Broken Age launched Act I in January 2014. Funded through Kickstarter with it’s development the subject of an epic (and ongoing) documentary courtesy of 2 Player Productions, the game was noteworthy for a number of reasons. I personally really enjoyed the games sound and music so in August 2014 I caught up with Camden Stoddard, the lead sound designer on the game for a chat. I was lucky enough to catch up with him again in March 2015 and also meet the other members of the audio team, Ashley Coull and Paul O’Rourke, as they closed in on the end of Act II
Designing Sound: Hi Camden. Thanks for taking the time to chat to me today. How are things going?
Camden Stoddard: Well, we’re in a weird place right now. I’m in Broken Age Act II land now. There’s a lot of layouts being done and there’s a whole bunch of work coming my way and I can’t really touch it until it’s locked. So now I’m kinda sketching and guessing what they’re going to do. So right now, I’m actually helping out on a couple of other projects, working on Costume Quest 2 and Massive Chalice.
DS: I suppose on a project like this there are always going to be those times where you’re waiting on other departments and other aspects of the game to be completed before you can do your thing?
CS: Yeah. I actually bring students over here. Double Fine is about 4 blocks from Pyramind where I studied. Students from their game audio class come over, just because I don’t want them to be ambushed. They need to understand that it’s a really different workflow. I had a student in the other day and he was trying to wrap his head around it. And I said, imagine you’re recording a band and you get this super awesome drum take but you can only play it back 3 days later. It’s kinda like that. There’s a lot of stop and go and I always try to tell them that even if you make something awesome in Pro Tools it doesn’t mean it’s going to sound like that in game. Don’t count on anything until you can hear it in game, because different formats, consoles, compression rates, you just never know. It’s been pretty eye opening talking to them. It’s one of the things that audio schools don’t get about game audio, that it’s less about content creation and more about working with other departments. They don’t have access to programmers and animators that often so I try to promote that relationship and workflow. A lot of times these other people are waiting on me or I’m waiting on them. It’s a pretty crucial part of the job.
DS: So now you’re waiting?
CS: Yeah, I’m getting all my ducks in a row. I’m actually in the process of backing up and archiving all the stuff I’ve worked on getting ready for Act II and I realised that Double Fine’s a bit special because in the 5 1/2 years I’ve been here I’ve worked on 31 games and prototypes. That’s pretty insane. Some of these will never get released. There’s one in particular, I can’t talk about now, that’s been going three years and I’m just hoping it finds the right partner cause it’s a brilliant idea. That’s been the blessing I think for Double Fine. I mean, this is my first company but I talk to other people and it seems the creativity level here is just bonkers. Whenever Tim Schafer (Double Fine studio head) has an idea I come back to my room and just have to try and figure out how I’m going to do that. It’s insane.
DS: Looking back through Tim’s and Double Fine’s output, it’s a pretty impressive resume.
CS: Yeah. My first job here was as dialogue editor on Brutal Legend. I went back and played it about a month ago and it’s a really good game. There are some aspects to the game I just don’t see in others. And the writing, it’s precious! I remember there’s a cut scene where Jack Black is talking to Kyle from Tenacious D. And it goes on forever cause Tim had like 40 iterations. And it killed me, it was so funny. And that’s the other thing, I just don’t get to play many games, not even our games, cause I’m so flat out. Being able to get into Brutal Legend was great. And I played Stacking the other day which was a real joy. And I finally got to sit down and play someone else’s game, I finished The Last of Us so I’m a Phil Kovats fanatic now. It’s the best sounding game I’ve ever heard. It seems there’s so much potential in game audio now.
DS: But realising that potential is limited by time and money?
CS: Yeah. That’s the hard part with Double Fine. It’s crazy of the charts creativity but we’re also super strapped for resources. I mean, I’m not in an audio room, I’m in an office and there’s a lot of guerilla tactics that me and the team have to do to make things work because we don’t have the resource to do it any other way.
