Maxis ventured into new territory when it first released Spore, a sim where you begin life as a single-celled organism, and as you evolve and move through the game's phases, you eventually wind up in space. Darkspore, on the other hand, is a sci-fi action role-playing game that borrows the creature editor technology of Spore. A little light on the story, Darkspore focuses more on combat and creatures. One of the keys to creating a unique world is the atmosphere, which not only relies on the visuals but also the sound design. In an email interview, we asked Kent Jolly, the audio director at Maxis to explain how he got the role and what it was like to work in English for once, instead of Simlish. We have Darkspore giveaways via Twitter, so follow us at @gs_soundbyte for more and join us on the Facebook page.
GameSpot: Could you start off with telling us a bit about yourself and your background?
Kent Jolly: Born in Indianapolis, Indiana, I'm now a middle-aged malcontent who lives in Berkeley. I sit in my front yard and scowl at passersby, occasionally shooting spit balls. I have always done this. I'm a musician and occasional artist at home, enjoy spending time with my wife and two daughters, and generally appreciate the many wonders of charcoal.
GS: Sounds like fun. So, how did you start working in sound design/music?
KJ: I went to art school majoring in photography but also played in a band. Because of that, I became interested in recording and took a sound synthesis class available there where I got to work and learn on an incredible old E-mu modular synthesizer. I soon also discovered sequencers and samplers and have been playing with all of that ever since. I came out to California to go to Mills College for electronic music. During that time, I got to know Robi Kauker (now audio director for the Sims Division) who had landed a job working at Maxis just before Electronic Arts had bought them. I got some contract work doing sound design for Sim Safari and have been at Maxis ever since.
GS: As an audio director, what are your job responsibilities in regard to working on Darkspore?
KJ: I was responsible for all aspects of the audio. I helped set the music direction, edited/directed the music, sound effects, voice-over, and overall mix. Nearly all of the audio work was done by me and our lead sound designer Michael Cormier.
GS: How do you approach the sound and music in the game? Are they closely tied together?
KJ: Yes, the music and the sound design were closely tied. We tried very hard to strike a good balance between the two so that neither one dominated the soundscape…and to make them work together so that each played their role to [the] best of their abilities depending on the situation. So as the music adjusts to complement the action, the sound effects also adjust to accommodate the changes in the music.
GS: What do you do to achieve the sounds that you want for various parts in the game (whether it is weapons, menus, movement, creature noises, and the like)?
KJ: Whatever works! We record our voices, animals, and various sounds. We use sound libraries; we design synth patches. Almost every sound in the game is a mixture of these elements.
GS: Did you reuse sounds that were in Spore?
KJ: Very few. One example…the sound of the black hole in Zelems Nexus is the same black hole sound you find in the space game of Spore. While working on Spore, we amassed a great deal of recordings, and so we did use those in some form, but in general, Darkspore was such a different style of game that much of the audio from Spore PC just didn't make sense in that world.
GS: What are some of the strangest things you've done to get a particular sound?
KJ: I filled a tub with ceramic slip (fancy mud) and grunted through a long PVC pipe to get very satisfying, voicelike mud glops. Decimated a raw chicken with a hammer (which didn't actually work very well). Created a granular max/MSP patch that you control with a Wacom tablet. The tilt of the pan controls the pan, pitch, and a filter, while the position controls how big the loop is and where it starts. We used that a lot for sound effects in Darkspore.
GS: Compared to the other projects you've worked on in Maxis, how has your job evolved and what challenges have you faced?
KJ: Darkspore is an entirely new direction for Maxis, and so there were many aspects of my job for this project that were different. But probably one of the biggest was working on the full-motion video (the movies in game) and localizing audio. While Darkspore is very light storywise, it's actually more linear than any other Maxis game I have worked on. It was kind of nice to have a movie to score that you knew was going to be the same every time! And working with actual English language as opposed to Simlish was also something of a change from my normally bizarre world of alien gibberish.
GS: How do you think the audio is being treated in games today? Where do you see it heading?
KJ: Audio has made such huge advances since I first started in games, but it still has a long way to go, which is why I like the field. The games industry is so large and varied that I have to wonder where the audio isn't heading.
In general, I would say that most game audio is still sample based and very content heavy. If I had to make a guess, I would say that you will see more and more procedurally generated material (synthesized on the fly) appearing in games. As we get better at modeling the sounding behaviors of things, it will be a natural fit for games. I even see the benefits of that spilling back into other fields like film, where you might decide to pull up a sound emulator instead of going out to record something. That said, it's still quite a ways off.
GS: Do you have any advice for aspiring sound designers?
KJ: Don't marry your sounds; get rid of them if they are not working. Learn some type of scripting or programming language. Work for anything at the beginning. The best thing you can do is meet people and let them know what you can do by providing the audio. Make things as much as you can. Avoid drama.
GS: No one likes drama. Thank you for your time!
Sound Byte is GameSpot's game music blog, which covers every aspect of music and audio in games, including interviews with top game music composers and sound designers, as well as discussions of new or classic game soundtracks. Have a question or suggestion? Leave us a comment below or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. For a list of previous Sound Byte features, click here. Follow us on Twitter! @gs_soundbyte