Sweet Justice is a “full service game audio production company based in the South of England. Founded by industry veterans Chris Sweetman and Samuel Justice. With a combined experience of over 3 decades of frontline experience in the games industry, we have worked on a large number of AAA and independent titles. We have won multiple awards for our work within game audio.”
I was fortunate enough to convince Chris Sweetman and Sam Justice to do an interview where we chat about productivity, education, staying fresh, and even telling a story with sound.
DS: Tell us a little about yourselves and why you decided to form Sweet Justice
Sam Justice: After my period at EA DICE, I left Stockholm to return to the UK, but I kept (and keep) in close contact with the audio team, they are great friends. Ben Minto (AD at DICE) put myself and Chris in touch with each other. I had known about Chris and his fantastic body of work for a long time, but when we both started talking, we really got on well together. Chris had also just left his inhouse role as audio director at Microsoft. So we discussed about working together – initially, we were going to help each other out on projects when the workload became too heavy. But the more we got to talking, the more we realised we both wanted to open a UK based game audio outfit. There aren’t many UK based game audio companies around and we believed with our joint collection of work, we had a powerful portfolio and knowledge set to present to the table.
Once we had the seed of the idea, I sketched up a few ideas for a website, and then Ben Minto suggested the name Sweet Justice. And well.. How could you not want to start a business with a name like that! So once we had decided to go for it, we began to brand it. A good friend, Matthew Jones, who is a fantastic graphic designer (https://www.behance.net/MattJonesDesign) came up with the logo and helped with ideas for the site and the layout. Once this was all decided upon, we then had the fun task of setting up studios, finishing the website, spreading awareness and so forth. Thanks to some truly kind and friendly people (like Jack here at DesigningSound!) it didn’t take long for the word to spread.
Chris Sweetman: I’ve worked in game audio since 1995. Therefore I have had various stints inhouse (Gremlin, Argonaut, Acclaim, Criterion, Splash Damage and Microsoft). When I decided to go back to freelance after a period as part of Microsoft Central, a mutual friend (Ben Minto) thought myself and Sam would get on like a house on fire. Our style of working and work is pretty similar. Ben also mentioned that he was desperate for us to get together as he had a name waiting…
We began chatting and soon after, with our minds melded, we realised that with our experience, portfolio and personal goals we could really work well together as a crack audio unit. Sweet Justice was born!
It’s been one hell of a busy ride so far! We’ve been having a load of fun.
DS: Are there any specialties or a niche you’re trying to fill with the company?
SJ: I think what sets Sweet Justice apart is the fact we have both been through the trenches on AAA titles (inhouse and remotely) and we have done a number of indie titles. So we have an intimate knowledge of the industry at large and the experience to approach all titles and genres with confidence. Sound design is only a piece of the puzzle when it comes to game audio, we are well aware of the multi faceted role sound folk have to take when working with games. These days it’s not enough to bring great sounds to the table, you have to understand pipelines, workflows, best practice methods, platform specific limitations, development “quirkiness” – and that’s just per title. Every studio does it differently, and thanks to our experience it allows us to be quite malleable in our approach.
Another part of our unique identity is that we are from the UK, which is home to some of the best talent in all entertainment industries. British people in the entertainment industry are well known for great craftsmanship and attention to detail – we’re hoping that Sweet Justice brings that reputation into the game audio space. Our location sets us apart from a business perspective as well – our overheads are low and this allows us to be very competitive in pricing. Although if you ask those we’ve worked with they’ll tell you we’ve never been financially motivated – it’s always been about making great audio, something that we would like to play and experience ourselves.
We both also have strong technical backgrounds as well as creative, I have been doing basic high level programming for some time now and Chris has a fantastic knowledge of just about every game engine out there. We both have penned ideas for many audio systems on the titles we’ve worked on.
DS: The UK seems to be the gold standard for quality when it comes to music/sound (Beatles, Abbey Road Studios, London Symphony Orchestra). Why do you think that is? You guys have less sunny days so you’re in the studio longer than those in the States?
SJ: The long winter period allows us to lock ourselves away, and the summer period.. well it’s no different we still lock ourselves away!
