Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Fantastic Sound for Fantastic Worlds

Have you ever relived a key moment in your mind from a favorite movie or game just by hearing a bit of the soundtrack?  Had a swell of emotion upon hearing a few carefully arranged notes?

Such is the power of audio and music.  Well-crafted sound design can create a sense of place in an otherwise fantastical environment or make the hair stand up on the back of your neck hearing the echoing footsteps of an unseen antagonist.  Sound tells the story of the world we can and cannot see.

Maclaine Diemer is a Sound Designer for ArenaNet.  His love for music and audio has led him from studying music academically and touring the country with several bands to ultimately working on such titles as The Beatles: Rock Band and Guild Wars 2.  He has a natural thirst to create which is quenched quite readily by his current work.

Why is the position of Sound Designer important for the success of the game?

Try playing a game on mute and I think that explains it better than I could.  You're simply not as engaged.

I know for an MMO-type game like Guild Wars 2 it's more and more likely people are not going to listen as closely or turn off sounds altogether after they've played the game for several hundred hours.  They might have their chat program on with their buddies or just listening to their own music, which is really heartbreaking for us here in the audio department.  We don't expect people to be fully engaged with the audio ALL of the time but I would think that for the first couple dozen hours of the experience you'd want to listen.

If it's not there you're not as fully engaged, but even more so if it doesn't sound good.  A game like Guild Wars 2 is so much about selling the experience of the world to you rather than a game like Battlefield where it's less about the world as a whole and more about the intensity, excitement, and adrenaline rush of being in battle.  They do an amazing job of that.

I've been to a lecture by one of the audio guys from DICE and he talked about how they built their audio system to be most effective.  It's amazing and it does what it needs to do so well, which is sell that feeling of being in a battle.  If their system wasn't as good as it is then that game wouldn't be quite as exciting.  It'd still be fun but I don't think it'd inspire the same amount of intensity and passion.

Even though our game is very different, we still strive for the same level of immersion in the core experience.  We're selling this world that you want to spend a lot of time in.  Having another life you can experience. If the audio doesn't sound good then it's not going to happen.  If we do our jobs right you'd say, "Well of course this creature sounds like that" or a spell or race sound a certain way because that's just how they're supposed to sound.  It’s completely natural and the player doesn’t even think about it.

What is the greatest challenge you have had to overcome, either with a personal or professional project?

The most challenging thing was trying to get that first shot.  The technical side of making games can be overcome by anybody.  I think anyone is capable of learning what it takes to make audio for games.  I hesitate to use the cliché, "It's not rocket science", but it's not.  That's not to say that there aren't very smart and talented people here or at other companies but I think anybody could do it if they wanted to.  Getting that first chance was really difficult.

I've learned so much in the few years I've been making games.  I continue to learn every single day.  But that to me doesn't seem hard, that's what's exciting about this job:  learning and growing and making your work better and being a part of something you believe in.  At this early stage in my career the hardest part was just getting started.

What work are you most proud of? Why?

If I had to say what I was most proud of in terms of what has been put out into the public I would say without a doubt that it's The Beatles: Rock Band.  That game to me is the best Rock Band game.  I'm biased because I'm an enormous Beatles fan.  If you're not a Beatles fan the game may not seem that great to you but in terms of what it set out to do, which was bring the love of the Beatles’ music to an audience in this strange fashion, it succeeded.

It's not a personal, solitary experience where you sit down with a record, CD, MP3 or whatever and just listen to your favorite music.  This is trying to take that experience and translate it into something that's a little more social and interactive.  It did an amazing job and I was really happy to be a part of it.

It was kind of a dream come true from me.   I found out my first week at Harmonix that it was going to be the next project after Rock Band 2, and I had to say, "Wait, what?  Can you say that again?"  I couldn't believe that would even be a reality.  Partway through working on it I remember thinking somehow, by some strange twist of fate, my name was going to be associated with the Beatles, relatively speaking, but still.  It was an official product.

They had Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr appear on stage at E3 the year they announced it to sell the game to people.  That is unreal.  If you'd have told me that when I was twelve years old I wouldn't have believed you.  On top of that I think the game is great.  It looks amazing and it's so much fun to play.  I never got sick of it.  When we were making the game I said, "If this is the first and only game I ever make, that would be fine."  Fortunately it was not my only game but I felt really lucky to be able to work on it.

