Sid Meier's Pirates! Designer Diary #3

Sound engineer Mark Cromer recounts the lengths that the audio developers went to in order to capture the sound and music of the 17th-century Caribbean for Sid Meier's Pirates!


With the upcoming remake of Sid Meier's Pirates!, famed designer Sid Meier and team hope to update the classic gameplay of the original Pirates! for an entirely new generation of gamers. The original Pirates! was a masterful blend of action, adventure, strategy, and role-playing as you took the life of a pirate of the Caribbean during the age of sail. There were evil pirates to be fought, loot to be plundered, and fetching governor's daughters to be romanced. This updated version of Pirates! will advance the gameplay into the 3D age, with beautiful 3D graphics and colorful 3D sound. The latter is the subject of our latest designer diary from the Firaxis team, as audio engineer Mark Cromer describes the level of authenticity they aspired to achieve in terms of sound. Be sure to check out the downloads section of the Sid Meier's Pirates! gamespace for some audio outtakes, music, and other sounds from the game.

The Firaxis team gathers around the microphone to record audio for Sid Meier's Pirates!

3D Audio for a 3D World

By Mark "Cromerzone" Cromer
Sound engineer, Firaxis

Watching Sid Meier's game-designing genius at work is always an incredible experience, so designing and developing the audio for Sid Meier's Pirates! has been a sincere pleasure for the entire audio team here at Firaxis Games. We have been given the opportunity to take one of Sid's most beloved titles and make it more contemporary by applying modern sound technologies, techniques, and general audio know-how.

When we first began to develop the initial concepts for the use of audio in Pirates!, it occurred to us that it would be completely necessary to create 3D audio that would match and complement the stunning 3D graphics being created for the game. The transition from 2D to 3D has provided us the opportunity to explore a whole new level of audio support for our games, and we became determined to create audio assets for Pirates! that would really be something special.

The proliferation of in-home 5.1 sound systems was an opportunity not to be missed. In Pirates!, cannonballs whiz by during ship battles. The sound of your crew swordfighting surrounds you while you duel your arch nemesis. You can hear the locals partying in the tavern as you sneak out of town, and thunderstorms roll by as you sail the Caribbean--all within a rich 5.1 sound field.

You'll hear the whoosh of the wind as you sail the Caribbean.
You'll hear the whoosh of the wind as you sail the Caribbean.

Early on in the development of Pirates!, we decided to make the music serve two purposes. First and foremost, the music is used to create a sense of drama. We use cinematic music throughout the entire game to create an experience that is reminiscent of what one would expect from a swashbuckling movie. Secondly, the music needed to be interactive. For example, as you drive your opponent back in a duel, the music becomes positive. As your opponent drives you back, the music becomes dark and ominous. The cinematic music written by the Firaxis team of composers (Michael Curran, Roger Briggs, and me) makes all of the 3D action sequences in Pirates! feel like an interactive movie where the player has control of the action.

Naturally, we decided the game should have pirate music that reflects the setting of the Caribbean in the mid 1600s. As part of my research I attended the Maryland Renaissance Festival during its "Pirates Weekend." There were plenty of street musicians, and there were two stages that played music continuously throughout the entire weekend. I spoke to a musician from one of the featured sea chantey bands who told me that chantey songs were originally work songs and, as such, were long and boring. To make them more appealing, he said that they "spice the songs up by converting them into drinking songs." There were also many craftsmen selling instruments from various periods, including a gentleman by the name of Gene Jaeger. He graciously gave me a bowed psaltery and a crash course in how to play it. The psaltery is a biblical instrument similar to a zither; it has strings attached to pegs on a sounding board that are plucked. During the Renaissance period the sounding board became a sounding box and they played it with a bow.

Using these influences, we have styled the port music in the game using instruments that have a distinctly ethnic sound, each sounding as if they were "built locally." In addition to the bowed psaltery, I incorporated several acoustic instruments from my own personal collection, playing them in nontraditional ways. I used an acoustic steel string and a nylon string guitar, as well as a 12-string guitar that wasn't tuned and "capoed" high, in order to sound even more ethnic. The psaltery was plucked, instead of bowed (sorry, Gene!), and I even used a baritone ukulele that belonged to my father.

In addition to sounding more ethnic, the port music is interactive. As you sail by any port, you'll hear music that reflects its stature and nationality. A wealthy English port will have robust music, while a poor English port will have the same music with a slower, darker treatment. Upon entering a port and moving between the various town locales, the music instruments change without skipping a beat. Within the governor's mansion you'll hear a harpsichord. In the tavern you'll hear a sea chantey band. At the shipwright, a solo instrument such as a penny whistle can be heard playing (the penny whistle used in Pirates! was played by the producer Barry Caudill and then sampled into a Kurzweil K2600).

As you skulk through towns at night the music will change accordingly.
As you skulk through towns at night the music will change accordingly.

For the speech audio found in Pirates! we needed material that would help carry the emotion of a character, but not so much as to be distracting. So, we decided to create our very own language--we call it Firaxlish! The voices are rich in character, and prove to be a great way to immortalize the voices of our wonderfully patient Firaxis staff and families. (My wife is the voice of a governor's daughter!) Occasionally, listeners claim to hear actual words in our Firaxlish, but any resemblance to speech, present or past, is strictly coincidental.

Finding new and cool ways to make Pirates! fun was our main objective. We had a blast making the music and sound effects for this game, and we think it really shows! The Firaxis audio team hopes that you enjoy playing Pirates! as much as we enjoyed making it and playing it! May you find all the treasures you seek, and become the most notorious pirate to ever sail the Caribbean!

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