Interview with Joris de Man, Sound Designer for Guerrilla, the Developer of Killzone
Dolby: How did you get into gaming audio—what was your background originally?
Joris de Man: I started off in the Atari demoscene, writing chip music, under the moniker "Scavenger." At that time I didn't yet view music as a career and tried to get into art college. After being rejected twice, my dad, a teacher at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, suggested that I try a course in sonology, since I was always busy creating sounds and music. I did this for a year and afterwards enrolled at the HKU in Hilversum. By that time I had already done a few freelance jobs, writing music for CD-i games in Holland, and after six months of college decided that I'd rather do that than college!
A year later I was hired by the Bitmap Brothers, and I spent the next three years working in London as a sound designer and game composer. Although I loved the games industry, I got a bit homesick, and returned to the Netherlands. Thankfully enough, a new games company was being set up, which, after a shaky start, became Guerrilla. We signed exclusively to Sony and started work on Killzone™. The rest, as they say, is history.
Dolby: Before surround sound, what was the first game you did audio for?
de Man: It was a low budget CD-i game called Dimo's Quest. It didn't do very well, but it was a good start and got my foot in the door.
Dolby: What made you want to use surround sound capabilities on games?
de Man: I've always been interested in 3-D sound and psychoacoustics. Before surround became mainstream, I was already experimenting with things like QSound and Roland's RSS to try and get bigger- and wider-sounding mixes. These techniques basically tried to simulate sounds behind or above you, but then with two speakers (or headphones). It worked okay, but nothing like the true surround systems we have today.
Dolby: What was the first game that you created a surround sound mix for?
de Man: Funnily enough, Killzone. Dolby was very helpful to us and once we got the SDK (Software Developers Kit) we had it implemented in days. I couldn't believe the difference it made. They'd also sent us a surround setup so we could try it out straight away. A decision was made shortly after that we were going to support it all the way—not just in-game but also in the cutscenes and music mixes.
Dolby: What has been your favorite game in terms of the audio you've created?
de Man: Again, Killzone. It has really been a dream project come true. The game has a very strong visual design that is futuristic yet not sci-fi, very gritty and hard-edged. During the game I really wanted to immerse the player in sounds of a battlefield, with bullets whizzing past his or her head, screams in the distance, explosions, etc. Dolby® Pro Logic® II is perfect for delivering that. We encoded premixed ambiences which were mixed in Quad to Pro Logic II as background ambience, while the game sound effects themselves are real time, panned by the Dolby SDK. The combination of those two makes for a very immersive experience.
Dolby: Could you describe how audio is so important in Killzone?
de Man: The audio functions as aural cues for the player, so they know who is shooting at them from where, which would have been much more difficult without surround sound. Apart from that, I had the opportunity to work with two live orchestras for the soundtrack, which was amazing and very satisfying. With one I recorded the main titles (a few years earlier, which we used in the pitch for Sony) and the other for all the cutscene music earlier this year.
I'm very pleased with the way the game sounds. It features a lot of weapons with very detailed reloading animations and I spent a lot of time making them sound real and beefy. I also created "headwhizzes," which are little bullet trail sounds, which work beautifully in surround. Each time a bullet flies past the player close to his head you'll hear it whizzing past. This also serves as a signal to the player that the enemy is getting too close!
Dolby: Has technology improved since you made your first game in surround?
de Man: Absolutely. Killzone features Dolby Pro Logic II, but we know that Dolby Digital 5.1 is a more advanced format, so we're already looking into supporting that in our next games.
Dolby: What pieces of technology wouldn't you be without when creating game audio?
de Man: Pro Tools®, Nuendo, and Dolby encoders! Surround is a very addictive format. Once you've mixed in it you won't want to go back.
Dolby: What sort of problems have you faced when laying down tracks and mixing for games?
de Man: The biggest issue with game sound is that it is a non-linear format. You can't predict exactly what is going to happen, so the game in effect mixes itself during play, and you have to be more careful with the individual sounds. Our biggest problem on Killzone was memory—the PlayStation® 2 just doesn't have that much of it—so the trick is to make small sounds that still work well.
Dolby: Do you think audio is taken seriously enough in the gaming community?
de Man: These days, certainly. I think people are finally realizing that the days of "bleep bleep" are long gone and that you can have near movie-like quality audio in-game. Surround only reinforces that.
