What is the sound of fantasy?

It was the obvious first question to ask ourselves. Was the answer to create audio that is highly realistic, or should we mimic sounds rather than using real samples? Perhaps sound design would not even be an influence to create a fantasy mood and instead music would hold the answer.

Thinking about such a broad question made it obvious there was not going to be a straightforward answer and instead of aiming for at a high concept, we aimed our attention at the pragmatic. A good starting point would be to understand fixed variables such as imposed by platform, budget, milestones, game-play, audience, technology, art direction, setting and even similar games.

... that might seem like confining creative freedom but it is in fact a liberating step ...

Understanding a projects fixed variables helps to define the scope, setting boundaries to help make creative decisions quickly and in a focused way. That might seem like confining creative freedom but it is in fact a liberating step. Knowing what your goal is going to be helps focus decisions in the right direction and maximizes usable creativity. In my experience this is one of the more difficult parts of (game)-development and many of the creative people I admire the most have spent a portion of their career to learn this. I'd be lying if I said I didn't still struggle with it at times.

Not in the least influenced by a personal fascination with sonic journeys, as we nailed down out goals a creative direction did start to develop. As the technical, budget and time possibilities where charted, it seemed the best plan of attack was to create dense streaming audio soundscapes, augmented by limited spot (in the environment) sounds and a (short) music score that would highlight achievements rather than server as aural wallpaper (or plaster even). The experience of playing Spellborn would be as if walking in the environments. It influenced the design of audio, including voices and music and every audio decision could be traced back to this origin.

With a creative direction in place and the project's scope charted, we had a solid point to work from.

A concept drawing of a game world (shard) taken from the vision document.



Technology and creativity

We researched similar games finding that many used just one ambiences for a relatively large zone, like a forest-area. Some extra sound effects would represent specific occurrences, like a stream of water or a campfire. Most similar games would also have a few pieces of music to set the mood which is an effective and resource friendly approach when a large open-world setting requires constant sound.

... A forest might be a forest, but it will sound different on an open dirt road or when under a canopy of leaves. ...

Developing games is hard enough and it is smart to follow tried and proven methods. Wheels need not always be reinvented but here we found the usual solution to be at odds with the proposed creative direction. How could one ambience effectively communicate a sense of progression or transition between similar yet different acoustic environment? A forest might be a forest, but it will sound different on an open dirt road or when under a canopy of leaves. One generic ambience could not take the many possible smaller transitions into account.

Village, Fields, Forest and Demon Wall. One ambience for all these areas combined could never fully describe the transitions between each sub-area.


... environment is an important narrative tool in first and third person games ...

A lesson learned from my time as a level designer is that the environments is an important narrative tool in first and third person games. Showing a goal at the start of a level is a narrative trick that a level designer will often use, acting as a visual reminder during the experience of progression and in the process, becoming part of the experience narrative. Like a castle that is constantly seen on the horizon. It works well because in an interactive medium the actions of the protagonist are controlled instead of observed and progression through an environment is the kind of story that can be told at the players pace. In an interactive medium we don't just identify with a character, we control their very actions. Sound can be used in a similar way by associating it to parts of an environment in such a way that transitions occur when moving from one area to the next.

... in an interactive medium we don't just identify with a character, we control their very actions ...

How small the parts of an environment can be is determined by two factors, the amount of time available to create audio and the processing available to deliver them. The smaller each area, the more transitions are experienced when moving. Having done the research at the start of the project, we knew we were technologically and time-budgetary limited and could thus not create unique sounds for every possible transition.

Was this a conclusion other audio designers had reached at this point in production? Was their pragmatic solution to rely on atmosphere and music instead of trying to paint more intricate transitions? In other words, did they choose to implement audio based on the progression of (linear) time rather than the choice to move in any given direction?

Most MMORPG's of that time used three layers of sound for their environments. A limited amount of spot-effects for specific objects in the environment (expensive on resources) an ambience to give life to a larger landmass and music to set the mood and convey an emotion. Technically those are two different systems. The spot-effects have an actual location in the world become louder when closer to it. The other two (ambience and music) are both streamed loops and triggered to play or stop. This system had been proven time and again in other MMORPG's and there was always something to be heard. It however did not follow movement and progression as closely as we'd like.

