Interview by Adriane Kuzminski, photos courtesy of Xbox Game Studios
Can you believe it has been over ten years since Minecraft was released as a public alpha? For those who played the early builds, it was clear that Markus “Notch” Persson had created the digital response to LEGOs, with an addictive universe that begs players to explore, build a fortress, and create blocky works of art that become more impressive every year. Since then (as we all know) it was purchased by Microsoft for $2.5 billion and grew into a powerhouse franchise complete with toys, card games, fan conventions, VR ports, and an expanding universe of games.
The sound design has come a long way, too! While “Vanilla” Minecraft hasn’t strayed far from its sparse, relaxing piano melodies and practical sound effects, the recently-released Minecraft Dungeons features a whole new world as an Action Role-Playing Game (ARPG) with exciting battles, more characters, and a massive, beautiful map. In this interview, Audio Director Samuel Aberg, Composer/Sound Designer Peter Hont, and Sound Designer Rostislav Trifonov share how they built these lovely soundscapes and took the sound of Minecraft into a new direction while staying true to the calm aesthetic of the original.
Minecraft Dungeons: Official Launch Trailer
Hello all, and thank you for speaking with us. First off, it’s interesting how Minecraft Dungeons is epic and action-oriented yet the serene soundscapes and music are balanced in a way that no energy is lost during the combat scenes. How did the team ensure that Dungeons would be aesthetically compatible with the past Minecraft games while bringing the franchise in a new direction?
Peter Hont: I think our guiding light was always the visuals. Had we gone down the traditionally dark ARPG visual style, the audio would have followed suit. As it turned out, we ended up creating a more accessible and light-hearted game. I believe that is what made it clear for us how to treat the legacy of Vanilla Minecraft in a more hectic setting. In one word, spoopy.
Rostislav Trifonov: Our goal was to capture both the relaxing atmosphere of Vanilla Minecraft and blend it with more cinematic/fantasy type of hack and slash combat elements. The result was that the player can experience both being able to relax and enjoy the surrounding world, and at the next moment engage in an intense action-driven battle. While the music and ambiance is serene, we accentuated the battles with layers of hard-hitting cinematic and fantasy effects. Moreover, we wanted to develop further the Minecraft feel by blending in a bit of an arcade feel on top of the fantasy and magical elements. The result I believe is a pretty unique combination of genres that proves the Minecraft universe could potentially keep expanding in many different directions :)
Samuel Aberg: Dungeons is action oriented, so to second what is stated above: we were sort of forced to follow suit. With joy we did! Who doesn’t want to design a Harp Crossbow? A mini boss encounter of an Enderman that makes the whole screen dark and static? All these elements not only brought a lot of new things to our world, but also did so with a lot more detail than in Vanilla.
I think it’s very important to anchor the experience with a "feel at home" element for our players.
One of the challenges was of course then: authenticity. For a feeling of a true authentic Minecraft game I think it’s very important to anchor the experience with a “feel at home” element for our players. The Camp is the player base in Minecraft Dungeons. This also happens to be the most Vanilla Overworld-looking and feeling place in the game. This became the perfect spot for that authenticity anchor. My philosophy is that if we succeed in creating this soundscape in a way that feels at home and authentic to our players; we can take out the turns quite vividly out on the levels of battlefield without losing the authenticity of the brand. Personally I think the music alone in the Camp is one of the best things we created in the whole game.
We decided early on, which I think resonates with Vanilla Minecraft as well, that things are allowed to sound scary and heavy hitting. This is a universe that is filled with both light and dark magic.
As you entered the dungeon crawler sphere, did you find inspiration from the sound of other games in this genre, like Diablo III, Torchlight, or even The Legend of Zelda?
PH: I believe the entire team brought their own perception of what all of those classic games mean in terms of aesthetics. However, I would say that the explicit nods to our ancestors in the genre were kept to a minimum, seeing as we wanted to stay true to what Vanilla Minecraft is and should be about for the foreseeable future. To me that is a sense of limitless adventure and mystery, conveyed through vague ideas and broad concepts. Specifically I believe that the music was helped a lot by this, as it currently sits in between being simple and readable, while giving listeners clues about their environment without standing in the way of the goal of the adventure.
RT: As a big fan of the mentioned games, I was definitely influenced by the ‘feel’ of their soundscape. I have personally grown up with Diablo and I believe it has definitely inspired me to develop my own style of fantasy and magic sound design, which I would say I specialize in. It’s definitely an amazing experience to be able to take the fantasy genre to the next level by combining it with the iconic Minecraft style.