DS: Just going back to your audio education for a minute, you were a musician before you went to Pyramind, is that right?
CS: I got into this really late. I knew I wanted to do it when I was 12 but I had no money and I was growing up in Maine and back then there wasn’t anything for me there school or industry wise. I worked a lot of years in other jobs and finally when I got to San Francisco I hooked up with BZ Lewis who is fantastic. He has a studio in Oakland (Studio 123). I think he just won his 6th Emmy (he did). I started learning from him first about working with bands, setting up mics. I think the first thing I did there was a 4 piece jazz band. Then when I got to Pyramind it moved more into Post Production. It wasn’t really till the last 3 months at Pyramind that I got interested in games. Then in the last 2 weeks of my classes I got offered the internship at Double Fine. So I really did this big swerve in my career.
DS: Do you think current students have a realistic idea of what to expect in game audio?
CS: I think I’ve had 10 or 12 classes come through now. When they first started they were just working on the basis that you made the sound in Pro Tools and then it went in the game. And I think that’s what the school was teaching them cause they didn’t really have a frame of reference. I see that less and less now. The last 2 classes have really given me a workout because they come in knowing C++ and scripting and they’re totally focused and some of their questions I’m having to check with programmers. Pyramind’s really clued in now with FMOD courses and certification and they’re also working with Unity.
DS: So you think this is a good approach to getting into game audio?
CS: I think game audio has been getting better, quality wise, and this has been attracting more people to it. I was having a think last week about the way we talk about linear and non-linear audio in post production. It’s actually rare that games are not actually linear. One of the first things I talk to students about is that game audio is non-linear when really it kinda is linear, but there’s just a whole bunch of it. It’s a tough one to get your head around. To be non-linear a game has to design and mix itself and they are starting to do that but there’s not many. Most of them are a bunch of linear sequences that are programmed to happen at different times but they’re still linear. There are some out there where you really don’t know what’s going to happen next and to me, that’s true non-linearity. But what most of us are working with now are sequences with a beginning, middle and an end and then we figure out the relationships between these sequences.
DS: Tell us a little about your working space. What have you got in your office/studio?
CS: I’m running an Mbox Pro into a Mackie 1202 mixer. I’ve got some Genelec 8030’s which have really served me well. I don’t have a 5.1 setup right now.
DS: No 5.1?
CS: No. Which is pretty crushing cause as an audio guy you want to be working in surround, right? This all leads back to what I tell the students. Get ready to cut your losses. You might have to give up on 5.1. The first thing they’re saying when they walk through the door is, where is your surround setup? and I say, welcome to indie game audio. So it’s pretty bare bones. A lot of my stuff is done in the box. I wish I had a whole rack of hardware gear but that’s not going to happen. Double Fine has a grand vision but it’s going to take all the resources to get there. I mean, this is not an audio department’s game company, there’s multiple departments and they all need to share the resource. But I have a ton of plugins. I’m a huge Valhalla fan. I got turned onto them by another composer David Earl. At that time I was trying to figure out how to get Altiverb going but as soon as I heard the Valhalla stuff I thought, I need this. And then when I saw they were only $50 each I couldn’t believe it. I emailed the guy to tell him I was buying them all before he realised how good they were.
DS: So going back to what you mentioned earlier, you could have a ton of outboard and processors and make something sound amazing in Pro Tools but then when you get it in engine, it’ll all change anyway.
CS: Yeah, and a lot of times in indie game development, you don’t have time to tweak anyway. I know on the past 3 projects we’ve been under tight timelines so a lot of times I look for plugins and virtual instruments that will get me there fast. In fact I was talking to Stephan Schutze who’s an amazing guy and he was telling me more about FMOD, about how you can get in and super tweak, and I’m like yeah, I’m more concerned about macro. I need to get big, fast. So it was an interesting perspective. If I was working at a huge company and had a ton of time and resource I would just go in there and tweak like hell but I often don’t have that so I just have to get to some place special really fast and move on. I know upcoming I’ve got 205 cut scenes to do in about 2 1/5 months so I’m going to be flying and I’m just going to have to get the special stuff real quick then move on.
