Robi Kauker is the audio director for the EA Play Label at Electronic Arts and for almost ten years he's been helping create the multilayered soundscapes that make up the Sims world.
Adjacent to his work in videogames is his Critical Monkey project that charts the mysterious territory where ecstatic noise intersects with formal experimentalism.
Sitting down with him at the Audio Engineering Society's 125th Convention, we talked about some of the hidden currents of avant-garde thought running through videogames.
I'm interested in the way that the experimental background you come from influences the work that you do at EA.
Robi Kauker: I grew up in the Memphis music scene and I went to the University of Memphis for a music degree; composition, classical, traditional, and orchestra, while at the same time doing electronic music. Very early in my career I had a great teacher in my third grade, whose husband happened also to be a keyboard player, who had a Mini Moog and modular synths around at various times when he was doing projects.
I got to play with those and that got me into electronic work. And electronics kind of drove me more to the experimental music early. While Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, and all of the New Wave music was great, at the same time Morton Subotnick and John Cage's electronic pieces were also made available to me. So I transitioned from the pop music world to a classical composition degree.
The Bay Area multimedia world was exploding at the time. So I came out here to go to graduate school at Mills College, and basically networked, made my connections there. The guys I went to Mills College with are at Electronic Arts, they're at Activision, and they're at Skywalker Sound. It was a great meeting ground for people who were headed in the same direction I was.
It's a uniquely creative program where there are limited facilities. You're not going to see a large format mixing board and you're not going to see the latest and greatest computer. What you have, as the graduate student, are very good classmates who want to do interesting things.
At the time when I was there, there was a programming language called Hierarchical Music Specification Language [HMSL], which was a text, FORTH-based programming language, that we did interactive music with. All the generative stuff at the time was MIDI based, but we had these cool programs. George Lewis was also teaching there. He is a brilliant trombone player, who is now the director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University. He is a brilliant composer, brilliant performer, trombonist, and a member of the amazing Instant Composer's Pool ensemble.
So there was this great creative energy there and incredibly talented professors. And all of that drove us to wild creativity that wasn't bound by any rules or convention. That was very attractive to everybody that was there. Nobody was there because they wanted to play in an orchestra. Nobody was there because they had to have the latest, coolest gadget. Everybody was there because they had a unique vision and some idea of what they were doing.
You had to bust your ass to figure out how to do it; you had to invent it, because nobody gave it to you. That directly leads you to where the game industry was in 1995, '96, and '97. '97 is when I joined Maxis.
Do you feel like you have the freedom to experiment, or is there a push to keep momentum going on a franchise?
RK: I am the audio director for the whole Sims label, so I make certain to put the pressure in the right place because we have games to ship. We are a business. We are about shipping games.
At the same time, there are always things to push the limits on for new products. Second-generation titles are the most fun because the entire tech is pretty well set, so you can start to push on them really hard; this year's MySims Kingdom title, we really pushed out how far we could go and hopefully, we pushed it even further
You've got all of these titles spread across a lot of different hardware, from the Nintendo DS to PC. How does it work in creating audio for all of that?
RK: It doesn't always work. The platforms -- we grew up as a PC studio, so we like to do things in a methodology that's not always healthy for consoles. But the fundamental philosophies for the biggest PC game to the DS game are exactly the same.
So, when me or one of my people switches titles or jumps in to help somebody else, philosophically they know what they're doing. It might be a different tool set -- DS and PC are never going to use the same tool set per se, but the idea that the sound is triggered because of this state or this animation or this condition, or the fact that if you see a tree in the world, the birds come with it, is carried across all platforms, so it's a philosophical issue.
There are lots of technical issues about formats, engine limitations, and platform limitations, but we work in philosophical abstraction. We do the most that we can inside that buffer.
I just finished a DS game where I had 512K for audio and I had to get music in that too. The same ambience system that I was doing in The Sims 3 title, the same concept of the ambience system, was done on the DS level.
And in The Sims 3 world, it might be a two-second, three-second, four-second bird call or bird song to build the ambience. In the DS, it's a tenth of a second and I have to create the birdcall through programmatic, data-driven stuff, not just preset samples. In the certain way, the DS titles are probably going to have more interesting ambience -- at least for the geeky.