Mix SEPTEMBER 1, 2008 - by Blair Jackson


New Game Combines Creation, Evolution And History

Years in the making, Spore is the latest and boldest videogame to come from the extremely fertile mind of Sims creator Will Wright and Maxis/Electronic Arts. In a gaming landscape increasingly dominated by testosterone-fuelled console offerings (Xbox, PS3), games such as The Sims and Spore still cater mostly to the PC/Mac market and to players of all ages and both sexes. And who can argue with the success of The Sims franchise and its sales nudging toward eighty million copies worldwide?

With estimated development and production costs well north of ten million dollars, there is a lot riding on Spore, but it seems almost certain to become a runaway success: It has been hotly anticipated since it was announced at the 2005 Game Developers Conference, and in previews at the most recent E3 it caused quite a sensation, even earning a Best of Show pick from The game hits stores in the U.S. on September 7.

If you're familiar with The Sims, you know that much of the pleasure derived from the game comes from a combination of player-controlled design of the characters and settings, and then the freedom and open architecture of the actual game-play. Rather than it being goal- or mission-oriented, it's more about character evolution and management, and how interactions with other characters affect different situations. The characters speak an odd tongue known as Simlish (which has always sounded vaguely like Dutch to me), yet the emotional content expressed in that language couldn't be more clear, and thus universal. Well, are you ready for Sporelish?

Originally, Wright was going to call his new creation Sims Everything because of the incredible scope of the game: Players start as single-celled organisms in the ocean of pre-history, then make their way through assorted evolutions to become land-based creatures (and never humanoid Sims), organise into tribes, build cities and conquer territories, and eventually leave the planet for strange worlds in deepest space. In other words, it's the entire history of the universe in one video-game! Still, it has that unmistakable sense of playfulness and whimsy that is at the heart of The Sims. At every step on the long road of evolution and increasing character sophistication, the player is faced with a multiplicity of choices - from the physical traits of the characters (two legs or four; long beak or sharp teeth, or both; etc.), to the types of buildings that will form cities, tribal philosophy (warlike, religious, economically savvy), to the sort of spacecrafts and planets that make up the outer reaches of the cosmos.

The player-controlled editors allow for hundreds of thousands of combinations, all of which will affect the game-play in some way, and then there's also another component that expands Spore in other completely unpredictable directions: Though not technically an online multiplayer game, single players will be able to introduce cool content created by other players into their own games through a combination of a Spore network on YouTube, Maxis' own Spore site and "Sporecasts", which will allow players to "subscribe" to other users' content through RSS Web feeds.

As you might expect, a game with so many different worlds, character types and situations posed a mighty challenge when it came to supplying sound effects and music for the varied realms. Spearheading that end of production was Kent Jolly, who works out of Maxis' headquarters in Emeryville, California - next to Berkeley and coincidentally just down the street from Mix's main office. A native of Indiana, Jolly had originally planned to study photography at the Art Institute of Chicago out of high school, but got side-tracked taking audio classes there and became fascinated by modular synthesis. For grad school, he went to Mills College in Oakland, California, to study electronic music, and it was through a friend at Mills, Robbie Kauker - now audio director of The Sims franchise - that he first landed some contract sound design work with Maxis. Jolly eventually went to work for Maxis full time and worked on The Sims, Sim City 3000 and other games.

With Kauker fully occupied by the ongoing growth of The Sims, Jolly was tapped to head the Spore sound design team. "I got involved in this project four-and-a-half or five years ago," Jolly says as he sits at his three-screen Pro Tools station in his equipment-cluttered office at Maxis. "The intent was to ship the game earlier than we did, but even with that it was still early to get involved in a game. Will had gotten the game to a point where there were nine or ten people on the team, and he wanted to hear what the creatures might sound like and how it would sound going from the game into the editor - in just a general sense. I had put some sound to an early prototype where you can see a planet and zoom all around it, and that was a lot of fun. And we had some voice sessions early on with a guy named Roger Jackson and that did a lot toward getting ideas." Jackson later supplied vocalisations (mostly pitched up) for the single-celled creatures in the first level of the game. Other vocal talent contributed Sporelish touches from the creature stage to aliens.

Because the creatures in the game seem more animal-like than humanoid, Jolly also employed hundreds of animal recordings - many original, others drawn from libraries, most of them spliced, diced, electronically altered and combined in interesting ways. "We went all over the place," Jolly offers. "We went to L.A. to record trained animals [like the monkey from Pirates of the Caribbean]. We went to Arkansas, where there's an elephant refuge we'd heard about from one of the guys who'd worked on The Lord Of The Rings." Jolly's main partner on these outings was sound designer Mike Cormier - both carried Sound Devices 722 recorders, the former with a Schoeps M/S setup, the latter with a Sennheiser shotgun. "A sound designer named Andrew Lackey was also on the team for a while," Jolly says. "He did sound for the second and third Matrix films and then came to EA. He was from Florida, so when he was home he went around and recorded some of the gator places for us. Beyond that, we also used some of Ann Kroeber's [animal recordings] and there are also library sounds. Andrew eventually moved on to other projects and sound designer Chris Seifert came in to take his place. Chris was instrumental in pulling all of these sounds together and making all the sounds fit to animation.

"Almost all the characters are a combination of different sounds, and, of course, they're customized according to their appearance," Jolly continues. "Most of the sounds associated with the creatures are based on the type of mouth you put on there - you can make interesting sounds by combining different kinds of mouths. As you progress as a tribe, it maps to what that mouth would sound like [speaking] more tribal Sporelish - this set of mouths maps to an intelligent insect race and these ones are birds and the rest are mammalian. When you get to [the] civilization [stage], they all map to a more conventional Sporelish.

