The Rhythm of the Game

Since 1997, Chuck Doud '88 has been an influential figure in the evolution of video game music.

  Chuck Doud '88
  Photos by Joey Cobbs
  Click photos to enlarg

When Chuck Doud chose music as his career path, he was just a youth in Easton, Pennsylvania, playing original tunes as the guitarist for a local rock band and hoping for a shot at the big time. Since then, Doud has made San Francisco his home, and millions of young fans around the world have heard his guitar playing. But in the early days, he couldn't have foreseen the setting for his music.

Today, as the director of music for Sony Computer Entertainment Worldwide Studios America, Doud leads the team that oversees music development across the spectrum of video games published by Sony. They range from award-winning, blockbuster triple-A titles such as the God of War Uncharted, and Gran Turismo series, to simpler downloadable games including Flower, Flow, and others.

The job has brought Doud together with great composers, bands, virtuosic soloists, and orchestras in studios at Sony's Foster City, California, facilities and in the hallowed halls of Abbey Road, Skywalker Ranch, and studios in Los Angeles and Nashville. When the music calls for it, Doud adds his own acoustic and electric guitar tracks to the scores. But his most important function is to brainstorm with his team about the creative direction for the music of every new project they undertake. The goal is to ensure that each has a winning score that enhances the player's experience in the game. To that end, Doud and his team select and contract composers, musicians, producers, and studios to create custom original music for their game scores in addition to licensing recordings of top artists from record labels. He also works closely with Sony's technical staff to assure that they have the technology they need to seamlessly integrate the music into the games, oftentimes dynamically tracking the gameplay.

Doud headed from Pennsylvania to Boston in the mid-1980s to attend Berklee. In Boston he joined forces with musicians that later became the band Signs of Life, active performers in the New England music scene. Feeling that he was getting enough playing experience, Doud opted not to pursue a performance major at Berklee in favor of exploring the college's other offerings. He earned his degree in Music Synthesis (now called Electronic Production and Design) and credits studies with professors Kurt Biederwolf, Richard Boulanger, and others with helping him attain the technical and musical depth required for the rigors that led to his current position.

In the decades since Pong, the first electronic game that debuted in 1972, the video game genre has exploded. Today's big-budget cinematic games boast incredible visuals and musical scores rivaling those of the best Hollywood movies. With the steady forward march of technology, Doud (and many other industry leaders) see this art form reaching ever-greater heights and drawing in talented artists of other disciplines. And there's a place for almost any musical flavor under the sun in this vibrant sector of the entertainment world. From his catbird seat at Sony, Doud is uniquely poised to remain a vital force in the direction of video-game music.


What was the path that led you to your position at Sony?

After graduating from Berklee, I worked for a while in Boston at a recording studio that was doing jingles. It was just starting up and I was working on the composing side of things, another guy was the house engineer, and a third was a development guy working to get business.

It was a good experience. I did a lot of recording and got to work with a lot of interesting clients, but after a little while I decided to go out on my own as a freelance composer. One of my early jobs was for Sony. I started out writing small projects that would be included with games and for behind-the-scenes stuff. Then I demoed material for the game Blasto on spec and landed the gig. Buzz Burrowes, another Berklee alumnus, was working for Sony and gave me a shot. He was the top guy in the newly-formed sound department.

As I continued to work on projects for Sony they began flying me out here, allowing me to develop relationships with other staff members. Once I landed that first big gig with Sony, I was offered a staff position. At the time I thought I'd maybe work here for a year or two and then go back out on my own. But the environment was so exciting and supportive creatively, that I realized this was where I should be.

What was the allure of video-game music for you?

There was something about the video game industry that just excited me. I saw a lot of potential in the field. Anyone paying attention could see where things were going as the technology progressed. With the advent of the PlayStation, a huge number of video games were being developed for the compact disc, which had enough memory to include recorded music. I knew this would open up the door for composers.


How did that affect the way a composer wrote for games?

In addition to the storage capacity of CDs, there was another issue related to what options were available to play music in the game. This issue was related to streaming data off the disc. While many games were able to stream music tracks off the disc, many of them were streaming so much level data that the music had to sit in resident memory. That meant that we had to use custom sample banks and MIDI to "play" the music in real time.

When I started working on games for Sony, it was fairly commonplace for a composer to submit demos, or even final music tracks for approval before they were converted to sound banks and MIDI. Game producers were often disappointed when they heard the eventual sampled-down version of the full-res music because it barely resembled the tracks they had approved. Going into composing and producing the music for Blasto, I knew this was an issue. My challenge was to create a great sounding adaptive score using just 12 voices and 200k of compressed memory for the instrument sample set.

Fortunately, I was able to use variable sample rates, and this allowed me to maximize the potential of what limited memory I had. For instance, I could keep a short, closed hi-hat sample at 44.1k, but sample a kick drum down to 11k. And just to make things interesting, if you had any looping sounds, like a string sample, you had to ensure that the looping points fell on a 28k sample boundry. It involved a little math and elbow grease, but you could make it work. By doing all this, I learned that limitations can force creativity. The technical and creative skills I got at Berklee provided the foundation I needed to succeed in this area.

