Blizzard's Russell Brower
9th Mar 2010 | 17:16
If you've ever marvelled at a film score - and who hasn't - you know the dedication and talent that's needed to soundtrack a full story with original music.
So consider for a moment those that compose for video games - on average three times the size of even Hollywood's biggest blockbusters.
Now, allow CVG to introduce Russell Brower - a man who not only lends his musical skills to an MMO (as in, a never-ending story), but the biggest MMO in the world.
After working on the likes of Warcraft III, The Burning Crusade and Wrath Of The Lich King, Brower is now busy creating music for Blizzard's upcoming WoW: Cataclysm, Starcraft II and Diablo III.
Here, we ask him about his life in games - and how on Earth you soundtrack a Warcraft player's non-stop world without getting irritating...
Warcraft is a nigh-on everlasting game - how do you keep your audience from getting tired of your compositions?
One of our most important tools in World of Warcraft is actually silence. You'll notice the music doesn't play continuously - and we have found that that's very potent, because it just makes it all the more special when it comes in.
Using silence allows the player to absorb the ambience of the space between the cues that much more - and it also allows us to reserve our larger cues for the bigger story moments.
What's the range of emotions within the Warcraft universe that you have to play with?
Well I think you pointed out one of our prime challenges, there. It's been really enjoyable to approach Warcraft, because everything we do here we like to use the words 'epic' and 'bold'.
That certainly describes a lot of the World of Warcraft music. On the other hand, if everything's 'epic' and 'bold', you need some contrast - it ceases to have meaning after a while, and in the worst case, you get annoying.
We have sometimes tried to play against what you're experiencing and what you're seeing, being a little bit ironic with the score. One of my favourites is Grizzly Hills where the music is represents the surroundings pretty literally - it's pretty pastoral.
However, the quests you're going on are certainly no less intense than in other zones. It allowed us to explore a different pallet completely - more of a kind of Americana sound.
Is the Wrath Of The Lich King the most lavish score that you've given a Warcraft game?
I think we try to outdo ourselves each time. Wrath Of The Lich King had even more music and a greater ratio of live music in The Burning Crusade and the free content updates that we've done for Wrath have been quite action packed with music.
How would you say the scoring for Warcraft has changed from the days of Warcraft III?
I think it's evolutionary rather than revolutionary. We're still in the Warcraft universe and there are some things which appear - especially in the Warcraft III series - which carry over into more recent games.
We have escalated our production values in keeping with the art and class design and it's a really big process and challenge just like everything else in the game.
The Warcraft music is rich, Hollywood-standard stuff. When you've written a piece of music for Warcraft, what process does it then go through?
Each of us who compose are individualistic to a great extent, we have our own techniques and our own strengths and weaknesses and we overlap quite a bit, so the first part of the process is determining which one of us should handle a different area.
Sometimes one of us really wants to do a certain area and sometimes it's just the right bag, if you will, for one of us.
Going beyond that - obviously I can only talk about my own personal composing - I do as much research as possible. The more research I do up front before I write a single note, the faster the process will go when I actually sit down to create a score.
That research includes studying our books - be it a novel or the RPG books - to get the backstory of a village or journey or scene or encounter. Once it gets to a state [of gameplay] where I can run around in it, I'll take hundreds of screenshots of the most compelling, inspirational vistas I can find and I'll put those shots up all over my walls and on my computer desktop and I'll absorb that for weeks and weeks.
The longer I spend doing that the more efficiently and quickly I'll write. When it comes to orchestral music, I write it onto paper in a fairly old fashioned way - sometimes at the piano, sometimes not. From there we go to the studio and record all the live versions. I then bring those recordings back to my studio and I enhance that with some keyboards - sweeten them, if you will.
What were the main differences in your approach to Cataclysm compared to the other previous Warcrafts?
We have an opportunity to deal with many parts of Azeroth which we haven't been able to do before - we've previously been confined to Outland, Karazhan and other places.
We're really enjoying the process of identifying what pieces of existing music in the cannon to the game [we can use]. We don't want to make Cataclysm's score feel like you're hearing 'Warcraft music' - we want to make it feel complementary to the storyline; that the world has been broken in certain binding events surrounding Deepholm and the Elemental Plane.