"All the intelligent insect and bird stuff was done by a guy named Dee Baker in L.A. who's an incredibly talented voice actor who does amazing things with his mouth. He gets this liquid-y, crunch-y sound. We put a little processing on it, but no additional animal sounds. The mammalian intelligent VO was done by Roger Jackson."

Jolly continues, "The footstep system is also complicated because you never knew what kind of foot [the player] will put on or how many feet a creature will have. The front two can be humanoid and the back can be hooves, and the hooves can be huge and the front feet tiny. We did a lot of recording of footsteps at Skywalker [Sound Studios, Marin County]. We have barefoot on dirt, barefoot on grass - all these surface types. Then on top of that, the bigger the foot is, there would be a filter on it [within the game], so as the foot gets bigger you lower the setting on the highpass filter and let more low end through. If you have lots and lots of feet, it tries to bring out the highpass a little bit so it skitters more, distributing more of their weight across the creature. We also recorded the right foot and the left foot, so we bisect the creature and it gets assigned right foot or left foot and there's a cadence to it. It helps the naturalness of the sound, but it's incredibly complicated."

Other creature sound sessions took place at the studios of EA's Redwood Shores headquarters (across San Francisco Bay from Maxis), at Shoreline Studios in Santa Monica and at Live Oak Studios in Berkeley. "We recorded all the sounds using a custom tool we wrote here that we would bring to the studio and hook up over a network to the actual animation tool that the animators used."

Many of the background ambiences came from various libraries - Jolly singles out the recordings of Douglas Quin, who has recorded all over the world, from jungles to Antarctica - and libraries also helped when it came to the sounds of wars (from medieval swords to modern armaments) and cities in the game's civilization part.

Another fascinating aspect of Spore's audio is the music, which necessarily reflects the different stages of the game - from primal to futuristic - and is both ever-changing and, at certain points, controllable by the player. Jolly was involved in writing/designing quite a bit of the music, but he also had some help from a couple of notable sources. Some of the space music was written by Cliff Martinez - best known for scoring several Steven Soderbergh features, including the sci-fi flick Solaris - and British composer/musician/producer Brian Eno also became a valuable contributor and collaborator.

"Brian was involved in a lot of general music design with me, so he came here and I also went to London and worked in his studio," Jolly says. "He'd come with his Mac and Logic and he'd be generating sounds. We would sample them, get them in as instruments into the game and play with them together.

"There are two kinds of generative music in the game. One is sort of MIDI note-based - that happened much more here from samples made by Brian by ourselves. But there's also a whole area that's more like Brian's ambient music, where he made it using software he called 'Shuffler'. The software was based on earlier pieces where he would make ten CDs and they'd all have a set of tracks, and then he'd set them on 'random shuffle' and they'd play randomly and we'd make ambient music that way. We re-created that system in the game, especially in the space game: When you go to a planet, [there's a music] system there that plays a different sample every ten to thirty seconds, and this group [of samples] has this volume range and this pan setting, and a whole group of those forms one track. You end up wending through these tracks that are changing all the time."

Speaking of the music more generally, Jolly notes, "Unlike a lot of games, most of it is not looped - it's being generated in real time. There might be chunks of drum loops that are being re-sequenced randomly, and then all the pads and other sounds are basically MIDI but we're generating them randomly."

And in the "Civ Game", as Jolly calls it, "the user gets some control over the music: You can pick beats - some were made by Brian, some were made by me and my assistant Aaron McLeran, and then reprocessed and changed - and then you can pick a melody instrument and design your own little melody, and also pick up ambience tracks. Using a note editor, you can set the tempo, get rid of notes, change the length of how they play... and there's an algorithm [built in] that will randomly form melodies." The note editor was conceived in stages by Jolly, Eno, Wright and engineer Cyril Saint Girons, who has helped develop other systems for Maxis.

As you might imagine, the combination of effects and music possibilities takes up a lot of space - indeed, Jolly says there is "days of stuff on there. It's more than two gigs of compressed audio." Asked whether the sheer number of audio events planned for the game inhibited the sound work, Jolly says, "Our biggest concessions were CPU-oriented. Our approach was sort of, 'Okay, let's do it, whatever it is!' That was great, but what it meant was at the end of the project we had to do a lot of intense LOD - level of detail - removing of sounds that were not needed and not necessary: 'No, you're only allowed to have, at most, five of these or six of those.' What are the sounds you absolutely have to hear? Balancing that with what you want was one of the biggest challenges.

"At one point, we thought we might have to go to 22k for all of our samples, but in the end we didn't have to. Some of them are 22k, but most of the voices are 44 MP3 and most of the music is 44 MP3." It was determined early on that a dedicated surround mix would eat up far too much real estate in the game so most of it is stereo. "It gets multed out to surround, but we did very little in 5.1 for CPU reasons," Jolly explains.

On the day in late July when I interview Jolly, I can sense his relief that he's almost at the end of what has been a very long road working on Spore. Predictably, there were a few weeks of nights and weekends trying to meet the (latest) deadline. I mention that it's a miracle he could keep all of it straight in his head over the months and years. He responds, laughing, "The truth is, it was like working on five games at once - Cell, Creature, Tribes, Civilization and Space - plus all the editors. And it's so complicated making everything work together. Assets that you created in one area might show up in another area, even though the context and everything about it is completely different. Then there's the whole online component where you can populate your game with content made by other users. The possibilities literally seem endless, so yes, it was a lot to figure out and keep in mind."