I suppose that we have a experimental and curious attitude. I don’t think it’s unique to the UK but we have had a lot of people breaking convention and innovating in the audio space. The work of the Radiophonic workshop stands out as an obvious example, where their experimental work (and the fact they used to release technical journals regarding new processes) influenced not just only sound designers but musicians and hobbyists.
DS: January is “Education” month. What are your audio education backgrounds and how has it fit in with what youre doing now?
SJ: I have a diploma for sound engineering, when I had finished education in the UK I really wanted to get into the field of game development and also sound engineering. Going on a course allowed me to marry the two ideas together and opened the doors into the world of game audio. However, it really did only just cover the basics of working with sound. The journey of learning has never stopped, and I imagine it never will. Education is a great catalyst into the world of sound, it allows you to get an understanding for the creative challenges you’ll face, along with giving you a headstart in learning all the technicalities of sound itself.
There have been a lot of game audio courses pop up recently. These are very interesting – a few years ago I might’ve advised against it due to the speed at which the technology evolves and how quickly you’d be left in the dust. However, these days we are at a point in the industry where the toolsets are incredibly powerful but standardised and technology is very similar across a myriad of 3rd and 1st party programs. Usually the main differences are cosmetic, or the language used to describe feature sets is slightly different per solution. Along with the fact that consoles and engines are so powerful it quite literally is just left to the imagination and creativity of teams to build the soundscapes. I would say that now is a great time to join a course in game audio if you are interested in taking the plunge – of course technology will continue to evolve, but you’ll get such a strong basic understanding of game audio (something that guys like myself and Chris had to learn by trial and error) that it would be a wise choice.
CS: My education was something quite different, I learnt, essentially, on the job. I began learning about sound in my early teens during the summer holidays, but it wasn’t until I saw “Blow Out” with John Travolta that I realised that I wanted to follow in my fathers footsteps into sound. A few years later I began working in the film industry with my father on 16mm, 35mm and ¼” formats at a post production facility.
DAW’s weren’t around at the time so it gave me a very grounded perspective on sound editing and creation. I was very lucky to work with many people, including Jim Shields (Alien, Legend, Goldeneye) and Glenn Freemantle (Gravity, Dredd, Shrinks) who have helped shaped sound design in the UK. I learnt a lot about sound manipulation and creative choices from them back in the early 90’s.
I felt that eventually game roles would diversify and become similar to the film model, so I made the jump to games in 1995. My first inhouse position was at Gremlin Graphics, where I again learnt the trade whilst doing the job. I’ve been doing this for nearly a quarter of a century, but still find I’m learning something new everyday. I’m always experimenting with new plugins and gear, something that I think that helps keep us ahead of the curve!
DS: With so many students coming out of these game audio courses each year, what would you suggest they do to stand out?
SJ: Ask any game studio and they will say they are inundated with applicants, especially for junior sound design positions. A lot of the applications will get thrown away due to minor issues. I would advise to open a small, easy to read, no filler website. It should be succinct and to the point showing off your best work, then use the blog part of the site to show off your keen interest in game audio and implementation experiments. No employer expects a junior level hire to be producing senior level content, but there is an expectation to have a great understanding of game audio and a huge amount of enthusiasm. It is quite demoralising to work with someone who just has no enthusiasm for what they do, deadwood doesn’t last long.
When applying, there are a few unwritten rules – if applying for a sound design position, don’t submit a CV stating “Sound Designer/Composer”, employers are only interested in the position you’re going for – they aren’t interested in ego.
Another unwritten rule is that showcasing the skillset is very important, but equally important is your personality, you need to fit in with the team you’re joining. How well do you handle stress? Are you outgoing and fun to be around? Game development studios are teams like any other industry, you will have far more success in a potential career if people want to work with you as a person.
DS: Your team manages to have their mitts on a lot, if not, most big budget releases coming out in the near future. Where do you find the time?