SA: In the beginning of the development I played a lot of Diablo and Torchlight, so I’m sure I have drawn inspiration from that. The audio elements of the arcade visuals, such as Emeralds and Beams were something completely new to the Minecraft universe. The inspiration I drew for some of those definitely could stem from Zelda and Final Fantasy.
Good design is appreciated. Great design will meet some resistance before its greatness is recognized.
It’s a balance act. It’s great if one shot sounds are recognizable and “popping”. But at the same time: they need to somewhat fit and not become intrusive. This has been one of the most challenging parts for me designing sound for Dungeons. I was first very unsure if I liked the emerald sound design. I usually feel sounds like these have a high risk of becoming slimy and being “video game sounds” they are too easy to like. I remember when the team tested out the emeralds for the first time and all really instantly loved the pick up noises. I still have conflicting feelings about it. Good design is appreciated. Great design will meet some resistance before its greatness is recognized.
Were many sounds from Vanilla Minecraft used? What is the oldest sound effect from Minecraft that is still in use today?
PH: Haha, YES! There are a lot of assets in the game, so recreating them all from scratch was never an option I think. However, we did remake many of them, adding to them what I believe is the essence of Dungeons: action.
Explosions and weapon impacts needed to be louder, though not necessarily more complex. Mobs needed more animation-specific sounds, though they didn’t have to be realistic. The music needed to convey the pacing of the game as a child of Vanilla Minecraft, without confining itself to the ARPG genre. That’s one of the reasons why I believe people have reacted so positively to the audio. It feels like Vanilla Minecraft, but set in a totally different world.
I don’t know what the oldest sound is, so I’ll leave that to grandmaster Samuel to provide that answer.
SA: Not all, but most sounds that you hear throughout the game are remakes of “classic” sounds from Minecraft. Everything from UI, chat wheel and mobs all have a base of vanilla in them.
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Dungeons finds a sweet spot in being bright and fun while also rather dark and creepy. How did you craft the soundscapes so they appeal to adults fans but would not be too scary for young children?
PH: I want to give credit to the rest of the team here since what they did guided us in what direction to take the audio. Again, the visuals were key. We basically didn’t have any other written guidance than to not include voices other than the sounds made by mobs. In terms of keeping it lagom™ scary, I believe one contributing factor might be the scarce use of realistic animals, and subsequently animal sound effects. What is perceived as mild horror themes is to me derived from the game not being realistic more than the odd cow, etc., here and there. Had the player screamed in agony when killed, that would have meant the creation of at least ten forum threads made by concerned parents. Instead, focusing on the weight of the impact, both in terms of sound effects and music makes the concept of dying more abstract and, perhaps in a morbid way, fun.
RT: When I tried Minecraft for the first time I remember that I had a really chill time, walking around mining or picking flowers. Then suddenly night came and I found myself in this scary world where I was being attacked by a mob of creatures. I quickly barricaded myself in a house and had to wait it out until the morning. Hearing the sounds outside in night time was a bit scary hehe, especially the Creeper noise from behind my back always got my heart pumping. I thought it would be really nice to enhance that feeling in Dungeons – having a good contrast between the relaxing atmosphere and then sudden intense moments when engaging in combat.
I think a main obstacle for sound designers is that they think kids can’t handle scary things at all. I think young kids and adults are drawn and attracted to scary things.
SA: I think kids can handle scary things. But we do have “rules” to balance this. Like no blood and gore. The players portrayed are skins of your choice, so they don’t have a voice on their own. If you ever played Minecraft as a kid or adult, I think most players can agree the game can be both joyful and calming while also very scary. I think we found that balance in Dungeons as well. I think a main obstacle for sound designers is that they think kids can’t handle scary things at all. I think young kids and adults are drawn and attracted to scary things. But the darkness in Minecraft, be it Dungeons or Vanilla, does not attack you. It sort of lures you in to keep exploring. I’m positive most players can handle a jump scare here and there if done in an elegant way. It will keep the players alert.
As far as the human sounds – the moans, groans, howls, growls, and cow grunts – did you record these at the studio, and did they all come from one voice actor?
RT: That’s true, a lot of the mobs use human recordings as source. We try to expand our voice actor arsenal. We record them both at the studio and I personally sometimes do it in my home studio using a broad selection of mics. I noticed that using a shotgun mic when in an untreated room helps minimize the noise, which is especially important with voice recordings. I do use animal recordings as well for animals or more fantastical mobs.
