Great Interview! I loved the part at the end about music in games being like an old boys club and it being very hard to get a job in. This is quickly turning into my favorite feature on GameSpot.
The "Play. Create. Share." mantra extends to the audio department too in Little Big Planet 2.
Sackboy is back on another new adventure in Little Big Planet 2, which is being released on January 18. Once again, you'll be able to use the in-game creation tools to make your own wacky levels and share them with the world. New to LBP2 are a host of musical features so that you can tap that inner Beethoven and compose to your heart's content. I was able to send some questions over to Kenny Young, Media Molecule's audio and music lead, and he explains (in great detail) the music of LBP2 and the new additions. It's a long one, but if you're interested in getting into sound design at some point, read on!
GameSpot: Could you tell us a bit about yourself and your role in LBP2?
Kenny Young: My name is Kenny Young, and I'm the audio lead at Media Molecule. I'm responsible for making our games sound good. That requires me to have a finger in any pie that is to be filled or decorated with sound, music, or voice, which is pretty much every aspect of a game apart from the servers. Hopefully, this gives me the perspective necessary to steer all the different audio elements towards the common goal of an engaging player experience. This is particularly important when working with multiple audio personnel, be they in-house or freelance--for LBP2 I directed an army of composers and a team of sound designers to create and implement all the content. On top of managing those people and processes, I head up the design of the audio-centric features in the game, manage the creative side of the music licensing process, handle the audio for any videos the studio outputs, and try to find time to write music, create sounds, and implement them in the game.
GS: How did you get into video game music/audio?
KY: I had a strong musical background, played the violin since the age of 6 blah, blah, blah, but never really got a massive kick out of performance. My playing was never as good as I wanted it to be, and I had better things to do than practice, like play video games. So after high school I did an undergraduate degree in music technology, which seemed like a good fit for my musicyness and geekyness. I was still music-focused at this stage, but that course opened my eyes and ears to the world of sound. Creating soundscapes and electroacoustic music compositions are rather academic pursuits, but they're a great starting point for getting people to think about working creatively with sound. I had the epiphany that people actually get paid to work with sound. I can remember seeing the term "sound designer" in the credits roll of a film and thinking, "I have no idea what that means but, OMG, I want that job."
But the more I researched the film industry, the less attractive it seemed. So, naturally, I then started looking at sound for video games. There aren't many entry-level jobs in game audio, but compared to an entry-level job working in postproduction, getting paid minimum wage making cups of tea for people whilst living in one of the most expensive cities in the world with no guarantee of a better job at the end of a six-month stint in a stale industry which was decimated in the UK a loooooong time ago, versus a full-time job with a vaguely acceptable graduate salary in a young, exciting, fast-paced industry with plenty of room for growth and new ideas--I think it's fair to say it was a no-brainer. But I knew I didn't have enough experience or knowledge (I certainly wouldn't have hired me!), so I went on to do a master's degree in sound design for the moving image. That course was geared towards traditional linear media, but wherever I could I bent my learning towards interactive media, primarily through extracurricular activities (including some paid work), and spent the year researching the games industry and the job market. At that point (we're talking eight years ago, when the PlayStation 2 was starting to hit its stride) there were around five junior positions in the UK in any given year. So, slim pickings, but I was prepared to move anywhere to get my foot in the door. I applied for a few jobs in Europe, had a couple of interviews, and ended up at Sony's London Studio.
That was a great first job in the industry. London Studio has a large number of teams working on different projects all under the same roof and, certainly whilst I was there, that included sports titles and action games in addition to the social games they've now specialized in. Those projects were all catered for by a centralized audio department, which was often in-sourced to help out other first-party or second-party Sony studios, all of which meant that I got a boatload of experience on a wide range of projects and genres. I worked on the sound for over a dozen titles in three and a half years, plus countless VO sessions for many other games. Which is exactly what a noob needs. The downside of working in a centralized department is that you're super-busy all the time, and it can be hard to integrate with the dev team. I found myself wanting to be more involved in the development of the projects I was working on, not just populating them with pretty sounds, so I started looking for an opportunity to do that. When I saw Mark and Alex's GDC '07 Little Big Planet presentation, I was totally smitten with both the project and them. Fortunately they were looking for an audio designer; I got that job and moved to sunny Guildford. And here we are two projects and nearly four years later.
GS: What are some of your fondest memories when it comes to music?
KY: -Making up mix tapes for long car journeys when I was a kid, complete with a chipmunk DJ created using some kind of hack on the high-speed dub record facility of the tape deck.
-Pretending to be a rock star whilst playing in a covers band at school.