SJ: Not sleeping seems to be a common occurrence. Apart from that – we have been given very specific roles on each title we’ve worked on as Sweet Justice. We currently have a headcount of around 3.5, which certainly helps as well (we are slowly expanding as and when, but keeping a small team makes it much easier to collaborate and keep the quality consistent and high). Our past experience allows us to jump in and get to work on the titles where the work needs to be completed yesterday, and for the titles where we are afforded time or can take on fully (being the sole audio team on a project) we carefully plan it out, align with the studio on aesthetic choices and make sure we’re an extension of the development team – we want to provide each title with the best audio possible, which means we are very critical of our own work and know that the bar is very high for the reputation of the outfit. But all of the above also means nothing to a team who need audio ASAP and under budget. So we are very aware of how we approach each title, being flexible is extremely important and there is no place for ego at all.
DS: How do you stay organized when working remote with your team and developer? Do you use special software or an agile system?
SJ: There are so many open source or freely available web/cloud based solutions these days it’s just as easy to work remotely as it is inhouse. We have the standard spreadsheets on Google Drive with our long term schedules. Managing the nitty gritty day to day stuff however vastly varies from each studio and project. Although there are a lot of similarities.
As for working with the studios, 100% of the developers we’ve worked with use Skype for “face to face” meets or to check in. A common thread seems to be the big AAA studios using JIRA and Confluence for tracking, wikis, documentation etc. Whereas the smaller studios will use task planners like Trello or Google Drive. Normally we work through VPN with a studio, getting builds through standard methods (Perforce, Subversion, Git). It requires us to have our own infrastructure at our end to make sure our network is as secure as possible.
Normally on a project either Chris or myself will take lead on the admin side, but we both submerge ourselves in the games fiction and try to find out as much as possible about the title, the target audience, the quirks, gameplay mechanics, selling points and so forth. We stress to teams that they should feel as though we are an extension of their own team rather than outside contractors. That approach has worked extremely well, especially on the games with large scope and budget, but with little time. Just being able to talk back and forth with the development team in a quick manner (be it audio, programming or art) makes the process run quite smoothly. But in terms of us staying organised internally, we like to keep it simple with just one to two tasking spreadsheets.
DS: Sam, you have chatted with me before about a sound “telling a story”. Could you explain what you mean by that?
SJ: As important as implementation is in game audio, in recent years the focus seems to have migrated from content to implementation. Telling a story is a phrase I picked up from some old colleagues, it’s a way of saying that the soundscape and the sound choices should serve a purpose other than just filling the silence. One good example is that it’s not normally the action, but the reaction that is the most interesting part of the sound and how it relates to the fiction of the world – that door the player was interacting with, how old is the world around it? Would the frame creak as the door opened, would the dust settle, what kind of changes in the air would occur, does it fit with the narrative. It means not taking things at face value and designing sound for just that single instance, but looking at the work as a whole. It is a fairly common train of thought in film, but not so much game audio. The folks at Naughty Dog excel at this, The Last of Us is full of beautiful audio, the sound design choices allow the world to come alive and really sell the fiction.
You can have the most complex implementation in the industry, but if the sound choices and overall design don’t sell, support or bolster the narrative and/or gameplay, it will fall apart. At the end of the day, the end user doesn’t care how you got to the sound or how it’s manipulated at runtime, the only thing that matters is what they’re hearing.
DS: Do you think the focus towards implementation will shift back to assets this generation due to more memory and a bit of standardization of engine/middleware?
SJ: I think it already has with the start of this new generation of console hardware. We’ve seen some games embrace the additional memory and CPU power. Also, with the growing online presence of forums and sites like these, it means that the game audio community are able to share solutions to implementation in a much more accessible manner. Leaving the content creators to focus on just that, it’s an exciting role to be apart of because of the ever growing imaginative ways peoples are using implementation to serve the sound. Whereas last generation it felt more the opposite.
Whenever I see someone not in an audio role mentioning how good the sound design is on any title – it’s a great feeling. Knowing that the community as a whole is moving forward and constantly overcoming the stigma that used to be attached to game audio (when comparing it to film).
DS: Chris, you were the audio director on “Brink” which was released back in 2011. It seems since then arena/class based shooters are finally coming in vogue with even Blizzard hopping on the bandwagon. With a few years of hindsight; what do you think these multiplayer shooters need to do sonically to stand out above the rest of the pack?