Several experiments, prototypes and tests later (and many meetings) we figured we could change the streaming loop based on where someone is in the world. A bit like shuffling a playlist of music, but instead of doing it randomly at the end of each song, we would do it based on location. If we had enough songs, we could define smaller areas and more transitions and because we'd essentially still be producing linear audio to stream, the creation could be done using existing (fast) tools and methods. Moreover, it didn't require radical new tech and only require a small adaptation to a tried and tested method.

Top: a city environment as it appears in game. Below: displaying the 4000+ "sound-sources" (as green wireframe spheres) that define the audio for all the seperate areas.


How we achieved it

Following movement in a large world requires many different sounds to represent that world. Limited hardware resources prevented all those sounds to be individually placed in the world. So we choose to pack a large portion of them together into streams. A crude analogy for a stream is that you can transport a lot more marbles in one hand when you put them into a bag first (and transport the bag instead of each individual object).

The drawback to the method being that a stream of audio will always sound the same when you play it back. It is played back in a linear way while movement in a game is distinctly non-linear. A stream would never know what the player was doing as its progression is linked to time and a persons' progression is linked to movement.

If we wanted sound to follow transitions between smaller areas of an environment (small enough to notice anyway) we would need a way to know what a player was doing, and the best way was to define areas in the world and link them to a corresponding ambiences. Using a fixed environment to wait for the experience to come to it at its own pace.

Virtual speakers (white wireframes) are linked to audio players. The sound from the audio players is heard at the location of the speaker and reduces in volume from center towards the edge.


We came up with virtual speakers and we linked those to virtual audio players. When someone in the game environment would move inside the influence of a virtual speaker, the linked audio player could grab a little bit of audio and play it back at a volume proportionally to the distance from the center.

Where sphere's with different streaming audio overlap, moving between them gives the impression of the sound changing gradually according to the movement not the passing of time. Similarly to having two real sound-speakers playback different pieces of audio, the closer to either speaker the louder that piece of audio will sound.

The virtual audio-players where designed to playback any kind of sound (directional effects or stereo streams) and modulate volume, pitch or frequency-of-play over time. These days the system is very common in game engines, but we had to think of and design then build it into Unreal 2.5 ourselves. Brian Wrenn was lead on the audio code and did an amazing job streamlining the system and coming up with additional features.

... just a few sounds could be hooked to thousands of virtual speakers without ever stressing the system ...

The approach was in part so usable because a single virtual audio player could be hooked to thousands of virtual speakers without stressing the system. A person could never occupy all those virtual speakers at the same time. Moving between them was little more than starting/stopping a stream and raising or lowering the volume. Obviously, care had to be taken when placing the spheres as to prevent many different streams from overlapping. It was however possible to place a magical "sparkling" sound for the numerous lamp-posts or add the sound of leaves rustling to every single tree or individual insect sounds near specific plants. Within days an entire area could be populated with sounds; it really was that quick and intuitive. And when moving past all those objects, the sound would actually change accordingly. It was quick and relatively cheap to produce, but immersive and interactive in the experience.

An average area would receive some 150 virtual audio players equipped with cheap-on-resources compressed streams or more expensive uncompressed directional sound effects. These where linked to an average 2000 virtual speakers per area. Almost all streams needed a day/night variation to accommodate for the day/night cycle, doubling the amount of streams needed during transitions between day and night. Thanks to Brians' optimization, audio only requested an average 1ms per rendered frame, very little if you consider a frame can take up 33ms to render for a 30fps game. If audio is 30% of the experience (a quote by Steven Spielberg) we sure weren't achieving it at that cost to processing though did well exceeded it in storage resources.

Using streams, the audio in The Chronicles of Spellborn exceeded our initially ambitious goal, it was indeed possible to recognize an area and even sub-areas from the sound it produced.

A heavily modified version of the Unreal 2 engine was used for Spellborn. We created our own streaming, animation based triggering and occlusion solution to provide a detailed and rich audio experience.

