Welcome to the 10th Meet the Team interview. This week we’re happy to bring you a new perspective on development, with our first interview from the audio department for Elite: Dangerous. Jose Castro has been a sound designer at Frontier Developments for almost four years, working on titles such as Kinectimals, Disneyland Adventures, and now Elite. We begin by asking him how he got into sound design and what advice he would have for anyone else planning to get into the same field.
Games have always interested me, but even after I decided I wanted to get into the industry my top priority was finishing my postgraduate degrees in both piano and composition. In the meantime, though, I searched for any opportunities that were compatible with my situation, and I was lucky enough to get involved in a local amateur strategy game project, Glest, which went on to be fairly successful. I think the combination of theoretical and hands-on knowledge worked to my advantage when I later applied for a job in a big company. As for advice, I think that it is important to build a skill set that takes into account the daily workings of the company that one applies for, in addition to the specific tools of the (sound design) trade.
Did you have any experience with any of the previous elite games prior to working for frontier?
A bit, though for a long time I just knew of Elite as the ’seminal space-sim’, so I’ve always revered it by proxy, so to say. Had I been born a little earlier, or had access to a computer sooner, they would probably have been my favourite games ever. In regards to Elite: Dangerous, what are you working on specifically right now?
Everything related to sound really; on a given day, even when I focus on a certain item or system I’m constantly revising the project structure and tweaking things everywhere.
What are the biggest challenges of your work at the moment?
Right now I’m mostly concerned with building internal structures that scale well as the game broadens in scope, yet are easy to work with; then there’s the matter of defining the audio systems and features and making sure they fit in the right places within the overall design; and of course, at any given time the end result has to sound as polished as possible.
Are you a long-standing fan of science fiction? If so, what are your favourite pieces of media in the genre?
Yes I am; I’ll give you a list of names that come to my mind as they do: Heinlein, Asimov, Foundation, Omni, Starlog, the beginning of Patlabor2, Armored Core, Zone of the Enders, Ender’s game, Freespace2, Freelancer, Darkstar One, 4X, Lander (Psygnosis), Blade Runner, CS80, Synthesizers!
What kind of equipment are you using? What key things do you consider whenever you begin working on something for the game?
I use everything I have at my disposal, whether libraries, own recordings, soft and hard synths... Lately I’m experimenting with using the middleware (Wwise) itself as a sound source because it gives ultimate flexibility, but there’s no dominant trend established yet. In the same vein, currently the sounds are mostly of the electromechanical sort, but when the spaceship is still and quiet, the hum of the power supply and the flow of the air conditioner are its pulse and breath.What kind of sound are you aiming for when it comes to "sound in space"?
The player’s ship is at this point both the main character and scenario in the game, so my goal is to have it generate a rich soundscape on its own: the hums and chatter from the electronic equipment (think Nostromo starting up), the whirl of the air conditioner, the resonances of the weapons in the cockpit... there’s a myriad of elements that we can work within this inner space, all of which can be reactive to meaningful parameters to the point that an experienced pilot should know the state of the spaceship just by listening to it.
When it comes to outer space, my approach is to gather meaningful information and bring it into the cockpit via sound, if the pilot cannot naturally hear it. We have a device in the spaceship that could potentially simulate an entire aerial battlefield (delivered via earplugs or bone conduction), but what it actually recreates, and how, is entirely up to us. The question is then really a matter of design: does the pilot-player need to hear explosions? Do we represent all the explosions or only those within a certain distance and radius from the player’s point of view? Should they sound airborne-like, etc.
In addition to the “sound HUD”, the spaceships will include a different device, a radio of sorts, rudimentary but dependable, that plays through a speaker in the cockpit and passively tunes to radio frequencies, say that of a “nearby” pulsar or the engine of a spaceship passing by; in case of general interface malfunction, the radio might very well be the only source of information on the outside world.
Finally, when an atmosphere is present, airborne sounds will come into the mix, and the pilot will for instance hear a nearby explosion, enhanced by a deep submarine-like HUD boom, and punctuated by a little crackle on the radio, each of those elements contributing to the feedback.
It is important to stress that both radio and HUD are real devices, so they can malfunction or be damaged, and replaced by better models with different capabilities (both) or sound sets (HUD). The pilot should have some degree of control over them, from within the ship’s interface –a volume slider, a sound HUD checklist to activate or deactivate types of data sonified. More so, since both HUD and radio can be muted, it is possible to just drift along listening to the sounds that truly belong to the inner space, and nothing else.
Will each ship get their own ‘signature’ sounds in terms of the ambience inside of the cockpit?
Yes, the modules in the ship will have each a series of unique sounds, not just while being operational but also when starting up, rebooting, malfunctioning... Different combinations of modules will make the ship sound different, and my long term goal is that the pilot can intuitively have a feel of a particular ship, a grasp of how good it is and how well it is behaving, by listening alone. What’s your favourite game genre and which games inspire you?
Roguelikes and 4Xs are my favourite genres, though I spend more time reading about them than actually playing!
Games that inspire me? Noctis, aiPlanet, and Minecraft, to name three. There are lots of games that I like because they are accomplished in one or more departments, but the potential that games like these show never ceases to astonish me. Oh, and there’s also Steel Battalion, for obvious reasons! Have you ever tried your hand at making a game yourself, whether by modding an existing title or by other methods?
I’m always thinking of game concepts and ideas, and I try to make prototypes with my meagre programming skills whenever I have time!
What role will you be playing most in the final game?
I’ll be an explorer, or a trader for the sake of saving to buy a better ship to reach uncharted places.
Finally, what element of Elite: Dangerous are you most excited for people to hear?
There are a handful of sounds I already think of as ‘signature’, like the confirmation sound when requesting permission to dock, but I’m most interested in the whole ensemble. I want the players to feel that the sounds, however fun and exciting, are there for a reason, that they make sense in context; over time, they should become a dependable source of information while navigating, and in the long run, if a player turns the ship on, hears the start-up sequence and feels a sense of familiarity, that will make me really happy!
Thanks to Jose for taking the time to do this interview, and to everyone else for reading it. We’ll be back with a new interview soon, but if you have any comments or questions about this one then let me know below!