In terms of the work I'm doing now I'm incredibly proud of the work the entire audio team and I are doing for Guild Wars 2.  We're not done yet, we're still working on it.  I cannot wait for this game to come out and for people to play and experience it.  I think it's tremendous.  We've put a lot into the audio that I think most MMOs never do or have yet to do.  I'm certainly no expert and I'm biased because I'm working on it but I think we're making a great game and you always want to be proud of what you're working on.

What I've learned here over the past year and a half, what I've learned about making games and my own abilities as a sound designer has increased exponentially.  I'm so excited to just put it out there because I'm very proud of the work.  I can't wait for people to see and hear it.

I'm aware the MMO experience isn't for everybody but I think this is the type of game anybody would be happy to play.  Maybe they don't play for 300 hours like a really hardcore player will, but I don't think it panders to any particular base.  It has a universal appeal.

What makes you want to come into work every day?

It's the work that I get to do and the people I get to do it with.  We have an amazing team here. There's five of us total.  We each cover such a broad range of skills that overlap a bit, but I don't think there's anything redundant.  I think finding a team of people that work so well together is really rare.  I like everybody I work with a lot.

It's fun to show up and talk about sound design on a deep level.  It's similar to my experience talking about the more technical aspects of music, but even more so with sound design.  You'll start talking about it with people who just don't care about it as much as you do and their eyes will glaze over.  In the audio department here we can all talk about this really nerdy sound-related stuff.  We can talk about cool microphones that we like or a great set of speakers or how we made this one sound or pick apart how someone else made a certain sound.  That kind of stuff is really fun.

On top of that the space we have here is amazing.  We just moved into a new building back in the spring.  The audio department has its own little area which is like a dream zone.  We each have our own office with all the equipment we need to focus on making the game sound great.  The best part is we have a Foley room.  We designed it so that it's almost totally soundproof.  You go in there and it's so quiet.  The ringing in my ears is a lot louder than anything else in that room.  The floor's concrete so we can go in there and make a mess and clean it up really easily.

The best part about it is you can say, "I really need this one sound."  We've got a closet full of junk in there.  We just turn on the mics and crank out a sound real quick.  You go back to your desk and import it onto your computer and an hour later the sound is in the game.  It's amazing to have the ability to do that.  It's a dream come true, even if it’s commonplace for most game studios.

You get to do dumb sound designer stuff that you always see in "behind the scenes" features that make the job really fun.  Like going in the Foley room and smashing things.  When I moved out here last year, I had this junky old TV I brought that I didn't want so we smashed it with a sledge hammer. That sound is in the game in a bunch of different spots.  We put on gloves and took the shards of glass and rustled them around.  It all goes into the game.

Once in awhile we get to do fun fieldtrips.  Over the summer there's this thing that happens in Seattle called Seafair.  It's an air and boat show that happens from a Friday to a Sunday on Lake Washington.  Every year the Blue Angels (The US Navy’s jet fighter exhibition squad) perform.  The best part about it is I live right on the lake and the jets fly directly overhead, straight over my house.  They're so unbelievably close.  I'm sure they're still a couple thousand feet up but you can read stuff on the bottom of the wings.  They're unbelievably loud.

That Friday we took a really long lunch and the whole team went back to my house.  We set up the microphones on my front porch and just sat there.  We watched this awesome air show and recorded these jets flying over.  That stuff is in the game too.  Those kinds of things are really fun.  The job is already a lot of fun but it also involves a lot of sitting in a quiet room by yourself for long hours so every once in awhile when you get to do that sort of thing it's really neat.  It's a difficult job to complain about.

Have you learned or developed any methodologies or best practices that have served you well?

On a technical level there's one thing I learned in regard to mixing for music but it applies just as equally to sound design.  The human ear is only capable of hearing a certain range of frequencies.  You can't add any more. I can't remember who taught me this, but they related what you're capable of hearing to a pie.  You can't make a pie more whole once it's already whole, so if you have to get all these audio elements to fit nicely together into a cohesive sound, then you have to think about what you need to take away in order to get the things you need to fit into this pie.

