Ensemble Studios in Dallas is one of the most successful publishersof what are known as real-time strategy games. These games have acompletely different perspective than third-person character games,such as The Lord of the Rings, or first-person shooter games.The vantage point is higher and wider — you're looking down onthe action from above — and the games usually involve a range ofmethodical tasks to advance in the game: constructing villages fromscratch, figuring out ways to keep workers motivated, building armies,figuring out how to defend your city, etc. Ensemble, which was acquiredby Microsoft in 2001, is responsible for such popular game series asAge of Empires and Age of Mythology. Though not requiringthe same level of audio sophistication as third- or first-person games,the real-time genre still demands evocative sound and music.
“A number of years ago, while I was in college,” notesEnsemble's music and sound director, Stephen Rippy, “I did halfthe music for Age of Empires out of my apartment. Back then, themusic was done on a little general MIDI synth, and the big innovationfor us at the time is we got an E-mu sampler; that opened up a lot ofdoors for us. Our first few games were done with a lot of MIDI stuff,and starting with Age of Mythology, we started incorporatingmore live instruments and even orchestra. Our latest Age ofMythology expansion — The Titans — has lots ofguitars and percussion, and, in general, the music and effects are moresophisticated than they were in the past. I have a partner named KevinMcMullan who's responsible for creating about half the content with me,so it's basically a two-person job.” In all, Ensemble employsabout 80 people, mostly on the visual side.
STRATEGIZING A STRATEGYGAME
“The original Age of Mythology game had acouple-year-long development cycle,” Rippy continues. “I'mpresent from the concept stage of it on through to the end. So whenpeople are talking about, ‘Wouldn't it be cool to have a gamewith minotaurs in it?’ I start thinking about what a mintoaurmight sound like. From there, we'll see concept sketches and follow thevisual side as it develops. In terms of the musical direction, quiteindependent of the topic of the game, we knew we wanted to move moreinto live playing and actual audio recording. As the game was beingramped up, we put together a CD of things we liked — we had sometracks from Passion by Peter Gabriel on there and things like that— and it was sort of like a temp dub. We brought that to thedesigners and told them that this is sort of what we were shooting forand then started recording things.
“We always need to support what's going on visually, but thatdoesn't mean we can't be creative with the audio and the music, too.Like with Age of Mythology, we wound up coming up with a systemwhere if you lose a large part of your army, it starts to play adifferent mix of the music track; it'll go half-time, it'll drop outhalf the instruments and become somber. It's pretty subtle, but it'scool if you notice it. Conversely, if you attack certain buildings, itplays a whole different track that's very exciting.”
SMALL STUDIO, BIG SOUNDS
Much of the recording takes place in Rippy's own office, which isabout 10×15 feet. “We can even do drums in here withoutdriving everyone bananas,” he says. “Kevin has a separatewriting room.” Most of the original sound effects were recordedin the field using a portable DAT recorder. The in-studio music wasrecorded to Cakewalk, mixed to DAT and then put in the game as MP3audio.
“The higher perspective [known as isometric] of real-timestrategy games has its own requirements,” Rippy says. “Youhave to fudge a lot of stuff. Given that you're that high up, youwouldn't hear a lot of swords clinking against things, but we put it inthere anyway. Also, you're dealing with a couple of dozen littlecharacters on the screen at once, so it's finding a balance betweenhearing general mayhem and being able to identify what you're selectingand, ‘Is this thing responding to what I'm telling it todo?’
“It gets more and more like working on a movie everyyear,” he concludes. “Just the fact that we could go up toSeattle and record an orchestra [for Titans] was a dream cometrue for me and for Kevin. Beyond that, it's always fun coming up withsounds for the characters. We had a three-headed dog, which is Greek,and a Norse troll, so they had to get their own sounds. The troll ismostly me grunting. There's a lot of that: Me going into the studio andscreaming, slowing it down and adding Waves plug-ins to it. We'll tryjust about anything to come up with something cool.”