Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Marty O'Donnell in Interview - Part 5

In part five of my interview series with Marty O’Donnell, I ask about music in multiplayer game modes, to which Marty shares a few tidbits about what he’s currently experimenting with. He also talks about music for MMO’s and gets onto the topic of musical genre and appropriateness for videogames upon which he expresses his desire for game music to do more than emulate the successes of the past.

Ben: So I want to ask you about multiplayer, and the fact that there’s no music. Was that decision purely because it would get boring, or get in the way, or is it a reflection on the way you think about the role of music in a game – is it different when you’re telling a story in the campaign to, in multiplayer, where it’s almost like an electronic sport, rather than a story?

Marty: Yeah, so here’s my philosophy about that, and it’s not necessarily what we’re always going to do, as a matter of fact even as we speak I’m thinking about certain multiplayer modes where music might have a place. I’m a little bit suspicious that it’s ever going to be all that effective because I still believe strongly that music essentially tells basically linear stories, that music has a beginning, a middle and an end, and music creates emotional enhancements that work best when you have reasons for music to exist.

If people just want to say, hey when I’m playing Halo I just want to be really revved up, I’m like ‘sure, go ahead, put some Metallica on while you play, I don’t care, that’s great. You have every right to put on any kind of piece of music that just gets you in a mood want. There’s not enough hooks in a multiplayer game to make me feel like music will do anything but probably get annoying or boring or repetitive.

Sort of like, every time you win you get the big winning music. Well that’s going to be annoying because when you’re losing you’re probably annoyed because you hear the losing music. Or you’re winning and it’s like, well here I am hearing that same winning music again. Even if you have lots of variations it just doesn’t seem like… I never thought it was a huge payoff.

B: You could end up playing 300 or so games…

M: Well you play it so much, right… And the other thing is that I think there’s a difference in the player’s attitude about why they’re playing. When you’re playing the campaign…you are becoming the hero in this story that’s not you, or you’re becoming this other hero and so music has a role in that storytelling. But when you’re playing multi-player it’s a little bit like watching football on television. I want to hear music when I’m watching a TV show that’s dramatic, but I don’t want to hear the football game scored – I just want to watch the football game. So if you watch a football game on television and it’s four hours long, you don’t hear music during it, and you don’t miss it... and it’s still really exciting [with just] the sound effects… you get a real visceral feeling.

You’re not expecting to have the football game to be scored. I think it would make you feel weird if as soon as the other team were about to score, some band started playing that indicated ‘Hey, somebody is about to score’. That’s not the expectation and I don’t think it enhances the experience. It seems sort of out of place. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some kinds of multiplayer, social gaming modes that might not be enhanced by music, and we’re investigating that right now. I’m actually excited about some of the ideas that might happen here. I’m not convinced yet, we’ll see.

B: What would it take to convince you?

M: You know what it’d take? As we experiment with it I’ll be experiencing it myself and I’ll be playing and then seeing how the music actually affects me as I’m playing and how the music responds to what’s happening and if I say ‘hey this is really cool, but now that I’ve played 10 of these in a row, it’s stopped being cool’, it won’t happen. But if there’s enough interest even after repetition, or there’s enough variation or randomness in what happens, I think it could be something we do.

B: So MMO’s seem to be looking to that kind of randomly generated or procedurally generated music because people spend 100’s and 100’s of hours in them. There was a presentation at Austin GDC just the other week where they presented their way of recombining sounds that never kinda gets boring – and I guess I saw parallels in the ambient and room sounds in Halo – but it also looked to me like that sort of thing could be adapted for Halo’s multiplayer.

M: Yep, I think that would be interesting and I am definitely open to exploring those areas. This is what’s fun about game development is that there is a ton of stuff we just haven’t figured out. I know that there’s stuff around the corner that’s going to be better than what we’re doing now and I look forward to either seeing somebody else do it or if we contribute to it, that’d be great.

B: In another presentation from the 08 Austin GDC, Jason Page from Sony Europe’s R&D group, said he’s like to hear more “Phillip Glass” sound tracks in games as opposed to John William.

M: *laughs* Well you know what, when Jason says something like that, and I don’t disagree with him just so you know, but as soon as 20 games come out that all sound like Phillip Glass we’ll be pining for John Williams. The thing I would say is that…I want every creator of a game to not copy what’s successful. I think everybody who creates a game should try and re-imagine whatever it is they’re doing in their own creative image. And then there will be uniqueness even if something sorta reminds you, or it feels like a genre thing…

Sometimes I’ll sit there and go, you know what, I just want to put piano here, and it’s because I just haven’t heard piano in a while… but then if I suddenly hear a bunch of other stuff and “oh now they’re using Piano too”… I love piano, that was my major instrument, but if people are just using it because other people are using it…

For example, the cool aleatoric 20th century sounding music that my friend did for Bioshock, if everybody starts doing that they’re doing it because they think Bioshock was successful… But he did it because it was something that came from within him that he wanted to do because he thought it would be cool. But as soon as everybody starts copying it, it’s not unique.

If you’re creating something you should create it from something that’s within you and not because you are copying something else. That doesn’t mean that what you come up with isn’t influenced by whatever you’ve grown up being influenced by, but you should never parrot or copy or do something just because this niche hasn’t been mined yet…

And the thing is that, certainly a lot of people though, ‘well there’s nothing unique about Halo – Sci Fi story, FPS, hasn’t that been done a million times?’ Yeah it has been done a million times, however…we approached it and tried to do something that hadn’t been done before even though in a lot of ways it was something that had been done before. It’s the difference between something that’s iconic and something that’s stereotypical.

B: In the conclusion of my thesis, what I’m going to end up saying is that there’s potential in all these areas and what I’d like to see is not any one way of it dominating, but having a whole bunch of different way for whatever is appropriate. And I guess that’s what you were hinting at; if that’s right for the game then go ahead, use John Williams, if it’s more appropriate, do the granular thing.

M: Absolutely, totally. Although I would never say use John Williams. You probably know this, I used to be a commercial composer and I used to write jingles for a living. And even when I was writing jingles if somebody said “you need to sound like The Beatles” or “you need to sound like Mozart” that would always be a little bit depressing to me because I felt like now I have to satisfy my client by copying Mozart. But instead of copying Mozart…I had played enough and studied enough Mozart that I went, “Hmm, I wonder how Mozart would try to solve this musical problem for this commercial.” So to some extent I would channel Mozart… what was fun was I came up with pieces that I enjoyed and that, to me, feel ‘Mozarty’. And I didn’t actually go to a piece of Mozart and just flip a few notes around until it became original. If you say, John Williams has this big bombastic and wonderful orchestral style, okay fine, what would you do with the parameters of a big bombastic orchestral style. *With this, Marty illustrated a point by singing a slight variation of the Star Wars Darth Vader theme involving some slightly changed notes, to which he expressed disparagement.* Yeah great. There’s nothing original there, you just flipped the notes around.

Next time, I ask Marty about what areas of the sound and music he wasn’t happy with in Halo 2 and he talks about the inclusion of music from outside sources such as the rock band Incubus. We also talk about musical Leitmotif and whether or not Marty likes to use that particular technique.

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