Dolby: How do you envisage audio changing and developing—do you think it will go down the track of background music and soundtracks like films, or become an integral part of game play (for example, invisible enemies only identifiable by sound)? Or both?
de Man: I think both. I think we've barely scratched the surface of what is possible with, for instance, interactive music in games. The hardware is getting better and better as well, supporting all sorts of surround formats from the get-go.
Knowing what we are working on ourselves, I think what you'll find is that a lot more processes that would normally happen off-line in a mix (reverb, effects such as flanging/chorus, voice processing) will be feasible in real time on the next-gen. platforms.
Dolby: What are you working on at the moment?
de Man: Currently I'm gearing up for the next two Guerrilla projects, and awaiting the imminent release of Killzone!
Dolby: What do you think has been the biggest innovation in game audio?
de Man: The stapler.
Dolby: Where would you personally like to go from here—what sort of audio do you want to create for games?
de Man: I'm a big fan of movies and really like the production values that Hollywood productions have. That's the kind of quality I'd like to create for games, both music and soundwise—that larger-than-life sound.
Naturally, surround is a big part of that sound, and I'm looking forward to doing more in that format.
Dolby: What are your favorite three games and music albums?
de Man: Games: The Fallout series: wonderful games with great sound and atmosphere. Diablo® II: that game is so addictive it should be banned. Soul Caliber® 2: one of the best fighting games ever made.
Music: Depeche Mode's Songs of Faith and Devotion: fantastic production on that. They never sounded as good afterwards as on that album. Vangelis's Blade Runner: one of my favorite soundtracks of all time, created long before there was midi and hard disk recording. A true masterpiece…instant goosebumps. And Elliot Goldenthal's Alien 3: rarely have I heard a soundtrack that eclipses the movie so strongly. An avant garde piece of art that breaks the boundaries of what soundtracks are supposed to sound like, with stunning dissonance.
Dolby: What were you doing at 18?
de Man: Wondering why the hell I wasn't getting into art college!
Dolby: Have you ever tried crocodile burgers?
de Man: Nope, but I had a kangaroo burger once which was lovely. Does that count?
Dolby: Do you play any instruments?
de Man: I played the violin for six years, a bit of drums, and I know my way around the keyboard but am definitely not a player. I do a mean nose flute solo though and can be hired for birthdays, bar mitzvahs, and weddings.
Dolby: Err...OK. I'll keep that in mind for when I tie the knot. Any amusing stories from the audio world of Killzone?
de Man: In a search for objects to use for foleying, I came across this office stapler that had some nice mechanical sounds. People at Guerrilla often see me wandering about the building tapping or hitting things to see if they could be useful somehow soundwise.
Anyway, the stapler sounds ended up being used for the reloading of the grenade launcher. Holland has strict weapon laws, which meant I would never get close to recording a real one.
A few game magazines got hold of that story and since have reported that all the weapon sounds in the game are made with various staplers!
Dolby: Oh, so that explains the stapler from earlier! How big was the Killzone audio team?
de Man: For the first three quarters of the project it was just myself handling the music and sound effects. Towards the end things got very busy though and I enlisted the help of my colleague Nati Zeitenstadt who did additional sound design on the project. We also used an intern for helping us edit the myriad of in-game voices.
Dolby: The music in Killzone is played by a real orchestra, so you obviously put a lot of love into it. Still, in many instances of the game the music is conspicuous for its absence and the audio world is populated only by beautifully crafted soundscapes that communicate the mood of the game extremely well. What made you decide whether to use full-on music or only soundscapes in Killzone?
de Man: It was a technical decision; during the game we wanted the player to rely on aural cues of the environment, and be immersed in the battle ambiences. In order for those to be high quality we had to stream them from disc. Each level in Killzone has four different ambiences which were all mixed in Pro Logic II. However, since the game is also streaming level data at the same time this meant there was no room for music.
Instead, I decided to employ the music during the storytelling, which is the cutscenes, and the menus. In general I think it is better to not have too much music during game play anyway, as it can distract the player too much, especially if he or she needs to rely on aural cues.
At the end of the day I'd rather have people say "lovely music, wish there was more" than flip through the audio options to turn it the hell off!
Dolby: How interactive is the audio in KiIlzone?
de Man: The game features many interactive sound effects for what we call "set pieces": pillars collapsing, dropships going down, buildings exploding, etc. The ambiences are not, but since there is so much stuff going on I'd be surprised if the player would notice this anyway.
The ambiences are linked to areas on the map and cross-fade dynamically as well, which sounds great.
All in all I think we managed to get some pretty decent audio out of the PS2 hardware.
Dolby: I'll have to agree with you on that! Good luck for your next projects!