine for a small number of materials, but it can very quickly get out of control. Very old school and hard-coded rather than data driven. Anyways, audio coder Matt Willis just plain refused to do that and insisted that “there has to be a better way”! So we started thinking about how collisions work in the real world – I have a vivid memory of hitting the sofa in my room with a baseball bat and pondering that the bat was wooden and hard but the sound we heard was soft and gentle, so it clearly had more to do with what was being hit than the item doing the hitting. That’s really interesting because it works against the obvious idea of “tagging” an object with a sound (“when this object hits something it’s going to play this sound”). But it led us to the idea of developing a set pf physics rules, in this case “softest wins”, and the concept of tagging materials with metadata to drive the rules, in this case a “hardness” value:
Which mostly worked, but we found some unsatisfactory combinations of materials – wood, metal and stone were really common “primitives” and we went the extra mile to make them interact with each other in a more sophisticated way. That’s how we came up with the rule of “softest wins, unless both materials are equally hard” – in this case both materials play their sound but the fastest moving object is dominant:
Then things start to get a bit head-scratchy and esoteric! For scraping and rolling objects the material of the sound we hear is independent from the pitch that it plays back at – that is, you can have the sound of one object but played at the pitch of the other!!
Impacts are handled differently:
And then it all gets a bit “anal-Kenny” and special case:
Lastly, the problem of repetitive collision sounds was something we wanted to tackle, but in retrospect this was much more of an academic pursuit. Firstly, this kind of repetition is normally associated with a bad physics engine, and LBP had a really clean, robust one (with some nice filtering on top). And, secondly, the test cases we tuned the system to (as seen in the video below) just don’t happen all that often in LittleBigPlanet:
But to tie all this in to what I was saying earlier, this kind of dynamic sound was absolutely typical of the last generation – it was possible on the generations before (cross fading car engines, more primitive physics systems etc.), but it was meat and potatoes stuff on PS3/360.
Tomoya: I’m also interested in hearing about what kind of roles and how many members the LBP sound team was made up of ? What kind of team members did you need to implement the procedural audio system? How many people handled sound design and composition? Who handled what? Also, please tell me about your role as the audio director ? Including any methods of team management you utilized.
Kenny: Well, I touched on aspects of this earlier in my intro, but I’ll expand a bit here. On LBP there was me on the project for 16 months, and there was audio coder Matt Willis for the last 6 or 9 (I can’t quite remember when Matt joined – but I strongly remember being very frustrated at the lack of progress whilst struggling to hire anyone good enough), and that was it! To be fair, credit where it’s due – I worked with a freelance sound designer (Dominic Smart) for a couple of weeks to take the heat off on the run up to our beta, and he contributed a bunch of the level spot sounds. I know that sounds like a crazy small team – it was, so let’s just say I was quite busy. But it’s also important to consider that we weren’t making a content-heavy open-world game. I also chose LBP’s paired-back, minimalist sound aesthetic in part to minimise the content creation requirements for sound, but also to feature the stuff we’d spent a lot of time and hard work on like the physics audio and other subtleties. But, anyways, you can do a lot when the team you are working with are focussed and know what the game they are making is – LBP1 was a relatively easy game to make because we were all on the same page. I’ve certainly had much more painful development experiences!
Music-wise, I worked with a composer called Mat Clark on the original score for LBP which won a GANG award for Best Interactive Score and I’m pleased to say that one of the tracks we worked on together won a Best Instrumental award – that was an ear opener for me because I hadn’t written much music before and it definitely encouraged me to do more of that. Daniel Pemberton wrote the intro music, and we licensed a bunch of his back catalogue of music he’d written (and owned) for TV shows to flesh out the soundtrack – he’d say things “Oh, I’m glad you like that track – yeah, that was from a documentary I did on divorce called “How to **** up your kids”!!
