Here is my interview with the wonderfully talented Dren McDonald in which I ask him a few questions about his work on the fantastic indie strategy game: Skulls of the Shogun which is now available on Steam. And we also talk a bit about the Game Audio Network Guild and Kickstarter.
-Tell us a little bit about your sound design background and how you got involved in Skulls of the Shogun
Oh gawd. Ok. To go back a long ways, I first started playing around with sound design when I had my Mac Plus in the late 80’s and the first accessory I bought for it (apart from the 20 MEG hard drive) was an audio digitizer box (used a serial port!) It had a crappy little mic, or you could plug a mono source line-in directly. One of the cool Mac games at the time (besides Dark Castle) was Crystal Quest, and one version allowed you to replace all of the game’s sounds with your own. So I’d make all sorts of mouth sounds into the mic, or output VHS movie sounds to a tape recorder and then run the tape recorder directly into the digitizer box. I had some sort of 2 track audio program (Sound Designer?), I don’t remember what it was, and you could do basic functions: slow down, reverse, pitch, speed up etc. I had all sorts of fun with that and it provided a great introduction to sound design. I also learned a lot about slowing down the game with too many large assets…I’d put in a sound for EVERY SINGLE POSSIBLE FUNCTION IN THE GAME and then wonder why the game ran so slow when I booted it up! haha.
Fast forward to 2009 when I met Borut Pfiefer. He had launched a Kickstarter, way, way back before anyone was doing it, for a game called The Unconcerned, which was a rather serious concept (about two parents who lose track of their daughter during the riots in Tehran during the 2008 riots). I thought it sounded like a really cool project and contacted him about contributing any music/sound he might need for the game if it got funded or not. Well, it didn’t get funded, but he kept working on it and I did some rough music for it, but then Jake (from 17 Bit) roped him into helping out with Skulls of the Shogun. I think I first saw a rough build in 2010 at GDC on Borut’s laptop. At the time they already had Sam Bird working on audio, but he got busy and Borut asked me to help out on it, which made me very happy!
-What was your role on the project?
I was principal sound designer on the game. So I did the cut scene audio, all the UI and unit sounds, the background ambient sounds, special power sounds etc. A LOT of the work on that game turned out being with the dialog and the processing of all those voices, adding bone clacks to them all etc. I directed and recorded some of the voice stuff too.
-A major mechanic in the game is eating the skulls of fallen enemies to boost your own unit’s power. Tell us about the design behind that sound.
Haha, yeah, that was funny. Iterating on ‘skull eating sounds’ resulted in some hilarious email threads. I hope the NSA had a good time reading those. “Needs more crunch and bone…less watery…there shouldn’t be any brain in that…”
I started recording the sounds of me, biting into various crunchy items. Crisp apples, nuts, candy etc. The magic formula was the Tootsie pop! That crunched real good! I mixed in some apple bites and some processing, but with the candy I had to really use the proximity effect of the LDC condenser mic to my advantage.
The belches are also mine (except the big one at the end…I got that from YouTube…there are a LOT of very proud long belches on YouTube).
-SoTS launched on Windows 8, Windows Phone and Xbox 360. Did you have multiple SKUs in mind when designing the sounds? Did you have to go back and tweak anything before release on different platforms?
We were initially working in XNA, and XACT with the intention of releasing on XBLA only. So most (if not all) of the sound assets were created at that point in development. Of course, the other platforms, even though they were Microsoft products, they didn’t support XNA/XACT. So I did do a little bit of combining some sounds (like the little cut scenes at the beginning of each player’s move, with the swords/whooshing sounds) to match up with animations so that those assets could just be used on all platforms (they were previously combined into cues for XACT).
The real work was done by Ben and Borut as they had to manually adjust all of the audio assets so that they’d work on each separate platform. For instance, the phone version doesn’t have as many audio assets as the Surface, which doesn’t have as many as the XBLA/Win8 version. They had to find a way to recycle many of the sounds on the phone/Surface rather than leave everything in there because the audio footprint would be too large. I don’t have any more details because whenever I ask them about it they get kind of stabby, so I don’t ask anymore.
-The voice acting while unintelligible is wonderful and charming. The processing on the voices sounds pretty rad too. Can you tell us about recording and design of the dialog you were involved with?
One of the reasons the voices come across as charming or funny is because those guys did a great job of matching up an appropriate asset with one of the funny lines they wrote. We didn’t have too many specific lines to match up too with the nonsense talk before we recorded the dialogue. Except for things like “NoooooooooooO!” So a lot of that humor comes from the combination of the writing and the audio. It was a real treat to see those things start working together during development.
Jake had a friend up in Seattle, Brice Broddeus, who could do a great version of the Asian-like “SIMLISH” that he wanted for the game, so they just started recording some of these lines together and would send me the files. I’d ask for some more coverage of things like ‘taking damage’, ‘laughing’ ‘exerts’ etc, and they’d send some more to me. So he did the early stuff, and covered a lot of the units, like the archery dudes and calvary.
Then we needed some other voices, so I brought in my friend Nils Frykdahl. We needed some big beefy demons, and the evil general voice which needed some supernatural qualities (before processing) and Nils has a great voice for that sort of thing. He’s a singer (with Idiot Flesh, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum, Faun Fables and now Free Salamander Exhibit) who has dramatic experience and had actually played the main character in an old 3DO game from the 90’s (“Requiem: Avenging Angel”). So he came over to my studio and let me talk him into abusing his throat for a few hours…for the first session. Anyhow, I had some specific ideas about some of the voice qualities I was looking for with these bigger characters, so I wouldn’t have to do a ton of processing to the files. Knowing Nils pretty well, it wasn’t too hard to work together to get to that point. The hardest part was matching what Brice had done, and making the fake language sound like it worked together in the same world. (You can also hear Nils in the latest Ron Gilbert game for iOS, Scurvy Scallywags, where he sings all of the pirate shanties and makes some pirate sounds.)
