So here’s a special interview. I got a hold of a gaming industry giant named Kevin Schilder, primarily known for composing music and sounds in various classic games. Though, at one point, he sat in the director’s chair for a Star Wars game.
Let’s find out more by interviewing him now!
Chase Pond: How did you become a video game composer for Raven Software?
Kevin Schilder: I was fortunate to have a unique combination of experiences that led to my opportunity to become a game composer. I have a long background in music, including a degree in performance and education. I also have a life-long love of games.
When computer games started to show up, I got interested in those. Add those things to the fact that I was friends with the founders of Raven Software at the time they worked on their first game, Black Crypt. I created a couple songs for that game. Later, I was offered the opportunity to become part of the team at Raven working on a new game called Heretic, based on the game Doom. The rest is history.
Black Crypt (1992)
Chase Pond: What was it like to work in the gaming industry from 1992 versus 2011?
Kevin Schilder: The contrast between those years is pretty amazing and shows how fast technology develops and drives the gaming industry. I think the approach in game design has always been to take whatever tech was available and push it to the limits to create something innovative and fun. Back in the early 90’s, we had to be more creative with what we had. Creativity seemed to drive the fun.
As the years went on, I think people became more impressed with technology and let that drive development. I personally enjoyed the early years much more. It was more fun to find ways to be creative with less. The boundaries of creative expression weren’t so wide.
When there are too many options, it makes it hard to decide where to set the limits. I think we also appreciated each accomplishment much more back in the early days. Now days people seem to expect perfection and take amazing technology for granted.
Chase Pond: How did sound design change for you over the years, considering the advancement of technology?
Kevin Schilder: I would say that the focus transitioned from being “creativity-driven” to being more “technology-driven”. When I started, the tech limitations required down-sampling audio from CD quality to a very minimal 11k/8bit. Many times, I would find a perfect sound effect from a CD library, only to have it sound like mud once it was down-sampled. Loss of audio frequencies and 8-bit aliasing made it a challenge to create something that sounded cool.
You had to think outside the box and be creative with what you had. Music was midi and limited to 128 instruments and the quality of whatever sound card a player might have. Now days, those limits are pretty much gone. Music and sound design rivals the quality of feature films.
A game sound designer has to do more than just come up with a cool sound. That sound has to be produced to a level of sonic quality that can meet the expectations of gamers with top-level sound systems. The engineering side of audio has emerged to be of equal importance as the creative development side.
Chase Pond: Were you inspired by artists out there with the sounds you’ve produced or do you feel like your work is unique to you?
Kevin Schilder: In the beginning, I did listen carefully to what other people had done to get an idea of the standard of quality I needed to meet. I knew that certain games like Doom had an impressive, overall audio experience and it would be wise to understand what principles made that true. I never wanted, or tried to, create a sound just like someone else made.
That’s just like plagiarism in writing. But following common principles like creating emotionally atmospheric ambience, original creature voices and satisfyingly powerful weapon sounds is a different thing. Most of what I did was driven by my own imagination. I think it came down to two questions: What do I want this to sound like? How do I make that happen?
My main motivation was simply to create an audio experience that would support and enhance the visuals the rest of the team was making. If we thought something sounded cool and fun, there was a good chance other gamers would as well.
Chase Pond: Take that into composing music, how do you find the right tune for the game you’re working on? Is your music inspired by others or something you’ve thought of on your own?
Kevin Schilder: In general, I never consciously tried to imitate or reproduce the work of other sound designers or composers. My main guideline was to create something that sounded cool and fun to me and the people I worked with. The exception to that would be when I was just starting in the industry. Working on Heretic, I knew we were using the success of Doom as a guidepost for quality and fun.
I used the work of Bobby Prince in Doom as a guide for the music I made for Heretic in terms of instrument use, style, length and overall design. Once I figured out what I was doing, I realized the best way for me to work was to just listen for my own ideas.
I would occasionally listen to other music and maybe use a little riff or musical motive as a starting point. But mostly, I used silence as my inspiration. The awesome thing about music composition by human beings is we can all create something unique, because each person is unique.
Chase Pond: It’s interesting that your Wikipedia page ends with Call of Duty: Black Ops, pretty much because you moved on with a different company. What made that shift?
Kevin Schilder: Between 2008 – 2010, Raven Software went through some major changes and transitions. The studio slate changed. As a result, there were a couple large lay-offs. I was part of the second one. It’s no fun to lose your job, that’s for sure. But ultimately, I don’t think I would have been happy working on the same game all the time. Since then, I have done freelance work on a few projects.
One of Schilder’s most recent projects is a mobile game called Chortopia, which released on the app store in 2016.
