Monday, June 10, 2013

The Road Ahead - "Regime" and Other Projects

A friend of mine recently contacted me about a (very part-time) game project that he's heading up titled, until future notice, "Regime." Set in a dystopian future civilization, Regime centers around the plight of citizens rebelling against the ever-tightening grip of the ruling government. The unusual thing about this particular project is that the game itself is actually broken up into several sub-games, namely a farming simulation a la Harvest Moon, a story-driven investigatory adventure, and a tactical turn-based squad combat game, among others. 

At the very least, I'll be providing a soundtrack for the project and will likely contribute on a few other fronts as well, likely level design or programming. Unfortunately, as everyone involved is employed full-time, the project won't see the light of day for the next couple years. However, prototyping is currently underway and I have a few music concepts already:

Regime's multiple game types are both a blessing and a curse from a composition perspective - I can take liberties in exploring a variety of musical styles, but I still need a way to tie it all together. Eventually I'll have to settle on a distinct voice for the game but, in this early pre-production stage, I'm not too worried about that. It's nice to, for once, have time to write different variations on themes and experiment with styles and instrumentation.

I recently discovered some intriguing generative music projects over at a website called Earslap. While generative techniques are definitely not something I'd use for the purpose of creating music in the traditional sense of the word, they can be used to enhance already interesting audio/visual experiences. Rez is an excellent example of this and, to a lesser extent, the more recent Bit.Trip games (it's arguably most effective in Beat).

For some time now I've wanted to create some sort of AI sandbox in order to test things like steering, flocking, and see what sort of interesting emergent behavior I can create with only a few different agents. It recently occurred to me that I could make such a thing more engaging by adding in musical noises - perhaps different lifeforms could emit different pitches in a scale, parents would be able to recognize their offspring by the sound they make, provided they're within earshot.

I imagine I'd be able to start such a project once I've achieved some measure of economic stability, as its currently agonizingly difficult to find the motivation (not to mention I'll likely be tapped to help prototype Regime in the near future). Finding the right engine/dev environment for this will be first on the list, as I'm less interested in writing an engine than creating interesting behaviors but would still like a moderate amount of control over visual effects and such things.

Speaking of jobs, I've recently been contracted to help with some K-12 curriculum development at DigiPen, specifically recording lectures for a Java AP class. However, it's recently become apparent that the hours aren't initially going to be consistent enough to make it sustainable, so unfortunately I'll have to look for other work in the meantime. Back to the job boards for me!

Last but not least, this past weekend I had the pleasure of premiering my choral setting of Robert Burns' famous poem "My Luve's Like a Red, Red Rose" with the choir in which I currently sing, the Cascadian Chorale. The experience has inspired me to try to write choral music more often and, I'm happy to say, the recording turned out quite well, all things considered. You can listen to it here.

That's all for now! I'll post more updates on the job hunt and the progress of these various projects once things progress.


Sunday, April 21, 2013

Post Mortem: The Daybreak OST / Writing Music for Games at DigiPen

For the past couple months I've been writing music for Daybreak, a co-op survival game from a team of Master's students at DigiPen. The finished product (the soundtrack, not the game) is currently available here. I highly encourage you to take a moment and listen. This is the largest amount of original music I've written for a game yet and, while I do wish I had more time to spend on a few of the tracks, overall, I'm extremely proud of the work I did.

Crystal's Radiance and March of the Afflicted, the first two tracks I wrote for the game, turned out the best by far. They came about as the result of those all-too-rare moments when inspiration crashes over you like a wave, leaving you no choice but to succumb to its inexorable current. I'm still learning to capitalize on those moments and, more importantly, how to kick-start the creative engine when it just doesn't want to go. Creativity is a fearsome yet majestic beast, to be sure; mastering it will not be an easy task, but certainly a necessary one if I hope to succeed on larger projects.

One of the things that makes writing music for games difficult is that everything, be it code, art, or sound, is subservient to the game. The music is written for a purpose and, consequently, if it doesn't adequately serve that purpose, it's of no use. Movies and television have a similar problem, but in games there are other challenges, structure and pacing in particular, that make things even more difficult. When writing music for music's sake, particularly music without lyrics, the composer has more or less total control over these elements - he is, in effect, writing his own narrative. In cinema, these elements are out of the composer's control, but they are scripted - the composer knows what's going to happen, so he can write music to match.

