The first three parts of the Galaxy on Fire 2 Developer Diaries have already given us a close look at the upcoming travels of the mercenary Keith T. Maxwell. Along with lead developer Hans-Christian Kühl, who gave us some insights into programming and the course of production in parts 1 and 2, part 3 gave us Fishlabs’ Art Director Marc Nagel, who explained the graphics concept of the Galaxy on Fire series.
In this chapter, we turn to a topic whose importance for mood and overall impression is still underestimated by many game producers outside of AAA console titles: sound design and music. Our interview partners are Gero Goerlich, Sound Director at Fishlabs, and Jan Werkmeister, Managing Director of Periscope Studio in Hamburg, Germany, who was hired to compose the music for GoF 2.[full]
GERO: [laughs] Sound? We’re talking about sound?
KAI: Exactly. The sound design and music in Galaxy on Fire 2 are a major step for Fishlabs. Among other things, sound is planned for the dialogues in parts of the game. Up to now in our titles, they were only displayed as text.
GERO: Yes, we’re actually doing that now!
JAN: I hear you’re working on that with Jeremiah [T-Recs Studios], right?
GERO: Yes, exactly. We had already done the voice recordings for the co-pilot in Rally Master Pro with Jeremiah. Even though that was a comparatively smaller job with just one speaker, the boys really gave it their all. But for the dialogues in GoF 2, we need six speakers, who will, in part, also have to voice a variety of characters. In total, we have over 400 dialogues that have to be spoken.
KAI: Let’s get back to basics. What percentage of a good game comes from the sound design and music?
GERO: About 33.33 %.
KAI: What are the other factors?
GERO: 33.33 % gameplay and 33.33% for the other sense people use for perception, that is the graphics in the game. We don’t have touch, smell and taste yet.
KAI: What are the challenges in sound design and music in a space shooter like Galaxy on Fire 2?
GERO: You have a certain visual mood that is specified and that needs to be appropriately implemented and supported by the sound. Whether it’s music or sound, you have to find a way to bring over and intensify the tension and mood that are supposed to be generated.
JAN: We did the music. In sound design, you can rely heavily on the events or actions. For example, if there is an explosion, then naturally there is the sound of an explosion. I can also work with atmosphere, create certain background moods. What I can do with music, though, goes a step further. There, it’s what is found between the lines. The best example is the Midorians, about whom you [Gero] said, ‘They aren’t so high-class, not so well equipped,’ there is ‘not much value.’ Then we try to bring that out with the music. What might be revealed to players in-game only after several hours of gameplay can expressed immediately with the right music.
KAI: Does the sound design lead, as is usually the case, and the music is laid down later? How exactly does that work?
GERO: The one does affect the other, but you start out differently. ‘What is that, then?’ and, ‘What do you need for that?’ Initially, I selected a variety of music samples and styles to provide everyone in the company who was involved with a first impression of the direction we were aiming for. That means simulating a sound world through music and sounds at first. On the one hand, you have the ‘one-shot’ sounds, that have to be complete in and of themselves. For example, you can’t incorporate the sound of a western revolver in a Galaxy on Fire 2. The sounds have to sound more technical, futuristic. After requirements like that and the direction we wanted to go were clear, Periscope came into play, perfecting them in the form of music, and they implemented it terrifically.
KAI: How important is the position of an in-house sound designer in the production of a game?
JAN: As a result, things are all of a piece. You [Gero] didn’t think up a sound design and then some music is added, rather you thought very carefully how it should be, and we communicated very closely on a level that is not always immediately possible with developers. On that foundation, I could immediately assimilate statements like ‘That needs to sound a bit more like this,’ and do something with it and implement them appropriately. The result is very consistent. I was quite surprised, because I hadn’t heard the sound design before the beta. When you [Gero] played that for me, I immediately thought, ‘Wow! Great! That works!’
GERO: The advantage of in-house sound design is that I know how the people think. On the one hand, there’s what you want to present to the outside, to the players, but on the other hand, there is what goes inward, what sort of feelings the members of the team have about the game. The best part is that, in the end, you have a complete work in which the music fits with the sounds in the game.
JAN: Actually, this procedure is necessary for any high-quality game production. We often take on this task, but if there is someone at the developer who knows what they’re doing and can communicate in both directions, that is, of course, much better.
