In this installment of guest blogger Frank Klepacki’s series on music production Frank discusses sound design for video games with well-known music and other intellectual property elements. If you missed Frank’s previous post, you can read it here.
There are many video games that are based on existing intellectual property, or also known as “IP” for short. Typically, this requires the publisher who will be funding the game to obtain or purchase a license from whoever controls the IP. The IP could be from a movie, a book, a television series, etc. Then, the development begins either internally with the publisher or through a third-party-hired developer.
When working on the audio for such a project, it’s important to really get to know the IP in terms of what currently exists that the public will be familiar with and has an expectation for. This is especially crucial with an IP based on a movie or TV series. If it’s from a book, then some liberties can be taken as the content will be created from scratch, based on description only. The following are examples of known IPs I have worked on and the approach I’ve taken for each audio creation and implementation:
1992 – Dune 2. This game was the first real-time strategy game created by Westwood Studios based on the Frank Herbert Dune books. While there was a film adaptation in the 1980s by David Lynch, it served as an influence but not necessarily taken verbatim. For example, while the film focused on the Atreides and House Harkonnen, the game included the Ordos faction, which was referenced in the books but wasn’t seen in the film. Because we were developing this at a time when sound cards were not as sophisticated yet, everything was made using FM synthesis, from the music instrumentation to the sound effects. There was a new version of the sound blaster sound card available at the time that allowed sample playback for voices and low sample rate sound effects, which were made use of, but other than that, the only option was to support music MIDI modules such as the Roland MT-32 and Sound Canvas. Making the most of these limitations from an audio standpoint allowed us to be more creative and take more liberties with both sound and music that would best suit our game, rather than be overly specific to the film. Years later, we would revisit this game and do an updated version called Dune 2000, which we crafted to visually and audibly be closer to the look and sound inspired by the movie. But because I was updating my original score and adding to it, I was still able to keep my creative spin on it with the modern tools available to me at that time.
1997 – Blade Runner. This game, also developed by Westwood Studios, was a point-and-click adventure game set in the Blade Runner world. In this case, every effort was made to be as close as possible visually and audibly to the film. Although we were telling a different story around another character, its setting was in the same timeline. Our audio department matched and re-created sounds to key recognizable ones from the film, and took great care with our cinematic sequences and mixing to make them feel like they were in the spirit of the movie. Some of the original actors from the film were hired to reprise their roles via motion capture and voiceover, and I re-created a handful of main themes that Vangelis composed for the film. The reason we couldn’t just put the film music recordings into our game was a mechanical rights issue – we had rights to the score, but not the recordings, hence I needed to choose which were most important to re-create. It was a very time-consuming process to hand edit all the instrument sounds to match the originals, and compose note for note by ear as closely as possible. I then composed more new underscore for our game that used similar sounding instrumentation.
2006 – Star Wars: Empire at War. A real-time strategy game developed by Petroglyph for LucasArts that included space combat and a galactic conquest mode. Obviously, with as popular an IP as Star Wars is, the visual and audio associations are widely recognized and very specific to all of its created content. Attention to detail was extremely important, and the fact that I was a die-hard Star Wars fan and expert certainly gave me an advantage going in. As audio director for the project, I was responsible for anything that made sound in the game. The first step of my approach was to assess all sound effects needed from the films that our content represented and fit them to their respective objects. I would then create new sounds for things we put in the game that were not from the films, while making sure that they were in line with the approach of legendary sound designer Ben Burtt. Then I worked with their voice department to help cast the voice roles that most closely matched the familiar characters, and to assign new roles that felt like they also belonged in that universe. Finally, I composed some new music that would “blend in” with the same style as John Williams’ music. As a fan, I knew that I would want to hear the movie music where I knew it would be applicable, so my strategy here was to put my own original music only in new places that were not in the films, or in areas of general combat not tied to a familiar event. It was important that I “blend in,” not “stand out.” Since we had the rights to use the film recordings, that made things easier when it came to implementing technically how the music interacted within the game, and creating a Star Wars experience that would satisfy the die-hard fans, while having enough new content to keep things fresh.
2019 – Conan Unconquered. This strategy-survival game developed by Petroglyph for Funcom presented a different approach to this known IP. Funcom’s previous successful titles, Age of Conan and Conan Exiles, are open-world survival-style games based on exploration, crafting, and storytelling. Our game would be a very different spin in that the player’s view would be top-down and focused on building your base and army defenses against progressive waves of incoming enemies. The previous games had established a visual and audible style of their own, different from the films that were released. My approach this time would be different, in that I was given assets from the publisher to utilize based on its previous games. This was to ensure continuity of the sounds, voices, and music that relate to the rest of the video game franchise. As a huge fan of Conan Exiles, once again my knowledge of the game’s IP gave me a quick advantage in that I knew precisely how I should implement the assets into our own game, and where I could add or create new sound assets that would complement how our game was played. The main Conan voice actor was brought back to reprise his role for our game, and I paid close attention to the other character voices I’d heard in Age of Conan and cast the closest sound-alikes that were available, and also cast new roles that most closely fit their description in the books. Rather than create new music myself, it was more fitting to bring back the composer of the previous games’ music we were already using to round out our game with a special main theme and keep the sound of that consistent as well.
At the end of the day, it’s about what is best for the vision of the game. In each of these cases, there were different references and requirements. Some allowed for more creative liberties with producing content, while others required more focus on use of recognizable assets. But a variable degree of newly created content will always be needed when it comes to game development for a known IP. This is because once you’ve established all of the obvious cases, it is quickly revealed how easy it is to underestimate how much customization there is left to do under the hood. In order for a video game to be a success, there must be a fair combination of further asset creation, editing, and implementation to meet the needs of how a game can interpret and create a new interactive and, most importantly, fun experience.
Conan Unconquered is available for download on Steam here: https://store.steampowered.com/app/989690/Conan_Unconquered/
Star Wars: Empire At War is available for download on Steam here: https://store.steampowered.com/app/32470/STAR_WARS_Empire_at_War__Gold_Pack/
Frank Klepacki is an award-winning composer for video games and television, including Command & Conquer, Star Wars: Empire at War, and MMA sports programs such as Ultimate Fighting Championship and Inside MMA. He is an audio director, recording artist, touring performer, and producer. For more info, visit www.frankklepacki.com
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