Recently we had the pleasure of interviewing Grant Kirkhope, a sound designer best known for his work on the soundtracks to Rare titles from 1996 to 2008. Grant Kirkhope has since been nominated for several awards in composition for his more recent work on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which has gained him some recognition in the film industry, though many retro game fans still recognize him today as one of the geniuses behind games like Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark, Viva Pinata and GoldenEye 007.
During the interview, we discussed several aspects of his career and life, such as the closure of 38 Studios, Microsoft’s acquisition of Rare, “Mingy Jongo,” the current state of the gaming industry, and of course Mr. Kirkhope’s methods, opinions and future in sound design and soundtrack composition.
We crossed paths after you tweeted out our article “AAA Developers Are Causing a Market Crash,” where we mentioned how games selling millions of copies are being considered “financial failures” by their publishers. Seems relevant in your case, since you worked on Kingdoms of Amalur with Big Huge Games and 38 Studios, which went on to move 1.2 million copies in its first 90 days, and Lincoln Chafee’s response was “the game failed.” How does that kind of thing even feel when selling that many copies back in the old days at Rare and Nintendo made your game a “Player’s Choice” title? Seems like the industry has changed quite a bit over the course of your career.
It feels pretty bloody awful! The situation with 38 Studios/BHG was a complicated one that we just fell foul of. With 38 undertaking such a huge project we all kind of felt that we had a sword hanging over us and it was just a matter of time before it would fall.
When EA decided not to pick up Reckoning 2, we were surprised to say the least. One of the senior people in EA actually said we were the first million selling game in EA’s history that they hadn’t done a sequel to. Maybe EA could see problems at 38 and were concerned or maybe it was the guys at Bioware Edmonton (who were EA’s RPG stakeholders) that advised EA against a sequel… I just don’t know.
We did have a deal on the table with another major publisher for Reckoning 2 and we were working on it, but the problem was that Rhode Island was in the equation and if 38 was to fail, it would make any kind of BHG buyout problematic—plus RI would technically own the IP. Needless to say it was a disaster.
Things have changed so much now, it’s become very corporate with focus groups and market analysis etc… I think the indie guys are making games the way we used to: gamers making games for gamers. These people just make games that they want to play themselves with no one to say if they’re wrong or right or advise them on demographic or whatever… it’s working!
Curt Schilling and a few other executives at 38 Studios are now getting sued by the State of Rhode Island for some apparently shady ways they were handling the company’s finances and investors. Was the closure of 38 Studios something you and the others on the development floor saw coming, or did that whole affair take you by surprise?
I think we could all see it coming, but we really thought we could get out from underneath in time… we didn’t! Ironically, Reckoning is still selling…
Now, you’re currently working on Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, correct? How is that one coming along? Can you shed any light on what can we expect in terms of auditory themes in comparison to your past sound work?
We’re just about to start full production and it’s looking good. I’m doing a completely electronic score which is something I haven’t done since Perfect Dark. I’m really enjoying messing around with synthesizers, it really reminds me of my early days at Rare.
As far as current projects go, here’s something we know a lot of people are wondering about: Last fall, the @MingyJongo account on Twitter dropped that you and Steve Hurst were exploring the idea of a spiritual successor to Banjo-Tooie, but @MingyJongo has been silent for a couple of months now. What’s the status on this?
It’s sort of on hold mode at the moment. The trouble is that everyone involved has got another job and that work has to be done first. The reason we’ve not gone the Kickstarter route is because we want to make sure we can make something that will honour the first two Banjo games, as there are so many people out there that still hold them in high regard. We’ll only put a game out if we can make something great and not some half-arsed attempt to cash in on the popularity of the original games.
Recently, you also did work for Zynga’s Facebook game CityVille 2, which is very different than the types of companies and games you’ve worked with in the past. What was the motivation for taking that project on? What was it like to work with Zynga, and how was composing for CityVille 2 different from your past projects?
The guys at Zynga East are most of the original management team from Big Huge Games so when they heard that BHG was closing they asked if I’d like to write some music for Cityville 2. Beside the fact that I was out of work (heh!), I really wanted to do it, and then when they said they wanted live orchestra it was even better. I really enjoyed writing that music, it was very light and airy and was very different to the epicness of Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning. I wrote quite a lot of that music in a hotel room as we were right in the middle of moving to LA.
You’ve received several awards and nominations for your recent work, such as Kingdoms of Amalur, but fans still tend to recognize you best for your work with Rare. Do you ever find yourself frustrated with this connection? Do you feel that this legacy overshadows your recent work, or are you proud of the impact your past projects left?
Of course not! For any artist of any persuasion, be that a writer, painter, composer or whatever to have even one person like what you create is amazing.
It’s been a bit strange since I wrote the score to Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, I’ve started to get noticed by the movie score reviewers more so than the game guys. I think the nature of the music is pretty movie-esque and it’s kind of popped up on their radar. I’d love to write some music for a movie, so that’s been great to have been acknowledged. It’s also great that I can do games stuff too, I’ve been working on Desktop Dungeons with Danny Baranowski and that’s been great fun!
It’s no secret that Rare is no longer making games like GoldenEye 007, Banjo-Kazooie, or even Viva Piñata. Two years ago in a MAGFest podcast, you went on record saying that Microsoft “completely ruined” Rare. What was the transition from Nintendo to Microsoft like for you and your co-workers? How did Microsoft handle development in contrast to Nintendo, and in what ways did they drive away the talented and creative minds who made the company so special?