Say you have one element that sounds really great and it’s very bass heavy.  You have this other element that sounds really great too and is also really bass heavy but you want the bass more from the first sound than from the second.  They both can't live together.   If you play both elements at once, all that low end turns into a dissonant, muddy mess. You have to use equalization to scoop out all the bass from the second sound to make room for the first one.  You might listen to the second sound by itself and it'll sound awful, you can't hear anything that you liked about it, but you put it on top of this other sound and then it fills in that missing spot and all of a sudden it sounds great.

It's a difficult concept to relate in words but it's so important to know the limits of what your ear is capable of hearing and work around those limits.  So much of sound design is layering different sounds on top of each other that if you just stack them all they can't coexist.  If you put all these frequencies ranging over the entire spectrum of what the human ear is capable of hearing on top of each other they just turn to mush.  It turns to noise.  You have to be selective.  You take the bass frequency from this sound and the treble frequencies from another and the mid range from another.  That sort of dance you have to do putting together the sonic puzzle is an extraordinarily valuable lesson.  The sooner you learn it the better because your work will sound that much better.

It sounds like a very organic process.  You aren't necessarily following a set recipe to create a desired effect but rather sampling multiple things and then adapting based on those results.

That's how it goes.  Lets say you have a magic spell you need to make an effect for.  You start with some sort of whooshing sound and that sounds cool but it’s lacking something.  So you layer something else on top of it and you go, "Well that sounds better, but now I can't quite hear that one thing."  So maybe you edit that second element so you’re only using a small portion of it or you remove some frequencies here and there. It’s a process of iteration and very often you build something up only to slowly chip away and refine it into something simpler and more effective. You have to know what to keep and what to take away.  Sometimes it's not about adding, it's about subtracting.

Tell me a about your background.

I've been working in games for about three and a half years, so not very long compared to some other folks my age (30).  Although not atypical for audio I found out.  Most audio guys are a little older.  It's kind of like they had one thing going on first then they got into game audio which is the case with me too.

I went to school for music in Boston.  I knew from a really young age I wanted to be a musician.  It's still my first love.  When it came time to apply for colleges it was the only thing I thought about.  I only applied to one school which is the school I got into, the Berklee College of Music.  It was an amazing time to be surrounded by thousands of other like-minded people who eat, sleep, and breathe music all the time.

However, I was ready to leave after 4 years. Just like any place that's hyper-focused on anything it can become a bit of a bubble and I felt like I was ready to break out and start my career.  At the same time there's a lot that I'd wish I had done while I was there.  I learned so much, but there’s always more.  I used to give tours for the admissions office because I was so into the school.  I used to tell people, "I went in as a guitar player and came out a musician."

I was that hotshot guitar player kid from their hometown.  You get there and that's what everybody is.  There are some people who are genuinely virtuosos.  They're amazingly gifted and there's no one like them at the school.  For the most part you're dealing with people who are very talented but they went there for the same reason I did: they wanted to be around other people like them.  All of a sudden that makes you not very unique.

I realized that I needed to expand beyond being just the hot shot guitar player.  If I wanted to be a badass guitar player I didn't need to go to college for that.  I could have just sat in my room all day and played.

Was there a specific major you focused on such as composition or a particular instrument like the guitar?

I bounced around a lot.  They offer so many options there that I would be focusing on one thing, but then I would look around and see this other subject I wanted to at least take a couple classes in.  I started off as a Performance major, which is basically "be really good at your instrument".  I wasn't interested in just being a great guitar player.

I started taking some songwriting courses and that was cool.  Being good at songwriting is the kind of thing where there are tricks and techniques you can learn and some of the classes I took helped but I didn't want to focus on it for the last two years of college.  I felt I could sit there and write songs by myself for the next two years and be just as good of a songwriter if I were taking classes except I would never have to worry about failing.

I switched from that to what they call a Professional Music Degree, which sounds kind of vague but the whole idea is that you can choose your classes from any of the majors that are offered and design your own curriculum.  That was for me.  In addition to the songwriting and performance credits I already had, I took some synthesis, production, and business classes.  Just anything I thought would be interesting for a semester or two but I wouldn't have to commit to for two years.

It sounds like you were able to get a much more broad education that way than if you would have remained in one of the more focused programs.

