Studio Profile: Singapore's audio design outfit IMBA Interactive
Sharon Kho is one of the three people at Singapore-based game audio studio IMBA Interactive. Their work on Dusty Revenge won an award for Audio Excellence at the 2013 IGF China, and they are working on titles like Masquerada. They believe that audio should be considered a critical part of game design from the very beginning, rather than something to be tacked on later. It's a subject that Kho is passionate about. "It is important that what we do is not just about providing high quality audio for games, but also about protecting the interests of the industry," she says. "Through forging friendships with the game development community, we find ourselves constantly pushing for meaningful collaboration instead of unnecessary competition."
Video game audio isn't Kho's first career, but she found the fashion product design industry unsatisfying. "I was caught in a constant cycle of being requested to copy the designs of others, as we were expected to churn out as many designs and as fast as possible. That made me really tired because I felt I was little more than a copying machine. After the disappointing experience with the fashion industry then, I turned to my second love, music," she says. "Taking the step to restart and study a new field at the time was a risky and daunting move, but it turned out to be the best decision I ever made."
During her time at the SAE Institute in Singapore, Kho was unsure what industry to go into until a close friend encouraged her to consider video games. "Before then, gaming to me was simply an activity I really enjoyed. I've played many games... but it never really crossed my mind that I could make sounds and music [for them]. The big turning point was when I was selected for the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT GameLab summer internship program," she says. "Going through the program really built up my confidence in doing sound and music for games, and I discovered my love for designing sound and composing musical themes for interesting new game worlds."
The other two founders of IMBA Interactive are also alumni of the GAMBIT program. "We found that we shared a passion to make a difference in the local industry," says Kho, "both in standards of work as well as creative value. With fifteen years of combined experience in diverse forms of media, we were confident that we could kick-start a movement that would augment the quality and artistic value of audio production for interactive media and games in Singapore and the region. There is a growing need to ensure meaningful experiences for users. We feel that audio will play a big part in achieving that."
Kho and her partners have a strong vision for their company. "At the core now, we have 4 main values: we understand the value of creativity and talent; we believe in the power of audio and its ability to enhance experiences; we believe in collaboration and the sharing of knowledge, and the synergy it brings; and we believe that the quality of health directly affects the quality of work," says Kho. "We believe that through collaboration, there will be more positivity associated with truly creative works instead of the negativity generated from price wars and cutthroat methods. We also strive for good health and work-life balance, despite being in a fast-paced industry."
When seeking out game development partners, IMBA looks for developers who are interested in integrating IMBA Interactive into their development team as though they were in-house. "As such, it is important that the people we work with understand our values and philosophies, as much as we understand theirs," says Kho. "We go to many conferences and talks to learn from and understand each developer and their needs. Most of our development partners come from either word of mouth, or through networking meetings."
Kho says that understanding the needs of each developer they work with and growing with them as a team is their most common challenge. "From past experience, when we overlook our communication pipeline and expectations are not communicated clearly, that's where things start going downhill," she says. "It is important to lay things out as clear as possible so that everyone is on the same page. Be it the understanding of the creative direction, or the work processes that are being used. In general, we need to be flexible with working styles."
When things go right, though, Kho finds the process well worth it. "The most satisfying experience we've had when developing a game is when the developers no longer look at us as an outsourced service provider but as part of their team; when they are open to discuss how audio can add creatively to the game," she says. "When the clients trust that we take pride in what we do and we love the game as much as they do, the end product is always something that is really satisfying to the entire development team, as well as the players."
Kho has two pieces of advice for game developers interested in contracting a studio like IMBA Interactive to do audio for their games. "Firstly, be mindful of the roles of a 'music composer' and a 'sound designer'," she says. "They are similar but very different roles. While a composer writes and produces awesome music, a sound designer on the team should cover everything else sound-related in the game: sound effects, ambience, voice and the overall soundscape of the game."
"Secondly, they must play games," Kho says. "They might or might not have made music or sound for games before, but they must know how it feels like to play a game. Many audio studios take games for granted, but making sound and music for games has its unique set of skills and technical knowledge when compared to other mediums such as film or television."
Some of the differences between game audio and audio for other forms of media are technical, but not all of them. "Player actions tend to be repetitive in games. The question is then should the sound for that action emphasis or de-emphasis that repetition," says Kho. "Part of the craft is knowing and being responsible about how the sounds and music will behave in the game engine and using the right tools to achieve the desired result, or work around technical limitations; the job doesn't stop at 'giving the client a collection of sounds.' Knowledge of game engines and scripting is a common prerequisite."
Kho also says that many developers tell IMBA that they are concerned about conveying to composers the sort of mood they want for music. "Don't use generic and ambiguous words such as 'orchestral', 'jazzy' or 'electronic'," she says. "Provide audio references as a starting point, such as pieces of music from other games or films and pointing out which part or aspect of that reference you like; perhaps a certain instrument or melody, the tempo, or even the emotions that are evoked."
Ultimately, IMBA Interactive wants to see more collaboration and resource aggregation in the indie development space. "Sharing of resources and knowledge, instead of hoarding it, is something that we feel will help all of us in the industry grow quicker and make better games," says Kho. "We hope to see and if possible work on more innovative titles that push the boundaries of games and interactive media."