Birdseye view of virtual audio-players in the starting zone. 135 virtual audio players are linked to 1311 virtual audio speakers.


Having solved some of the technical hurdles the solution of using streams was, as is often the case in game-development, a compromise. Going back to the earlier example of the marbles in a container, that method of transportation locks them into a pre-set configuration. The red ones can't just move towards the yellow ones without opening the container. Equally, in a stereo stream a sound that is placed to the left will always be heard as coming from the left regardless if someone in the game world is panning in circles. This could invalidate the illusion of depth that was so carefully woven into the creation of the linear ambience streams.

... much like the brain can be tricked into perceiving a rapid series of "frames" as a fluid motion our ears can be similarly fooled into perceiving depth ...

After months of testing and fine-tuning we came to a remarkably simple solution. Much like the brain can be tricked into perceiving a rapid series of "frames" as a fluid motion our ears can be similarly fooled into perceiving depth.

Adding directional spot-sounds in the world to complement the ambience tricked ears into believing everything had direction. The effect turned out to be so strong that one or two carefully chosen sounds where enough to achieve depth. Directional effects are more expensive so needing just a few was a workable compromise.

The effect was so convincing that we never once received a beta-player or co-worker comment which had noticed most of the sound in The Chronicles of Spellborn to be static. To the contrary, we even received commented that the world sounded real, like playing with the windows open. It was the best compliment imaginable. At one point in our testing we did experiment with systems to rotate the stereo stream and even using a 5.1 stream briefly but the results where not so impressive as to justify the higher cost in processing or memory usage. Sometimes, realism is simply not to directly mimic reality.

Instead of the impossible route of using many directional spot-sounds to narrate transitions or designing a complicated new technical approach for interactivity, we achieved our goals through iteration on existing systems. The end result was equal or better to comparable games at the time while it didn't force our players to invest in new sound hardware.


Streaming ambiences
An infinite amount of sounds, effects and music can be packed into a single, compressed, streaming ambience and placed anywhere in the world.


A technical solution and the required tools where in place. The actual production of ambiences required some creative thinking to work around the compromises. Movement (in audio terms) would be a crossfade of different ambiences and this could be noticeable.

Furthermore the individual ambiences also required progression. People not moving around, would otherwise hear the same sound of wind or birds over and over again. In a real forest birds move around all the time and the wind is usually not constant either.

A way to achieve progression in ambiences was to apply principles learned in 15 years of creating ambient environment soundscapes. Like most good music, ambient too seeks to entertain a listener. What makes (good) ambient music unique is that it does so without asking for attention in a way as to demand it. When applied to sound design in games it helps mask repetition and prevents audio from becoming predictable or worse; boring.

The ambience's for The Chronicles of Spellborn where all structured like a composed piece of ambient music. Structured like that, an ambience would always evolve and tell an abstract story so that the environment appears to be alive.

The following audio/video example demonstrates this progression:

    Field ambience notes from the audio design document:
    Sounds of the wind fade in and out. Use effects and panning to make the wind appear as to come from far away. Have the wind move through neighboring trees. Rustling of leaves in the distance before the wind engulfs the player in a swift gust.

    Quiet the layers of insect and bird sound to create a "chilled" atmosphere. A bird flies up in distress. As the wind calms, chimes sound somewhere in the distance.

    Bring back the warmth using a minimal synthesizer ambience. Once the mood feels warmer again, fade in the layers of cricket sounds and birds.


The field ambience follows the principles of ambient music, interesting enough for someone that is actively listening yet it doesn't impose itself when playing the game.

A streaming ambience worked best if it was at least two minutes long. Shorter and the loop became obvious and much longer only increased the overall file size of the game. In placing ambiences I always took into account that players would need less than those two minutes to move from at least one ambience (area) to another.

On average every ambience was built from a collection of 15 to 150 individual sounds. Outdoor areas required a day and night version to be created to follow the cycle in the game. Ambience's would cross-fade between both versions at dawn and dusk over a short period of time.

