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Q&A: World of Warcraft composer Jason Hayes

We talk to World of Warcraft composer Jason Hayes about music, technology, jingles, and more.


If you're one of the eight-and-a-half million players worldwide to have dabbled in a little-known game called World of Warcraft, then chances are you've experienced Jason Hayes' work--perhaps even without knowing it. GameSpot AU caught up with the man behind WOW's music to discuss his career, the technical difficulties of game-soundtrack creation, and the legitimisation of games as an art form. Hayes' music from WOW is one of the pieces being played at PLAY! A Video Game Symphony, which hits Sydney, Australia, from June 19-23.

World of Warcraft--8.5 million players strong and Hayes' best-known work.
World of Warcraft--8.5 million players strong and Hayes' best-known work.

GameSpot AU: You have a long-standing relationship creating music for Blizzard. How did that come about?

Jason Hayes: I was involved working with Sierra Online. I went over to a game developer's conference and wandered over to the Blizzard booth and made someone put on headphones and listen to a portable compact disc player with some of my music on it. I think they were just being nice actually, to entertain me. Eventually I got in touch with the audio director and we set up a meeting. Eventually I was hired.

GS AU: One of WOW's big drawcards has always been its persistent universe. Players often clock up hundreds of played days. The game changes, but the in-game audio remains fairly static. After that amount of time, do people get bored and simply turn the music off?

TH: I think the big struggle with a game like World of Warcraft or any huge persistent world where people will be in for a number of years is definitely trying to figure out how to address that kind of that experience with music. Not just the fact of it becoming boring, which of course is a factor, but even what would be appropriate. In a scene in a movie, you might know the guy walks into an area and then two minutes later he'll encounter an important event, and all this stuff is very linear kind of a moment-to-moment experience. It's very finite. But if someone is hanging around in a location of the world for hours, it's very difficult to even conceive how you would approach that aesthetically from a musical standpoint.

GS AU: You weren't credited in the Burning Crusade soundtrack or trailers. Did you have any involvement with the projects?

JH: I've since gotten involved with NCsoft. It's a different developer, and we're doing a brand-new title for them; a really huge game that isn't announced yet, but it should be very soon, and it's really exciting.

GS AU: Will you be working on the Starcraft 2 soundtrack?

JH: You never know. NCsoft precludes a certain amount of cross-involvement, but you know, Blizzard and their game worlds are so much in my bloodstream now, and I have such an affinity for that, that I certainly am not admitting to myself I won't be involved with things in the future. I hope to get involved with other Blizzard enterprises, because I still have so many friends there, and they just make incredible games.

GS AU: What's the typical creative process involved in creating a game soundtrack?

JH: When it comes to starting a game project--in some ways it's similar to a movie in that you've got certain moments of gameplay that you want the mood to be evocative in a certain way. In the game industry it's a lot different, because instead of just sitting down with a director and just spotting the movie and picking out the exact spots where you want music to play, it becomes an effort of sitting down with game designers and programmers and actually architecting the implementation strategy for how things will play. If you know an area wants to feel scary at a certain moment because there's a certain boss creature or something, then you need to plan out very carefully at what point that music will start and what things should trigger it. It could be artificial intelligence of the game that gives you a clue, or crossing over of a geographic boundary, or it could be walking into an instance. It could be all kinds of things that might inform the decision to play a certain piece of music at a certain time.

Once you get into the thick of it and you're working on the music for the game, for me that process usually begins with my portable voice recorder and I'll sing and hum ideas into it. Because one of the great things about technology is that I have this rack of studio gear and it's capable of emulating an orchestra, if that's what I need to do--[it's] fairly convincing, but all this gear can be a bit intimidating to me if I'm going to write a piece of music. So I love to get away from everything and just go jogging and hum some ideas and come up with some good broad-stroke ideas. Once I get those, then I've got a guiding blueprint for what I want to do, and I can import these ideas directly into my workstation, or just reference them directly on the recorder. Then I feel a lot more prepared to face the arsenal of gear and begin production work.

GS AU: What are some of the challenges of putting together a game soundtrack?

JH: It just depends on the kind of game, but certainly with a massively multiplayer online game like Warcraft it's a very long creative timing around the game. If ever I can find an excuse to play music, where I can find something to hang my hat on--like you walk into Stormwind and you see that wonderful entryway with the statues and you have almost an establishing shot for the human city. Whenever a moment like that comes up, it's great because I can say, "now I can bring in the big Stormwind regal theme and let the music take a little bit of a special moment to explain something about what you're seeing." It's looking for those hooks to be able to find a good reason to have music come in in a way that feels meaningful instead of just a wallpaper treatment that's draped over the background of the whole game.

GS AU: How tough was it to create a soundtrack for two factions (Alliance and Horde) and convey it musically?

JH: There's definitely some traditional feelings about Alliance versus the Horde, and what those mean and it's a little bit tricky because there's no one faction that's an evil faction. The Horde has certain feelings that can at times feel a bit darker and at times a bit more barbaric. But recently in the lore of the universe, certainly the Orcs have become in some ways very noble--kind of a quest to redeem themselves and they have a nobility. Defining the regal qualities of some of the Alliance, to the Alliance characteristics and differentiating them from the Horde, is a great challenge.

GS AU: Have the original World of Warcraft tracks been reworked for live performance, such as the one in PLAY! A Video Game Symphony?

JH: There has definitely been some of that; the arrangements are especially designed to flow in more of a context of a suite. So there's a little bit of attention paid to how transitions from one piece to another would go, and that way there are a variety of excerpts that are paced in a deliberate way. The majority of the game [audio] is done via electronics, and there are certain things that just don't sound very good emulating an orchestra with electronics. I've always had a real struggle with brass, especially trumpets. Making them sound as wonderful and strident as live players has always been difficult--it never quite comes across. But when you're in a setting with a live orchestra, you get these wonderful trumpets that bring passages to life that I just can't do very easily when emulating an orchestra. When I go to any of these shows there's always a bit of a surprise factor as to how this performance is going to sound.

GS AU: Do you think technological limitations are stifling game soundtrack creation?

JH: Right now in music creation in general, we have these incredible tools that can make it fairly easy to come across as something that has a veneer of a polished production. You can kind of throw it together if you use certain tools. A lot of time these shortcuts result in music that there's not much substance to. Really, really good music will stand out. But it is easy sometimes to take shortcuts that result in music that's not nearly as impactful.

GS AU: Do you feel that the music-game industry is taking shortcuts at the moment?

JH: I think an exciting thing about the game industry right now is that it's becoming less possible to do that because like some other industries it's really growing up. It's become a mainstream entertainment and I guess the popularity has raised the budgets involved in creating it and raised awareness, and developers now are appreciating a lot more than they used to what a really great score can do for their franchise.

GS AU: Is the legitimisation of video games as an art form helping the cause?

JH: I think it's great. Certainly these concerts are a huge part of that. Nongamers are getting to see that music done for games is actual music. It seems like the entire medium of interactive gaming has a level of sophistication to it they didn't realise and they didn't know much about it. It's a great way for them to get familiar with that. Beyond that, it's also pulling a whole new audience into a live symphony performance that might not otherwise go to see a live symphony orchestra. It's a great thing for the symphonies and for orchestral music in general that a whole new audience is becoming interested in this kind of performance art.

GS AU: Jason Hayes, thanks for your time.

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