Now we come to games: the composer doesn't control the narrative, nor does he know exactly what's going to happen. In the struggle to find a voice within the chaos of a real-time player-driven experience, it's extremely easy to fall into the trap of (a) writing music for music's sake or (b) writing music that is dispassionate and impersonal, often without realizing it. I won't comment on whether I successfully avoided these pitfalls for this particular project, as it's probably too soon to make that call, but I will say that it was substantially easier to write for this game than for a few others I've worked on. Part of that was due to the nature of the game; having multiple environments and/or gameplay types (with the day and night phases, this game provided both), was immensely helpful in that it provided a less confined creative space in which to work.

This isn't the norm at DigiPen, however, as most student games are, stylistically, relatively one-sided affairs due to time and resource constraints. While the restrictions imposed by those sorts of games can be helpful when trying to hone in on what music is going to work, they also make it far easier to end up in a situation where you've written a track that's essentially unusable for one reason or another, especially if the game ends up changing directions radically. And believe me, that can and will happen; student games are especially prone to sudden metamorphoses and, as stated above, everything is subservient to the game.

From what I understand, the developers of Daybreak intend to continue with the game next year, as most of the team are still in their first year of the Master's program at DigiPen. However, since I'll soon be receiving my diploma from that same university, I likely won't be able to write any more music for the team. That being the case, I think it's worth touching on my interactions with them.

Looking back, I can say without reservation that this has been one of the best experiences I've had writing music for a project, particularly for one that I'm not otherwise directly involved in (i.e. coding, design, etc.). A good portion of that is thanks to the team. They treated me like a regular member (or at least as much as is possible when I'm not on site very much) and were explicit as to what they expected of me; they specified the number of tracks, about how long each should be, and so on.

More importantly, they had a clear idea of what they wanted, stylistically, and told me when things didn't fit. While getting my work out there is certainly a priority, it also needs to mesh with the aesthetic and personality of the game, so it's fantastic when a team has a clear picture of what their game is and is not on all fronts - mechanically, visually and aurally as well. Unfortunately, in my experiences thus far, this is the exception to the rule as opposed to the norm.

Based on what I've observed during my years at DigiPen, at least in the Master's program, music and sound effects are generally treated as an afterthought, tacked on at the last minute; I got requests for music from some teams a mere few weeks before their deadlines. Needless to say, I wasn't able to write new music for these teams. I did manage to provide them with some pre-written tracks that I deemed a good fit, or at least as good a fit as one could hope for that late in the development cycle, but this sort of situation is less than ideal for both parties.

Having been part of the development process in a variety of capacities, I can understand why this happens, but that doesn't excuse it in the least, especially considering how much of an impact sound can have on the player experience when done right. There's a lot of emphasis put on how important it is to "get artists" (which sounds really silly; they're people, not art-making machines, and their fit for your team as a person is as important as their talent) and to bring them on early. This is all well and good - art is very important - but there's often little to no mention of sound effects or music.

When I began working with the Daybreak team, I suggested they put together playlists of existing music they felt would be a good fit for their game. Not only does this help the composer get a better sense of direction for the initial music concepts, it also gets the team thinking more about how sound and music will fit into their game. I was brought onto the team a few months into the project, but ideally this process should be started at least by the time the Game Design Document gets put together.

Bottom line: Sound and music need to be considered more thoroughly, earlier on in the process. I imagine that as the new music and sound design programs start gaining momentum, the shift in focus that's required for this to happen will occur naturally. Still, it'll require effort from both sides, and it's definitely worth talking about now.

Questions or comments? Post below or drop me a line!


Saturday, October 6, 2012

Merging BandCamp page with website

Just so you know, my BandCamp page is now part of this domain. You can access it by going to

I'll post another update later once I get my act together and let you know what I'm currently working on.


