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Hedge Interviews Marty O'Donnell

On December 2, 2002, Hedgemony, a forum regular at the time, mentioned wistfully that he'd love to get the chance to ask Marty O'Donnell some burning questions about the sound in Halo. It being Christmas and all, Marty agreed... after all, how many fans would take it upon themselves to catalog all the dialog in Halo... by themselves? Well, it being Christmas and all, Marty got a little behind on the answers... but as my History teacher used to say (just before taking 20 points off for lateness), "Better late than never!"

The information's timeless, anyway. (For posterity's sake, post date is January 14, 2003.)

So, without further ado... some earnest questions from Hedge and Marty's honest answers!

Hedge: First off, I'd like to thank Marty for taking the time to look at and answer these questions. His work in creating a believable soundscape for players in which to interact is nothing short of breathtaking. The music alone is worth playing separate from the game itself. The depth that his work has brought to games over the years continues to improve, astounding many gamers in the process.

How would you describe the atmosphere within Bungie at the moment? With everyone hard at work, can you feel the excitement growing as the day when Halo 2 approaches its completion? Or is it business as usual until it is before the public?

Marty: We're all hard at work and it gets more and more exciting as we see new stuff come online everyday. Making a sequel is never a simple proposition. You want to make everything that was cool even better, and leave out all the stuff that was weak. The problem is not everyone agrees across the board as to what was weak and what was cool. The nice part about game sequels, as opposed to most movie sequels, is that games almost always improve technically whereas movies usually don't.

Hedge: With the announcement that Halo's engine was rewritten, how does this affect the way you look at sound design? With new locations and also new characters, does the prospect of creating new soundscapes and dialog seem daunting, or are you excited by the chance to add another dimension to how we listen to Halo?

Marty: It's both exciting and daunting. The idea that I can have more dynamic control of music, or a better and deeper AI dialog system, is incredibly energizing, but at the same time represents an awful lot of work and testing. I anticipate that the end experience will be better, but it's hard to know exactly how much more enjoyment the player will get out of our efforts, or if it's simply an incremental move. For example, for every new AI dialog category we could end up recording and editing 450 new lines, with each usable line representing a minimum of 2 or 3 takes. We really need to make sure that it's worth the time and effort.

Hedge: In listening to the Elites and Jackals and hearing marine and grunt lines used for their dialog, will the Elites be getting dialog that is unique to them? Or will the Covenant races remain the same soundwise?

Marty: I'm afraid that gets into an area that I'm not at liberty to explore at this time.

Hedge: Will it take less time to create sounds for future projects due to the work that you have done on Halo? It almost feels as though there are many untapped ways to go with sound in games, or at least ways to push what you have done even further, especially in cinematics.

Marty: It will take more time. Our plan is to make everything better, faster and stronger. Even things that are near and dear to everyone's hearts will be revisited. You're correct, there are many exciting new ways to create and implement audio in games and we want to keep pushing forward. Real time cinematics represent new kinds of creative thinking about story telling and interactivity. It's an area that we haven't come close to fully conquering.

Hedge: The joy of listening to Halo is that there are no parts of the game that are completely silent. The individual levels and rooms are cleverly given an organic feel, yet at the same time are very alien to be in. They also allow the player to relax but still be tense at the same time, not knowing where noises are coming from or by what. Do you believe that ambient noises help to generate a type of gameplay that doesn't involve action, a psychological aspect that most games ignore if you will?

Marty: Ambient sound is one of the main ways to immerse people psychologically. A dark room is spooky, but add a creaking floorboard and rats skittering in the walls and it becomes really creepy. Add a bit of low ambient music with the sound of faint whispers and you can't help but start looking over your shoulder. Life isn't silent, but you are always gating the sounds around you. Games that have sounds that skip, drop out, or have periods of silence tend to lose my attention. That's one of the reasons we even have sound during loading screens. The ideal would be to never have a loading screen, but at least I don't want to break the mood by going completely silent.

Hedge: What area of Halo do you wish you could have spent more time improving? And have these ideas been implemented in future plans?