On LBP2 I hired another sound designer to help me, and also brought in a couple of freelancers to help ship the game. That was a difficult learning process for me – to go from being the person who did everything, and doing it really well, to needing to delegate work whilst also keeping up the high standards was difficult. I struggled with that and I’m still learning. We’re not big on management at Media Molecule – the company philosophy is based on empowering people so that they are more into their job, create better work and gain more satisfaction as a result. The downside is that staff have got to be a lot more autonomous, and they have got to be amazing at what they do – we’ve never had any juniors because even the company directors remain hands-on games makers. And it also means that everyone is more empowered to say what they think and disagree with you, so you need to bring your A-game! It really is chaotic at times! But Hiring is so difficult – the general standard of candidates in the industry (that are available and looking for work) really isn’t that good. I’d say only 1 or 2% of applications excite me – demo reels of even experienced people leave me shocked, and the number of people expecting to get hired based on their CV alone is just mind blowing. On the plus side, when you find someone great they stand out an absolute mile! But I’ve learnt the hard way that you have got to hold out for good staff because it is just not the worth the pain otherwise.
What’s your experience here? What is the Japanese job market like when you are hiring and looking for staff?
Tomoya: We currently have 60 members on staff in the Capcom sound team. And this might come as a surprise to you – but about 80% of them were hired right out of college – generally from university music programs and technical colleges. The remaining members came from music studios, the music industry at large and other game companies. One of our focuses is on raising employees- taking new hires and teaching them the Capcom company culture, who then start with the company philosophy as their base, proceed towards their goals and then let loose their creativity. You can also consider this to be their contributions to the company, if you will. As such, it’s important for managers such as me to work so that newer employees have a work environment that will facilitate personal growth and realization. I personally don’t know much about the hiring situation of many other companies, but hiring new recruits fresh out of college is pretty standard practice in Japan.
At first glance it might seem that creating a fun game and creating that same game while teaching employees on-the-job skills would be at odds with each other – I mean, it goes without saying that you’re going to get the results you want faster if you gather together solely people that can execute on your project and proceed toward that common goal together. But we’re both a developer and a publisher, and we have a mid-to-long term need to be able to create the kinds of games that Capcom is known for and continuing to provide a satisfying user experience. For Capcom educating our staff while developing new games is an important element, and I think it’s because we do that that we’re able to deliver games with such well-known brands. Creativity is also important, so it’s therefore vital for us that our organization and management are built to cultivate that. And when this is all done right that’s when I think we’re able to regularly produce that innovation that leads to fun games.
Sorry, I’m kind of veering off topic here… So in winter we call for applications from students who are scheduled to graduate the next spring, narrow down our candidates based on their resume and demo reels, and finally have 2-3 interviews each to decide who really stands out from the rest. What we really look out for is whether the candidate has both a lot of talent and whether they seem like they would be able to fit in at Capcom. For mid-career employment candidates we’re on the look-out year round, handling each case on its own as we receive recommendations and applications.
Kenny: Can you tell me a bit more about your team sizes and the roles/specializations within them? Are there any roles which you think or suspect are more common in Japan than they might be in Europe or North America?
Tomoya: So as I mentioned before – our team is comprised of 60 people, which then breaks down into different occupations such as composer, sound designer, sound producer, etc. The number of people allocated to a project to form the sound team for that title is dependent upon the size of the project. For small projects 2-3 people will do, but for large projects we’ll allocate 10 people or more.
The roles for each member of the Capcom sound team are based on two different things: expectations from the skill set that they possess (being able to compose music, create sound effects, etc.) and expectations from their job level within the organization – ie, leadership, management. They’re assigned to projects in accordance with their career plan and how they could best grow as individuals – and they then work towards helping the project succeed as well as towards their own personal growth. They also have mentors supporting them both from a creativity stand point as well as in relation to career growth. I have a feeling that this is just kind of the way Japanese developer-publishers function. I’m curious as to how it works in the West. Or perhaps what I’d like to say is, hearing about this, what are your thoughts and impressions?