DS: So your workflow must be honed to a fine art by now?
CS: Yeah. For dynamics and EQ it’s mostly about McDSP. I really like them. I like how good the algorythms are. There’s isn’t much system resource used on them. The Valhalla stuff. The NI guys. I got into the Aeon synth with Heavyocity. I just started getting into Slate, got the Virtual Bus Compression pack, that’s fabulous. I’m able to get almost anything right where I want it using those. And right now, any money I get coming in is going straight out the door to the Spitfire guys. Their work is pretty amazing. And I’m running Pro Tools 11 right now which has been a god send. You know, a stable build! I’ve just started getting into Fab Filter, I really like them. One thing I’ve been doing recently is flipping things around and using something like Razor, something really big, for UI sounds. I mean, that thing could destroy a sound but I figured how about trying to use it to create something really small.
DS: Do you feel that kind of thing refreshes your creativity?
CS: Refreshment of creativity has never been a problem here. It’s more about how am I going to do this thing. I have inspiration for days, from the visuals and gameplay I’m getting. The problem sometimes is not being able to stop. Just staying healthy is a challenge. Cause I go home and I just can’t turn it off. Lee Petty (Art Director at Double Fine) is one of my favourite designers and when he brought me Autonomous I didn’t sleep for 3 days. I was just in love with that game. It’s more about knowing what I want to do then figuring out how to do it in the time I have. And that’s why I use stuff to get me to the sound in my head really fast.
DS: For FX are you able to get out and record your own stuff?
CS: Rarely. For one we don’t have the room to do it right. And also we just don’t have the time. I’ve been able to get out a few times and record some original stuff and I’ve probably done more of that for Broken Age than any other project. The Cave was almost all library. But on Broken Age I was able to do a lot more.
DS: And you got to record a live orchestra as well?
CS: That was amazing. Working with Peter McConnell on the score was great. I figured out really quick that he’s been working in adventure games for years. So I just sat back and enjoyed it. And for most of the time the conversations we would have about music direction would be about composers, like John Barry and how the great composers would make big full sounds, not through compression or recording technique, but through arrangement. That’s a really tough thing to manage, where you’ve got a sparse composition and sparse instrumentation but because of how you arrange the music it feels full and part of the story and he’s a master at it. And we had that lightening in a bottle with the Melbourne Symphony where the director was a backer of the game. I can’t remember if this is in the documentary or not but the last cue they did for us was off the clock which for a unionised orchestra is a big thing. But they were having fun and we were right down to the wire and the conductor just said well, why don’t we do one for fun, to see if we nail it. And they got it. And Peter looked at me and said, yeah, that never happens.
DS: Well that’s a little of what the whole process of the game has engendered, being able to watch the process of it being made. It does feel like we’ve been able to see the reality of it rather than something that’s been staged.
CS: You can’t stage what we’ve been through. Nothing in there’s been scripted. I’ll never forget the day when we announced we were doing this documentary and Tim came out and said I want to show it warts and all, show the whole ‘sausage making process’. So when we were doing documentary episodes they would preview these episodes for us and I remember a particular episode came on and there’s Tim is in his office and he’s got his notebook out and and he’s like, okay, line one. And everybody in the room watching was like, it’s not written? We had no idea he was literally starting from scratch. And I remember looking at the door and I could see Tim peeking round to see how everyone would react. So it’s been an interesting journey with this game and what’s been fascinating to me has been how personal the game is, in the writing and game design. It’s about children coming of age and discovering who they really are and there’s stuff in there about Tim trying to find his creative independence and things like that. So while I’ve been working on it I’ve been amazed at all this personal stuff he’s putting in there. Sometimes I’ve just wanted to go give him a hug.