Exactly.  That was what I wanted.  I wanted to learn as much as possible.  I knew that when I got out the time I would have to learn would be severely limited.  I graduated almost 10 years ago at this point and I know more now than I did then.  It's just the last 10 years haven't been nearly as concentrated as the 4 years I spent at college.

When I got out I had two notions of what I wanted to do.  One was to try to be a rock star.  I was 21 and there was no reason not to try that.  Some opportunities landed in my lap really early.  Right after graduation I got to go on the road with a band out of Boston as a roadie.  I went on a couple tours with them and ended up joining the band. That led me to meeting a lot of people.

I spent most of my twenties being in bands and touring and having a day job having nothing to do with being a musician or games.  Just doing whatever I needed to do to pay my rent because music sure wasn’t.  That's basically what I did from 21 to 27 or so with varying degrees of success.

I was in a band where we got to tour the country a bunch of times and we played some really great shows.  It kind of checked off all the things on my little teenage list for what I wanted to do when I first started playing guitar.  I got to live that dream for awhile.  Everything but the money.  That was what eventually drove me away from it.

I love music more than almost anything, but it was getting to the point where I was beginning to resent it.  I began focusing on the wrong thing, which is how to take this thing that is so important to me and squeeze a dollar out of it. I think you have a better chance of getting struck by lightning AND winning the lottery sometimes.  It stopped being fun, and for me, that was a problem.

Having said that, overall it was great time in my life.  It was a great way to spend my 20s. It was my childhood dream come true and I got to do it.  After awhile I decided I didn't want to do it at the same level after 30.  You always sort of chase that carrot dangling from the string in front of your face and ask, "Well what if we just kept going?  What if that big break is right around the corner?"  I know too many people who had been broken by that dream by the time they got into their 30s and 40s and it wasn't for me.

That's the way things happen.  You get involved with this scene and it happens very organically.  You meet this person, they lead you to that person, you leave for this one band, but maybe you met this other guy and say, "Hey we should start something."  That's kind of how all my time in Boston was spent.  Meeting people and moving onto the next project.

My other idea was always to get into video games.  I originally thought I would be more on the composition side.  I do a little bit of that now, but it’s not my sole focus.  Back in 2003, it was right at the very start of the entire music and entertainment industry in general crumbling.  Movie ticket and CD sales were way down.  The traditional entertainment business models were suffering.  The only industry I ever read any good news about was video games.  It seemed like a no-brainer.

Still, as much as I enjoy making and playing games, I'm not one of those developers that had every system growing up.  My parents refused to buy me a Nintendo or Super Nintendo.  It took me begging my grandmother to buy me a Game Boy when I was 13 or 14.  I had to circumvent my parents to ask someone who I knew was less likely to say no.  So I wasn't steeped in it the way a lot of people are.

I do love them, though.  I think there's no more exciting industry to be in from a creative standpoint.  They are in an amazing place in terms of where they're at in their lifecycle as a form of art.  I don't want to get into that debate on whether or not games are art but I will say they take creative people, you know, “artists”, to make them so doesn't that make them art?

I love the idea of how audio fits into games as opposed to movies or TV or writing music.  The interactivity is what makes it so exciting.  It presents you with challenges that no other medium does.  That was really exciting for me.

Funny enough one thing ended up leading to the other.  The guitar player in one of my last bands in Boston had a day job as a game programmer.  He was at a company called Iron Lore which put out Titan Quest.  They sadly went under.  Before that he was at Irrational.  He bounced around a bit.

Before we were ever even in a band together, from the day I met him I was like, "Get me a job in games!" which now I think sort of sucks.  I don't recommend people do that because I've been assaulted with that.  It's not that easy.  Fortunately he was gracious enough to be patient with my tenacity.  Over the course of knowing him for the next couple years one thing sort of led to another.

I had finally decided it was time for me to leave the band I was in with him.  At this point he was working at Harmonix.  He was nice enough to say, "Give me your resume and I'll pass it along."  This was just after Rock Band had come out.  It took a little while but eventually I got the job.  That was where things started.  It’s all sort of interconnected.  Everything I had done up to that point led me there.

I spent a couple years at Harmonix.  I met some amazing people and had a great time.  At that point I had shipped a few games: Rock Band 2, which I contributed very little to, having come in at the very tail end of its development cycle, the weekly Rock Band DLC, The Beatles: Rock Band, and Rock Band 3.  By the end of two years I was basically tired of making Rock Band games.  I was also tired of living in Boston.