I think it’s taken Rare and Microsoft a long time to understand each other. If you look at the facts in the cold hard light of day, the two Kinect Sports titles have been the biggest sellers for Rare since Microsoft bought them, somewhere North of 7 million copies I think. You can see why MS would want Rare to continue making these games, or something like them.
Rare was a very special place when I started there in 1995, it’s hard to put your finger on what made it that way, I think I’d have to say it was all the original people that started Ultimate Play the Game, Tim and Chris Stamper, Marl Betteridge to name a few. They had already made great games and just had that magic touch. The Stamper family were great to work for, they always got the best out of us, when they began to have less to do with the teams and more to do with running a company that was growing I think we lost something. It was hard for us to make the transition to Xbox, we all thought it was going to go so well and then it didn’t…..
If Rare were still under Nintendo’s control, how do you think your career and your personal satisfaction would be different than they are today, and are you ultimately happy that you moved on to work on other games? If you had the chance to work for a Nintendo subsidiary again, would you take it?
That’s a good question. I think if Rare had stayed with Nintendo it would have been a return to form when the Wii came out. Can you imagine all those great IP’s on the Wii, it would’ve have been fantastic. I am happy I moved on, I felt like I had to. If I hadn’t made that choice I wouldn’t have got to work on Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning which has got me some recognition in different circles than the norm. I’d work for anyone!!!!
What makes video game composition so appealing for you compared to film and other mediums?
I really don’t have a preference. I love to write music whatever it’s for!
When composing themes for a level or a character, how do you make your music reflect the personality or atmosphere? Actors are known to “get into character.” Do you have a similar process in composing music intended for a specific character or purpose?
Heh… not really! I just look at the character or area and think about how it might sound. I don’t really have any set way of writing music, I just mess around until I hear something I like. I haven’t got the time to sit around and wait for the golden hand of inspiration to give me a tune, I just have to work at it.
Banjo-Kazooie was one of the first games to feature multiple versions the game’s songs to play in conjunction with the changing environments within each level. For example, Treasure Trove Cove’s music featured a harp when players would dive underwater. Since then, several games have strived to create a similar experience, such as The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword and the many variations on its bazaar theme. Did you take inspiration from elsewhere or did you come up with this idea of interactive scoring yourself? If so, how did the idea come about?
When I first got to Rare and eventually ended up on Project Dream (that later became the first Banjo game) Tim Stamper and Gregg Mayles were the designers and they loved the Lucas Arts games, in particular the Monkey Island series. That game had the iMuse system that would fade the music depending where you were and they wanted me to do the same. That’s where I got the idea from. It took a little bit of messing around to get it working but it was great when it did.
Do you feel there’s a big difference between memorable melodies and songs meant to drive a story forward or feel more atmospheric in tone? If so, how do you prepare to compose these two types of music in contrast to one another? Do you ever find yourself having to consciously balance those two aspects, or does their union often come naturally to you?
I have to say I’ve always tried to write memorable melodies when they’re called for, I may not succeed but I always try. I think there’s a place for ambient music and melodic music in games and movies, you just have to pick your moment. In a movie it’s always the same, nothing can change so it’s easier to pick your moment whereas in a game there’s no real way of knowing what will happen next unless it’s a scripted event or cinematic sequence.
I think it’s inevitable that you approach things differently, it’s just something that you do without thinking about it after a while.
Game development and technology as a whole have drastically changed since you first began working in the industry. In what ways is your work different compared to the way you did things ten years ago?
The actual way that I work hasn’t really changed at all. I still write music the way I always have, the quality of the samples and the software is way better but the process is the same. The way I input information into whatever console is different but basically the same, I add samples to the console via some kind of middleware and add sounds to animations or levels, I add music to the same middleware and attach it to levels or cinematics. It’s the overall quality that has changed the most.
Before you started working for Rare, you were playing in heavy metal bands, which is a drastic stylistic difference from the game soundtracks most people know you for. Is that kind of music still a part of your life these days?
Heh… it is! I still like metal, I think the music that you like in your younger days stays with you for the rest of your life. I’ve always been a rock and metal fan and I think I always will be. I think that my experience playing in orchestras as a kid exposed me to those big epic moments where the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end, I found that metal could also give me that sensation too so it was natural that I gravitate towards that kind of music. I’ve mellowed a little over the years (I don’t listen to Pantera as much as I used to!) but I still love it!
You’ve hung out with Eddie Van Halen. You got your first big break in gaming working with adapting David Wise’s music to the Game Boy, and you got to record with The City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra. So you’ve already met some pretty cool people over the years, but given the chance, who else would you like to collaborate with on a project?
Hmmm… I’m not big on collaboration really in the sense that I actually write music with somebody… I think I’d have to say if I could get to be John Williams’ tea boy, I’d be more than happy!!!
And lastly, we have to ask, what’s the story behind “Oominaka?” Surely it’s getting about time to finally shed some light on that?
I’ve actually just confessed that when I joined the Game Grumps on one of their YouTube shows. Of course knackers are slang for testicles in the UK, so “Oo-mi-naka” means, “Ouch! My Knackers” …I had a slight problem in that area, shall we say, and Greg Mayles and I thought it would be fun to make it Mumbo’s phrase for casting a spell …. there’s so much stuff like that in our games that I forget most of it ’til I hear it again!!
You can visit Grant online at GrantKirkhope.com, and follow him on Twitter at @GrantKirkhope. It was a great pleasure to have this experience with Mr. Kirkhope, and we offer a huge thanks for his time. Best of luck to him in his future work; we can’t wait to see what’s coming next!
Grant Kirkhope sits down with Gamnesia to discuss the closure of 38 Studios, Microsoft’s acquisition of Rare, “Mingy Jongo,” the current state of the gaming industry.