CS: I’ve always been a big believer in unique sonic signatures, be it with your guns or your musical motifs. After spending 8+ years working on shooters I came to the conclusion that audio such as footsteps and foley were some of the most undervalued, but in my opinion, important aspects of online shooter sonics. If you chat to Professional FPS players, one of the first things they do online is turn off ambience and turn up foley and footsteps.
Unique sounds for classes and characters that are so distinct that you don’t even need to see them to know what is coming round the corner is the Holy Grail of arena shooter audio in my opinion. Understanding just from the sound of weapon fire how far away the enemy is, and what weapon they are using, is a powerful tool for players created by audio. I want developers to put the effort into helping train players in understanding audio, instead of having the expectation that users will understand subtle sonic nuances from the get go. One idea for instance, is to have separate instructional videos or a unique GUI that informs players and helps to train their ears. I say this not only as a sound designer, but also an avid player of console and PC shooters.
Although not technically a shooter, I felt that the Last of Us trained players to use their ears exceptionally well, I’d like to see that kind of focus on more games.
DS: So far Sweet Justice has worked on mostly (but not exclusively) action titles. Is there a genre you would like to try? How about one you wouldn’t want to tackle?
SJ: I have two little boys, a 6 year old and a newborn. This means that a lot of the games I work on just aren’t suitable for my 6 year old to see and play (or our newborn to gurgle and giggle at). The older one is very aware of what I do and is always asking if he can play the games I’ve been working on. I would absolutely love to work on a title where I can sit down and play it with him, where we can enjoy ourselves together on a game I’ve been able to work on. That would be pretty damn cool. Recently, there have been a lot of great sounding titles released for the younger generation – Skylanders, recent Lego titles, Wonderbook etc, all have very well crafted and detailed soundscapes, you can hear that a lot of love has gone into making the audio for these titles. (They also have fantastic game mechanics which are easing the younger generation into the more complicated titles for them to play when they are older).
For one we wouldn’t like to do? Well there isn’t a genre we wouldn’t like to tackle! All of them present huge opportunities and challenges. Some of the best developments in game audio have been from the studios who are able to focus on a specific genre for a long period of time – some of the work being done by the studios who focus on racing and sports titles is just astonishing. They have taken that wealth of knowledge built up over the last few console cycles and are applying and iterating on it with every release. The systems they’ve built, the sound they’ve created – it’s all very special.
DS: Would you find working on games in a fantasy setting more or less difficult than working in a more “realistic” setting? IE we all know what grenade sounds like but not what an arcane magic explosion sounds like.
SJ: Every single project provides us with a plethora of creative challenges, which is what makes each project so much fun to work on. It’s not a case of having the challenge of creating individual sounds, but more designing a soundscape that is fresh and unique to that title alone. If players are able to isolate the audio would they recognise the game? When playing with visuals, is it emotionally stimulating in relation to the gameplay?
A challenge I’ve noticed quite a lot is not when working with other audio teams, but other game designers. They remember older game titles (15-20 years old) so fondly and usually have them as their point of reference for audio – occasionally we’ll be asked to make something for a title that these days would be considered quite “gamey” (a common reference in the industry to something feeling too mechanic. In audio, it can be a footstep having only one single variation, or the grunt of a VO being so repetitive it becomes almost iconic to the title). A big challenge for us is to make something that fulfills the mechanics of the gameplay but also doesn’t sound mechanic. Creating (hopefully) iconic sounds for titles that also are perceived as being fluid and non repetitive.
DS: With a number of projects in a similar genre, how do you keep each one sounding fresh and unique?
SJ: Planning and getting inspired to build a fresh sounding soundscape is one of the most enjoyable processes when starting on a new title. It’s where the seeds of the ideas are planted and, until the game wraps, you have to trust the ideas you’ve decided to run with. We find inspiration in so many places, a piece of concept art for the title might drive an entire style for a world, level or feature for instance. Having the initial thought process of how we want the title to sound provides the backbone of our work throughout the project. We don’t allow it to dictate our work but rather keep it as a line of thought throughout development. It really starts to come together when you take your broad ideas and apply them granularly throughout, then the titles unique sound really takes shape.