Kenny: It’s interesting! I guess my role is so very different – you have more staff working in audio at Capcom than there are in the whole of Media Molecule :) I’m interpreting what you’re saying as meaning that you consider all of the audio staff at Capcom to be part of a larger whole, with some kind of unified approach? That sounds very corporate, but not necessarily in a bad way – organised and structured, with a focus on people’s motivations, career plan, growth and mentoring, which is great.
I’m not really party to that. When Sony bought Media Molecule we didn’t get restructured and formatted to fit into a predefined structure, we very much continued along our own path but with the support and advantages of being a first party studio. So, I run my department as I see fit, and that is in large part informed by the general culture of the studio I work at – I report into our studio directors, not into anyone within audio in Sony (though I have good relations with them, and I’m part of the wider conversation). I think that can be seen across the SCE World Wide Studios group – Naughty Dog have their own way of doing things that is totally different to Media Molecule that is totally different to Guerrilla Games.
That’s not necessarily representative of first party audio development in the West though, that’s just how I observe Sony WWS doing things. I suspect that what you’re describing comes primarily from growth within one company culture rather than from studio acquisition?
I’m kinda torn between the altruism of employing someone straight from uni and the mutual benefit of getting someone inexperienced and cheap to do the work nobody else wants to do. On the one hand, I myself was hired straight out of uni and therefore would be a hypocrite not to recognize the importance of that process in bringing new talent up into the industry. But on the other hand, at Media Molecule we have a culture of “eating your own shit” – you can’t suggest a feature and then run away, you need to appreciate the work that is required to do it to a very high standard and, in theory at least, this helps us to self-police and make best use of the resources we have. For example, I do all the dialogue editing in our games (and process/master all of the localized VO to boot) – note that there’s not thousands upon thousands of lines of dialogue in our games! There’s a definite relationship there! Anyways, whilst Mm doesn’t hire juniors that isn’t to say that we don’t hire people who haven’t made a game before, we absolutely do, but everyone who joins the company is an experienced “maker” of some kind and brings something to the table. I balance the karma-hit and lack of junior-hiring in my department by making myself as accessible as I can to giving people feedback and advice, or speaking at universities and colleges – I’m sometimes too busy, but I enjoy seeing people I’ve helped find their way into the industry. [halo shimmer] DING! [/halo shimmer]
BTW – when you say “sound producer” do you mean manager/scheduler/facilitator? If so, tell me about that role – how many of the 60 sound staff are in production like that? I’m really hands-on and I’m good at wearing different hats, so I self-produce for the most part – the conversations I have with our production department tend to be more about what is going on in the rest of the project, how they can help me and what I need from them. In the west, production have a bad rep as mere schedule-monkeys that don’t understand “real game developers” – but in my experience a good production department are what make a team tick and work well together, even in a smaller developer like Media Molecule. What’s your experience here?
Tomoya: Currently we have 6 of these “sound producers”. They’ll be assigned to a particular project and basically they’ll handle any of the non-creative work, so that the audio director can focus squarely on content. This includes managing people’s hours, budgets, selecting outsource partners and handling the back and forth between us and them. This includes, for instance setting up recording sessions and handling contracts. They’ll also interface with the game’s main producer and suggest audio-focused promotional plans or assets. It’s thanks to them that our creatives can really focus on doing what they should be doing- being creative. Anyhow, it’s entirely possible that this is a position that’s totally unique to Capcom’s sound department – I’m not really sure!
As for your second question, I’ve never seen an example where dev went 100% smoothly! (lol) At Capcom we always have several projects going at once, and each project has its own struggles, means of approach and effort that goes into it, so no two projects are treated the same. For each one we adapt and optimize for that project. Lately we’ve had several trial-and-error cases where we’ve implemented Agile and, true to the name – our work has gotten more “agile” as a result. So although I personally manage the 60 members of the Capcom sound team as a whole, in addition to that there’s management that needs to be done for each project, and each project essentially has its own culture – so there are times when things don’t always sync up, since the way we do things in the sound team might not always jive with how things are being handled on that particular project. I guess it’s kind of like having multiple devs housed under the same roof at Capcom. Although, a developer will probably be involved with various projects over any given period, as opposed to being locked into the same project the whole way through. We have both cases where the project proceeds smoothly, and those where things get pretty rough. Although there’s no silver bullet, we do our best to avoid failure and strengthen our production pipelines with proper follow up, communication, trying to make improvements where we see we can and setting guidelines as necessary.
