Interview with Jason Booth - May 2001

Jason Booth is Creative Director at Turbine Entertainment, the creators of the highly popular "Asheron's Call"; one of the largest three online role playing games, or as they're being called: Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs). In this environment music and sound take on a whole new meaning from conventional single player and multiplayer games. Alexander Brandon talked to Jason about his history and opinions on this rapidly expanding new game culture.

Give a brief history of your career and interests. How did you start in this crazy industry? What got you into it inspirationally?

         I sort of fell into this industry during the summer of '96. I was on summer break from the Berklee College of Music, and had spent the last year basically skipping class to do theatre work and learn Lightwave, a 3d graphics tool on the Amiga. Musically, I was pretty burned out at the time, so I was naturally per suing other interests, including a heavy Street Fighter II addiction. I saw an add on the Lightwave mailing list for a new game company looking for artists, and decided to give it a try since I didn't have anything planned for the rest of the summer. At the time, the company was located in the founders mom's basement, and I pretty much moved in with my computers and got to work. That company slowly transformed into Turbine Entertainment Software, where I still work today.
         Inspirationally speaking, I've always been a huge video game nut, and spent a large portion of my pre-adolescence coding them on the TI-994a or Apple IIc. I was also completely hooked on the BBS scene, so the online thing came pretty naturally.

What led to your initial interest in interactive audio?

Well, the type of games we do pretty much require that all your audio, including your music, be interactive. If I was doing racing games, or something with a pretty fixed focus, that might not be the case. But MMP's are different; when your players play for 4-6 hours in a sitting, and play your game for a year and a half straight, every day, a piece of music better be interactive or it'll be the first thing shut off.

Additionally, I have a huge love for modular systems where you can get more out of them than you put in. The reality of game development is that as the quality increases every year, the team size and budget do not necessarily increase as fast. At some point, you need to start changing your approach to make up the difference.

There's enough terminology (that our own David Javelosa is trying to lasso with his lexicon) out there to choke a donkey with a face like Hans Zimmer. Do you use terms to define interactive audio, or do you simply say "let's do THIS <technique>"?

I just do what I do, and use whatever term is going to get the point across. Whenever you start talking to someone new, there's some sync up time to get used to each others language. I mean, if all the audio companies can't standardize on a few cables, what makes you think we're going to standardize the way we talk?

Turbine is one of the top dogs in MMORPGs with Asheron's Call, next to EverQuest and Ultima Online. How do you feel interactivity is achieved currently?

From the sound perspective, all the current offerings are around the "pathetic to non-existent" level. In this first generation, the technical hurdles of getting them all working often precluded some of the more artistic nuances they needed. Certainly we're taking steps to fix that in our products, as I'm not going to settle for anything less than top notch sound design from now on.

What are your thoughts on bandwidth? Or, uh.. is that the right term? Say, the difference between the dinosaurian 56k and DSL / Cable. Will it be 10 years before you can stream audio from a server in realtime? Are there plans to do so?

Well, you can do that now; but why would you want to? It makes more sense to have the local client construct or modify the music on the fly, as the internal bandwidth on the client will always be greater than the bandwidth available across the Internet. [Ed.: This is an issue that concerns the difference between client and server side control. "Neverwinter Nights" by Bioware and Interplay is the first title to use server side control of linear gameplay in a multiplayer title. It will be interesting to see sound developments on that front.]

Your 'band' idea that sprouted at GDC was a very awesome one. If NDA permits, could you discuss it here?

Basically it stems from my belief that any type of canned audio experience will eventually get annoying when you hear it for 4 hours a day every day. Imagine listening to the same CD every day, all day, at work. You'd go nuts. Now, extending out from there, you get to the live musician analogy. I can go see a good jazz band play the same tune, and each time it'll be different giving me something new to find in it. As a listener, I'll eventually get sick of that tune, but not nearly as fast if it's different each time. This is where interactive audio is now - canned tunes, but a little different each time.

Now imagine the same thing but from the musician's view; they go out on stage every night and play roughly the same songs, but the improve of the moment keeps it interesting. Those moments where you hook up musically, and push it into a new place. Thats the gameplay in music that so many people are addicted to, and many others are addicted to watching. If we can abstract away the years of practice, and leave only the gameplay elements, you'll get something very fun and satisfying. While this isn't applicable to single player or even many multiplayer games, and MMP setting affords much more time for this type of exploration.

What efforts are placed on tool building for audio at Turbine?

Basically whenever someone adds a feature to the engine, they build the tools to support it. We're using Direct Music for the music engine, and a lot of our own code to handle triggered and environment sounds. Tools are really key to game development, too often they get pushed aside, which only bites you in the long run.

 Finally, list some examples of games you've played that you feel have advanced interactive audio.

The Thief series did wonders with environment sounds. "No one lives forever", and pretty much any of Guy's work, pushes the music envelope. SSX had a simple yet extremely effective interactive music system. That's really the key with getting interactive audio working; keep it simple.

© Copyright 2001 MIDI Manufacturers Association