Hi Stephen, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. First of all, tell us about yourself. How did you get started in the video game music business?
Well, I got into this in kind of a convoluted way. When I was in college, Ensemble was making database add-ons instead of games. My older brother worked there at that time, and through him I was able to be a small part of the transitional period that led to the first Age of Empires. The two of us did the music for that game in our spare time; happily, it wound up being successful. I graduated just as Rise of Rome was getting started, and I’ve been at Ensemble since then.
You are an in-house composer and sound designer at Ensemble Studios. Could you describe what your job entails? What is a typical workday for you?
It depends on what the project is, and where in the development cycle the day falls. Most of the past year or so has found me sitting at a keyboard trying to write some music.
Let’s talk about Age of Empires 3. When did you get involved in that project? How did you first start out writing the music? What were some of your influences and how much creative freedom were you given?
I got involved with Age III right at the beginning, sometime in 2003. I knew right away that I wanted an all-orchestral score, but beyond that, there were a lot of conversations with Greg Street (the lead designer) and Kevin McMullan (who composed a few of the tracks) about direction and feel. If I remember correctly, the first piece of music that I finished was “Felonious Junk.” That was a big one because it featured the ‘New World’
theme that appears throughout the soundtrack. I was fortunate to have a lot of creative freedom – aside from a couple of key tracks, I could largely do whatever I liked that generally fit.
In addition to the classic Age of Empires theme, you wrote a couple of new ones. What were their purposes and how did you integrate them into your score?
Well, there was the
theme that I mentioned above – that tends to show up in the campaign when the land itself is important, or when there’s some kind of big moment. The
theme shows up in various places in the campaign and moves through the timeline of the family by switching instrumentation over the decades. I don’t know if anyone noticed, but there are also a couple of melodies from Age I and Age of Kings tucked away in there somewhere…
What were your specific goals with the score? How did you deal with the interactive side of the game? Are there any cues/musical passages that you are particularly proud of?
I think the basic goal of any of these scores is to provide an emotional foundation and a sense of forward motion to the game, at least until the fighting starts and things get really loud! Also, it can take a long time to get through the campaign, so hopefully the themes can help bring the player back to the story if he or she has put it down for a while. The interactive side of things is a little tricky on an RTS since the perspective can change so quickly and dramatically. Mostly, I wanted to make the score feel like it was in the player’s hands in some sense; that their choice to attack a particular thing or to pull back at a certain time had an effect on what they were hearing. As far as favorites, that’s a tough one! Depends on the day, though I’ve been pretty consistently happy with “Ludus Perditus” since it was recorded.
The score was performed by the Northwest Sinfonia in Seattle. Did you enjoy working with a live orchestra? How much does the overall composing process differ when using an orchestra as opposed to a sampled score?
I very much enjoy working with a live orchestra – it’s always a great feeling to hear all that work played back at you! I would say the process is different from game to game, but with Age III, I really tried to focus on getting solid melodies down first. To that end, I composed a lot of stuff with just a synth piano and a little Dictaphone. Once I had something that sounded good in that format, I felt like it was okay to start filling out the arrangements. On the previous game, Age of Mythology, it was almost the opposite scenario – the sounds themselves often directed where the music would go.
You’ve composed music for all the Age of Empires games. Which score are you most proud of and why?
Of the Age of Empires games, definitely Age III - though I still like quite a few moments of Age of Mythology. There are some tracks between Age I and The Conquerors that are just baffling to me now. :)
On many projects, you’ve worked as both composer and sound designer. How do you think these two elements should work together?
The sound effects need to present a lot of information – particularly in something like an RTS where the player is constantly being alerted to things that are happening on the map. With that in mind, I feel like the music should be something that you’d notice more for being absent than something that’s always grabbing your attention.
Are you pleased that your scores are being discussed / compared with film scores? For many years the direction for "crossing over" has been from game scores to movie scores (e.g., Giacchino), but more recently movie composers have gone the other way (e.g., Schifrin, Elfman & Shore). Any thoughts as to why this latter flow is happening?
Wow, if anyone’s discussing any of my music in any context, I’m pleased! As for your question about film composers crossing over, I don’t know - I guess there are just good opportunities there. The composers can do some work in a field that’s maybe a little unfamiliar to them, and the developers can draw a little extra attention to their games.
What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?
Well, it’s always tough to make the music interesting enough to listen to for hours at a time, but simple and spacious enough to sit in the background of the game. The most enjoyable part is probably split between writing those first few minutes and recording the last few!
What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?
The earliest ones were a lot of fun because everything was so new – we were really winging it. Overall though, the work that has given me the most satisfaction has been Age III and its expansions. Though I did very little composing for The Asian Dynasties, I was present at the recording sessions – and the breadth of material between that, The WarChiefs, and the original game is something I’m really happy with.
What are you currently working on? Will you be composing music for Ensemble Studios’ upcoming project Halo Wars?
Yes, I’ve been working on the Halo Wars score for just about a year. Can’t talk too much about that one yet!
Do you play PC or console games yourself?
I play console games at home, mostly pretty casual arcade-y stuff. I will occasionally get sucked into something more involved - like a Call of Duty or a Mass Effect.
Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.
My pleasure – thanks for your interest! I hope you like the stuff that’s coming soon.