[Veteran composer Jesper Kyd has scored music for massive franchises like Hitman and Assassin's Creed, but in working with old friends at startup Reto-Meto, he tells Gamasutra he's getting back to his roots.
Perhaps best known for the music of the Assassin's Creed
franchise, game and film composer Jesper Kyd (samples at his website
) originally launched his career in the vibrant European "demoscene" of the late 80s and 90s.
When he moved from Denmark to the U.S. in 1993, the hot ticket at the time was the Sega Genesis. Kyd's demoscene history -- exploiting limited, channel-starved sound hardware -- proved to be a perfect match for Sega's 16-bit console, and his nuanced electronic tunes are regarded as highlights of the generation.
During those early years before going independent, Kyd composed for a string of cult hits alongside Danish demoscene friends that also moved to the U.S., notably the core founders of what would later become developer IO Interactive.
Kyd's work has earned him a BAFTA, and spans popular games and franchises including IO's popular Hitman
series, Gearbox's Borderlands
and Namco Bandai's upcoming Soul Calibur V
, and now we find Kyd coming full circle to work with his old friends again at Copenhagen, Denmark studio Reto-Moto
Kyd talks to Gamasutra about this early history, composing for projects of all sizes, and working with Reto-Moto on browser-based World War II shooter-MMO hybrid Heroes & Generals
which is slated for PC, smartphones and tablets.
Let's talk about your history with Reto-Moto. Most of these guys were previously with IO Interactive during the Hitman days, but you've been friends since the Amiga demoscene era.
Yeah, I've known them since the beginning of the 90s pretty much, probably around '89-'90. Around that time I was doing demos with a group of people, an extension of what was called Silents -- the Danish edition of the group. The Swedish edition of Silents actually consisted of the guys who started [Battlefield
developer] DICE, called Digital Illusions at the time. They went on to be quite successful.
I'd say so. You continued to carry the torch for the Danish group?
We continued Silents and we met another demo group called Crionics, with a lot of talented programmers. We got together to make games and we did our first title for Sega Genesis called SubTerrainia
, which we sold to Sega. Then in 1993, I think there were about seven of us, we all moved to the U.S. We went on to make other games on Sega Saturn, PSOne and PC. Most of these same guys are at Reto-Moto now.
You stayed in the U.S. to work as an independent musician, but the Reto-Moto founders returned to Denmark at one point and ultimately established IO Interactive.
Yeah, they moved back around 1997 to form IO [Interactive]. I decided at the time that I wanted to stay in the U.S. and go for it with my music, though I was invited to go back and join them.
Did you have any regrets at the time about not relocating with them?
It worked out fine, but it wasn't easy for me or for any of us. It's not easy to start a company and to start from scratch again. I don't want to speak for those guys, but it kind of felt like we were all starting over. I was constantly in touch with them through the process of re-building.
Do you think it was easier for smaller studios back in the late 90s, in terms of aiming for AAA games?
I think it was definitely easier back then. There's up to a thousand people working on the Assassin's Creed
games or something crazy like that, you know? But back then you could still be a relatively small team and create something cool and competitive.
When the IO founders left Eidos around 2004, did you know they were planning to re-form as an independent studio and attempt a unique browser-based game concept?
We're really good friends and we always hang out when I'm over there visiting. So yeah, at some point they were ready to share their latest, greatest idea with me and we took it from there.
Heroes & Generals (above) revolves around the intriguing concept of a central War Server that hosts different client and game types in a persistent online war, and one of the primary goals is to open H&G to the public before its release. That's new territory for this team.
A different scenario does make a lot of sense if you think about. The business model of creating a game and working on it for years, then releasing it to the public and not knowing how it will be received, who will embrace it -- that's a big gamble. So you could potentially finish a couple of maps, or a couple of missions, and get those out there to see if people are embracing it. Get their feedback. Maybe release new maps on a small payable scale. That kind of model should work from my perspective.
It's too risky for some publishers to even consider, even though it's still based on a traditional AAA development arc.
Right, when you think about it, you still have to build the technology, tweak the core gameplay, and do the bulk of the work that goes into any major game. Sure, you don't have to build all the art assets right away if you only have one map instead of ten, but one of the hardest things to get right in a video game is the gameplay. I don't think an open door development model suddenly solves every problem, but it's player feedback towards gameplay, the most important thing.
Do you change your pipeline for a smaller developer, compared to huge titles like Assassin's Creed?
No, I basically go for it with every project I have. I never take on a project thinking it's going to be easy, or thinking it might have less sales, so I'll do less of a job. It's just a nice side effect when a game happens to blow up, like with Assassin's Creed
I've been around startups. When you have veteran talent and friends on board, it can be incredibly exciting work in the early stages.
Exactly -- that's why it reminds of the early IO days. Just to see the amount of super-talented guys on board. The excitement of being there; they know they're part of this kick ass crew. I probably shouldn't oversell these things, but really -- the sky is the limit when you have these pieces in place. When I was there, they have the same kind of set up as early IO, and it's that same type of feeling. I remember them working on Hitman back then, pouring out all these radical ideas. Like, nobody had ever seen proper ragdolls in a game until back then; they invented that stuff.
What's it like composing in a more intimate production environment again, compared to an Assassin's Creed where the team numbers in the hundreds?
It's great working with my friends again, and it's refreshing for me. I mean, I don't pick projects based on size. I gravitate towards projects that I enjoy: Games I think are going to be fun. If you gave me the biggest game that has ever been made, but told me it was going to be a nightmare project, I would flat out say "No thanks" right away. Hmm, now that I think about it, I probably shouldn't say that! But right now it's kind of open-ended as far as how much music we're going to need and how we'll use it.
The entire game trajectory seems very open-ended.
That's one of the great things with online games: It can change all the time and you can put in new content and features. So I see it more like being part of a journey, as opposed to an Assassin's Creed
, where you do the score and it's done -- we'll see you next time. This is more like: OK, I'm part of this, and I'm going to hopefully keep being part of this.