Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Digital Chocolate: This was my life


In summer 2004 I remember talking to a graphics artist at Spinefarm Records. He mentioned me that he knows a friend in a Finnish mobile game company who might be looking for an "audio guy". I was nervous and inexperienced with formal jobs, so for my own surprise I was invited for an interview after sending an application with some music. Being mostly thinking I´d never get the job anyway, we headed to northern Finland to mix Verisäkeet with Moonsorrow. I didn´t bother myself with futile hopes- until right in the middle of the mixing I got a surprising phonecall from them in where they told I was hired. I started working there in October 2004 and stayed until April 2013.

Many people have called Digital Chocolate the "games university of Finland" and definitely not without a reason. People moved on from there, founding such small companies as Rovio, Supercell and whatnot, and I can bet about more than half of all Finnish gaming industry veterans have some sort of background there. I spent personally there almost nine years and witnessed the rise and fall of many platforms, genres, and the rapid change of technology- especially in mobile gaming. I was responsible for all the audio we did at Helsinki, first alone for a couple of years until my partner Jakke joined me until 2010. Without Digital Chocolate I wouldn´t be the composer I am today, and to the very day I warmly thank my ex- workmates for their awesomeness and professionality- of with many I still am good friends and even workmates today. And a proud godfather to a daughter of one! Due to financial problems, the company finally closed down in summer 2013 and I continued my adventures soon after at Rovio Entertainment as a music producer.

My last workroom, ca. 2012.
The money was always very minimal for audio and I bought 90% of the gear myself during the years. We never used any outside musicians nor we had any budget for voiceovers- everything had to be provided from that room I worked in, period. While it wasn´t always very fun, it sometimes was that indeed and it taught me a great deal of new instruments, approaches, recording techniques and even voice acting. Well, to be honest, the only teaching about voice acting was that I kinda suck in it.

I decided to put some of my game soundtracks into Youtube for historical purposes- some of these games have long ago ceased to exist and I felt it would be a shame if they would be completely forgotten. During my time at Digital Chocolate I made soundtracks and effects for close to one hundred games, and I chose these 12 to be most interesting of them all for a reason or another. The years between roughly 2006 and 2008 are mostly absent due to the fact that we started to do more audio instead of midi- but the file size limitations were still extreme. This meant basically 30- second mp3 loops... and publishing 2- minute long soundtracks wouldn´t had been interesting to anyone. However, that was already better than the limitations in 2004 when we had 30- second midi loops which had to be fit under 20 kb each. TWENTY KILOBYTES. Seriously.

It took me some time to gather the files from my backups and remaster them, and at the end I decided to put these twelve soundtracks together for public release. Some of these games are long forgotten and I have no idea who owns them nowadays. Some of them were bought by other companies. This project is completely non- commercial and my personal tribute to the mighty times at Digital Chocolate. All the material which I don´t personally own rights to should be counted as "fair use".

Full tracklists for each video can be found in Youtube, accompanied with more links and information about the game. And if you just want to play them all, click here. Otherwise, let´s start this madness like it was autumn 2004 and I had more hair, less children and way less experience.


1. Minigolf Castles (a.k.a. codename "Camelot", Mobile/ java, 2004)



My first game soundtrack ever! And to be honest, it´s rather horrible. In 2004 the standard audio format for mobile games was midi, and only the best devices could handle maximum polyphony of 16 notes. The game was about playing minigolf in a castle- like environment (duh) and the producer didn´t have any plans for the music- "just do something cool" were my literal instructions.
I was a complete terrified noob with my first project ever on my hands, trying to combine something "royally sounding" with my predecessor´s style to please the producer while still keeping all technical limitations in mind. This led into a rather peculiar mismash of regal and medieval music and nintendoesque drums and synths. Ten years later I realized having been stolen some stuff straight out of Defender of the Crown by accident, but let´s not tell that to anyone. We all start from somewhere, and here´s how I did it.

