Michael Henry is the audio manager for Champions Online.
"Meet the Team" InterviewEdit
Q: What do you do on Champions Online?
A: I am the audio lead on the project. My audio partner-in-crime Joe Lyford and I are responsible for all of the sounds in the game.
Q: How long have you been in the gaming industry, and what did you do before working on Champions Online?
A: I've been working with games for 12 years. (Has it really been that long?) Prior to that, I spent about 10 years working for a company in Chicago that was involved in commercial music production for TV, radio and film.
One day I was contacted by a headhunter looking to fill a composer/sound designer position at Viacom New Media, and I thought: "Why not? This would be a great way to marry my interests in audio, music and technology." So I made the leap, and I've never regretted it.
My first gig in games was working on an interactive music title for MTV. I've worked on quite a few titles since, from coin-op to console and PC. After a couple of years, I moved out to the Bay Area to take a position at the legendary Atari (later Midway) Games. The last title I worked on there was with Ed Logg, who programmed the original Asteroids – 25 years later and he was still with Atari!
Q: What role does sound play in exciting gameplay?
A: A bigger role than most people imagine. For me, audio is somewhere between 30 to 50 percent of the gaming experience, perhaps even more (depending on context). It's just like film or other mediums.
In games, audio often works on a subconscious level. If it sticks out it gets annoying and distracts you from the visuals. For things like ambience, if the audio is just right, your ears tend not to notice. You brain takes the sound for granted.
And music can completely color or change the feeling behind visual images. Try thinking of the shower scene from Psycho with the Bernard Herrmann music score replaced with some goofy, light-hearted Danny Elfman-esque music. The frightening terror of the scene would vanish, and the scene would be perceived with a whole new meaning.
Q: What does it take to create the soundscape for a neighborhood or instance?
A: A lot of blood, sweat and tears. We always start by looking at the design of the area along with the visuals to get a feel for what the soundscape should be. Then we start looking at specifics. The audio environments in Champions Online tend to break down into four basic categories:
- World/environmental sounds – ambience, objects in the environment, etc.
- Player and in-game character sounds – your power sounds, character-generated sounds, footsteps, etc.
- Voice – to help bring the characters to life for cinematics and cutscenes or to convey information to the player.
- Music – to create a mood, give a neighborhood a particular flavor, create excitement during a boss battle, etc.
We usually start with the background ambience – room tones, a forest or city background, or whatever is needed as a basis for the particular environment. Then we will look for objects in the environment that we can attach sounds to – computers, power stations, birds singing in the trees, and so on. Once we have a sonified environment, then we'll add the sounds for the player and any other NPC entities, and balance. Finally, we'll add any music or voice elements that are needed to complete the soundscape and create the appropriate mood.
Q: Where do you draw inspiration from?
A: The great composers (Dufay, Bach, Beethoven, Schoenberg, Varèse, and on and on) great scientists and thinkers (Charles Darwin and R. Buckminster Fuller) and most importantly, nature. The great French composer Olivier Messiaen once said "Birds are probably the greatest musicians to inhabit the planet." I tend to agree with him.
Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
A: Read, compose large-scale operatic works, play my horn, and take my dogs for a drive to the beach in my VW bus.
Q: What are your favorite games? What are you playing now?
A: I enjoy a good game of chess, and I've never been defeated at Monopoly.
At this moment, I'm playing a really fun game called "Working at Cryptic."
Q: What are three things you can't live without?
A: Books. Music. A pen (and paper) … along with a little food, water and air.
Q: What is something interesting about you that players would be surprised to know?
A: I won first prize in the Greater Kansas City Science Fair for my experiment entitled "The Effects of Low Frequency Stress on Drosophila Melanogaster" in 1973.
I also was awarded U.S. Patent No. 6,592,375, "Method and System for Producing Engine Sounds of a Simulated Vehicle."
And I own and regularly perform on John Entwistle's (bass player for The Who) French horn.
Q: What's on your iPod?
A: Lots of music (lately I've been revisiting Bernd Alois Zimmerman and Olivier Messiaen) and some audiobooks and lectures (I'm studying Ancient Greek history and mythology).
Q: What advice do you have for someone who wants to break into the gaming industry?
A: For an audio position, you should try and familiarize yourself as much as possible with the process of creating soundscapes for games. Games have their own unique audio requirements, since they are non-linear (as opposed to linear sound production for film). There also are many technical issues one must overcome to get audio implemented in a game, so having some familiarity with technology, programming and the tools of the trade is important – as is a good set of ears for critical listening.
But I think that for games, the old adage of "learn by doing" is the best advice I can give. To quote Aristotle: "One must learn by doing things, for though you think you know it, you have no certainty until you try."
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
A: [Insert standard disclaimer here.]