I like just leading up this path, this endless path of evolving music. So again it's an evolutionary process, it's not about implementing sweeping changes just because we can.
One thing that Warcraft does that differentiates it from any other game is it's a constant in people's lives. How do you feel about soundtracking years of people's existence like that?
What a wonderful comment. I know that all of us composers grew up loving music - but probably in each of our lives there was some point where we heard, you know, a film score piece of classical music or something that really was influential on us choosing what we do for our passion.
The thought that something I create is going to be the soundtrack for other people's lives in the same way that certain popular music or classical music was for me when I was young? That's just an amazing concept. I have to stay focused on the game - because that's almost too cool a thing to get my head around.
Starcraft II is going to be a more 'rockier' affair than the pastoral elements of Warcraft. How would you characterise the score?
I wasn't personally involved with the original Starcraft game. But the music for Starcraft II is pretty faithful - again, it's an evolutionary process.
The rock-fusion-jazzy mix of soundtrack that works with these space trucking cowboy-types is certainly in there. [Blizzard's] Glenn Stafford, who did the original Starcraft music, has done similar work on Starcraft II.
We essentially used Peter Gabriel's old rhythm section, who did an outstanding job. So it's a similar style of music to the first game, but with live players this time. We really specifically wanted to differentiate it from Warcraft - not only from the scoring, but we also recorded it in a completely different fashion.
Warcraft's score is normally recorded in a chapel; literally a Gothic cathedral-type building with 47 foot ceilings. It helps create a very primitive, raw, dark sound. Starcraft was recorded in a very traditional film scoring stage - the one at Skywalker [Ranch, Los Angeles]. That resulted in a more traditional film score sound. It's subtle, but the purposeful impact of [those the environment] was very different.
With a more rock-led, film-style score, how did you ensure it wasn't intrusive in the gameplay?
That notion of not playing music all the time is once again our friend. Balance s a very important tool and is a relative art - I truly believe that. If anything stays at one level for too long, the meaning isn't there.
You need contrast. With every laugh, there needs to be a tear, with every high there needs to be a low. Those are storytelling devices via music that actually transcend media, I believe. Although Starcraft and Warcraft aren't linear storytelling, the same principles apply.
Have you witnessed the almost tribal affection for Starcraft in the Far East? They can fill stadiums out there just to watch an in-game battle...
One of the highlights of my career was certainly the announcement of Starcraft II. We were over in Korea at an invitational event. I knew there was a lot of hope amongst the crowd that we might make an announcement, but we managed to keep it a secret.
The roof just came off the place when the logo came up. It was an amazing time. We had a full orchestra and choir and put on a real show for them.
Will you be doing more of that sort of thing in the coming year - perhaps at Blizzcon?
You'll have to ask our friendly PR about that [Laughs]. Blizzard always want to outdo ourselves and bring the very best we can to that show. But if any event deserves that kind of complexity and energy, we'll bring it.
What about Diablo III? Is that dark, brooding affair - again, how do you make sure it doesn't distract or overpower the gameplay?
It's a little early to talk about it, but I'll say this: The music in Diablo I, II and the expansion is some of the most iconic music in video game history.
We have a huge guidepost there and we're not going to violate that. Diablo III's story and gameplay expands into new areas as the game unfolds, and you'll hear us going bigger and going wider [with the music]. We'll take each scene as it comes and find a way to approach it.
If the music was to ever overpower, to bring too much attention to itself, it's probably not doing the job that it should.
Which of your work have you had the most fun with, and at the end of it all, which are you most proud of?
I constantly look for those moments where in-game music might move somebody, when it might cause an emotional response. That's happened with every franchise. The most recent thing was when I wrote a piece called Invincible, which was part of the Fall Of the Lich King content update.
I took a melodic phrase that originally appeared in Warcraft III and also later appeared in the opening cinematic for Wrath Of The Lich King. I brought back that chorus and then I wrote a verse to go with it - to expand the idea. It had a boys' choir and a young solo singer, as well as a full orchestra. The intent was to portray the complex, tragic life that is and was Arthas Menethil.
I've was thrilled to see people's reactions when we released it. People left comments telling me that they were literally weeping when they heard it. It caused them to reflect on the entire storyline; not just the epic battle at the end of Lich King, but the full arc of the Warcraft story. It's wonderful when your music can reach people on that level.