Talking about management of the sound team as a whole – we’re able to get an understanding of what our team’s strengths and weaknesses are by understanding what each individual’s skills are, and therefore what skills are represented within our team overall. In order to fully take advantage of our 60 member team, those with refined skills would be sharing their knowledge with the rest of the team, and we’d be effective at dividing up the work load among the younger members (with those showing the most initiative taking on the more tedious work most don’t like to do) – thus raising the overall level of the sound team by bringing out the good in the skills that both individuals and the team possess. Ideally our management would be ensuring that all of this happens, but a lot of the time it’s easier said than done…
Kenny: Is there much of an indie scene in Japan and, if so, do you like the idea of working in a small team or even on your own?
Tomoya: Unfortunately I’m not too familiar with the Japanese indie scene, so this is going to veer a bit off topic- but I do have a lot of interest in working on projects where I have both the freedom to create and responsibility. Regardless of how big or small a project is – the core of the game is what determines whether it’s any fun, and in order to create that I think communication is essential. My role within all of that is to create the game’s audio, so for me, setting the audio’s concept and vision is really important. It then becomes a difference of whether you implement that vision alone or with several, or even just a few people. And I think that there is an appeal to working either way – the same way that there’s a difference in having fun with a bunch of people at a large party, or just drinking with a couple of your closes friends. I bet it would be a lot of fun to work on a unique project that appealed to a very niche market, assuming that the creative vision for that lined up with my own.
Tomoya: What do you think of Japanese game audio? Do you feel that there are any differences between the type of audio Japanese devs put in their games versus what you yourself make?
Kenny: I think you and Jack covered a lot of this in your previous interview (symbolic/abstract sound vs the more western naturalistic and hyper-realistic sound), so let me instead ask you this question – is the push to make your games conform to western ideals (so as to be less culturally alienating in those markets) something you are happy with, or is this a commercial compromise that you need to just suck up?
Do you consider your games to sound “Western”, “Japanese, or “the best of both worlds”? Are you appealing more to western markets, or successfully appealing to both? I suppose you could measure that in commercial success, but I’m more interested in how you feel about it.
Tomoya: You know, I watch old American cartoons on the Japanese Cartoon Network with my kids, and I’ve noticed that Hanna-Barbera Productions cartoons like Tom and Jerry use very fantastical, original sound design. I think they had a sense for sound that’s impossible to copy. In Japan the first domestic cartoon we had was Astro Boy – and there was this legendary sound designer on that by the name of Matsuo Ohno. He created a style that set the standard for all future Japanese sound designers the way he would cut-and-paste open reels and change playback speeds. (In fact there are still anime being made today that use those techniques!) I think the sound designers in Japan that were influenced by this have a history of working in the anime industry. Japanese anime has this versatility that can’t be summed up in one word- it covers all of these categories ranging from robots to human dramas. And these works – with their open reel cut-and-pasting, variable speed playback and heavy use of synthesizers – they lead to a unique stylistic beauty. (From Mobile Suit Gundam and Fist of the North Star to Dragonball.) There’s a unique sense there that can’t be copied and reproduced, even though it’s the same Japanese people working on them, and that sound is burned into the minds of our generation. On the other hand, while we were telling lots of science fiction using animation, Hollywood was rendering those same kinds of worlds based on live-action, and I think they achieved a new unique direction in sound design. And we had foley recording mature past this thing that was just for dubbing, into the very basis for sound design – creating new types of sound. So basically, you were able to take something that doesn’t exist in real life and express it as this believable sound, and I think that links directly to the realistic sound design we do for games now. While designing sound effects we often take movies as inspiration, and I think that we naturally try to make those sounds that are so ingrained into our minds. Ultimately whether you end up going closer to those sounds representative of Hollywood movies or whether you go closer to what’s