How Madame Fate got her voice: an audio post-mortem

Mystery Case Files: Madame Fate was one of those games that raised the bar for production values in hidden object games, thanks in no small part to the contributions of SomaTone Interactive Audio. (Who could forget Madame Fate’s distinctive lilt, or the ambient sounds that brought the carnival atmosphere to life?) SomaTone’s co-founder Kane Minkus takes us through the process of creating the game’s distinctive soundtrack in Gamezebo’s first audio post-mortem.

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Mystery Case Files: Madame Fate was one of those games that raised the bar for production values in hidden object games, thanks in no small part to the contributions of SomaTone Interactive Audio. (Who could forget Madame Fate’s distinctive lilt, or the ambient sounds that brought the carnival atmosphere to life?) SomaTone’s co-founder Kane Minkus takes us through the process of creating the game’s distinctive soundtrack in Gamezebo’s first audio post-mortem.

Mystery Case Files: Madame Fate was certainly an ambitious project audio-wise. How did it compare to some of the other projects you’ve worked on?

As hidden object games become more and more story based, the use of audio in these games becomes even more important to tell the story, create dramatic effect and really immerse the player into the world. Madame Fate was more ambitious then most games, because it made use of several character actors and came with a script that was complex in character ideas and the narrative. Creating a soundtrack that both evoked the emotion, told a story and supported the use of dialogue definitely took time to craft. We offered many rounds of ideas to the discerning producers at Big Fish and worked together to come up with a soundtrack that really told the story with the emotion everyone wanted.

At what point did audio enter into the game development cycle of Madame Fate? (In other words, was SomaTone involved from the beginning, or was audio added relatively late into the process?)

As with most of our projects, we entered into the game at different phases. The producers at Big Fish like to include us early on in the concept process to hear ideas that could effect gameplay or overall production quality. We might provide temp music that inspires the artists or start looking at pre-existing art (movies, games, etc) to suggest ideas. Then they busily go to work for a while and reemerge when some art is taking form. We usually start to get drawings and maybe early builds of the game to begin scoring the music and casting the voice talent. It is important for us to not work in a vacuum as many artist need to do sometimes. So we often get fed game assets as they become available and congealed with the concept.

Once we start to hit the last several weeks of development, the focus turns towards refinement and integrating the best ideas, recrafting the mediocre ones and tossing the ones that are just not taking the game to that next level.

How did you design the environments for the game?

Environments to us really make the game come to life that extra bit. They cause the player to feel fully immersed in the game they are playing. To us, it is like the difference of looking at a comic book or a 3-d picture. The environment design is usually (if possible) recorded in nature. So for some of the carnival environments for Madame Fate, we actually went to local carnivals and fairs and set up microphones recording the audiences and children. Taking those recordings back to the studio, we begin to edit, mix and effect layers upon layers of sounds to give this overall ambience.

In hidden object games there’s a fine line between audio that compliments the gameplay and audio that’s too overbearing or distracting for the player. How do you maintain this balance?

This is a question we get asked all the time. It is really the secret to a great soundtrack for a game. Making judgment calls about what instruments, melodies, rhythms and themes to develop is really crucial to making a soundtrack that excels in a casual game. We believe strongly audio should do two things: communicate a story and have a purpose.

Communicating a story through audio in causal games is really specific to this genre. If you look at how a music score, for example, is used in film, TV or Core Games – it is very different (and specific to each one). The easiest way for us to consistently get this right is to truly get and love the games and the audience that plays them. Our team truly understands and identifies with the users who play these games. Our staff is highly within the demographic of those who actually play these games, and usually spend a lot of time playing the game and getting inside the game.

We really believe it takes a very specific type of personality and skill set to be good at creating audio for casual games. It usually shows up mostly in personality (believe it or not!). Core talents as a musician, composer or sound designer is important, but we know we will be training new staff for months when they come on board. We hire those that we think have the personality to work on the audio for casual games and then foster their personality to come out in the audio of each game. This is why we are attached to each game, and why the audience really receives the personality of our team in the sound track. One way we know this is we get pinged on a monthly basis by players who want to purchase the sound tracks to the games!

Madame Fate’s voice is great! Can you tell us how that character evolved?

