Technical Sound Design – An Interview with Damian Kastbauer

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To end the year properly, we invite you to check the last of our GDC interviews, this time with Damian Kastbauer, Technical Audio Lead at PopCap Games, who tells us about his role as a technical sound designer.  Damian is renowned for his extensive career in awesome video games such as Peggle 2, Plants vs. Zombies 2, Marvel Heroes, Uncharted 3, Dead Space 3, Back to the Future, Infamous 2, Jurassic Park and Star Wars: The Force Unleashed I and II, among others.  You can listen the original audio of the interview or read the transcription below.  The translated version to Spanish is here.



Naila Burney: Hi Damian!


Damian Kastbauer: Hello!


NB: Tell us, what do you do? A bit of your background

DK: Great, so I am a Technical Sound Designer for games. I have been a freelancer for 7 years and in the last 2 years have taken my first in-house job at PopCap in Seattle, and, I am not a content creator, so I don’t make any music, I don’t make any sound content, and I am not a programmer.  I only do work in the middle of those two things in order to get sounds to play back appropriately for the game.  So, technical sound design is a kind of sound design that is more interested in leveraging the games’ dynamic behaviors as a way to make audio as adaptive and reactive to the players’ input and the games’ input as possible, and so, I really enjoy the challenge that comes with trying to get great sounds to play back in the game in the best way possible.


NB: How do you coordinate with the sound designer and the musicians? Do you tell them how to do certain things or they tell you, or how does that work?

 It can work both of the ways that you mentioned and every collaboration is different, but recently I’ve been working on Plants vs. Zombies 2, and in that collaboration, the way that I like to work with the composer and the sound designer is to begin the conversation letting them know what kind of content we’ll be making; what genre it is, is it the wild west? Is it the dark ages? You know, the ice age?  And we begin this conversation creatively just talking about what kind of content we are going to be making in the future.  From there, I go to work, and what I do is, I prepare the animations and the gameplay with temporary sounds so that I can verify that they are working in the game.  Now, it’s during this time that the game team is starting to build the assets that will eventually be the final assets for the game.  So even before they’ve done anything, I’m sort of having this conversation with the people I’ll be collaborating with, and they might get concept art, there might be early animations that I can show them, but usually at that phase there’s not a whole lot for them to work to; so my job then becomes to try and stand up as much temporary content in the game as I can, and kind of follow in the footsteps of animation and design as they are doing their visual work.  And then what happens is, I’ll capture gameplay and capture animation videos for the sound designer, for the musician, and I will annotate those with the name of, you know, the plant, the name of zombie, I will add the name of the file name for the different animations that I want, and how many variations.  It’s during this time that I add those file names to a spread sheet so that when it comes time to create the content, we have a list we can work off of, and very easily see what’s being worked on and what has been completed.  If everything goes well, we have a very brief period of time where there are game ready assets working and very quickly, within a week to two weeks for these smaller pieces of content for the game, we can work very creatively because they have game ready assets, they have something to work against, with animations, and what I then do is, with the content that I added temporarily, as they start creating what will eventually be final assets, I will swap those out in the game and capture gameplay footage that can then be communicated back to the Sound Designer.


So, in an ideal situation, they would just have a build of the game and they would play the game with their changes, but in lieu of that, I can pass them a gameplay capture, I got a video of it, and they can easily hear their sounds in context, because ultimately, they are creating to picture for the animations, but until it’s in the game, until there’s context for the sound that they are making, they don’t really know how it’s working with the rest of elements of the game such as music or ambience or you know, other things that are there… and so, during that creative collaboration, there’s a lot of talk about some of the fundamental design principles we try to target in Plants vs. Zombies 2. We want the sounds to be humorous, so we want them to be iconic but not cartoony, or we want the sounds to have an organic quality, and a lot of times we’ll recommend a sound designer add mouth sounds (sounds made with a persons mouth) to something to try to bring a kind of humanity to these pixels on the screen, and because the game is very much about, kind of whimsy and kind of comedy, and you want to make sure that it doesn’t come off too serious and anytime I think people vocalize and make weird noises with their mouth that gets immediately funnier.  So that was long…was that a long answer?


NB: Yeah, but that’s fine. So, what has been in that project the biggest challenge you have had?

 So what’s interesting is, the game has been out for two years, and after the game launch, we have updated it every four to six weeks. Every four to six weeks there’s a new content going out to players, and so, first of all that’s a very fast schedule, right? To be working on content. And over time what developed was a kind of template system that was very easy to design for because it was a very known quantity, so again kind of nice because we only had a short time frame, but also kind of the consistency of it was not necessarily creative in a technical design kind of way.   So, for me, because I do embrace that technical side of things so much, the challenge for me was really how to make things smooth for my collaborators; how can I make the pipeline smooth for them so that they have what they need to do the job, that they want to do; they want to make the best sounds for the game, what do they need to do that and how can I provide that for them very quickly in a short period of time and make it easy to have that creative collaboration.  That was kind of the biggest challenge, and I think we did pretty well over time. Yeah.


NB: Right, ok, and finally, is there any particular tool that you have been using that has been quite useful for the processes that you do?

 Sure. Well, I’m a fan of readily available tools that can be used very quickly get up and running towards whatever goal it is you are doing; so if you are making a game, I’m a fan of using a tool that is for making games.  Other way of course is to build the tools yourself, to build the game engine yourself, and for me that is a very long road, that I would not choose.  And that is also true when it comes to audio tools.  So for me, I’m a fan of using existing audio middleware tools to very quickly get up and running with sound and making sounds, connecting sounds to the game, and to that and, I have become a preferred user of Audiokinetic Wwise audio middleware.


NB: Ok well, thank you very much Damian!



Check more about Damian on his blog and twitter!



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