I’m not from there, but I'd lived there for 10+ years. I’m a fairly restless person and I felt like I was done with Boston and needed a change. I thought sometime over the last 4-5 years I was there that I would eventually leave for somewhere like LA or Europe.  I had all these ideas of where I wanted to go and none of them panned out the way I thought.  However at the end of those two years at Harmonix, it was finally time for me to leave despite having such great friends and basically growing into an adult there.  I started looking around and eventually got lucky again with this job at ArenaNet and that's where I am now.

I've noticed a similar theme among the folks I've interviewed so far in that they've all had prior careers and experiences before ultimately getting into the game industry.

I don't think I'd be able to do what I do now without having gone through everything that's led up to it.  Even though sound design isn't literally musical, it draws from the same sensibility and some of the same creative space inside of you.  It crosses over a lot and I use a lot of the same skill sets, both on a technical and aesthetic level.

On top of that, especially with audio, it's really difficult to get into.  It's so hard.  I can't even tell you how many companies I’ve applied to over the years.

I've been lucky to work on really great projects with really great people.  Audio is such a small department in most companies, if they have one at all.  If it's a small to mid-sized company chances are they don't have an audio department or they just bring somebody in on contract for six months.  If they do have an audio department it probably isn't very big so there aren't many positions available.  It isn't a very high turnover job.  It's not as in demand as an artist or a programmer.  It's really difficult to break into.

In that sense I feel really lucky.  It can also make it difficult to move around until you get to a certain point.  I'm definitely happy to be here at ArenaNet.  It's a great team and now I'm in the position where I don't want to leave.  So now I'm that guy that's preventing “past me” from getting the job that I want.

What are your inspirations?

The thing that really drives me is the notion of creating a world.  It's really sneaky in a way because it's the kind of thing that people don't perceive.  You hear about this a lot, not just in games, but from various creative professions.  Unlike art and visuals in a game, which are way out in your face, audio is a part of that area of a game where if it's really good no one really notices.  If it's really bad everyone notices.

It's like a game having really great gravity or ragdoll physics.  You're not really conscious of that when you're playing unless you're actively thinking about it while you smash something and it looks great.  Or camera movements, that sort of thing, are really subtle and if it's really bad you notice it and if it's good you are just carried along with the experience of the game.

Audio can be really manipulative emotionally.  It controls so much of the experience.  One of the things I do here at ArenaNet is the audio for most of the in-game cinematics.  These things will come to me with the art already done.  Just because my head is in the audio area and the artists are in the art area I'm like, "How do they do this stuff without even hearing anything?"  It's like making a silent movie.  To me it seems so foreign they'd be able to work on a 60 second cinematic with absolutely no audio attached to it and still know how they're making whatever it is they're trying to convey.

They'll give me this finished cinematic and then I put the audio to it.  Someone will come down and review it and sometimes their opinion of it will change.  I'll get comments like, "This is so much better" or, "Now I don't hate this because it's got audio."  I'm not trying to toot my own horn or put words in anyone's mouth but that kind of thing has happened and that’s really flattering.

That sense of being able to really control the experience in this invisible way is something I really enjoy.  It's not like doing movie or TV sound.  In post production for a film you might replace some dialog if a plane was flying overhead, but you can get away with using the actual sound that’s recorded when you shoot a scene.  Or recording on a sound stage you have this cleaner baseline from which to operate and can use even more of it.  But with games there's not a single thing you're hearing that's ever there by accident.  Putting that much thought and effort into that level of detail to make it sound real and breathe life into it is really exciting.

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you have given yourself when you were just starting out?

I hear this all the time and I've read about this for years people asking the question, "How do you break into the game industry?"  A lot of times the reply is just, "Make a game!" They make it sound so simple.  It's probably easier now than it ever has been but it's still not that easy.

Working on independent games is definitely an option but even now independent games are at the level of professionalism and polish that put a lot of major studios to shame.