Useless fun fact: For all midi files, I had to manually convert every 16- note sound I made into 4- note polyphony midi file first, and then specific handset- format midi files with different polyphony versions...and even the sad Nokia one- note polyphony beeping called "OTT". It was usual to have ten different versions of all sounds and sometimes the conversion took longer than the actual composing. I think I still have nightmares of those.



2. Scarlotti´s Mafia Wars 2 (a.k.a. codename "Family 2", Mobile/ java, 2005)


Surviving my first chaotic experience with Minigolf Castles, my self- confidence was back and I actually came up with the music style for the next game I was working with: a mafia shoot´em up! Even though we did "only" mobile games, the designer had a massive background story, plot, written dialogues and whatnot, which only gave me more enthusiasm to do my job as professionally despite of the platform- something I proudly kept doing since then thanks to his example. We exchanged ideas and reference soundtracks together and I quickly learned that for what it comes to the game music composing, the designer is your best friend....because he/she´s the only one who actually cares. :D
I also remember getting the sound asset request with sounds like "car engine" and "machine gun" and spent hours on trying to emulate them with midi percussion sounds. Ah, good times! We also did a trailer for the game, where I could use audio instead of midi files. That was my first "own" video task (this was the first one, but it was based on the previous composer´s music. Our producer is one hell of a trailer voice guy :D) ever and I was really proud of it when it was released. And yes, of course I overdid with the explosions.

Useless fun fact: I was told to play the PC game "Mafia" for reference purposes, which I could get from the "games room". That was a room full of games, consoles, movies and books on games which I had never even imagined to exist. I remember thinking that this (basic procedure in games companies) was too good to be true. I still think so every day I feel like not wanting to go to work.


3. Tower Bloxx Deluxe 3D PC (a.k.a. codename "House PC", PC, 2008)


At this point, I had probably lost count how many remakes we had made of our 2005 original concept of "Drop the Box". Five? Not to mention the names getting just more complicated with every release (see game #4). But this time, I had the liberty of making at least longer songs with proper sounds instead of 30- second loops! The times-were-a-changing and downloadable Flash executables weren´t that picky of the size of the music assets. And as the producers weren´t particularly picky of the music style either, I took the jazzy feeling of the older games and tried to combine it with a more movie- esque sounds....which quickly turned into a very strange mixture of Danny Elfman doing cover songs of a 1970´s progressive jazz band with Pee-wee Herman. To this date, I´m not sure how this soundtrack molded itself into the weirdness it became, but it´s definitely one of the most original ones I´ve done.

Useless fun fact: When trying to figure out how I could associate "slow falling and flying" with music, I probably made a Guinness world record of "greatest amount of musical scales played downwards with different instruments in a song" when overdoing it. Yes, I overdo a lot. I am an enthusiastic person. Sorry for that.
  

4. Captain Galactic Super Space Hero (a.k.a. codename "Super", Mobile/ java, 2009)



Check out the shirt. I wasn´t kidding.
One of the hardest things in releasing games is - believe it or not- their naming. I have sat in numerous meetings brainstorming names for the game we´re working with and if there´s no clear vision from the designer, it´s hell. I believe there actually are levels in Hell which consist only of game naming meetings. And of course, after that the marketing department always scraps everything and decides horrible, unimaginitive and embarrassing names like "Extreme Snowboarding" and "Bikini Beach Party". Which, absurdly enough, were both actual game titles from us. There was a running joke at the office at the time that every game coming out after marketing dept. was called "Extreme Sexy Bikini Babe [insert a word what the game is really about] 99 Levels Edition". So, as a positive side we can rejoice that this game wasn´t named as "Extreme Space Jumping Sexy Man 30 Levels".
Speaking of the music itself, I ripped Gustav Holst. I ripped him like he was the Bringer of Jolliness himself. I bathed in his starlight, absorbing every single idea he had used in his "Planets" and goddamn I was proud of myself. I had just got this new orchestration sample package after years of whining, and I wanted to show my boss the purchase was really worth it. While the rest of the music isn´t bad at all even now and the title is kinda cheap "Superman- meets- Star Wars", the ingame music really stands tall in my opinion and I have no idea how it turned out as good as it became. Luck and enthusiasm? As this soundtrack was first composed with the sampled instruments and later converted to midi, I decided to include the better version here instead of that horrible midi orchestra. You know, just to brag a little.

