INTERVIEW: Mark Kilborn - Audio Director at Raven Software
Posted: February 1st, 2014, 2:54 am
If you take a look at Mark's credit list you'll see a series of games that most game developers would move across the globe to have the opportunity to be a part of. Having worked on titles such as Tony Hawk, Forza Motorsport, and the iconic Call of Duty franchise, Mark has had a lustrous career so far in the video game industry. It's part of the reason he was one of the first people I asked to do this for the forum. His experiences and knowledge in the industry is a great asset for readers and aspiring sound designers. Even though our conversation is fairly brief, I encourage you to Google Mark. Being active among social networks and giving interviews to various blogs, he has divulged a wealth of great info.
You can find Mark on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/markkilborn
Thanks for being a part of this, Mark.
With your diverse credit list, what genres have been the most fun to work on? Is there a particular genre that you find the most challenging?
Everything has its challenges but I find first-person games, whatever the genre, to be the most exciting and challenging to work on. It's the ultimate attempt at immersion. You're putting the player IN the world, from the perspective of their character, and you have to create this sonic simulation around them. Whether it's hyper realistic or out there and wildly creative, you have a world to fill with sound, and you have to do it in such a way that it's believable.
I have this idea I like to call fictional realism. Even games that are completely wacky and out there (like... The Unfinished Swan, for example!) have their own realism. There are things that are realistic in that world and things that are not. It's your job as a sound professional to figure out what works, what doesn't, and execute. And this isn't just about content, that's only half of the creative process. The implementation as well has to be well done and realistic. Sounds have to travel in the correct way, be occluded in the correct way, reverberate in the correct way. And you, based on your understanding of the world you're creating, have to figure out what's correct.
You're an avid collector of vintage games and video game consoles. Do any of these inspire you during your creative process on modern projects?
Sure. The history of our medium is a treasure trove of ideas, both aesthetic and technical. Don't get me wrong, it's a far reach from Combat to Call of Duty, but there are ideas to find. Even games as far back as Halloween on the 2600 were using dynamic music, crude though it was. Many iconic sounds from the past are useful as reference when attempting more gamey sounds in modern projects. The Mario coin, the Sonic ring, the powered-up sword swing in the original Legend of Zelda.
Often the simplicity of the sounds in old games, due to the hardware limitations, can help you understand what's fundamentally important in a given sound. That can help you focus. You listen to a game like Contra for the NES. The guns sound like guns. I've got 24/48 WAV playback capability here, they had two pulses, a triangle, noise and one DPCM. But they still pulled it off by focusing on what gets that message across to the player that they're firing a weapon. It's an important lesson and a useful reminder from time to time.
We both attended Full Sail University around the same time. When people ask me whether it's worth it I honestly have a hard time answering that question. For me, I think it depends on the person's background and knowing the drive they have to pursue a career. Personally, I knew what I wanted to do but didn't have the guts to move away from family and try and jump right into a career. I think going to school not only educated me on what was necessary to do my job, but also gave me the courage to take chances. What are your thoughts on pursuing further education in audio? Do you think it's necessary?
Ultimately, your output is what matters. When I'm hiring, I don't care where you went to school if your demo materials are impressive enough. You need to shoot for the stars, compare your work to the best of the best, and if you're not as good as them you need to keep working at it until you are. It's a lifelong pursuit. I have a long way to go. Randy Thom obviously has less ground to cover than I do, he's a master, but I'm sure there are still ways he's expanding and learning too.
To that end, if you're staring into the abyss of game audio, an important question to ask yourself is this: how can I get better? The answer is going to be different for everyone, but I've often found that the best way to improve is by being the worst guy in the room. Surround yourself with people better than you, learn from them, provide something of use to them in exchange (i.e. do your job well), try to level up and play at their level. When you do, find even better people, and repeat.
You might find that at school, or you might find it elsewhere. I learned a lot at Full Sail, especially from guys like Mike Orlowski and Keith Lay, and I'm thankful for the experience. But, as with you, I got out of it what I put into it. Many students coasted at FS and as far as I know have gone nowhere. A small group of us were tenacious: we got to class on time every time, did every assignment as best we could, sat in the front row of every class, convinced our instructors to give us extra lab time so we could get more hours to work on things, etc. And we've all got audio jobs now.
That said, I learned ten times as much in my six month internship at a place called Ringside Creative in Oak Park, MI. I was working with guys like Jay Scott, Matt Cimino, and Gary Pillon, who's kind of an "old man on at the top of the mountain" of audio. He's invented techniques and hardware that are in use by sound people all over the world. Anyway, I was this enthusiastic early 20s kid surrounded by people who were twice my age and infinitely more experienced than I. I did my best, was polite and respectful, they appreciated it and in turn taught me as much as they could, and I made some lifelong friends. So if you can get that kind of experience with some grizzled ancients, I highly recommend it, because I feel like it accelerated my career quite a bit.
During the development of the Call of Duty series, multiple development teams collaborate to make the title the best it can be. How are the various inputs from audio creatives handled?
We figure it out. Usually there's an established pecking order, someone is definitively in charge, and they have final say. But for the most part we all get along, we trust each other, and we're all generally moving toward the same goal. So we find the commonality and compromise with each other on the rest. For the good of the project, we have to get on the same page, so we do. I always hesitate to speak for others, but I think it's fair to say that we're all about what sounds best, and we don't really care where a given idea comes from. We have small egos. If an intern can school one of us audio directors on how to make the best sounding MP5 in the world, great, bring it on. If it sounds the best, we'll use it.
It's a very educational and, at times, humbling experience working with some of these guys. The collective audio experience of all the CoD audio teams is immense, and I feel like I'm learning from them all the time (and hopefully teaching them something too!).
How do you think we can push games more sonically? What would you like to see that hasn't been done before?
I've been thinking a lot about this while playing the shiny new consoles that arrived at the Kilborn house just before Christmas. I struggle trying to come up with some whiz-bang feature or technique that will "revolutionize" game audio, but I also don't want to answer this question with some touchy-feely answer about connecting with the player on a deeper level and creating emotional resonance or something like that. Don't get me wrong, that stuff is important, but I'm a practical guy and I like to focus on how shit actually gets done.
So this is what I've got so far, work in progress and all that: I believe next-gen audio needs to be less about new features and technologies and more about a convergence of all the disparate ideas that have been floating around this industry for the last ten or so years. We need to bring all of it together into a cohesive package. This means dynamic music systems, real-time loudness- and frequency-aware mixing, real-time DSP for key elements, intelligent playback systems keyed off in-game events and data, realistic sound propagation/reverberation/occlusion, the whole deal. Tons of games have done various things off this list, some have done a lot of them, but very few games have brought all of that technology together with a strong aesthetic vision, the ability to succeed and the wisdom to balance both content and implementation to create the whole package.
We need strong leaders to herd projects toward this, to not favor dialogue or music or whatever their pet interest is, to fight with the engineers (physically if necessary!) to get the tech support and resources needed, to fight with marketing over bad celebrity casting, to get the money needed, to fight the fires and to simply get it done.
People talk a lot about how modern game audio is competitive with film, but for the most part I still don't feel that it is. But it can be. This generation, we should have enough resources to reach that bar. We just have to achieve the holistic audio experience. And there I go using touchy-feely words to describe it. D'oh!