The need for risk taking strategies, within the software industry : LUSENET : Professional Music Design : One Thread

The Risk Factor

With the arrival of the next wave of game technology, X-Box, PS2…it appears we have taken another, tentative step towards giving game music and sound design the merit they deserve.

In the words of Seamus Blackley, director of the X-Box advanced technology team, when asked to comment on the X-Box’ staggeringly high audio specifications, "Sound and music are always done last, and always have to make do with whatever system resources are left over from graphics and game mechanics. Thus game music and sound effects usually suck…"

Surely, now is the time for musical specialists. It may be interesting to reflect that the software industry is, relatively speaking, still very much in its early stages of development (the structure of many development groups consisting primarily of your 'meat-and-two-veg' team of designer/director, programmers & visual artists) but, with an increasing number of awards going to original orchestral works (e.g. the excellent work of Red Storm Entertainment) performed by full symphonic forces, it is only a matter of time before the industry not only has the potential, but also the capacity to overwhelm the film industry. We need only look at the recent merger between A.O.L. and Time Warner, to appreciate how the future will look. No aspect of a games’ design can be considered secondary any more…nor can it be regarded as such, given the growing tide of competition within the ‘software-&-media’ industry.

Indeed, the current momentum, together with the increasing degree of technologically based filming techniques (not to mention the more futuristic applications such as micro-chip implants, nanotechnology…the fact that in as little as five years time, the overwhelming proportion of internet users will be home appliances…or Barbie dolls which, even if only considered briefly, all become logically inevitable) serve to indicate a rapid upsurge which will quickly overshadow the film industry alone.

In considering, not only the ramifications of this, but also the processes which have given rise to such a fruitful climate, one characteristic consistently rises to the fore: the necessity - and infinite potential - of risk-taking, whether for absolute financial profit, or the innate instinct for survival. That guiding factor which has largely defined the success of the videogame and software industry to date or, more significantly, those particular companies which are still in existence: the ability - indeed necessity - to take calculated risks, in order to stay ahead of ones’ competitors.

As a positive example, let us consider Nvidia, and their mantra of always being thirty days from bankruptcy…yet they have one of the highest relative profit margins within the industry. This, while certainly a positive assertion of the visual role within the gaming industry, also serves to highlight the need for more consideration of the nature, and our understanding, of audio. Certainly within the U.K., there are simply too few companies willing to adopt the necessary risk-taking strategies required to maintain the momentum.

We now have Dolby systems…’toys for the bigger noise’! We need to allow the composers and musicians alike to take advantage of the potential quality these systems offer us - a luxury currently bestowed upon the graphics artists alone - rather than continuing to allow poor quality, unoriginal music to remain as the weakest, and most disrespected, link.

Indeed, Dolby Laboratories has just announced the launch of its Dolby Interactive Content Encoder (D.I.C.E.); a technology that dynamically encodes multi-channel audio into Dolby Digital 5.1, enabling low-latency encoding for games, set-top boxes, and home networking systems for playback through any home system, equipped with Dolby Digital. No longer the need for massively expensive Dolby recording studios, important questions arise: should this act as a catalyst for game designers to develop cinematic quality scores alongside professional composers, still within a relatively tight budget, or do we simply use it as an excuse for leaving all the sound material till the end of the project, with the comfortable knowledge that it will sound ‘big’ whatever? There needs to be a balance between the mass production of hugely lavish and marketable titles and the development of innovative and unique titles, totally devoid of any real finished quality.

Additionally interesting is the question of who will be among the first companies to feature this D.I.C.E.? None other than Microsoft (X-box) and Nvidia (in their media communications Processor – MCP). Two companies, very polar in many ways but with very similar outlooks, as regards their original risk taking strategies. Both, hugely successful.

We all accept that videogame technology is developing at a tremendous rate, but it’s content is similarly maturing in parallel with its designers. It is no mere coincidence that the industry is experiencing an increasing need for certification, in its dealings with the more unpleasant characteristics of society.

Born out of an immense desire to interact with high quality, innovative games of their own creation, the industry’s original game designers – certainly those most immersed in their work - are still designing; still with the same passion for enjoyment and originality. It’s just that they’re a little older and more experienced, with higher expectations of game-play, atmosphere, reality etc. Comparatively, those designers who perhaps followed different career paths continue, most likely, to maintain a deep interest of the latest titles and developments within the software industry. These people, together with an ever increasing proportion of the country, who also grew up amidst the initial games surge, are all looking for that something a little different to excite their attention. This not only calls for the aforementioned developments in video technology, already very much in place, but also similar developments in audio production/design and, perhaps more importantly, the permanent employment of creative individuals – akin to those working in graphics, character, lighting, motion design etc. - to take advantage of such developments, implementing them extensively throughout the broad range of styles, periods, locations, potential age groups etc.

We all want games we can associate with, and as the age range of designers steadily protracts out, from the momentary landmarks in which such titles as Space Raiders, or Manic Miner were first conceived, we must be careful to remember that these were landmarks for us; not for many of the present ‘generation’ – a word which, within the software industry, begins to assume new meaning: the difference between one generation and the next perhaps being as little as ten years or so. This, perennially new market will continue to be welcomed, as it should be; to a great extent by its own young, next generation designers. But we must also be responsive of the higher expectations of the ‘thirty’, and subsequent ‘forty-somethings’. This ever expanding market within the software industry, as within the film industry, calls for the continuing maturity of games, in terms of their artistic content, social / ideological issues. A trend which can only become increasingly apparent over the forthcoming years, during which time we will not only see more blood and violence, but also more ‘real’ emotional content. This emotion, as in film, must be addressed within the music also.

It is still possible to think of profits – throughout all age groups, while continuing to initiate development and change, particularly within an industry in which the future repeatedly rushes straight at you in leaps and bounds.

The soundtrack, of practically every single one of the highest grossing films, throughout the last decade of the twentieth century (the nineties, as they were formerly known as!), was performed, and recorded, by a full orchestra. The vast majority of exceptions: those written with the use of MIDI synthesizers/sequencing techniques, were almost certainly arranged by professional composers.

Within the film industry, Hollywood retains the monopoly today because it monopolised right from the very start. The games industry has no comparable structure; indeed, that is perhaps one of the reasons for its success but, with the game-plan still firmly in the hands of the major film companies, the video-game industry desperately needs to look ahead to the bigger picture, or it will quickly lose valuable traces of that independence which it has so thrived off over recent years.

Many would say that it is the software industry which enjoys the current momentum: it is the film industry which is steadily integrating with the gaming industry...not the other way around! Yet, they remain the major players. All the revenue, currently received in association with film sales, soundtracks, merchandising etc. are all similarly open to abuse within the games industry…yet, it is the major film production companies which remain the major players. The time has come to ask ourselves where the industry will be in ten years time, before then considering where we would like it to be.

With the end of the silent movie, producers and production companies alike laughed at the absurdity of such notions as an ‘acting narrative’ or ‘effectual background music’. Let us at least learn something from this last media explosion, only a few decades ago, and avert an attack of the ‘B-movie’ syndrome once again. An enduring cult status it may be but it is, as such, defined by its very uniqueness. Any repercussions would simply represent an inexcusable failure to address the very benefits inherent in the use of modern technology and, as the musical talent is crying out for the opportunity to show what they can do, it would surely be unforgivable.

-- Fraser (, June 03, 2001

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