Recently we sat down with Mike Franke and Enrique Varela, the audio director and lead composer at Icarus Studios to discuss their recent work on the upcoming post-apocalyptic massively multiplayer online game, Fallen Earth. The game, developed by publisher of the same name, FALLEN EARTH, LLC, presented a unique challenge for the director and composer as they work to create aurally interesting voyages without overpowering the gameplay experience.
Click here to listen to an audio sample from the soundtrack; the piece is entitled “Day’s End.” And after the jump, read our full interview with the Icarus Studios team. You’ll also find another audio sample after the interview!
OSV: Gentlemen, thank you for taking time to share your experiences with the readers of Original Sound Version.
Mike Franke: Thanks, anytime.
Enrique Varela: Thank you, glad to be here.
OSV: How did the two of you get involved working on Fallen Earth?
Mike: During 2003, I had been doing a lot of music-based audio production and was dabbling in mobile games. I was also finishing up my degree and one of my professors recommended me to the team working on Fallen Earth. When I started at the company, we only had about 15 employees, and I worked at the reception desk… we have come a long way since.
Enrique: When I was hired at Icarus in 2006 I knew Fallen Earth would be my main focus in the company. Icarus had other projects at the time, but it was clear that Fallen Earth required the lion’s share of the composition and design.
OSV: Fallen Earth is set to launch on September 9, 2009. For your part, do you feel that this game’s audio is fully integrated in such a way that people playing the game are going to take notice and say “wow, great production value!” or something to that effect?
Mike: I would definitely hope so! Every genre of game has its associated challenges when you’re dealing with audio. For MMOs, you have to walk a fine line between enriching the player experience and going overboard. I really wanted the audio to melt into the game’s setting, and become another believable part of the world. For me, the highest compliment, is when a player can leave that little check-box for sound alone.
Enrique: I think the audio in Fallen Earth is impressive. But that “wow” reaction is a double-edged sword to me, because you don’t want the music to overtake the gameplay. I hope that the audio and music enhance the experience, make it richer. That was my goal.
OSV: Mike, what does your job as “audio director” for the project entail? And, since you are also a composer, did you get to submit any songs to the piece, or was that one hundred percent the work of Enrique Varela?
Mike: As Audio Director, I supervise all of our sound design, music, and voice over. I also handle all of the in-game implementation using our own proprietary tools and talking with our programmers and designers. Basically, if you hear something, I was involved somewhere along the pipeline.
Dealing with the massive scope of Fallen Earth means that everyone on our small four-person team has to wear numerous hats. Luckily I still get my hands dirty working on music when I can find the time. I love playing guitar, and whenever I get the chance to add a few tasty licks to one of Enrique’s scores, I jump at it.
Speaking of composing, I actually wrote the original theme to Fallen Earth in a small, one bedroom apartment where I had converted the dining room into a small studio. It was years later when Enrique came on board that he was able to take that original idea, and add a little more awesome sauce to it. It is great having a composer that is so willing to bounce ideas back and forth, it makes my life much easier.
OSV: Enrique, you’re a pretty fresh face to game audio. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where did you study music, and how did you get involved in the industry?
Enrique: Sure, would love to. I was born in Caracas, Venezuela and my family moved to the US when I was five, so I’m fluent in both Spanish and English. My love for games began when I was still in Venezuela. I remember my dad bringing home the Atari 2600, and have been hooked ever since.
I began experimenting with MIDI composition in high school and wrote pieces in a broad range of styles, including thematic pieces for game characters and worlds. I studied music theory and composition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and wrote a lot of concert music. After college I got much more involved with theatre as the sound designer and composer for productions in the Raleigh-Durham area.
As it turned out, a writer/director I had worked with on theatre projects began working at Icarus in 2006. I began looking into the company and met with Mike to submit my resume and music portfolio. That portfolio included work from a lot of different projects, including a few of the game character pieces I’d written in high school.
OSV: Mike, you’re a member of the Game Audio Network Guild (GANG). This group, which has been promoted by the likes of Tommy Tallarico, exists to promote the value of game music in the industry and the market, and to help composers learn more from one another. What have you gained, or what experiences have you had, by joining GANG?
Mike: GANG is not only an amazing community full of the best in the game audio industry, but a valuable resource for anyone looking to learn about this crazy field we are in. I think it really helps promote game audio as a legitimate field of production. GANG also provides tons of resources for professionals like articles, audio seminars, and their forums.
Personally, I love listening to audio seminars; if you don’t come away learning something new, then you’re not listening. I am a big proponent of furthering your education within your field. Whether it be books, articles, or talking to someone, I feel that we should constantly be learning and growing. From a competitive angle, there will always be someone younger and smarter than you working their way through the ranks… be prepared!