Chase Pond: While you did a ton of sound work, at one point, you co-lead Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Outcast. How amazing is it to take on that role on a game which would become a cult favorite towards Star Wars fans alike, having authentic Jedi gameplay and starring a character that we all want to see come back someday?
Kevin Schilder: I won’t lie. It was very exciting when we got the word that we would be working on a Star Wars game. We all wanted to see a new Jedi Knight game made. Having the role of project lead for something so anticipated and high-profile was both exciting and terrifying. What helped me was knowing I could trust the incredible talent of our team.
I recall giving one of our gameplay programmers the task of seeing what he could do to create a prototype of lightsaber combat. When we saw his prototype, we knew there was nothing to worry about. We also had a great working relationship with producers at Lucas Arts who were as invested as we were in making a top-quality Jedi Knight sequel.
Their guidance and input on characters, story and all things Star Wars made the work inspiring. My memory of that experience was a unique moment in time when some incredibly talented and motivated studios and individuals set their personal egos and agendas aside and cooperated to make something amazing to entertain and reward faithful and patient Star Wars fans everywhere.
Chase Pond: What was your favorite part about working on that project?
Kevin Schilder: When I remember the experience of working on Jedi Outcast, what always stands out in my memory is how unique the process of making that game was, primarily in how the entire development team and process worked together. I think the word that defines it best is “Trust”.
The main players of Lucas Arts, Activision and Raven Software seemed to come together with one mind to accomplish the task of creating an amazing Star Wars game. There was a great sense of cooperation from everyone to get things done. This same team spirit seemed to work with the department leads at Raven.
We trusted them to lead their departments and gave them enough freedom to develop memorable things like the lightsaber combat and Jedi powers everyone came to love. We followed the old guideline of making a game we would want to play and it turned out to entertain Star Wars fans as well. It all came together in the most efficiently run project I can recall working on.
Star Wars: Jedi Outcast (2002)
Chase Pond: What was the biggest challenge of being a project lead for that one time?
Kevin Schilder: The biggest challenge turned out to also be the biggest success, in my opinion. I co-led Jedi Outcast with Steve Raffel. He and I always had some different ideas about the most effective ways to approach project design and management. When we were given the opportunity to lead Outcast, we decided to do things our way.
It took confidence and courage sometimes to do things differently and just ask other people to trust us. In the end, the production cycle went very well, crunch time was minimal and we met our deadline with an excellent product. Some people said later it was the best run project they worked on. That is one of the best compliments I have received.
Chase Pond: By the way, what are your thoughts on current Star Wars?
Kevin Schilder: I think we all come at Star Wars from different places. My experience was with the original 3 movies back in high school. The effect of those movies at that time was like magic. Although it’s been fun to continue to revisit the Star Wars universe, nothing has been able to capture the same feeling as the surprise and novelty of those first movies. Star Wars is all about nostalgia for me.
The more things I see in current movies or games that point back to something in the original movies, the more I like it. But ultimately, I think everyone should find their own reason to enjoy Star Wars and not worry about what anyone else says. It’s all about the fun.
Chase Pond: You know I had to talk Jedi Outcast, though I love some of your other work too! What’s your favorite project, out of all the games you were a part of at Raven Software?
Kevin Schilder: Favorite project was probably Heretic. First really successful title I worked on. So many memories of finding my own way into the world of sound design and music composition. The best team spirit and hopeful energy in a team. A bunch of talented people, still humble and amazed at their own success. Heretic and Hexen were also very special because they were original worlds we created and enjoyed for those early year when game making was at its best.
A list of songs in Hexen, the sequel to Heretic
Chase Pond: Any advice to give for working in the music and sound department for games?
Kevin Schilder: I have had that question posed to me many times over the years. I really try to help anyone I can who wants a shot at doing what I got to do. The main points would be to get some skills first. Maybe school. Maybe hands on work, teaching yourself. You have to create a portfolio that shows your ability to create original sound effects and music and apply those to something visual.
Make demo reels that look and sound like the kind of games for the place you want to apply. Read or educate yourself on the basic skills of producing high quality audio. Your work needs to sound like Hollywood. Compare your demos to AAA games and movies and aim for the same quality. Work for free if you have to. Monitor the web sites that talk about game development and audio.
See what’s going on now. The business changes fast. Make contacts. The first person I hired was a guy who contacted me a lot without asking for a job. Eventually a spot opened and he was the first person I thought of. The competition for jobs with the big studios is probably intense these days.
The good news is there seems to be a trend of wonderful games and apps being developed by small studios again. Just like the good old days!
There you have it, this creative genius has spoken! If you’d like, check out his website, which also contains all the social media links to follow:
Till next time!