been done in Japanese anime depends largely on the accompanying visuals – and I think the result is that it may appear that you’ve got either the West or Japan in mind, but that’s really not the case. I think that the cultural differences in aesthetics plays a role in influencing your sound design, but I’m no anthropologist so I can’t say how they specifically differ between the East and West. Your sound preferences would be reflected, though. For instance, when making Lost Planet we did have North America in our sights. And, being about robots, we figured that there would be a difference in what Japanese expect robots to sound like and what Americans expect, so we collaborated with Soundelux DMG (a Hollywood audio post-production studio) – they created the actual sound-effects under my direction. My hope is that with that unique combination were able to provide something new and fresh to gamers. During the initial stages where we were deciding on an overall direction to go in I asked Peter Zinda, the Supervisor Sound Designer to listen to some sound samples from Mobile Suit Gundam for reference, and then we went back and forth with each other. For Dragon’s Dogma we worked with Masanobu ‘Tomi’ Tomita, who has years of experience working on sound design in America, and has developed a keen ear for Western style magic sound in particular. We created base sounds that they then took and polished into the final production sounds. Japan and the West have very different expectations and preferences when it comes to these fantastical types of sounds, so I think we were able to come up with a unique hybrid. And in the way we made something that I was personally satisfied with. Thinking back, taking this approach was the result of understanding the differences in taste and I think we succeeded in appealing to both the West and Japan. I think if the gamers who played the game didn’t feel that anything was out of place- that proves the success. When thinking about “what is a game with good sound?”, I realize now that I’ve never judged it as hearing through a Japanese player’s ear or an American player’s ear. I’m always just focused on whether we’re doing everything we can to make something enjoyable for gamers, and hope that whatever we’re doing is going to help start a trend and change the way sound production in games is done moving forward!
Kenny: What could western developers do to make their games appeal more to Japanese gamers? I know this is a big topic, but it still remains a mystery to most of us!
Tomoya: I think for the most part you can just forget about that, and as long as you’re making the best sound you can you’ll be fine. I mean, I play Western games all of the time and never feel that anything is out of place… Or is that answer too much of a cop out? I guess my personal thoughts when playing Western games or watching Western cartoons is that even if the visuals aren’t particularly realistic you still hear a lot of material based sounds – so maybe you could increase the amount of symbolic sound more? But then I don’t know if doing that would make the product less appealing to those in your own region. I think what’s important is that you’re always trying to make something fresh and new. One thing I can say is that within Asia Japan, China and Korea all have separate cultures – so not to lump us all together. I can tell you we’re most sensitive to those differences in particular. There will be instances where something takes place in Japan, but you’ll hear a gong in the background, or a very Chinese song will be played.
Tomoya: Are you a fan of Japanese culture (sub-culture in particular)?
Kenny: I’m a fan for sure, but I’m not a fanatic, if you see what I mean?! I love the distinctiveness and individuality of Japanese culture, which is also what I think attracts western fanaticism and obsession. Aspects of it appear very eccentric and bizarre – “bonkers” would be a fitting British English word – but this is contrasted against tradition and formality. It’s an extreme juxtaposition, but it kinda makes sense as two sides of the same coin – extremes of repression and conformity leading to extremes of expression and rebellion.
British (in reality, English) culture shares many of the same traits, it’s just not as extreme or, at least, it doesn’t feel that way to me! We’re known and think of ourselves as being slightly eccentric or absurd or silly, but there is conformity (our supposed love of cueing) and repression (the stiff upper lip) in us too. I guess they’re both smallish island nations, so there’s that intrinsic isolation which breeds individuality in the culture, only Japan is a more extreme case due to its more extreme historic isolation
On a releated note… I was at a market in London recently which sold a mixture of food, clothing and crafts, and there was one small, fairly limited food stall selling fresh fish. Two young Japanese chaps walked past speaking English:
“Oh, so British people eat fish?”