Useless fun fact: None. Seriously, I couldn´t remember anything remotely funny OR useless from this game. In fact, I can´t even remember playing this game. Probably because I was too enthusiastic about making that music.


5. Tropical Dream: Underwater Odyssey (a.k.a. codename "Dolphin", PC, 2009)


Somewhere around 2008 we started to release "premium downloadable PC games" with Digital Chocolate. What it basically meant was that some of our older titles (like Tower Bloxx) got complete remakes with new gameplay aspects, graphics and music. "TD: UO" was originally based on Photoquest Fishing, which for me was screaming for a task split between Caribbean casualism (read as "Monkey Island goes Disney") and ambient music. While I always enjoy making music in general, my favourite parts were hands down the ambient ones- especially the ones you heard when venturing into deeper waters within the game. Not being exactly Lustmord or Coph Nia however, I took a ton of inspiration from World of Warcraft (....) - especially in the last song which is heavily bowing to the music you could hear in Shattrath City in the Burning Crusade- expansion (2007). Then again, Shattrath music is the best in that game ever and Matt Uelmen should be hired back this instant for the next expansion.

Useless fun fact: The lead designer, who was a convential and tidy man in his early forties proposed me to hide subliminal messages which would say "we´re all gonna die" to the soundtrack.


6. Tower Bloxx Deluxe Xbox (a.k.a. codename "Housexbox", Xbox 360, 2010)


Based on the earlier "Tower Bloxx Deluxe 3D" (....) for PC, this one was actually developed straight into Xbox 360- but the designers thought that the music needed to be changed from the earlier version because the design was also different. They wanted the music to be more energetic, more modern and more...."something"! Which of course meant that I had once again to create something completely new for this fucking game for the umpteenth time. I swear I started to have wet dreams of those little goddamn fucking ingame- midgets splashing straight to the street, splitting their skulls open to the pavement at this point, screaming horribly while they fall.
Ahem. Back to the music! Trying to combine more electronic and aphextwin-y sound with orchestral wind instruments used in the previous games,it wasn´t my usual cup of tea, but that´s how we develop our skills! The sound FX were another thing though- at some point I was officially pledging to be removed from the project because of the hundreds of asset requests flooding my email weekly due to "changes in the gameplay". Later I found out that most of them were done by one rather overexcited person, who wanted to try out stuff. <3

Useless fun fact: The intro music of the game is actually built from five separately loopable files, which would change according to the player pressing "next" in the screen to match the mood of the intro comic. Another fun and useless fact is that one positive side of DChoc closing it´s doors was that I WOULD NEVER HAVE TO SEE THIS FUCKING GAME FRANCHISE AGAIN IN MY LIFE. Next, please!
  

7. Fantasy Warrior Legends (a.k.a. codename "iSword", Mobile/ iOS, 2010)


Yes, I am known to have a healthy little fixation on World of Warcraft. And at this time it had evolved into a point where I was using the music for reference into pretty much everything. Ok, who am I kidding? I still do it to this very day. But as we mature, we tend to be more subtle on the things that inspire us on our art. At this point, I wasn´t. Then again, I demand some slack because this was an RPG and for the first time ever I could compose music for that genre with no restrictions. The result was naturally that Jungle sounds like Stranglethorn Vale... Magic Forest is all Crystalsong Forest and don´t even get me started on Volcanic. And the rest is pretty much scattered Baldur´s Gate and Diablo all over. It´s not the most original score I have composed but it´s working as intended (tm).
We did an awesome marketing video track for the game with me and my workmate Jakke (who I could never imagine to have that high falcetto) but those bastards never used it. Those bastards! For the other sounds, I have to mention one fun saturday at the empty office, recording my banging of used computer cases for impact effects and voice- acting every monster in the game. Yääääergghhhh!

