Interview with Howard Mostrom, Audio Director and Composer for Uber Entertainment, Creator of the upcoming PC title Planetary Annihilation
Every once in a while a game comes along that takes our breath away; a game that is on such a massive scale that it is hard to even imagine its full potential. That game is Planetary Annihilation. No longer are you restricted to a single character, a single army, or even a planet. Entire galaxies will be at your control and planets will become weapons as you struggle to control the universe.
I was fortunate enough to speak with the Audio Director and Composer of Uber Entertainment, Howard Mostrom. Howard is in charge of all things audio for Uber, including the voice and sound effects, music and integration, and anything else to do with sound. He was kind enough to share with me his experiences in the audio industry, and why you should look forward to the sound in Planetary Annihilation.
JD: Tell me a little about your background in game/audio design. How’d you get started? What other projects have you worked on?
HM: After going to school for music, I worked in a commercial recording studio. I got to meet a lot of key players in the video game industry. I worked with and became good friends with Frank Bry, and shortly after joined him at Gas Powered Games.
My first in-house game was Supreme Commander. I continued at GPG throughout the Supreme Commander, Space Siege, Demigod series and a bunch of others. After that, I came to Uber Entertainment and began on the Monday Night Combat series.
JD: When designing a game like Planetary Annihilation that is so massive, where do you even begin? What was it like to take on a project this big?
HM: The first thing is just establishing the tone of the audio scape and making sure the emotional content is what it needs to be. Next is definitely the scale. Because the scale is so extreme in this game, I want there to be a clear sense of what is large and small, epic and AWESOME. Then figuring out the technical aspects and plan the audio systems that will be used.
JD: What was it like to be funded for over 2 million dollars through Kick starter? Did you ever think it would get that high? Does that add more pressure to do a good job?
HM: I was pretty shocked that it made it to two million. The concept itself is so exciting, I’m really happy that we are able to make this game. The stretch goals being met were an added bonus. It definitely ups the ante now that we will be recording with a live orchestra.
JD: Designing the audio for a gun going “bang” is one thing, is coming up with an accurate sound for a planet exploding a completely different challenge? What challenges do you face in this game that is going to test your skills?
HM: The sound of planets exploding will probably be one of the most important sounds of the game. It will be especially challenging considering there are so many different factors such as size of planets, different types/elements, weapons, magnitude etc.. What I do know is that there will be a lot of bass so make sure you have a good subwoofer.
Scale and audio balance will be the biggest challenge. Making sure the things that are important are heard at all times and making sure what is supposed to be a big deal is a Big Deal and not clouded by unneeded sounds. Audio balance can be very hard in RTS games with large numbers of units but even more of a challenge with a game of this magnitude. It can get messy very quickly, but I have a few tricks ready.
JD: Many of the people I have spoken with feel that Audio in games is often overlooked and underappreciated, do you share this view? What do you feel could be done to help remedy this?
HM: I do think that audio is often overlooked. People typically don’t notice the audio unless it’s either really bad or really good. One thing I think would help are more standards for creation and reproduction of audio across different platforms. The volume difference in media is crazy. As a content creator it can be very difficult to deal with so many variables in peoples audio systems. In many cases stereo speakers are not set up correctly or in a good place, let alone a surround system. I would love to see a good sounding audio system that is easy to setup.
JD: If you could change one thing about the game industry, what would it be?
HM: More game companies getting their passion projects funded. Companies working directly with/for their fans as we are with the kick start of PA.
JD: Do you feel communication is essential in multiplayer games? How are you implementing ways to communicate in Planetary Annihilation?
HM: Communication is very important and essential in a game like PA. It’s going to be something that we will continue to develop with the game community as development progresses.
JD: One of your stretch goals was including a full orchestral score into the game. How much music do you plan to have throughout the game? (Just menu music/throughout game/etc.) Do you feel having music in a game is essential to setting the right atmosphere?
HM: I’m particularly looking forward to working with the full live orchestra. The orchestra is the icing on the cake for me. I am guessing around 50 or 60 minutes worth of music but I am still just in the trenches of it right now. I strongly believe that music is essential to setting the right atmosphere in a game. To me it’s one of the most effective ways you can pull the player into the game emotionally.
JD: Do you have an expected release date for the game? What are your plans after release?
HM: I think its late summer 2013 but we don’t have a specific date yet. You can go to planetaryannihilation.com and pre-order already.
JD: Where do you draw your inspiration from? Other games, family, a specific composer? Do you have a process you go through to prepare yourself for a big project? What is your remedy when you get stuck or get writers block?
HM: I draw my inspirations from lots of different places. I actually have a slideshow rotating in Ken Burns’s mode throughout the day on one of my machines with all the art from the game. This is a helpful continual reminder of the style/settings/tone of the game. The art is a great inspiration, a helpful tool in just imagining and feeling the epicness of what is coming.
My main process for writing music though is through improvising. I love taking an idea and running with it and seeing where it takes me.
In prepping for a project, I try to gather as much inspiration from different composers as is relevant/needed. I spend a lot of time on deciding what instruments and combinations of instruments I want to use.
Another thing I do to prepare is attending live concerts with the instruments that I am using and surround myself with that type of music.
When I get stuck on writing something, improvising along with some of my favorite songs/composers often helps get me out of my rut. Sometimes I just have to get away from whatever I am working on. It may be just for a short break or walk, other times I may need to put that part aside all together and just work on some other aspect of the game.
JD: Anything you would like to add about the game? Why should people look forward to the audio in your game?
HM: I really enjoy working on this game. The whole team is passionate and amped up and a real dream team. We all are very excited to make this game happen.
It’s exciting to push the boundaries of what is possible to do with audio PA and I feel so privileged just that I get to be a part of it.