“Yeah. Sometimes they eat salmon…”
That really cracked me up! British people eat a lot more than just salmon, but relative to the Japanese love of seafood we are quite unadventurous! So, it was inaccurate from a British perspective but accurate from a Japanese perspective – I love that! It makes me cringe that what I’m saying about Japanese culture is way off the mark, but I also know you’ll find it interesting or, at the very least, laughable :)
Tomoya: Ya, we feel the same way. Like with those mixtures of Asian cultures that I was referring to earlier. And if that works for the product, then that’s fine. But for really serious movies or games we have to be careful about those small things or else we’ll break that immersion. One of our biggest challenges is tackling that culturalization.
Tomoya: On that note, what kind of image pops into your head when you think about Japan in general?
Kenny: In my mids eye, it’s a mixture of landscape (the terraces!) and architecture (the temples!). Personally, I think of the great two weeks my wife and I spent there in 2009 – we were visiting her sister who was teaching English in Kumamoto. We flew in to Tokyo, so we saw quite a lot of the country on our way down south. We got engaged in a temple in Koyasan, saw some of the oldest and tallest wooden buildings in the world in Nara, and we got depressed in Hiroshima.
Kenny: What do you think of when you think of the UK?
Tomoya: Incredible music, constant rain, a scandalous royal family, “bland food”, pubs, Guinness (beer, anyhow), tea, the Beatles, Abbey Road Studios! I was there on a business trip for about a week once and didn’t have any problems with the “bland food” – it was actually pretty good! And it was inspiring getting to visit Abbey Road Studios. I’d like to think that’s similar to what you felt when visiting the temples in Japan.
Jack: What do you think there is, if anything in Western or Eastern game audio philosophy and workflow that could teach the other? (Feel free to answer for both)
Tomoya: Hmmm…. You’re not gonna take it easy on us for this last question are you!
What you can say whether you’re talking about East or West is that “creating game audio” exists because you’re “creating a game” – and so I think it’s important that you always have that priority at the front of your mind. You cannot forget that – first and foremost – you’re making a game. Also that entertainment should be something that people enjoy.
Thinking back, my experience in game audio creation has often provided me the opportunity to work with Westerners, so I feel like I’ve always had those differences in my field of view. Obviously people who have actually moved away from Japan to the West and worked there as a long-term expat are going to have an even deeper perception than I do, but personally I’ve never felt that there was any difference in both parties wanting to make the best thing that they can. That both Easterners and Westerners have a vision, the skills and are able to flexibly handle whatever comes at them. And what’s important there is that… mindset, I guess? “What kind of service can I provide the player to not only satisfy them, but go above and beyond that?” On this point I think we’re both able to work on-point, and pay enough care to the finest details. Maybe what’s particularly Eastern, then, is to do all that not with the mindset that “I did something for them”, but with the mindset that “they’ve given me the privilege to do this, and I’m appreciative”? It’s easy to forget that when you’re on a tight deadline, but I think Easterners have that quality at our core. I think it’s a very Eastern philosophy, and one that I want to make sure I always respect. If anything, that’s what I would offer up.
Kenny: I wouldn’t presume that one particular way of doing things is necessarily “better”, it’s just whatever works for you in a given situation. I know this is a “chocolate box” answer, but we absolutely should celebrate our differences – the world is becoming smaller and it’s increasingly easy to become homogenised and generic in almost every respect.
I think it’s important to put a bit of yourself into your work – I think that happens quite naturally once you’re past the stage of trying to emulate other people and find your own voice. Within that idea, there’s obviously room for cultural differences just by the nature of them being an important influence on individual games makers. If anything, I think Japanese game developers are much better at this, though maybe that’s just the Japanese games that find an audience here? Either way, bringing a bit of flavour to the table whilst staying true to the project you are working on is a noble goal, and that’s also what I respect and look for in others’ work – an audio experience that gels with and supports the wider game, but has a bit of personality.
Special thanks to Kenny and Tomoya-san for taking the time out of their busy schedules for this interview. Please feel free to ask any further questions in the comments below.