I would have tried to put together stronger demo material as early as possible. Even if it's just a piece of garbage game you make yourself, just do it, but understand that the bar has been raised from where it was even a few years ago.  You're always going to learn something.  More than half of your job as an audio guy is less about how great of an explosion sound you're capable of making and more about the nuts and bolts aspect of getting audio into a game.  That technical knowledge is far more important than creative knowledge at a certain point.

I've seen lots of visual artist demo reels, but no audio reels. How do you put together a reel to convey both that creative and technical know-how?

That's sort of the problem right?  You really can't show much of the technical stuff in a video reel.   I think they might need to be separate. You have to show a mixture of your experience and technical knowledge somehow and then have a great sounding demo reel.  Your reel should just be all your best audio work.  It should have big, exciting moments, but it should also demonstrate a deeper awareness of audio.  Anybody can take a few canned explosion sounds and put them together and make them super loud, but what about your ambiances?

Something fairly common with demo reels, and I've done it, is to take some game footage or a trailer and strip out all the audio and you re-do it.  So you've got your great laser sounds and footsteps and other stuff that is obvious that you need.  But what's going on in the world around it?  What's going on in the background?

My friend Patrick Balthrop, who was my lead at Harmonix on the Beatles game, worked on the first Bioshock and is now back at Irrational working on Bioshock: Infinite.  He's my game audio guru.  He always talks about it being a 1:10 ratio.  What you see on the screen versus what you don't.  You need to hear ten times as much audio for every one thing you see on screen just to sell the world.

I'll see some reels where it's very clear that they just hit the obvious beats.  Here's the body movement, here's the footsteps, the guy breathing hard because he was running and there's the explosion.  They've got all that stuff in there but there's nothing else.  There's no wind or car passing by or a spaceship passing overhead.  I guess this also answers the question of what I would have told myself a few years ago.

By the same token you also have to know when to back off and when to focus on the minutia and just have one sound playing or what exactly needs to be there to convey the moment via audio.  I guess just work harder.  Listen closely.  If you think it's done, it's not done.  Give it one more pass.

So that's the sort of stuff you need in your show reel.  You also need to demonstrate that you know the technical side by looking at your resume or, even better, having a demo game that’s playable, whether it’s large or small.  What sort of programs do you know?  It's not just about what audio software you know.

Right now we live in this amazing time for game developers, especially in terms of tools.  You can download UDK for free and do whatever you want with no features locked at all.  That is so powerful.  Unreal is what so many games are based on.  Once you know one editor it's easy to learn others.  Being able to download that and check out the audio tools is amazing.  That sort of insider knowledge is a goldmine.  There's no reason to not take advantage of that.

The same thing with middleware tools like fmod and Wwise which are probably the two biggest third-party audio implementation tools.  You learn those and you've got a leg up on other people.  If the company you're applying to doesn't use those tools then they're using something like it.  Our audio engine is based very loosely on fmod.

Having that sort of technical knowledge about the implementation of audio in games is so much more important than your laser sounds.  The fact you can learn it for free on your own time, there's no reason to not take advantage of that.

What motivated you to work in the game industry over film or TV?

It really had to do with the unique challenges that are associated with making something interactive.  With film and TV, I love that stuff too, and whenever I'm watching them I pay attention to the audio probably more than most people.  The difference is with that kind of media the audio exists on a purely linear level.

Take music in a movie for example.  It starts and ends at defined points.  It has to hit certain emotional queues along the way and that's it.  The same thing with the actual sound design.  You have to sell the space the action is taking place in whether it's a courtroom or some spaceship.  It has to sound like the right environment.

At the same time it's very much in the background.  Everything plays second fiddle to the dialog.  You need to hear the dialog above everything else.  Especially with something like television the turnaround on it is so quick that you can tell when they're hacking it out as opposed to when there's some legit artistry there.  I think film more than TV has more time, money, and resources to put a little bit more art into it.

A lot of sound designers work from a library.  It's a combination of sounds you may have recorded yourself and sounds you buy in huge packages.  You buy things like the "war sound effects" package so you have gunshots and explosions.  It makes things a little easier.  You could go out to a gun range and record things yourself but then you're reinventing the wheel.  Why not spend the money and buy the library?

