Videogame Music Prototyping


Ben Houge will be leading one of nine community-driven workshops at Expo ’74 in Brooklyn this October. Read on for more information about his workshop and some history of his work.




Videogame Music Prototyping in Max

While attending Ben’s workshop, you will build a simple music engine, similar to the one he used to prototype the music system of Tom Clancy’s EndWar at Ubisoft. Focus will be on a cell-based system, flexible enough to turn on a dime in response to game events, with no loops and no fades. To participate, you’ll need to bring a laptop with Max 5 (including MSP) installed. Ben will provide some sample data, or you may bring/create your own.

A Short Interview with Ben Houge

Who are you and what do you do?

Well, it sort of depends on when you catch me. My career for the past 15 years has been audio design for video games, having spent 7 years at Sierra (working on Leisure Suit Larry 7, King’s Quest: Mask of Eternity, Half-Life: Opposing Force, Arcanum, and others) and 4 years at Ubisoft (most of which was spent as audio director of Tom Clancy’s EndWar). But for most of the past 3 years I’ve been focusing on finding ways to apply organizational concepts from the inherently indeterminate medium of video games in a broader cultural arena, in particular exploring physical spaces through the medium of sound installation. I’ve also been investigating applying the same non-linear principles to visual data.

I’ve recently been busy with projects at the Boston Cyberarts Festival, the Axiom Center for New and Experimental Media (Boston), e4c gallery (Seattle), and the San Diego Museum of Art. I currently teach video game audio at Berklee College of Music and Boston University Center for Digital Imaging Arts.

When and why did you start using Max?

I came very close to taking a Max class at IRCAM in 1995 while doing an exchange program in France, but fate intervened. So I know I’ve been aware of and curious about Max at least since then. I started using it around the time it was ported to Windows, 2002 or so, as I recall. I did my master’s at the University of Washington from 2002-2004, after I’d already been making games for a while, taking advantage of Sierra’s continuing education program, which was great in that it helped me articulate more succinctly the questions I wanted to address with graduate study. Max figured prominently into one class in particular, Sensing and Control Systems for Digital Art, taught by Bret Battey, and I also did my master’s thesis in Max/MSP, a sound installation project entitled Radiospace.

Max has been my main axe since then. I moved from Seattle to Shanghai in 2004 to take the job with Ubisoft, and when I first landed and hadn’t yet met any collaborators, Max allowed me to continue to make music as a one man band. Max also became increasingly prominent in my video game work, as I used it to prototype game audio deployment systems, notable the innovative music system we developed for EndWar, which will be the focus of my Expo 74 workshop.

What technology or person’s work intrigues you most right now?

I’m keeping a close eye on Björk’s new Biophilia project; to call it an “album” seems too reductive. I’ve been convinced for a long time that the successor to the CD would be the app, and this seems like the first major project to pull a lot of these ideas together cohesively and on a grand scale. I really believe that real-time, interactive, digitally mediated experiences are going to be the primary mode of experiencing music in the future, and the place to look for direct precedent is field of video game audio.

It’s definitely an exciting time for independent game projects and apps, especially as game audio middleware like Wwise and FMOD has become standard, game engines like Unity and UDK are available to indie devs for free, iPhone/iPad/Android are viable platforms for small scale games, and XBLA and PSN provide a distribution alternative to the big lumbering game publishers. I’m also very excited about the possibilities of HTML5.

Let’s see, who else…Messiaen is a constant inspiration for sonic forms that inhabit a kind of perpetual present, similar to what games must do. I’m currently working my way through his complete organ works (the Latry boxed set). My friend Wang Changcun, the most active Max user I met while living in China, just shared his new project with me (entitled “sorry, autocorrect”), with some really nice algorithmic grooves, although I’m not sure if I’m allowed to share the link yet. Carl Stone is also never far down my listening list. And lately I’ve been reading a lot of Jim Harrison poetry.

What is the most exciting part of attending Expo ’74?

I’m just really excited to see what other people are working on. The great thing about Max is that it’s so vast that I don’t think anyone really masters the whole enchilada; instead people dig down deep into whatever they’re into. It was encouraging to read that most presenters don’t consider themselves Max whizzes; they’re whizzes in their particular thing, and Max is the tool.

I’m also very excited to find out more about Max 6, which is sounding amazing so far!

Learn More About Ben