At the start we were given some rough written direction on the character, and had a brief creative conversation with the game producers. From that point we brought in the talent we felt could take our direction, along with the character artwork, and add life and a distinct personality.

The evolution of the Character really happens mostly in the session (sometimes in the audition) and generally takes place over time while the actor is giving us their performance and we are feeding back suggestions. The challenge to a director is getting an actor fully briefed on the needs of a game, the content of the script, and the character performance, all inside a VERY limited time frame.

The auditions are typically just a brainstorming session where we will try out a few rough ideas and see which seem to work best. The actual characters are tuned into place in the first few minutes of the recording session. We rely a great deal on the talent of the actors we work with to help create a great character.

Casual games are increasingly using voice-overs instead of text to narrate the story. Where does your voice talent typically come from and how do you decide who’s right for which part?

VO production is double sided coin. Half of the challenge lies in proper direction of the talent, who is almost completely unfamiliar with the game, story line, script etc. at the time of the recording session. The other half of great VO production depends on the talent available, which is something we have developed over years of personal relationship building with the best actors in the business an through working on many, many projects. We cast actors from both our LA and Bay Area studios, both of which are great locations for locating talented voice actors.

We always conduct script specific auditions, so we can all (including the game developer) can hear the talent reading the actual lines of the games, in character and in context. Many VO production studios skimp on the phase of the process (which we consider to be the most important), and just use VO demo’s to cast, which give you a much less accurate assessment of how the actors will sound for a specific character.

Generally we will recommend the best candidate for the role, based on the performances in the auditions, as well as our personal experience with the talent. Ultimately, the game developer or executive producer will select the talent based on the auditions and our recommendations.

What challenges did you encounter recording the voice-overs into French, German and Spanish for regional localization?

Well these there are a few challenges to properly localizing Speech files, especially when you are looking to replicate a character as distinct as Madame Fate. The first is matching the performance of the original character with a foreign speaker. This is where LA facilities are VERY helpful. Los Angeles, as everyone knows, has a huge pool of actors, many of whom are native speakers of German, French, and Spanish. Casting from this large community of native speakers gives us a fairly large pool of talent we can search through to find the best match possible.

Another substantial complication is the source of the translated script. Quite often the script is poorly or incorrectly translated by an outsourced agency who may have either made a grammatical error, or misunderstood the context. Madame Fate, for example, was a script full of “puns” and play on popular American cultural references – which make sense in American English, but does not necessarily translate well in other languages and cultures.

The last ting you want to do is ask your VO talent to also proofread the script as they are trying to match a character, which is why we have additional native speakers from our staff, who are already familiar with the game (or we bring in professional translators), and the English version and can make corrections in real time with the talent. This not only ensures that the translation of the script is accurate, but also helps to catch any mispronunciations or flubs in the performance.

Since the majority of casual games are still PC downloads, what challenges do you face in trying to keep the size of the audio files down while still maintaining a certain level of quality?

Luckily, file size limitations are increasing, but up until now, we have had to make hard decision about what to loose when working on the audio. That is a challenging way to have to approach each game, versus working from limitless options. Mainly it has forced us to make optimized creative decisions, streamline the audio and focus on implementing what is necessary to get the proper idea across. Now that download size is growing a bit, we are able to continue to create with less focus on limitations. Causal games that are being developed for Console platforms are actually experiencing the advancement already, because there is often very little limitation in terms of audio size.

Usually the biggest complaint of casual game users about the sound tracks is that it is too repetitive. Of course this is a function of having limited space. Yet, lots of original music and audio is desired by the players (not to mention the move towards greater amount of VO in games). I will give you a little hint and say that we are working on a solution and it will be forth coming this year!

Do you have anything else you’d like to share about the audio design in Mystery Case Files: Madame Fate?

Yes! Make sure you take time to listen closely to the soundtrack. There are all sorts of subtleties we put in this game. You can listen to the soundtrack lots of times and keep hearing different things. The Big Fish producers are awesome at many things, but we love them the most for these two:

1. They pay major attention to detail (in the sound track)

2. They give us the freedom (to create and deliver)

These two principles together usually make for a successful partnership of a great sounding sound track!

Watch for much more exciting collaborations this year between Big Fish and Soma Tone – we have exciting things planned!