Bungie has been stealing headlines across the games media thanks to its recent divestment from Microsoft. We caught up with audio director Marty O’Donnell at the recent Video Games Live concert to discuss the deal and his thoughts on game audio…
Let's start with the big Bungie news of late - the divestment from Microsoft. What’s changed for you at the studio?
Well, I’ve been working with Bungie, and then as an employee of Bungie's, for a long time. Almost immediately after I joined we were bought by Microsoft, but from the beginning there was always this very independent feel – Microsoft was always very careful to not creatively dictate to Bungie, we’ve always been able to be really independent from a creative standpoint.
So, it’s been a really good partnership all along, and it was just the next natural step in the evolution – we want to stay independent, we want to own the stuff we make, and Microsoft I think sees that this is the best way to get the best product from Bungie – to let the team own their stuff. It’s just the next step.
Do you think that being independent will make you more creatively motivated, in that everyone now can’t just rely on Halo?
I don’t think that’s ever been a motivating factor for me. I can’t imagine just putting in time and working on something predictable. I always want to be working on the next coolest thing possible, whatever that is. But I think it’s good for the entire team to be able to realise that we’re doing this for us, we’ve always been creating stuff that’s been exciting to us, so now the rewards are bigger rewards and the penalties are greater penalties. I think it’s just a good place.
You started in advertising, and then worked as a freelancer with Bungie. What made you want to move from that into working directly for Bungie?
I started working with Bungie on Myth, and it was always really fun to work for different companies – I did a couple of other outside gigs with game companies too. But it was always really hard to get deeply involved in the process, get in early in pre-production and understand the tools, even help shape them and the implementation of the audio – it’s harder and harder to do unless you’re inside.
Bungie always brought me in really early and let me be in very deep, so when they offered me the role of audio director it seemed right – plus, my studio in Chicago had just burned down, so it just seemed like a nice reason for a transition. I think it’s been really successful for me, personally, to iterate on the engine and the processes and be more intimately involved in every aspect of audio.
What were the challenges in moving from doing music for advertisements to game music?
Well, in advertising you have to get the point across in 30 seconds. Coming to the game industry was quite natural, but everything was much broader and bigger. So it was fun for me to get out of having to work in tiny little modes and work in a long form, but still solving the same problems – how do I get people to feel a certain way.
That fits well with the belief of Halo being ’30 seconds of fun’…
[laughs] Actually, yeah, it’s funny you say that – something the guys at Bungie hadn’t really thought about, and something I feel I brought to the table, was that I knew from my advertising background that you always need something iconic that people can identify with – whether it’s a visual icon or an aural one. I knew as soon as I did the monk chant, and it caught on, that would be the thing people identify with Halo. That’s 30 seconds. It might as well be a 30 second advertisement for Halo!
It really makes me happy when people are talking about game music, and they mention the Mario theme, the Zelda theme, the Halo theme. I’m like ‘Wow!’ I’m not putting myself up with that level of music yet, but it’s fun to see other people think of the power of the Halo theme on the same level. Those are iconic themes! You immediately know what game it’s from when you hear it. So I’ve always thought that doing that sort of aural symbol.
Some would say that Japanese game music has always been very melody focused, and that most Western music has had a more ambient slant to it. Halo mixes both – was that something you set out to do intentionally?
Absolutely. But really, there’s ambient, rhythmic, harmonic, melodic – all these elements make up all sorts of kinds of music. If I’m scoring a game that’s going to take 15, 20 hours to play, why would I want to restrict myself to any one style of music? Of course melody is important, but if all of it is super-melodic then it’s going to get boring. In Halo, it’s all in there. I just want to make sure that it’s there when it needs to be.
I’ve been a game player since the early 70s, and so I’ve been watching what people like Nintendo were doing with music all that time. The only criticism I’d have of early game music was that it seemed that there was never not music. Every level had music from wall-to-wall. I can understand why technically some of that was needed, but I thought that if I ever got into game music I’d only put music where it was important, and use ambient sound and sound design to carry the rest.
You wouldn’t want to score a movie from end-to-end, otherwise the music just becomes wallpaper. You can get away with really simple music having a powerful effect when there’s not any other music on either side.
Part two of this interview can be found here.