Monday, March 5, 2012

Status Update

It's been about an eon since I posted something here, so I figured it was high time I gave you an update on all of the projects I'm working on. I'm practically in last semester at DigiPen (just one more class to take after this) and, as usual, I'm trying to do too many things in too short a span of time.

The one DigiPen Master's team that I'm officially a part of, Unobtainium Labs, is currently working on a "bullet hell" shoot-em-up. For those of you who are unfamiliar with bullet hell shooters, they go a little like this:

The game takes place in a virtual world inside a computer, although we're trying to steer away from Tron-like color schemes. I filled the role of game designer for the project last semester, but have since transitioned into being a combination audio director/level designer/gameplay programmer. Being the lead designer on a team larger than about 4 people was not something that I was prepared for, as I found out, and I'm significantly happier in my current role.

Art of Defense

I'm currently in the process of writing the soundtrack for an iPhone game currently being developed by my friend Will, titled Art of Defense. Its gameplay is inspired by Tower Defense  games, and the visual aesthetics call to mind a hand-drawn cartoon. 

For those of you with an iPhone/iPad/iPod Touch, you can purchase Art of Defense here. Be sure to check it out!

Another DigiPen Master's project, Daeva is a 3D platformer with gameplay akin to Mirror's Edge and a setting similar to that of Prince of Persia. I'm currently creating sound effects and background music/ambient tracks for the game.

Crystalline is a 3D puzzle platformer somewhat similar to Portal, except that the main mechanic is a grappling hook which can be used to pull yourself towards objects or push them away from you. I'm writing the soundtrack for this project.

Voxel Dungeon
The final number in the list of projects I'm involved with is, you guessed it, a DigiPen Master's project. It's a dungeon crawler with randomly generated levels being worked on by my friend and cohort Emory Myers. I'm writing the soundtrack for this project.

Monday, April 25, 2011

It's [almost] here!

At long last, I can finally show you what our team has been working on at DigiPen this semester! See the video description for a bit more detail on the game. And yes, the game will be available for download soon!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Almost There!

We are currently rapidly approaching the next (and unfortunately, last) major milestone for our game project, PhaseOut, which is First Playable -- it's only a couple weeks away! I don't have the time to write an in-depth report on what we've done in between our first play-testing session and now, but once there's a break in the action, I'll give a run down. Most likely that will be around the time our game is "complete," so to speak. In the meantime, here's a screenshot from one of the levels:

I look forward to presenting PhaseOut to you in the near future!


Thursday, February 24, 2011

Playtesting: Round 1... Fight!

With about two weeks until our engine proof milestone (more like one, considering GDC is next week), we decided it was about time to begin playtesting our game, now titled PhaseOut. DigiPen has a student-run playtesting club which meets every Wednesday. Teams sign up to get their games playtested and then set up in the production lab, a huge area on the second floor, so that anyone at DigiPen can come and test them.  For the most part, the feedback we got from testers was what we expected. Namely, there's still a fair amount of tweaking to be done with the controls and player movement and we need to get some legitimate levels up and running to replace our current sandbox environment, which doesn't really work as a tutorial. With our level editor nearing a state that's at least functional, if not feature complete, I should be able to start whipping up the first couple of those fairly soon.

While it's exciting to finally be at a stage where we can at least test something, this has also been an eye-opening experience. We only have half a semester left, if that, to get our game to playable status. While that's certainly doable given the current state of the game, it's already obvious that some things are going to get cut. Our lack of real artists is certainly limiting in some respects, and it's a continual learning process for all of us. Still, the fact that we've gotten this far already is a good sign, considering we started from scratch and that we've all made mistakes here and there along the way.

One thing's for sure: game development is not easy. As someone who's not used to undertaking large-scale development projects, it's going to take a while for me to get used to the fact that I'm probably not going to do things the right way the first time (or the second time), and that not every problem has one perfect solution. Hmm... seems a lot like real life. Who knew?

For those of you eagerly awaiting a playable build, you'll have to wait a little longer. Rest assured, though, I will publicize it heavily once we have something neat!

--Jeremy Kings
Gameplay Programmer, Creative Director
Codefire Productions