Considering the transitions between day and night and the possibility of music playing, there would always be a minimum of three streams active in any single (outdoor) location. To make the game as accessible as possible, I restricted the amount of overlapping sphere's containing streaming audio to a maximum of three, although Unreal's optimized decoder and Brians' code could easily handle the decompression of fifteen simultaneous streams before beginning to drop the frame rate. To be on the safe side, three spheres would restrict the maximum amount of streams to seven which was not a problem in corridors, but in open areas it was often a puzzle when implementing audio.

... over 250 ambiences where created which equals a total play time of over 15 hours ...

To prevent repetition fatigue I approach ambiences in frequently visited areas different from those in more unique locations. A frequent location would have a transparent ambience whereas unique locations could contain more outspoken audio, such as whispering, musical elements or sharper contrasts.

On average an area had eight different ambience's though more than twenty was not an exception. Over 250 ambiences where created which equals a total play time of over 15 hours.

Dutch national radio 4 recognized the audio achievement and it broadcasted a one hour special using ambiences, the voice recordings of famous actress Anna Drijver and musical compositions by composer Jesper Kyd. It is linked at the top of this page.


Sound effects

Creating sound-effects is often an obvious process. Wind can be recorded outside or taken from a collection of ready sound effects.

But what does a Howler sound like? Such sounds can't be recorded outside and would have to be created by layering existing sounds.

Streaming ambience's would provide most of audio environment, but as mentioned before, sound effects where still needed to add depth-perception. As a sound designer the one rule I always follow is that when something can be seen moving, it should also be heard.

Process: Audio is created for liniar video captures. For use in the interactive game environment the sounds are broken into components (footsteps, Foley, voice etc.) and extra variations are made where necessary. The groups of sounds are then linked to specific frames in the animation.


The sound effects for creatures where grouped into sub-topics like breath, fur, footstep, idle noise, scream etc. On specific frames in a creature's animation those groups where linked for playback. Various frames in an animation could trigger a random sound with random pitch and volume applied, creating varied, layered but still recognizable feedback for movement, attack and defense.

This made creatures sound organic as the combination of overlapping random sound-effect, volume, and pitch created micro variations. It worked especially well when creatures where in large groups and the layering of many sound created harmonics instead of sounding repetitive.


The creature effects reel, the Flaggelant Howler is heard at 37 seconds.


More recognizable boars, bears and rabbits were also present in The Chronicles of Spellborn and we devided them into two groups. For predators we used sampled recordings and for prey and critters we used members of the staff to voice them.

The predator AI would actively hunt down non-aggressive creatures and people alike and the devision made both more destinct. It also made the critters sound incredibly cute, which was exactly what we needed to make the predators appear more beastly.

The spell-room that contains visual (particle) effects for skills, combat and spells grouped into schools of magic and combat.


Combat effects required a specific approach also as the game-play is one of strategic use of skills. Timing and positioning where as crucial as being able to recognize and counter what enemies where throwing at players. Combat was, especially for an mmorpg, uniquely active and played more like a FPS game; it was in real-time and required manual targeting and dodging.

The combat (sound) effects would have to provide feedback like what type of magic was being used or what buffs where being applied.

As fighters would need their concentration to aim and dodge attacks they had little time to read combat-logs or status reports. With close to 200 skills, grouped into school of magic and combat, each group received a distinct acoustic theme. We prioritizesd functionality over form and indeed a group of players could unleash many different spells simultaneously yet it was still possible to pick out what schools of magic or combat where being used.


Voice recording


An important unique selling point of The Chronicles of Spellborn was freedom of choice. We took this concept in a few new directions with audio also. Players were allowed to dress any way they wanted, instead of being restricted to class or type of character.

For the voices we wanted some choice also and thought personality to be a key factor for achieving this. We created eight different archetypes such as hesitant, aggressive, wise, leader and recorded the same lines with different actors who were acting in that archtype. In character creation that voice selection was free to pick.

I wrote the initial lines and was assisted during recording by professional writer Helen Brady. Her background in theatre and novels was of a great help and she rewrote most of the text adding flair and a bit of that typical British dry wit. Our players loved this personal approach and would spend time to exchanging their unique lines.