GERO: In any case, there is a good feeling about the game. The music reflects the atmosphere in the game well and doesn’t get on your nerves, even after playing for a long time. One good example is the layer music that is used in combats. We thought about how to bring in a certain amount of drama through three-level tension or intensity degrees in the various layers of the combat music. Even if you can’t see the enemy yet, you know immediately how hot things are about to get.
JAN: In this approach, by the way, GoF 2 is no different in sound design and music than an AAA console title, which is certainly an exception right now in the field of mobile games.
KAI: What sounds are especially important for GoF 2?
GERO: Over the course of your life, you learn to recognise sounds and identify them. For example, you see a door closing and hear ‘Bam!’, the door closes. Eventually, you learn that the door closes without actually having seen it happen, because you have learned the sound and the event associated with it. The same principle applies in GoF 2. Of course, there is no sound in the vacuum of space, but sci-fi movies have long created a certain sound world which audiences have learned over the years. If they were to hear something now that sounds completely different, it just wouldn’t fit. As a result, you have certain standards, such as the typical ‘pew-pew’ of laser weapons.
You have to try to create something brand new out of that. For example, the integration of organic sounds. I layered a weapon with the squealing of pigs, very nice!
KAI: Squealing pigs!?!
JAN: Naturally, that addresses emotions on a different level that can only be triggered with certain sounds.
GERO: The possibilities are very diverse. Of course, you can also use a synthesizer and make the typical ‘pew-pew’ again, and change it a bit, but then it just sounds like synthesizer.
Or you start ‘tinkering’ and the result is significantly more complex, as with our blaster that has been enriched with squealing pigs.
JAN: Without tinkering, it’s one-dimensional. I think you have to take this multi-dimensional approach with sound, in which every trace stands for something. You just can’t do without that anymore in modern sound design.
KAI: What is the source of most of the sounds in GoF 2?
GERO: There are no sounds in GoF 2 that can be purchased from a library. Every single sound in the game was compiled new from a wide variety of sounds. For example, with all the weapon sounds, I first thought about what the weapon looks like and how it functions, like a thermoblaster, in order to create a sort of acoustic blueprint.
JAN: I know this from our sound designer. This physical approach, thinking about what the weapon actually does. First, the energy is created, then collected, and finally, discharged, compressed through a narrow tube. Using such considerations, you gradually approach a final sound.
GERO: Another important thing here is the term ‘sound world’. In GoF 2, there are many types of weapons with a wide variety of design levels. Every weapon has to sound different, but its type still has to be recognisable. Thermoblasters, for example, have a sound world. That means, each one sounds different, but they have certain acoustic characteristics than can always be recognisedto be a thermoblaster. This is also true, for example, with cannon shots that sound more mechanical and less electric. They also have their own sound world in the GoF 2 universe.
KAI: What can you tell us about the music?
JAN: The approach is similar, of course. With music, things are more emotional, and you work more from your gut. That means, we try to pick up a mood from an emotion or a rough description like, ‘The Midorians are less significant’ or ‘They have antiquated technology’ and reflect that appropriately through music. Sure, we also work with synthesizers, but one alone is practically worthless here. You have to overlay them and combine these different elements to create new music worlds.
KAI: Are there different approaches for the different factions in the GoF 2 universe?
JAN: For the Midorians, for example, we had a basic pool of sounds: Midorians have to sound like this. The space music is then built from that and the variations from that, in turn. What I find particularly important in working with music is the harmonic approach. You can express an incredible amount with an interval of two tones. You can hear that well, for example, in Terran space. Everything is open, because there is nothing to indicate any sort of specific harmony.
The Terran station is the same way. There, you hear this open, airy, harmonic, not at all graspable motif.
In contrast to this, we have the Midorians. Very definitely a minor approach. ‘Hooooohhh,’ a little strange, ‘hooooooohhhhh’. With dull sounds, in principle low-fi and a bit fusty. That way, I also express at the same time that it is less sophisticated. That comes through very quickly.
Let’s listen to Nivelian space. The approach here is very similar to the Terrans. They are on a somewhat higher technical level. The motif is again very open and has even more high sound elements in it.
KAI: …That has an ethereal elegance…
GERO: [laughs] Ethereal elegance! I have to write that down…
JAN: …In principle, that is precisely the point that provides sophistication.
Then there are the bionic creatures, the Vossk.
GERO: A bit sick, not so completely clear…
JAN: Semi-mechanical, biomechanical, wrenching sounds. That comes through much more clearly in the station. Distorted sounds, metals are the motif. The harmonics are freakier. That means that you work in the background with intervals and sounds that seem strange and odd from the outset.