Marty: In the audio area I needed more time for the final mix stage, when everything is working and all the audio content is in place, I could have really spent more time balancing all the elements. There are also some quirky 3D sound and surround sound things that we should have had more control over. Actually, in almost every audio area, there are things I'd like to improve and we are attempting to implement most of these improvements in our Halo 2 plans.

Hedge: What do believe are the main strengths and weaknesses in using Dolby Surround 5.1? How do you intend on getting more out of the Xbox's capabilities?

Marty: The strengths are that it's about the coolest way to experience a game and we can do things with it that even movie folks can't do. The reason is that movies aren't usually in first person perspective, and they are also shown in large theaters. That means that creating ambience or music that surrounds the audience is sometimes unnerving. I have no problem doing that however.

Hedge: Many objects in Halo have multi-layered sounds. The uplink stations, control panels etc., what was the sound that was the most involved in creating? And were any sounds created by accident but used anyway?

Marty: We had to work really hard on the Warthog engine sound. It is multi-sampled, multi-layered, and does both cross fading and pitch bending based on both engine RPM and vehicle velocity. I think the Grunt movement was based on some Tupperware, but that wasn't exactly an accident, just weird.

Hedge: Balance is obviously important in getting the player to focus on what is said or heard. How can you vary the ways that information can be related to the player in a simple way, without detracting from the action elements?

Marty: To be honest, that's still something we're working to improve. We need to have more ways to communicate with the player without forcing them to go into a quiet place or stop all activity. Just ducking the other sounds under important voice over isn't good enough. It should be possible for the player to get important information from more than one source or maybe Cortana should at least wait until there's a break in the action to start blabbing.

Hedge: Since the release and deserved praise for Halo, have you been contacted by other game developers to work with them? What would you look for in another project?

Marty: Microsoft makes sure no one contacts me (kidding). I'd be interested in any project that excites me and makes me believe that the team working on it is on interested in making the coolest game ever. Plus, they had better know that music and sound play a crucial role.

Hedge: What is the most satisfying part of creating sounds for games?

Marty: Finally playing it at home, by myself, and getting a chill up my spine at some point.

Hedge: I find that when I sit at my piano, I play one of my favorite songs to settle in. Do you have a song that automatically wants to be played when you approach your keyboards?

Marty: Brahms Intermezzo in A and Chopin Waltz in C# minor.

Hedge: How do you think you have evolved as a composer over the years? And what game did you learn the most working on?

Marty: The "evolved" part of your question is probably best left for someone else to answer. As far as learning about game audio, my first game, Riven, probably taught me the most. Oni was a great precursor to Halo though because almost everything we perfected in Halo, we learned while designing Oni, from an audio standpoint that is.

Hedge: Will any additional voice actors be utilized in Halo 2? Will the cast list increase, or will the voice actors from Halo be worked even harder?

Marty: Yes, yes, and yes.

Hedge: How would you describe the fanbase that you have acquired over the years, and what is your reaction to praises given towards your work?

Marty: I really love it. Bungie absolutely has the smartest and hippest fans in the whole game biz. Fame and praise is fleeting however, and I know I'm only as good as my latest release.

Hedge: I read that you gain ideas from early sketches of characters as to what they will sound like. I imagine that you do the same with vehicles and weapons as well. Have you ever created a set of sounds for characters, only to have them scrapped later on in a project? Have you reused some sound effects from previous games, or do you create entirely new ones for separate projects?

Marty: You should have heard the incredible surround sound mix we had for a great watercraft in Halo. You never know what might happen with sounds like that.

Hedge: Lastly, I'd like to wish Marty and his family a Happy Halo Christmas from everyone at the HBO forum. We are all eagerly awaiting hearing new music and sounds for Halo 2 and know that we will not be disappointed.

Marty: Thanks to you and Louis, however Christmas is long past, due to my not getting this back to you guys, so maybe you'll want to rewrite this part.

[Ed. - Nah... it's more honest this way.]

Hedge: Thank you Marty for your time and thanks to Louis for setting this up.