OSV: With Fallen Earth being an “apocalyptic” MMO, people will expect a pretty dark and dreary world. Sometimes it’s hard to weave together something creative, aurally, when you’re limited to the scenery. Can you tell us, what can we expect in terms of diversity in the game’s music? Will it always be dark and eerie, or are there some other moods worked into the music?
Enrique: I actually didn’t find it limiting at all, the game’s setting is of course dark and dreary but there are rays of light every now and then as well. Seeing a serene sunset over desert canyons with remnants of civilization can be quite beautiful.
My intentions were to have a range of moods, playing with dichotomies. You have negative or dark moods such as fear, sadness, suspense, danger, and then you have positive or light moods like triumph, tranquility, security. It would be pretty boring if all the music was just scary and sad, even though dark aspects are a big part of the setting. The range of styles in the game’s score is able to encompass many moods and feelings in such a massive world.
Mike: I also think that having our in-game factions allowed us to branch out a bit more in terms of musical styles. We range from the more eastern sounds and timbres of the “Lightbearers” to the grungy and more synth-heavy “Tech” faction and everywhere in between. With all of these diverse musical styles present in one project, we really needed something to hold it all together. This is where Enrique’s ambient music does a fantastic job. It acts as the glue, presenting some commonalty between many of our pieces.
There is also this musical narrative that takes place as the player advances through the game. Throughout the game the player meets new factions, encounters new areas and explores new instances. This really made us pay attention to spreading out our music and giving the player something new to listen to as they play through the wasteland.
OSV: During E3, we were informed that the game has a lot of audio built from scratch: thousands of sound effects and voiceovers. What would you say to someone who expresses worry that the game’s audio will be a matter of quantity over quality? What can we expect to hear, and how will it affect the player’s emotions while playing the game?
Mike: I believe that game audio is now entering (if not already) the same production values as film and television. As an audio director, I want to give the player a brand new auditory experience. This means recording a lot more fresh, new sounds that people have not heard before.
In film, you can hear something once and never play that same exact sound again… games are a different beast, the player has control over when and how often sounds play. This is where we have to get clever in sounds that repeat or sounds that constantly play, finding ways to make them appear new. I think we were able to achieve this for Fallen Earth.
At the end of the day, I hope the player comes away feeling that our world is alive and is drawn into it as soon as they walk out of the Lifenet Pod.
Enrique: It’s true, we have done a large amount of field recording and Foley sessions. The very nature of the game calls for a massive quantity of sounds. Mike’s approach to this game is to aim for both complexity and quality.
You can expect some music with Old West influences, especially in some of the tracks that contain guitars. The music for the sectors, where you will be doing most of the traveling, lends itself to more ambient, less structurally rigid music. We also have day and night cycles which are reflected in the music—it’s much creepier to be traveling alone in the desert at night than it is during the day.
Each faction has unique music that reflects their philosophy—which really starts to become apparent once one progresses further in the game. For example, the CHOTA music is very tribal with rattling metals, big drums, and some orchestration that is very harsh. The Lightbearers, on the other hand, have Asian influences. For their music I used Japanese bamboo flutes called shakuhachi and Japanese stringed instruments called koto, so their mood is much more ethereal and contained.
OSV: Do the two of you hope to work together again in the future, or was it mere circumstance that led the two of you to work on this project together?
Mike: When you find a composer as talented and versatile as Enrique, you don’t want to let go! I am looking forward to working together more on Fallen Earth as well as other projects. Currently, we are also wrapping up on Showtime’s Dexter for the iPhone, where Enrique composed some gorgeous pieces to complement the show’s already haunting score.
Enrique: It’s funny that you mention that, we’re already working together on a few projects. Most recently we have been working on the Dexter title for the iPhone. I definitely want to work with Mike again. He’s an outstanding Audio Director and we have a great time in the studio.
OSV: Finally, we would like to know: is your work on Fallen Earth done? We suspect it’s not, as MMOs are ripe for expansion and refining, particularly within the game’s first year. Do the two of you intend to work on the project for the next few months, or years? What does the time frame look like there?
Mike: I am sure there will be some more work with Fallen Earth. With a game this large, we will definitely have new ideas, new sounds, or new concepts to try out (already a few in the works). Hopefully things go well and we have players experiencing the apocalypse for awhile.
Enrique: The work is never done. You really can’t have too much music in an MMO where players will be traveling the same areas for hours on end. Considering that most game music tracks are, on average, anywhere from two to four minutes, that’s a lot of tracks! Currently we have over four hours of music in the game ready for launch, with more waiting, and that number will definitely rise over time.
OSV: Thanks again, guys. We wish both of you much success in your careers in commercial music, be it for games or anything else.
Mike: Thanks, hope to do it again soon!
Enrique: Thanks very much.
Feel free to leave your comments, and also be sure to click this link to hear another audio sample, “Escape From Hoover Dam.”Tags: Enrique Varela, Fallen Earth, Icarus Studios, Interviews, Mike Franke, MMOG