DS: You’ve already mentioned the creative atmosphere at Double Fine, so how do you find their attitude to sound. Are they giving it much thought?
CS: Oh yeah. You can’t really be a game designer at DF and not have a full 3D view of games. There are definitely people for whom it’s not a priority sure, but they’ve got their own things to focus on. Lee Petty again, one of the things he told me, even in just a white box game one of the first priorities for him is to get music in there, cause then it feels like a real game. In the audio team here we’re treated as important, we don’t get side-lined by the other departments. And sometimes they even get out of the way for us. On The Cave we had to do an exposition process that ultimately led to this crazy visual gag (spoiler) where the dragon escapes. And they were crunching, trying to figure out how to show this dragon getting away and then (game creator and designer) Ron Gilbert said, well, we’ll just tell it with sound. So I had to come up with all this escape stuff purely with sound, and it had to be something that could be followed in game play so that the sound of the dragons destruction was always ahead of you. So you know, that was a brilliant idea, where the sound would tell so much of the action of the story, then the player would just be able to walk through the wreckage they could hear happening ahead of them. That made me feel really valued.
DS: Being able to rely on the sound and music to tell the story?
CS: Yeah, having some faith that it can. And then there’s the little sounds as well, the UI sounds, those are massively important, just as important as the big event sound moments. That’s something I tell my students, cause they’re always wondering about what to put on their reels, and the thing that I pay attention to most is UI sounds. If you can do good UI I’m interested. Cause it’s hard. It’s the stuff the player is constantly listening to but not being irritated by. Every audio meeting, me and the guys, whoever got UI that week we’d be like, aw man, I’m sorry.
DS: How many are on the audio team?
CS: Right now it’s just me on the game but we’ve got a 4 man audio team at Double Fine and usually we’re working on 6 projects so the math doesn’t add up there. But in theory we can all pile on a project for a couple of weeks and go for it. They came in on The Cave and helped out at the end, likewise at the end of Broken Age Act I. I don’t know what’s going to happen on act II. There’s a lot of projects going on.
DS: Camden, thanks so much for taking the time to chat and hopefully we can catch up again before Act II lands.
Fast forward 7 months to the second part of our chat (Act II if you will!).
DS: Camden, great to catch up again, how are you doing?
CS: Busy, you know, really busy! We’re under a bit of duress right now with Act II you know. It’s turned out to be a lot bigger than Act I but we’ve had a lot less time to do it. So with that going on the audio team has grown to include Ashley Coull and Paul O’Rourke.
DS: So, where are you guys at now with the game?
CS: I figure we’re probably 95% done with the sound with the mix coming up any time now. We’ve had a lot of localisation stuff to do. Malena Annable our localisation producer has been putting in a ton of work on that. I think we’re within in sight of the finish line. We’re kinda propping each other up right now. I think there’s maybe 3 programmers out sick. Everyone’s just red-lining it.
DS: And you’ve also been working on the Grim Fandango remaster?
CS: Yeah, we’ve had some involvement but actually that wasn’t too bad.
Paul O’Rourke: It was actually very low maintenance which was great for a change.
CS: But our main focus has been Broken Age. It’s just the little game that could. Tim’s definitely been ambitious. I mean, it’s a big game. It’s a challenging game as well. I’ve been on projects where there’s a lot of assets but here, it’s really interesting stuff that’s really interlocked and it needs a lot of thought.
PO’R: Yeah, he has a really clear vision and if he doesn’t like something you’ll hear about it.
CS: He’s got really good ears, he values sound, he jokes about it, but he’s really careful about it. If you phone something in, he knows. Paul found this out. There was this really small sound in there that Tim kept rejecting and we were back and forth on it and you know, he cares, he really does.
PO’R: It’s a good kind of frustration cause at least he does care and you’re getting the feedback for the right reasons. It’s challenging.
Ashley Coull: It’s also about the consistency. Working across the game like this in two parts, staying consistent and making sure you’re not creating a sound that clashes with something in Act I or something that’s already appeared in Act I.