Useless fun fact: In the alternative Monastery track, I´m actually singing real words with muffled Finnish. It´s "lisää liksaa" in Gregorian style, which can be roughly translated as "more salaries" (sic). The producer didn´t find it as amusing as I did and my snickering quickly turned into more hours spent on another, new track without any vocals.


8. Zombie Lane (a.k.a. codename "Dead", Browser, 2011)


ZOMBIES! FINALLY! After years of Bikini Basketball Lollipop Adventures in Casualland, we would actually develop a real, isometric zombie horror game! "Wait, what? But that´s not the Zombie Lane I know!" Yep, it really isn´t. Because we actually had a full concept and a playable version of that kind of Zombie Lane until something happened and the whole game went completely overhauled. Retrospectively thinking, that was one of the best choices at Digital Chocolate because this game as we know it now became a huge hit. I used to love this game when it was under development and had a ton of fun creating the music for the various extra content which was done over time. My own guidelines were just "wacky and stupid cartoon zombies farting around" and music- wise it became a weird crossbreed with twangy guitars, dannyelfmans and The Munsters.
I made a lot of extra stuff into the game as well, but for some reason it was never used. My absolute favourite was once again something I did completely out of context and on a whim; the "Rainbows and Lollipops" which is an actual song with actual lyrics. The most clever of you might also figure out the source of this...ehm, silliness. Let´s just say it is a homage. :D Out of the door, line on the left, one cross each!

Rainbows and Lollipops
Everything is fine
When you´ve got your shovel on your side


Sunshine and unicorns
Dancing hand in hand
In this magic lovely wonderland


I wish I could share this happiness with you
I wonder if the zombies ate you too
Did you taste like lollipops and sweets
And did you scream in between all the beats


Useless fun fact: The "guiro"- sound in the main title isn´t a guiro. I didn´t have one when needed, so I stretched my keychain and played it with a spoon. And I´m also every single zombie in this game. Braiiiiinsssss!


9. Army Attack! (a.k.a. codename "Army", Browser, 2011)



Mr. Braunschweig in all action!
One of the most fun projects we did at Digital Chocolate was Army Attack, a military strategy game for Facebook. There was some really interesting concepts of using heavy metal (!) in the soundtrack but we didn´t unfortunately get it ever working as well as we wanted. After trial- and erroring with different ideas on rock and metal genres, we finally settled up into a more military music- based orchestral score with the emphasis on longevity combined with a ton of different ambience tracks I designed. After the initial release in early 2011, an expansion after another arrived on my desk and after four unique gameplay tracks the project was finally reaching it´s end of life support.
As I was responsible for every single sound in the game, and being rather tight- budgeted project as usual, I remember having to create machine guns myself from combining kick drum samples with my keychain and whatnot. The voiceover creation was also quite fun- as we didn´t have any budget for them either, we did all them internally with random team- members. Having free hands, we ended up using all sorts of internal jokes instead of anything "proper", ranging from Warcraft 2- impersonations into a certain Austrian- American action movie star- clichés and back. Now where´s my cigar?



Useless fun fact: I combined a lot of individual screams from Moonsorrow´s "Varjoina"- album to emphasize death and injury- sounds in the game.


10. Gangs of Boomtown (a.k.a. codename "Crime/ West", Browser, 2011)



Now this thing was HUGE. And with huge, I mean it. I don´t think we´d ever spend so much effort, money and resources on a game than Boomtown. From audio perpective, the first time in the company´s history we had proper voiceovers done by professional actors which was something completely unheard of. We even had a goddamn launch party with live music in a bar in Helsinki. And we collaborated with Google on this one. Everything was just so...Texas. I remember running to my boss that I absolutely need a nylon- string guitar for some of the songs and against all odds it actually went through and I got it. And we even pressed a soundtrack cd out of this and spreaded it around!
The music creation was a lot of fun- I checked out Deadwood (again, cocksucker!), went through a pile of western game soundtracks and then decided to do a hybrid between actual songs background music. I played a lot of instruments myself here- pretty much everything except for the orchestral ones and drums which were sampled. And I´m still a bit sorry for my co- workers who had to listen to my practicing of better slap bass techniques in "Presley Bandits". All in all, I really felt doing a proper soundtrack for a game instead of just something casual background music, and I hope my enthusiasm can also be heard while listening to it.