In the process of trying to land the Blasto gig, I came up with about half a dozen tracks. When I met with the development team for the first time, I could tell right away that they liked the music, but then one guy popped up and said "Well, this all sounds great, but what will it actually sound like in the game?" My reply was, "Fellas, this is exactly how it will sound in the game because it's playing off of the sound card." Shortly after that meeting I was offered the gig.

One of your other early scores for the game Syphon Filter made quite a splash. Why do you think it caught everyone's attention?

That score really popped and the game did well. The music was recognized because Syphon Filter was among the first games out there to have an adaptive score. Back in the PlayStation 1 days, there wasn't a lot of adaptive music — meaning the music changes according to the game state. For movies, a composer writes a linear score to action onscreen that's predetermined. But in games, the challenge is to come up with music that enhances the player experience when the action changes according to what the player does. It's so easy to drop the ball in game scores. You could have an amazing score with great melodies, style, and production, but if it isn't integrated correctly into the game it can fall flat. The score can either end up enhancing the player experience or pulling the player out of it. A large part of the success is in the implementation.

Is that due to musical or technical issues?

It can be either technical or creative. When done right, it's a successful marriage between the two. That's where the magic is. Whether it's big budget games like our Uncharted or God Of War franchises, or smaller games like Flower, it's all about putting the right team together and having a unified vision for what you want the music to be. Sometimes one composer is exactly what you need, sometimes you may need multiple composers, a funk band, and a string quintet.

For the musical decisions, we look at the creative direction of the game and the role the music can play in that. It's often really important to present the player with a theatrical or filmic experience. We make decisions on the technical side about how we will use the music in a given scene, how it will change, and how it will lead to a different piece of music.

From the perspective of implementation, things can get pretty complicated. For example, let's say that there's a scene where the player enters a room. We want to have our "room" music playing when the player is in there. But then the player moves into an adjacent hall. Now we may want our "hall" music to play. So the room music fades and hall music is cued up. But what happens if the player turns around and walks back into the room? Do you fade out the hall music and cue up room music again? You don't want the music to yo-yo between two cues. Should you stop the music? What if the player quickly decides to go back into the hall? Do you play the hall music right away or do you wait? So a simple situation can require a fair amount of logic to be applied in a musical way. It's not easy and is a skill unique to our industry.

Players can do whatever the game allows them to. So you have to write a complicated set of rules for what the music can do, and then write a smaller set of rules to handle situations in which you want to ignore the rules. You don't want players to feel like they are playing the music by their character. You have to figure out what's going on in the game that will influence the music. All the while, things have to stay musical and enhance the dynamics of the game. If the music changes too fast or not fast enough, or if it's too repetitive, the experience won't be as good as it could have been if everything was done right technically and musically.

Are such decisions made intuitively by the team creating the score?

Absolutely. When it's right, everybody feels it. There's a lot of communication and iteration that goes on. Things are always changing in the game and we have to track them. We may score a level and then get another build and find out that the level is very different than it was before. We may need a new script and have to put different pieces of music in. We hammer on these games until they are ready for manufacturing.

Aside from the actual music, what other aspects does your group oversee?

We have a music business unit in my group that's responsible for putting deals together. Almost everything our production team is involved with requires a contract, so our job is to secure all of the talent, facilities, and assets our team needs to succeed. We negotiate the terms and then partner with our legal department to complete the contracts.

"The journey starts with getting the vision. Then the team sits down to talk about the style of music the game needs and the role the music needs to play."

How many people are on your team?

We have 20 people spread out between the Foster City, Santa Monica, and San Diego campuses. The team's main task is to manage external talent. We have an expectation for excellence in everything that we do, and that's carried through to the talent we work with.

How has your position evolved since you started?

During my first three or four years here I was composing all the time. Before I came to Sony, I was used to people hiring me because they wanted me specifically. So I didn't want there to be pressure on the people here making them feel like they needed to hire me, the internal composer. So I interacted with everyone as I did before I was hired — as if they were my client. That approach worked really well. Then it got to the point where I was booked 18 months in advance. When a game director wanted me to score his game, I'd tell him I couldn't do it because I was booked, but that I'd find someone to do it. I'd also offer to handle communications with the composer since I understood the type of music that was wanted. After that, I quickly became the guy everyone came to when looking to find the right composer for their project.

The model of having an internal composer communicate with the external composers worked really well. I was able to provide clear and consistent direction to the composers, which at the time was a bit of an issue in this industry, and still is sometimes. This model became the foundation for how our department operates. These days we have a lot of composers on staff, and increasingly their role is to assist in the actual production of the music, partnering with other composers. Our team is always available to provide a steady stream of information, feedback, and direction.