A selection of the voice recordings (3 min. 36 seconds) followed by Romano Molenaar goofing off and finally the lines spoken by Dutch actress Anna Drijver who played the voice of the Oracle, the central entity in the game.


The actors where cast and recorded under the supervision of casting director Darren Scott who's experience in writing and directing stage plays quickly got the required performances out of the actors. On a relative small recording budget we were able to create a distinct and interesting voice design.

Each part had an average of 300 sentences, sounds and grunts. We had to avoid certain ways of saying something, such as "good day" as voices could be played back during both night and day time. Of the 48 actors, 16 where selected for users to pick during character creation. The rest where used exclusively for Non Player Characters. The npc's were also recorded using character traits so that game-play could assign specific voices to suit the stories they had written. One exception was made for the voices for bosses who received the same voices as players; this made them appear more dangerous.

Libby Mckay, huffing, puffing and screaming at the top of her lungs for over half an hour; the actors loved it!


We preferred using stage actors over voice-actors because of their ability to act personality into a part. It brought a level of authenticity that only actors who have played contemporary and classic stage plays achieve. Darren Scott suggested that the action parts where recorded last. Ten minutes of screaming and grunting would wear their voices out completely.


Music
The first public trailer using music composed and produced by Jesper Kyd.


The visuals of The Chronicles of Spellborn are in a hand drawn style similar to that of quaint Dutch artist Anton Pieck. It was my opinion that a traditional orchestral score might be too rich for the style.

After months of listening to composers and contacting them it was almost by accident that we found the perfect match in Jesper Kyd. The music in Io Interactive's Freedom Fighters caught our attention. Freedom Fighters presented a blend of electronics, musical inventiveness and acoustic sounds and it was obvious that Jesper had an incredibly talented and gifted musical voice.


When we commissioned Jesper Kyd to create music for our first public trailer he immediately struck right tone. On his website Jesper (at the time) he wrote that the music was "...his most affecting and diverse score to date...".

Jesper Kyd as rendered by comic book legend and Spellborn's principle concept artist, Romano Molenaar.


Taking our time to find the right composer paid off as Jesper Kyd's style of music was a natural fit to The Chronicles of Spellborn. We spend hours discussing the setting of the world, stories and environments and when he delivered his music, it was always spot on.

Jesper Kyd understands the sensibilities of games and music and how they affect each other. I initially opted to reserve his music for precious moments in the game only. A decision I had to reverse thanks to the many beta testers who requested that his music be heard more often. What greater compliment could he have received?

Jesper Kyd was the right choice for The Chronicles of Spellborn and I cannot imagine any other music to have fit the world so well.

Spellborn audio mix


SOUNDS OF SPELLBORN PLAYLIST:

  1. Chelicerata (Jesper Kyd)
  2. Spellborn Intro English (voice: Anna Drijver)
  3. Parliament – Gravesbow
  4. Character Creation
  5. Tutorial Intro (voice: Anna Drijver)
  6. Atheneum – Largeroom
  7. Lullabye (Jesper Kyd)
  8. Mount of Heroes – Night Research
  9. Tomb of the Ancestors – Burial Grounds
  10. Slywood – Bealemeadow
  11. Dungeon Entrance
  12. Arena – Inside
  13. Arena – Inside Low
  14. Arena – Inside Lower
  15. Ringfell – Shorathmesa
  16. Ringfell – Shorathmesa – Shrine of Currents
  17. Ringfell – Night – Shorathmesa Marsh
  18. Slywood Tavern Ambience
  19. Tavern – Drowning Maiden (Jesper Kyd)
  20. Tavern – The Gleaming Cauldron
  21. Parliament Tunnel Suspence
  22. Parliament Tunnels
  23. Mount of Heroes – Howlers
  24. Ringfell  – Smokespires
  25. Tavern – Drowning Maiden (Jesper Kyd)
  26. Ringfell – Day Shorathmesa Forest
  27. Ringfell – Lower Exploration Music
  28. Exarchyon – Shardship Explodes
  29. Trialcace lvl 50 – Rune
  30. Exarchyon – Cutscene
  31. Parliament – House Shroud
  32. Slywood
  33. Tavern
  34. Tavern – The Grim Lie
  35. Tavern – Traiter’s Rest
  36. Mount of Heroes – Research Day
  37. Deadspell Storm Music
  38. Strange that the story of men (voice: Anna Drijver)
  39. Music Menu: The Chronicles of Spellborn
  40. Quarterstone – Graveyard Night
  41. Slywood – Graveyard