Useless fun fact: One of the reasons I got hired to Rovio later was that they were very impressed about me playing that many instruments when hearing this soundtrack. Sometimes, it actually pays off to practice!


11. Kings and Warlords (a.k.a. codename "Castle", Browser, 2012)



This cabbage had to give it´s life for greater good.
"MMORPG? You can´t be fucking serious!??!", I yelled to the producer. Needless to say, I was thrilled; after eight years of working here, I finally had the chance to make music for a game genre I truly loved! It took me some time (months) to figure out what the designers actually wanted with the music and I finally settled for rather Jeremy Soule- kind of approach with lots of reverb and big chords instead of the more "Conan the Azerothian"- styled music which was my first intent. When the new features "Catapult" and "Toss the Pig" got introduced, however, I got more free hands to fart around as no- one wasn´t paying attention anymore (which is another story I will withold for now, hah!). It took me two weeks to compose and orchestrate the Catapult- song deliberately in a way Basil Poledouris would probably had done it, and I´m still very proud of it as it also marks me the times I first really started to pay attention on orchestration in general.
New features were planned and the game was intended to get even more priority on our pipeline, but then the layoffs hit and the game died- just like my army in the vast plains of whatevertown, accompanied by my own music. The irony!

Useless fun fact: When I was informed that we are going to make a mini- MMORPG I was actually secretly playing World of Warcraft at work. Yes, it was a slow week.


11. Galaxy Life (a.k.a. codename "Star Nations", Browser, 2012)


Because the Barcelona office of Digital Chocolate lacked an audio designer/ musician of their own, I was every now and then assigned to their projects while I didn´t have my hands tied in Helsinki ones. I created them seven (!!) different title music versions which were all turned down until they finally provided me some reference material in the vein you´re hearing now. I provided them quite a lot of variations of the music later to make the gameplay sounding a bit less repetitive, of which only some was used due to lack of communication and probably interest and resources on their side.
I loved to play the game with my son and I especially liked the graphical style, reminding me heavily of a crossbreed between Starcraft games and the Minions from Despicable Me. A soundtrack of the early version of the game was released on Spotify and iTunes without consulting me at all, featuring also demo versions and even sound FX from the game. I still hate it this day.
The last song I ever did for Digital Chocolate was the Mercenary- one, and two weeks after submitting the track to Barcelona most of us were first laid off temporarily, followed by closing down the company a month later. The Barcelona office got bought by Ubisoft and as far as I know, this game is still somehow maintained under them.

Useless fun fact: All the alien and creature sounds were actually my then 6- year old son speaking gibberish to the microphone for minutes, to be heavily edited later.



EPILOGUE


I hope this personal mini- documentary will encourage people to check out more about the Finnish game development history in general and see how we all have been coming a long way since. While there are always corporate decisions, big shots demanding features we personally hate and looming deadlines we try to catch in every place, we developers and creators wouldn´t be doing this if we didn´t love what we do. Even the days I don´t want to go to work, I know I love it and wouldn´t want to do anything else for living instead. And I hope that can be seen and heard in this text and in my present work as well.

And for all the Digital Chocolateers who made it this far: you made those nine years seem like a month. <3 Don´t punch me too hard when we meet next time if you recognized yourself!

Henu


The awesome HR- ladies promised that I could take the soundproofing material when I left. After all, what would the company do with those after I was gone? Too bad I didn´t remember how I attached them in the first place. Well, I did leave a "sorry for the wall"- message for them, though. Sorry again, luv ya!

















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