After I took on the responsibility of finding and managing external composers, there was a need to become involved in licensing music, so I took that too. In addition to doing straight licensing deals, I also had the opportunity to secure the music for the music game Frequency — a precursor to Guitar Hero. For Frequency and its successor Amplitude, we needed more than stereo versions of the songs. We needed the multitrack assets with all of the EQ and effects burned into the files. At the time, no one was going to the record labels and requesting these things as part of the license — let alone asking for permission to remix the songs. Anticipating some resistance from the labels, I partnered with the developer, Harmonix, to meet with the bands and their management before going to the labels with a license request. Our thinking was that if the artists were onboard, their support would go a long way towards securing a license. For Frequency, we took our show on the road, demoing the game for bands like No Doubt, The Crystal Method, BT, Paul Oakenfold, The Jungle Brothers, and Orbital. Getting the support of the artists first has worked extremely well.

I like being on the leading edge of things. When I was first doing adaptive music for Blasto and Syphon Filter, there was no rule book on how to do it. I just had to figure it out, and I love doing that.

A lot has transpired since those early days. The demand for the services, and the kinds of services that this department offers grew dramatically. Fast-forward to today and we have a full-service music department inside of a video game publisher. We manage all aspects of music for video games including the creative, production, technical and business facets. We have state-of-the-art recording and mixing facilities in multiple locations, and we work with the best talent and facilities from the film, record, TV, and video game industries.

What is the most unusual score you've overseen?

We do a fair amount of experimentation. In this regard, the scores for InFamous 1 and InFamous 2 really stand out for me. We went outside the box and were very successful in the ways they were composed and produced. For InFamous 1, we had multiple composers collaborating and took a lot of sounds from found objects. We recorded a bunch of instruments and made them sound nonmusical and then took nonmusical items and made them sound musical. There were a lot of sampling sessions and a session with an electric cellist. These assets were seeded to the composers who then incorporated them into their compositions. The score was also taken to the stage with an orchestra. It was essentially a big creative playground where the composers could collaborate and share ideas. The process was really successful, in large part due to the direction and leadership of the music supervisor and one of the composers on the project, our own Jonathan Mayer. For Infamous 2 we took a similar approach, but we recorded music by a New Orleans-based r&b band called Galactic. We did sessions with a string quartet and also with a 70-piece orchestra. All the mixes were done here [in Foster City]. We ended up with a really unique score that worked well with the game.

What's most important when your team approaches a new score?

We know we need to create a score that will be massively appealing to our target audience. It has to be engaging on an emotional level and really resonate with the player. In a way, we look for the game to tell us what's needed. The entire process is a journey.

The journey starts with getting the vision. Then the team sits down to talk about the style of music the game needs and the role the music needs to play. There are many variables for each game with different styles, creative directions, and goals for the role of the music. We work with the development teams to figure out what we need, put a plan in place, and then execute that plan.

It sounds like there are a lot of creative aspects to your job.

We're fortunate to be able to work with very talented development teams who make great games. If that wasn't the case, it wouldn't be as much fun as it is. It was my goal to build a team that would lead the industry in setting the standard for what people should expect from a game score, and I believe we've done that. The quality of the music being produced throughout our industry today is amazing in every aspect. Part of our team's success is its ability to deliver consistent quality. Having a centralized music group of talented individuals working together as a team on as many as 30 titles per year, sharing information, and learning from each other is a potent combination.

How do you see this field evolving in the future?

We have a generation of composers coming up now that grew up with video games. What I see changing down the road is that these composers will have a seat at the table when we're determining how the music will be implemented after it's composed. Currently, most composers aren't typically involved in the process either because they don't understand it, aren't interested, or do not have access to the development teams. For many game scores, the composer creates source cues without any real understanding or influence on how the music will be integrated into the game.

When composers work with our team, we provide them with an environment in which they feel comfortable to compose. We provide them assets from the game, give direction and feedback, encourage them to take risks, facilitate communication with the game director, and help them produce the music. If they don't want to be involved in the post-production, editorial, and scripting side of things, that's fine. But down the road I think it will be the norm rather than the exception for composers to want to be involved in the entire process.

Do you foresee involving more people from other artistic disciplines in video games in the future?

The video-game art form continues to evolve and attract talent from other industries. On the music side, there are major players we're working with now who have won awards for film scores and they want to score video games. People from the TV and film industry are now writing scripts and directing for video games whereas five or six years ago only people with a video-game background did this. Actors from the TV and film industry are not only doing dialog work, but full performance capture. Some of the film industry's top sound designers are applying their skills to video games. There is a lot of attention on this industry. It's an exciting time to be in it.

Do you foresee more opportunities for bands to get songs into games?

I think the opportunities and possibilities for bands will continue to expand. We have some projects going on now where bands are making instrumental versions of their songs to be used as in-game underscore tracks. I also think that the model of having a game soundtrack comprising both original score and licensed music has been largely untouched in our industry. In the film industry it's fairly common. As we start to develop games that require this kind of score, the opportunities for bands will follow.

Something I appreciate about working at Sony is that things are driven by the creative. There's generally no outside pressure for us to get certain composers or bands because they have name recognition. Having the trust and support of our developers has allowed our team to succeed. They know we are working to realize a creative vision of what their music should be, and they know we can deliver. Ultimately it's all about your reputation. No matter what industry you're in, reputation is all any of us really have.