Music by Jesper Kyd
Ambient atmospheric soundscapes by Matthew Florianz
Mix created for Radio 4 by Peter van Cooten


Audio Examples
Ancestral armada (sound design / storytelling)

The fleet spots a strange mist on the horizon, tension builds as the mist engulfs them. The atmosphere becomes eerily quiet, what is happening to the other boats?


These ambiences demonstrate storytelling through music elements, structure and harmony. It works really well when combined with the more traditional sample-only approach:


Nightmare cave (dark atmosphere)


Dragon Store (mood)


Green district (ambient storytelling)


The Black Ship (dark atmosphere)


article published on mmorpg.com


Studio Visit: Audio
Recently, Managing Editor Jon Wood visited the offices of The Chronicles of Spellborn in The Netherlands. Today, we present an article about the use of sound in the game as Jon sat down with Sound Designer Matthew Florianz.

Here at MMORPG.com, we often talk about a number of different aspects of the games that we cover. We talk about graphics, animations, gameplay, combat and more, but rarely, if ever, have I had the opportunity to spend an entire article talking about sound.

Fortunately for me, during my recent trip to their studios, the folks over at The Chronicles of Spellborn were kind enough to grant me some time sitting down with Matthew Florianz, the game's Sound Designer who was kind enough to talk with me about sound's contribution to their game.

Florianz himself is friendly, knowledgeable and has a real passion for what he does. Occupying one of the few personal offices (a necessity when you're working with sound) that I saw on my tour through their studio, Matthew is responsible for the overall sound of the game.



The most important thing, I was told, is that players should be able to ignore the sounds in the game (or any game, really) if they want to. According to Matthew, sounds in a game should be, "present, but not irritating".

It's happened to all of us at one point or another, we've been playing a video game and the sounds are jarring enough that you're always aware of them. Not sub-consciously, but right there, annoying us and tending to force us to turn the volume down or off entirely. It can be a frustrating experience for the player.

So, how does Spellborn handle its sounds so that they are "present, but not irritating"?

TCoS uses non-looping music. That means that any song in the game is going to play through once and then, stop rather than looping endlessly as you make your way though a zone. As a default, music is set to play when you first enter a shard. Players will also be given the ability to control when the music plays. If they so desire, they can set the music to play at specific intervals. Really,TCoS puts the sound choices in the hands of the players.

"An assumption that we make," says Florianz, "is that games have to have music playing all the time."

Instead, The Chronicles of Spellborn uses their music more sparingly to set the tone of their game, while it's the ambient sounds that really pick up the slack in terms of audio.



According to Wikipedia, a man named Brian Eno was the first to use the term "ambient music" to describe music that "would envelop the listener without drawing attention to itself, that can be either 'actively listened to with attention or as easily ignored, depending on the choice of the listener'." The same description can easily be applied to Ambient Sound. The goal, is to provide sounds from the world around the players that will either, blend seamlessly into the background ("easily ignored") or be "listened to with attention."

Anyone taking the time to listen with attention to the ambient sounds present in The Chronicles of Spellborn will, I think, be pleasantly surprised. The sounds are crisp and vibrant and really do help to make you feel as though you have stepped into Spellborn's game world.

From all of the sounds that I heard while sitting on the couch in Matthew's office, I think that my favorite, and the one that made me realize just how intricate a sound design for an MMO can be, is the sound of rain.

The thing is, rain is a sound that we often take for granted. We all know what it sounds like, and often that sound is what we get in games. Spellborn goes the extra mile. When Matthew first showed me the rain, I thought "yup, that sounds like rain". Then, he moved underneath a tent that had been set up along the road. The sound changed. Instead of just hearing the sound of rain outdoors, I actually heard the sound of rain hitting the canvas. It made me think of spending nights laying in a tent, listening to that sound, hoping my cheap Wal-Mart tent would last the night (it didn't).