The problem is once you've been at a few different places that have these libraries you start to hear them over and over again.  If you pay attention there's a few that you'll hear reused a lot.  There's a specific electricity zap sound that I hear everywhere that I'll use sometimes but I try to at least alter it in some way.  I'll hear it in commercials and TV shows.  I hear it a little bit less in movies because I imagine they have a little more time to work on it.  Games have just as much of a deadline as any creative product but TV feels like the deadline is a little more important.

I spent a summer as an intern at a post production studio in Boston.  They mainly worked on commercials and low rent movies once in a while.  It was such a draining experience.  None of the guys working there gave a shit about what they were doing at all.  It's like, "Make this McDonalds commercial sound great" or, "Make this Dunkin Donuts radio spot sound awesome."  That sort of disillusioned me.  I'm sure they would have rather been working on the latest Steven Spielberg movie but they don't get that kind of work there so they took whatever work they could to keep the lights on.  I just wasn't interested in that.

Beyond those kinds of concerns, what separates games from that kind of stuff is that you're not locked into this linear timeline.  You have to almost anticipate a player standing in one spot forever.  They could stand there and do nothing for a very long time.  How are you going to make it so it sounds like a real world and not like, "Oh here comes the loop on that one bird call."  Those sorts of challenges that come with a persistent and interactive world are really far more interesting than what you can do in movies and TV.

What are your favorite games, and why?

I've been trying to catch up a lot lately.  As I said before, I was never really hardcore about it as a youngster, so I don’t have quite the same nostalgic base, really.  All my favorite old school games are for the Game Boy, like the first Kirby game or Metroid II.  As a professional you have to keep up with what's out there, though. I have other interests that also occupy my time but I try to devote some to playing games.  I'm not one of those people who go out and spend a hundred bucks every week on new releases.  I could never do that, but I’m trying to make sure I play all the big, “important” titles every year. Earlier this year I ripped through Bad Company 2, Red Dead Redemption, and both Mass Effect games.  I can't wait for the third one.

I’ve just played all the way through Uncharted 3 and I thought it was incredible.  Naughty Dog is at the absolute top of the heap as far as I’m concerned.  They’ve made a perfect game in that they’ve flawlessly delivered the experience the Uncharted games are intended to deliver.  It’s astonishing to me how they could make such a polished game in just two years between Uncharted 2 and 3 and actually make slight improvements on the things that needed fixing in the second game.

The story is well written and the art looks incredible from the character design to the level design to the textures and lighting. Drake’s animation is so human and believable, I would just stand around and make him walk or run this way or that just to see how it looked.  The way the dynamic events occur seamlessly during gameplay and the cinematics weave their way in and out without becoming tedious makes me wish all games were that slick.  It really is a tremendous achievement overall.

I've also been playing some more sleeper stuff lately that I think doesn't get quite as much credit as it deserves.  A couple months ago I bought Beyond Good and Evil.  It's so great.  This game is obviously not cutting edge from a technology standpoint but it doesn't matter.  It does something that I think so few games forget to do which is to make the whole experience fun.

It's so obvious they were thinking the whole time, "How do we make this fun?"  The art is fine, it's good enough.  I'm not sure what it looked like in the context of the time it was originally released.  I'm sure it looked ok.  I never find myself thinking, "I wish this had higher resolution textures."  It doesn't matter because the game is fun.  The voice casting is amazing.  The writing is funny, it actually makes me laugh.  Very few games do that.  The whole package is so great, it was well worth the $10 on XBLA.

I also started playing Darksiders recently.  I'm maybe six or seven hours into it.  It's a Zelda-esque game.  It's definitely more action oriented.  It is so much fun.  Overall, I think it looks pretty good.  I'm not an artist so it's harder for me to judge that sort of stuff.  There are two things about it that are great.  I'm really picky about voice acting.  I think most games, even some AAA games which have great audio otherwise, have awful voice acting.  Fallout 3 has just awful voice acting.

The voice acting in Darksiders is great.  The processing is great, too. It sounds really cool.  The people they picked to voice the characters had great delivery.  On top of that the character designs are so awesome.  They're really unique compared to any other game out there.  It's a totally different aesthetic.  Every new character that pops up is just so awesome.  It's like one or two of these things would be the one or two cool boss monsters in another game and everything else would be run of the mill.  There's just so much imagination put into every single character.

Thank you for your time Maclaine!
If you'd like to learn more and hear some of Maclaine's work check out his site.

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