John Broomhall talks to EA DICE senior audio director Ben Minto about creating a best in class interactive video game music score for an iconic franchise...
Extending the Star Wars music canon is both a tremendous privilege and a weighty responsibility – one that’s taken extremely seriously by Electronic Arts’ star development studio DICE who lead a globally distributed team in bringing the world cutting edge videogames of the highest quality and reputation.
Famed for their superbly crafted multi-award winning ‘Battlefield’ series, it came as no surprise they should be entrusted with the hallowed Star Wars universe and have respected audio director and all-round audiophile Ben Minto reprise his role for their second interactive foray into the beloved franchise.
He, in turn, has brought Gordy Haab back for an encore, the composer DICE originally hired for Battlefront ‘1’.
“I wanted a playful John Williams-esque score that felt like the original film trilogy. We ended up with an excellent shortlist of around 15 showreels. Gordy’s work stood apart from the rest as the obvious choice. It already felt part of the universe, perfectly complementing the parts of John Williams’ original score we were using,” explains Minto.
“I made sure we used a large brush stroke approach when briefing Gordy to allow us as many implementation options as possible as the game was developed through multiple iterations. For instance, linear cutscenes become more defined over a period - how long is the scene, where are the cuts, what comes before and after this scene - and so on. For each of the interactive sections where music replay must respond at run-time to player actions, game events and conditions (whose outcomes and timings are unpredictable) you want a group classification and a common implementation – e.g. ‘play once’ cues – ‘you did it’; ‘you failed’; ‘here is Darth Vader’; ‘there he goes again’. I discuss music requirements with each stakeholder and communicated what’s needed to Gordy - how music will work and therefore how it should be constructed…
“Once a brief is set and understood, writing and delivering orchestral ‘mock-ups’ using sample libraries ensues allowing everyone involved in approvals to hear how the final recordings will likely sound. I champion and guard the overall music feel and give primary feedback. If I’m happy, the cues go to Lucasfilm. Once all feedback has been worked through, we’re clear to record and use the resultant cues.”
Each recorded cue is matched with its ‘in-game asset’ name. One-shot assets are topped and tailed then imported into the game engine software in the correct location determined by name and folder. Meanwhile, most longer cues have an intro and sustaining loop section set up before import. A desired playback loudness is defined for each group of cues. For fairly consistent, less dynamic action pieces, this might be a global amplitude reduction either baked into the asset or set within the game engine. For more dynamic pieces the team find manually drawing and baking in a slowly varying envelope into the asset provides the most pleasing and consistent results.
When it comes to interactive music implementation, playback parameters and methodology will mostly have been set up ahead of time and prototyped using test music. Minto: “Let’s say you start a piece of music that helps define the planet you’re on as you start a level. There are so many questions to consider. When should it stop? Should it loop? Should we be able to stop it before it's natural end? The loading music should loop whilst we are still on the loading and spawn screens; once we enter the game the music should fade by 6dB over the first 20 seconds and then (if no other music gets a call to play) either play to its natural end (end of loop into release), or if someone within five metres of the player fires (or the player themselves fires) or someone shoots at the player (enemy projectile passes within 1 metre of ‘the listener’ position) then we should fade it out quickly over 1.5 secs.
This fade is nicely covered by the blaster fire. What happens if we want to play a new piece of music (Darth Vader has arrived) before this one ends? How do we crossfade? Do we go back to the other piece once that stinger’s finished? Do we want to? We need to quickly crossfade into the Darth Vader stinger as that has more narrative importance. Once the stinger has played there is no need to go back to the original piece. How do we mix the music against blaster fire? When should music dominate? When should it sit back in the mix?
In this example of level intro music, this music cue has less of a narrative purpose once the level has loaded, and when a firefight begins that is the most important source of information for our players. There is no conflict at this point - the firefight dominates so we remove music from the scene. Should this balance be fixed or dynamic depending on context or narrative? Should we EQ the music when we are trying to push pertinent dialogue through or use a side chain process to duck the music around the VO?”
To check all this, the team conduct daily play-testing to ensure that end users who know nothing of the mind-boggling complexity of implementation just under the hood are immersed and engaged in a seamless entertainment experience whose music score feels both authentic and created especially for their journey, helping place them at the centre of the Star Wars universe and never breaking the spell.