You can find an exclusive video that highlights this point here. This video was created by Florianz specially for this article.

The point is that the ambient sounds in TCoS are very well thought out, created and implemented. According to Florianz, there is currently over eight hours of ambient sound, gathered through either physical recording, or sampled from a sound library.

Each zone in the game contains somewhere between 700 and 3,000 individual sound sources, placed strategically to create and maintain the atmosphere of that particular zone.


sounds of rain - click to start movie


As has been reported, the music for The Chronicles of Spellborn was composed by Jesper Kyd. For anyone who might not be familiar with that name, Kyd has worked on games like: Freedom Fighters, Kane & Lynch: Dead Men Unreal Tournament 3, Hitman, Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory and more. He has won awards such as: IGN.com's 2006 Best Original Score Award and The 2005 BAFTA Best Original Music Award. From what I've heard, his contribution to TCoS lives up to his resume.

Kyd's music for TCoS has an almost Celtic kind of feel to it, and makes frequent use of single instruments that seem to represent the players and the people of the world.

The design of the game is such that many conventions and expectations are being innovated upon to create something familiar to MMORPG fans, but not the same. Kyd's music is no exception to this.

When they were looking at composers for the game, they were looking for someone to create a "unique sound for music", and Kyd didn't disappoint, presenting wonderfully rich music that makes use of a number of different instruments to capture the essence of the game, of exploration and adventure, discovery and danger.




As mentioned before, while sound is an important part of any MMORPG, it is often overlooked in discussions of development. I was once told by a technical theatre teacher at my University that you can always tell a good sound design by whether or not it was mentioned in the reviews. If a reviewer brings attention to it, there was probably something wrong. If nothing was said, then the job was done perfectly.

In the case of The Chronicles of Spellborn, the music and the sound are such that they blend nicely in with the game world that the developers have created; present, and actually quite pleasing.



Article written by Jon Wood for mmorpg.com. Re-Published with permission.

Copyright © 2001-2011 Cyber Creations Inc.







Level Design: Slywood
As I was implementing audio in the environments of The Chronicles of Spellborn, I was often the first to come across minor problems such as misaligned objects or floating geometry. The art team knew of my experience in level design skills and allowed me to fix rather than report problems.

When a new area called Slywood was being prepared for production, I researched the audio needs by reading the lore, examining concept art and looking at some early design work. There was mention of a huge 'living' sword that hovered ominously over an abandoned town. Three mills dominating the landscape, telling a tragic tale of three brothers and how their actions shaped the land and people. Finally, a graveyard much too large and old to be there just for that one area presented a further final mystery. An area that was going to be much darker than most others and I thought it a fantastic place to create audio for and imagining what it could look like.

When I expressed my findings to environment art Lead Bert-Jan de Weerd, he asked me if I'd be interested in building it. I loved the opportunity to get back into design and audio would have to wait for the area to be finished anyhow. Bert-Jan gave me a month to do it and every step I took was double checked with lore/story lead Michael Visser.



The graveyard was first and would have to be large enough to keep players occupied during several quests. I figured this required sub-area's so people would have their own space. Although mmorpg's are generally open-world in their design and allow people to go anywhere, a level-designer has to guide and channel game-play so that playing isn't entirely random or without purpose.

The entire graveyard was designed around a visual landmark which could double as a grand finale location. A tomb on a large hill overlooking the entire graveyard with the experience slowly guiding towards it. A tried and tested method of visual storytelling in many games.



The woods around the Graveyard where next. They had to be dense and dark, especially with the open spaciousness of the graveyard adjacent. Creating contrasts is an interesting environment storytelling device; open/close, colour use, overhead foliage/clear sky make for a more interesting progression through it.


Part of the work was creating simple textures and re-colouring existing materials to better match the environment.


The forest was build with elevation and hills in mind as those obstructing features can become exciting in an open-world game. It's never quite clear what lurks in a valley behind a hill and that creates a tension. To make the lands look old, I created the impression of uprooted soil beneath all the trees. The roads where arranged to meander between those large trees instead of going in straight lines which contributed to creating an environment full of history and age.