PO’R: There’s a lot of that, tracking the legacy sounds from Act I and making sure they’re put back into Act II and also just making sure the polish we achieve here matches up to what was achieved in Act I. You know, even through there’s this split between acts they’ve got to feel like the same game and we should try to treat it like that.
CS: It’s also about the relationships between Act I and Act II as well. There are some places where we need to make sure the sound relationships build on the connections between the 2 worlds. And then there’s these new places the game goes to which almost need their own way of calling back to the earlier parts of the game. Making sure the new place would seem related…
AC: Like the same family of places.
DS: Right. With the game being in 2 acts you’ve perhaps been able to incorporate feedback of sorts from players?
PO’R: I know one of the comments that came up relating to Act I was that the game was maybe a little easy. Which makes sense really if you think about any game there’s generally a ramp up in difficulty but in Act II, the puzzles are super hard, more complicated, and that’s meaning there’s much more intricate sounds in there, and how they’re hooked up and implemented is more complex. I definitely feel the implementation is much more complicated in terms of the puzzle interactions. There’s really a lot of content and interactions and I think that was important to give the game a big finish.
CS: Yeah, that’s true. Act II definitely has much more of a ramp up feel. That’s the thing about Tim. Sure there’s games and puzzles but there’s also this underlying current of story and feeling which needs to be designed for. There’s something else just under the surface where the game’s going and the sound has to hint at that. I feel this games really personal to Tim.
PO’R: Absolutely, even just on the surface you look at the relationship between the backers and us. It’s not just about pleasing our fans, it’s also about how they now hold almost this publisher position for us. It’s cool, but it’s also a lot of pressure to make it good. It’s a good kind of pressure I guess.
DS: So this is the pressure time then?
CS: Yeah. Right now we’re in super crunch. I’ve got a sleeping bag in the corner of the studio. I’ve had to spend the night. And that’s not necessarily a unique thing, that’s something a lot of game devs have to do, but that doesn’t make it a good thing. In that way this isn’t really a healthy industry. I feel really strongly about that. But it’s been great to have this team, you know. Cause as well as this, I’ve been working on this whole other project, so I’ve been super randomised, and it’s been great to be able to just hand stuff of to Paul and Ashley and they handle it. I can’t really think of a thing in this game that I wouldn’t be happy for these guys to do. I’m not sure that kind of thing is possible in other teams.
AC: I wonder if it almost comes down to an asset management thing to put things totally practically. It is possible for a team to be completely independent, completely isolated. Only responsible for their own things. Then maybe your particular content won’t congeal as well with everyone else’s. When you take all these assets, from all the members of the team, and you mush them together you hope it works and maybe it doesn’t. With the audio team we need that teamwork because we need that cohesion across the entire game and I wonder if maybe being able to bounce assets from one person to another within the audio team shows the ability to work together but also solidifies the overall style.
DS: Perhaps the audio team then has maybe a bigger picture idea of the game. Because you’re thinking about the audio across the whole content rather than individual parts or groups of assets, that actually makes it easier to work as a team in some way?
CS: That’s true. I’ve definitely run into examples where the audio team tend to play through and know everything that’s happening but there other teams who aren’t aware of the VFX or the audio. I know for instance the animation team have spent weeks working where they don’t hear anything that we’ve done. Because they’re so niche and focused. But audio really has to know about it all.
DS: And your thoughts on the game as you approach the finishing line?
CS: I suppose I really want to put across that Broken Age is a great game but also I’m excited about the other vision that Tim had for this in terms of the transparency and the community. We’ve hit some road blocks around that but we’ve also found some new relationships with our fans and that’s been very interesting and I want more of that.
A massive thank you to Camden, Paul and Ashley for taking the time to talk to me about Broken Age and the work they do at Double Fine. Broken Age will be released in it’s entirety on April 28 in North America and April 29 in Europe.