KAI: A bit discordant…
JAN: Yes. As Gero said, people learn over their lives how certain things sound. You can build on that. In harmonics, there is a lot of talk about how to work with intervals. In the open space of GoF 2, we work with fifths and major ascending intervals. I want to take sevenths to new heights. The Star Wars music, for example, is created with major sevenths that occur very often. If you want to work with small, cramped spaces, it sounds like this:
Small intervals, all the sounds are close together. I can express the size of the space relatively quickly with the frequency spectrum.
KAI: You already mentioned the layer-based battle music. Are there different motifs for the individual factions?
JAN: As far as the battle music goes, we essentially have two different approaches in GoF 2: On the one hand, the ‘normal’ approach, which is based more on the orchestral approaches from Hollywood, enriched with synthesizers, so a very cinematic approach.
On the other hand, we have the ‘Void’ approach, which is really much more brutal. It has something from the classic sci-fi approaches, like Bladerunner, but is much more modern.
GERO: Right, combat is combat. Except for the Void, there is no difference. When you fight against enemies from the normal galaxies, you hear the normal battle music. Depending on the number of opponents, the music is more or less intense. But when you fight against the Void, you immediately get this aggressive music and immediately think, ‘Oh, sh…. !’, and you immediately get a corresponding feeling. There are no stations you can enter here and also no breathers.
JAN: Exactly, no deals, no Mr. Nice Guy. Just imagine, you’re flying along comfortably here.
Then you make a little jump, and suddenly you’re here:
And it’s pretty clear what’s going on. I always think of that scene in ‘Blade’ with the blood shower. I think you notice immediately where you’ve landed when you hear that sound. And you don’t have to be a music professor, it works with everybody automatically.
GERO: That point is really especially important. Music and sound in themselves are a matter of feeling, and less obviously than with graphics. That means an observer, the player for example, sees something and says, ‘Oh, that’s looks beautiful!’, but it rare that someone says, ‘Oh, that sounds wonderful!’ All you notice is, ‘The overall experience is somehow harmonious!’ If the sound doesn’t fit the image, it jumps right out at you that something is wrong, even if you don’t know exactly why.
KAI: That means that sound design and music have a significantly greater influence on the effects of images than we generally think?
JAN: I have a terrific example. Back in film school, we had a seminar on film music, and I think the first thing the professor showed us was images of water, people swimming, the sun in the sky, everything wonderful from below, scored with wonderfully harmonic, pleasant music. Everything was great. Then he switched on the original music, and it was ‘Jaws’. At first, you thought, ‘Oh, the Blue Lagoon!’ and suddenly your impression of the images flipped 180 degrees.
GERO: That is the point. The same sequence, nothing in the image changes, and yet everything is different – that is sound. But because you can’t smell it, see it, or touch it, the whole thing operates on a completely unconscious level.
JAN: Which, of course, doesn’t make the position of sound in a production any easier. Many developers have no real connection to the subject, and so sound is often the last thing that is taken care of. GoF 2 takes a completely different approach, with one expert in-house and one expert outside, fully aware that it advances the production. Ultimately, players will probably say, ‘Cool!’ without even knowing why.
KAI: How would you characterise the sound and music world of GoF 2?
GERO: It’s hard to describe. We have our own world that arises from all the elements like graphics and story. On the one hand, there’s outer space, with planets, suns, nifty nebulas, and myriads of stars, as we know it. It looks good. Especially on these small devices, that is really fantastic. But then there is that openness which is characteristic for GoF 2. The sound supports this open, highly variable world. You can’t say that it is like Star Wars or Star Trek. That has nothing to do with it. It is triggered by its own idea. We thought a lot about and hotly debated how we could develop our own GoF 2 sound… I think we succeeded very well. At the same time, it is also difficult to describe, because the sound can’t easily be compared to existing titles.
JAN: I think it is the result of a process. From the first examples you [Gero] prepared, there was a rough direction, but we made our way into another world of sound, especially in terms of complexity. We went so far with the Midorians that we had to back-pedal somewhat, because some things went far beyond what you’re used to hearing.
GERO: You have everything from the digitally hardcore Void battle sound to very organic and harmonic sounds of the Nivelian world.
JAN: Despite the bandwidth, people would notice if something didn’t fit. So it is a bandwidth that belongs together.
GERO: It has its own signature.