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Method 3: Engineer the Problem

Occasionally a producer, designer, programmer, or publisher will look at the one-to-forty problem and recognize it as an issue worthy of his Brilliant Problem-Solving Ability. He will then proceed to decide to solve the problem cleverly. Or, as some might say, "cleverly," in quotes.

I've heard a lot of ideas that qualify as Method 3. From time to time, a producer will insist that the audio for a game be produced using Microsoft Direct Music Composer, a program that will be discussed elsewhere in this book (unless my technical editor forgets to remind me to cover it, which I kind of hope happens because I don't want to get another call from Microsoft like the one I got the last time I misinterpreted Direct Music Composer in print). Sometimes a producer has an idea in mind for layering audio, so that more exciting instruments get added as action becomes more interesting. Sometimes there is a more ambitious artist who envisions bringing to fruition his own personal vision of the connection between graphics, gameplay, and audio that will somehow create an ever-varying reactive audio experience. Sometimes these ideas are stinking brilliant, and sometimes they're just plain stinking.

The proposed benefits that tie all the Method 3s together are that somehow the effort and resources that it takes to compose X minutes of music, plus some amount of additional engineering can result in 40X minutes of fresh entertainment. The mood of the developer is always hopeful. The lowest expectation is that a particular chosen Method 3 will affect the results of a composer's efforts the same way that the 39 mysterious "helper" parts of Hamburger Helper affects a single part of hamburger. The highest expectation is that the chosen Method 3 would be like shipping 39 robotic clones of the composer in the game box, each clone brilliantly programmed by the composer to do his precise bidding, responding deftly and with precise real-time artistic insight to every subtle twitch of the gamer's joystick.

Positives: It certainly can look good on paper when a nice, scientific-looking designer struts into the room full of suits and proposes a never-before-heard audio machine that will use science, math, and good old Cutting Edge-ness1 to allow music to sound different every time it's heard. Money people and marketing people will often sit up and listen, because they respond well to the idea of technological innovation. And well they should. Technological innovation has a history of tending to sell product. Moreover, I like when Method 3 comes up because it's a magnificent change from the ordinary when actual valuable programming resources get moved to the audio realm.

The strongest positive is, however, very, very much more significant than those in the last paragraph. The Big Time Beautiful thing about Method 3 is that sometimes the sounds that come from gameplay on these innovative sound engines can actually create audio entertainment experiences that could only have come from a game—experiences that will never be found in movies, television, or CDs. Method 3 thinking is precisely what's needed to break us of our awkward adolescent habit of considering anything "movie-like" to be good.

Hooray for Method 3.

Negatives: Ahem.

Well, my pet theory, which is almost certainly wrong, states that Method 3 is like trying to build a baby-sitting robot instead of being with your kids. My theory states that it is always better to direct all your audio energy toward making lots and lots and lots of warm, exciting, varying, heartfelt audio (see Method 4 below), and that you can do this better with a kazoo and a cassette recorder than with physically modeled 3D interactive vaporware.

But, theory aside, the problem is that, in practice, it's not music. Wait, that's too strong, of course I don't mean that, I don't even know why I said it. I take it back. I just mean to say, well—it's not music. Yet. That I know of.

I am so dying to be proven wrong on this point, but so far the practical fact is that I have not heard any music that has been produced by any "Method 3" engine that I would willingly play on my computer for any reason other than business research. Please send me an angry email that proves me wrong!!!

I have great optimism that this is not a permanent situation, nor is it due to a problem inherent in nonconventional, nonlinear composing methods. I merely think that it's a tools problem. The tools are hard to get a hold of, hard to understand, hard to operate, based on a single person's artistic vision of how music should react to games, or all four, and you just can't build a good robot-babysitter from them. The brilliant young composers who would potentially crack this nut are either not exposed to good tools—or any tools—or they're spending so much energy learning the tool they have that by the time they are finished writing a tune, there is no life-force left in them to put the levity and surprise and joy into music that makes it, well, music.

Really, I don't mean to make it sound so terrible. I heard one of the great proponents of Direct Music Composer say that the learning curve for that program is more a learning cliff. But the view, he said to its credit, is great from up there. Those are strong and wonderful words, and they deserve to be taken seriously. And as I've said earlier, if any game audio guys have jumped from said cliff from sheer frustration, the news hasn't gotten to me. We're all still alive.

Hey, you ever play Lemmings? What a great game. Oh, sorry. Back to the topic...

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