After getting Nils’ first rounds of sounds done we needed a female to do some of the same thing, so I contacted Sarah Elmaleh, who I knew through GANG and somehow remembered that she had a bit of background in Japanese language. I sent her an email, that probably seemed a bit strange “can you do these Goddess voices in a made up language that sounds Japanese but isn’t Japanese but sounds supernatural?” But she sent over an audition that we actually used in the game because she nailed it right away. She did more lines after that and then she played a couple of the new characters in the Bone-I-Fide Edition that’s on Steam now.
So the processing really took a back seat to the great voice work all of the actors had done. We had great performances to work with. That being said, I think the dialog processing was the one audio item that we iterated on more than anything. There had to be a certain amount of ‘supernatural’ to the voices, but they had to be legible, even though it was nonsense-talk. We also wanted to include the sounds of bones/jaws clacking while the characters spoke. So we tried a lot of different sounds for bones. Everything from actual bones, to cracked walnuts, smashed peanut shells etc, but I think we ended up using the sounds of some wood planks, and 2 x 4’s clanking together that I recorded in the studio. The wood sounds got pitched a bit, and each character class had a specific audio chain that was used consistently. The reverb was baked into all of those assets as well, which turned out to be a good idea when XACT got pulled from the equation.
-Any cool stories involved with recording/designing the sounds for all the medieval weaponry and settings?
Home Depot is the boring answer to that one. Actually, the first thing I did was pick up some kung-fu and samarai movies, as Jake had mentioned he wanted this retro 60’s quality to be there in the game with the quick exert and damage noises. So I picked some of those up and captured some of the audio source to get a good sense of how those movies sounded.
Then I went to Home Depot and got a bunch of cheap metal: fence posts, rebar (varieties), flashing etc, and did about two days of recording metal stuff. Then I got this crazy idea that this game was going to need a ton of bowed wine glass sounds incorporating rice and water. I don’t recall where this fever dream came from, but I spent a day recording different wine glasses containing water and rice in different volumes while I bowed them with different bows, using different mics, different distances, all sorts of variants. I could’ve recorded this for about 30 minutes and had plenty, but somehow got this idea that this game was ALL ABOUT THE BOWED WINE GLASS SOUND and recorded it all day long. Sometimes you get crazy, unreasonable ideas and it’s best to just satisfy these weird quixotic quests to see where they go. I think one or two of these sounds made it in the game.
-You are also the Director of Development for GANG . Can you tell us about the upcoming revamping of the website and it’s features?
Yes, we are finally revamping the site, and we’re really excited about the changes. I got to see an alpha build of the site yesterday and we’ll have some great new features. One great feature is that the site is no longer hamster driven! Yes, it runs as fast as any other site on the internet now! So along with the site being fast, and easy to navigate, it will be very mobile friendly, and geared more towards community and finding easy ways to get membership engaged with each other. Member pages will now be public facing so they can link to their GANG profile, showing all the past work they’ve done, past experience, titles, instrument specialties, software expertise etc. It will be very database driven, so that if someone lists “Dead Space” as a game they worked on, if another GANG member also lists “Dead Space” in their profile and you click on it, you will see all of the GANG members who have worked on “Dead Space” (as long as they list it in their profile.)
We’ll have a part of the forum that will be open to non-members, so that other folks can engage with the GANG community. There will be a “Developer” area of the site, open to everyone, where GANG members can provide articles/videos and information to game developers who can visit GANG to find out how to best prepare audio assets, or implement in Unity or why it’s worthwhile to use middleware etc. We hope to also include a matchmaking system, based on the GANG member profiles, so that a developer can visit this area of the site if they are looking for an audio contractor, and fill out a form which will return contact info for various GANG members who match their needs. There’s a ton more that I’m forgetting, but it will be a big improvement.
The game audio community consists of some really wonderful people who all like to share their ideas, and we really want to make the GANG site an easy place for that to happen. We’re hoping to launch the new site by the end of August or early September.
-So you currently have a Kickstarter underway.
YES! The idea is to create a recording of game music arranged for string quartet. I’ve been a big fan of string quartet music ever since I saw Stranger Than Paradise, and heard John Lurie’s score. Then I became a big fan of Kronos, Turtle Island and other string quartets and music written for that ensemble.
So I started messing around with some string quartet composition recently, and then started taking some of the game music I’d previously composed and arranged it for string quartet. I did this both as a fun experiment and because I really wanted to practice my music prep skills. Whenever I do get the opportunity get record a live player the music prep part of the equation is always very rushed, so I’m trying to get better at that to make the players happier with me.
Then the opportunity came up to raise some money for a new after school, K-5 music program here in the east bay (SF Bay Area), and this idea kind of came together to help them out. Once the project is complete all of the sales money will go to the music program.
The fun part is that we’ll also be recording music from other games that I’ll arrange for the quartet. We’re looking at doing music from old games like Altered Beast, Galaga and Outlaws, newer music from games like Portal 2 and FTL and then some of my music from games like Ravenwood Fair, Pettington Park and graBLOX. I’ve been in touch with many of these composers already and they’re pretty excited about the project. I do intend on the final recording to work as an entire listening experience, so that the tone of the record is fairly consistent. When you become a backer at any level you receive a link to the first 4 songs that we’ve already recorded, which will give you a sense of the recording quality and how great the players are.