Finally the three mills as a center-piece of Slywood posed a dilemma. In the design documents they were described to occupy three large hills covering almost half of the entire area of Slywood. This would have looked stunning but for all of them to be visible at once, there could be very little to obscure such a view. An empty area between the mills would provide a rather dull experience.

I suggested instead to give each mill an individual theme and break the area up between them. One mill could still rise above the landscape and act as a landmark, but by creating different theme's around the mills, there would be an emphasis on continued discovery over one impressive vista.



Erosion could be a visual theme to tell a tragic story of three sons and what better way to portray erosion than using the elements to "devour" each mill. The lore department loved the idea and changed some of the stories to include the reference.



One mill was set ablaze to represent fire, the other half sunk in a swamp to represent water and finally a mill representing air on top of a windswept hill. It may not have had the same first impression as the three mills together would have had, but it was a more interesting environment to play in.

As a visual gag I created an optical illusion in the landscape where seemingly random stones...


...will line up to form the Spellborn logo when viewed from a specific angle


It seems a paradox, but an open-world game design needs direction. The open-world level designer must find ways to create invisible walls that channel the game-play and communicate a sense of progression. In adding distinct area's to Slywood, game-play could easily direct players across the area and opponents placement was made easier thanks to the existence of established sub-areas.



It is a players decision to interact in an open environment that drives the story and progression. Communicating a rhythm of changing shapes, spaciousness, colours and moods helps tell an experience story. No matter where a player travels in or throughout Slywood, there would always something unique and interesting to discoover and investigate.







Quest Polish Taskforce
In weekends and evenings I would play The Chronicles of Spellborn as it was being developed. Bringing notes and found bugs back with me to the office. My audio work before release was no longer a fte-jpb and considering my background in game and level design I was allowed to make myself useful in other ways.

After hours I began spending some time polishing weaker areas in our game; fixing quest objectives or adding wildlife and patrols. The landscape itself also made more interesting by adding more variation, visual landmarks and structures that could make encounters more memorable. It was all done in good standing and conference with art and design of course.

Over the course of a year, I overhauled almost all the caves and outdoor landmass. Re-placed all wildlife, re-modeled the villages and added camps and settlements to make the presence of enemies in an area more grounded. It was much in the same vein as the work done on the Slywood map which is also documented on this page.

New visual/game-play theme's where invented to make areas more distinct. On Ringfell for instance, I build wooden sculptures cobbled together from a library of existing ship parts. The sculptures where placed around groups of former sailors that had long ago lost their minds. The sculptures represented their madness but also grounded them to their former history, as if they had somehow remembered part of that former lives.


Ringfell; Sketching proposed design changes on overhead views of the map to make sure they would not affect gameplay or art direction.


Recognizing the worth of polish, which is essentially what I had been doing, a quest polish task-force was appointed. Several months before release, my after-hours hobby became a broader occupation. Environment artist Ron Kamphuis, one of the most versatile and brilliant people working on Spellborn, was attached to the same quest polish task force also.


We overhauled almost all of the outdoor landmass, caves and cities. We polished, changed and adapted many of the pre-level 30 quests.


Adding landmarks and a more 'guided' experience for the opening of the game improved the experience and less people dropped out.


Our final major accomplishment was the redesign of Spellborn's starting zone which data showed, wasn't keeping people engaged enough. In the original version, the experience was pretty much unguided as freedom was a big design effort. But this decision lost us out first-time players which required more guidance.


The re-design experience was all about a feeling of accomplishment and at the same time introduce the game's outlandish setting and communicate its real-time combat mechanics. I began by walling off a smaller area around the starter zone so players could no longer get lost and we could guide them better. As a visual gimmick, I designed the central village to follow a spiral road, a reference to the spiral symbolism found throughout our game.


The newly re-designed zone content improved drop-out rates of new players to almost zero.


The work was done with Ron Kamphuis, Steven Dullaert, Vincent Leeuw, Joost Baars and Didier Pippel.