-Thinking up crazy musical ideas and then working with outrageously talented composers who can make them a reality.
-Making music into the wee small hours in the Blue Ridge Mountains amongst friends and fireflies (www.swangathering.com).
-Finding that perfect piece of music, out of the thousands you've listened to, that helps bring an aspect of the game to life, and getting a kick out of seeing people's reactions to it when they play the game.
-A magical jazz concert in Edinburgh where there were so few people in attendance that the saxophonist came down off the stage and walked amongst the audience as he played. He was so close to us, I could smell the brass and literally feel the air moving around.
-Writing music knowing that millions of people are going to hear it and that three of them will like it so much they'll spend time capturing it out of the game and putting it on YouTube in lieu of an official soundtrack album.
-Listening to my mum and dad sing together.
-Jamming with the molecules.
-The three-note tune my wife whistles when she's content--usually witnessed when she's in the kitchen, happy because I have been banned from entering and "taking over" (humph, whatever).
GS: What were some of the challenges regarding the audio and the music in the original LBP, and has that changed your approach with LBP2?
KY: With LBP1 my goal was to make it easy for players to add sound and music to their creations, so that's where all the effort went. One of the main challenges was establishing which things we would do "automatically" for the player versus those things we'd give them explicit control over. For example, I spent a long time developing and iterating on our physics audio system with our audio programmer, Matt Willis, because the physicality of the objects in LBP was clearly something that needed to be backed up with appropriate sounds. Those physical sounds of collisions, rolling, and scrapes all happen without the player having to add them. They "just work," which is good as the objects concerned are indeed colliding with each other. Whereas the sound and music objects are an easy way for creators to specify when they want a sound or a piece of music to play, they "don't work unless you make them," which is good as only the creator knows the specifics of what they've made and when these events are important or necessary. That was all fine and dandy within the constraints of what LBP1 was designed to be--a physical sandbox with a strong platforming bent based around controlling Sackboy. But over time, as the community got to grips with the tools, they became more and more adventurous, knowledgeable, and cunning. This was awesome--we'd always considered that the creation of things that we couldn't have foreseen or even imagined were possible was the ultimate validation of the project, but whatever expectations we might have had were quickly blown away very soon after launch. However, the flip side to the community's insane ingenuity and ability to make LBP1 do things that it was never intentionally designed to do is that rather than empowering people, the tools became a hindrance that the community were fighting against in their pursuit of awesomeness. So, LBP2 is made with all this experience in mind--we've simplified things which the community were having to jump through hoops to achieve in LBP1, and we've tried to keep the tools as flexible as we can to empower the community to go nuts with them. And looking at the results of the beta, that's working out well, so the future looks bright.
But just to tie this in to the audio, if we go back to the notion of "automatic" audio, this ended up being a double-edged sword. Small things that were really useful in the platforming world of LBP1, such as turning up the fire sound whenever there's a large amount of fire onscreen or playing an appropriate sound when a piece of metal hits a piece of polystyrene, aren't actually that helpful if you're trying to create an imaginary world that isn't meant to be the physical world that Sackboy lives in and experiences. For example, in a cinematic, dialogue is king, so we've added a way for creators to turn off the automatic fire sounds and other ambient effects and added a mixer so that they can mix the sound, music, dialogue, and background ambience as they see fit. Or in a level where you are flying a spaceship, it's not necessarily desirable that every time you hit an asteroid it makes a wooden impact sound, so creators can turn off the physics sounds of a particular object if they so wish, leave it silent, or add something they deem to be more appropriate.
And then there's the biggie: music. I genuinely thought we might be able to appease people's thirst for new music by expanding their library with DLC, which we tried, but when you've got over 3 million levels, any content you throw out there is just a drop in the ocean. Initially, I investigated ways of providing large amounts of music to the community, such as Internet radio, but because LBP is a global platform, there isn't a one-stop solution that can provide the required quantity, quality, and breadth of content and roll it out to all territories, so that was a no go. It became clear that the only way the community would have access to a large amount of music was if they wrote it themselves. Looking at what some members of the community were already doing--building physical music sequencers and writing music using the sound objects--the will was there; we just had to throw them a bone to lower the barrier to entry.
I'm interested in creating a story and I don't know if this interview provides any worthwhile information in regards to the sound aspects of the game. But it was a cool interview. It's nice to see an audio lead get some attention. It's well deserved . . .
Top, top-notch professional... Who's not afraid of sharing some valuable info--just like any other top-notch professional he knows he's not appreciated for holding some secret info but for using it well. Awesome blog, Sophia. ;)
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