SA: After five years with Minecraft and voicing most of the fantasy mobs myself I’m very happy the audio team is growing. We need more and better voice actors :)
Did you happen to find any inspiration from TT Games’ LEGO series for the cutscenes, since underneath the narration your characters also communicate nonverbally?
RT: I haven’t really played any LEGO games yet hehe. I drew inspiration mostly from the original Minecraft mob voices, since I’d say we have a vocal style that we follow in Minecraft.
Try to not overthink it. And just record.
SA: No, I wouldn’t say so. When it comes to mobs voice overs. I can sincerely say that most of them are more art by accident than anything else. I look at the mob. Try to not overthink it. And just record. Put some cool effects on top to not feel too ashamed. By now, we have ‘rules’ for some of them like villagers and illagers. Techniques of recording, effect chains and not using syllables. But these rules have more formed themselves throughout the years, rather than being a strategic philosophy from day 1.
Especially as the world of Minecraft expands, are there any Minecraft characters that you enjoy designing the most?
SA: My favorites have to be the undead and scary mobs. They are easy. You can transform almost any sound to fit these creatures. For the Phantom, heard in both Vanilla and Dungeons, I used recordings of my baby son screaming. With some heavy effects on top it gave a strong esoteric feeling that really fit the insomniac night monster that is the Phantom.
That’s pretty creepy! Or perhaps spoopy? :) Do you have any other fun stories or discoveries from recording and designing?
PH: One thing people might find interesting is that the urns breaking is not just some library sounds put together to create the effect. It was literally me, a few unlucky flower pots, and an axe. Although I often find myself having a sort of “what you see is what you get” mentality when designing sounds, this must be one of my more literal interpretations. The player smashes something that looks like a pot -> I smash something that is a pot. A not so safe working environment perhaps, but I had fun and it made for great breaks and cracks so I am happy.
RT: One of the funniest things I’ve done so far was mapping insect recordings on a sampler and playing a humorous arcadey melody to create an item sound. That’s what I love about working in the Minecraft universe – many of the characters and items can only be found in here. Which gives us endless possibilities to experiment with unique approaches and combinations.
SA: A small group of people made the design for the Key Golem on a Friday afternoon, where we usually have Gaming Friday in the office. The game of the day was Mario Kart 7. As I was walking by they were on the level Shy Guy Falls. The track where you can hear shy guys “wao-wao singing” in the background. Went in the recording room very inspired. I think most people would hear the resemblance. The Key Golem visuals and audio have become one of the most iconic and loved mobs in Dungeons. It’s funny how things like this still can happen more by accident than anything else.
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Since many of you have musical backgrounds (which is apparent from the game’s many musical sounds), what was the collaboration like for these sound effects, and were the musical tracks a collaborative effort with Johan Johnson, too?
I think we used the sound effects in a very literal way … The musical elements are, with exception for some of the bows, conveying a more abstract idea or feeling.
PH: I think that grew organically from all of us being at least somewhat musically active at some point in time and wanting to use that as an additional layer when communicating with the players. I think we used the sound effects in a very literal way, conveying materials, weight and other concrete, physical parameters. The musical elements are, with exception for some of the bows, conveying a more abstract idea or feeling. For example there is a bow where the arrangement is a pastiche of baroque music to fit the exalted nature of the bow’s origin that the name and description implies.
I believe Johan was the sole composer for the first 2 years of development. My contribution was born out of necessity as we needed more music than Johan had time to produce. So without ever talking directly to him, I tried to mix what he had done thus far with elements that I thought would fit the genre, the game, and the story as a whole. I think people have appreciated the mixed styles quite a lot.
RT: I actually began my audio journey with electronic/ambient music. Eventually my career transitioned into sound design, which was a natural progression since I liked to create spatial musical soundscapes. I always try to approach sound effects from a musical/tonal standpoint at the start of the design process. I try to blend in the pitch of all the different elements together and also make sure the final effect works with the music or ambiance tonally. Also, sometimes I like to play sound effects through synths for additional morphing (using the synth’s effects, etc.).
With Dungeons as the first Minecraft game to make the jump to Unreal Engine 4, what tools did you all use to implement the sound and create the lush, spatialized environment that wraps its players like a warm blanket?
PH: While there are definitely examples of us exploring designs based on multi-layered parameter driven implementation, I would say we focused way more on the design of the static sounds themselves. The core ideas if you will. We didn’t use any middleware or proprietary engine for that matter, but instead decided to work within UE4 itself. It was a challenge for us since none of us have a particularly developed skill set when it comes to programming, but with ongoing support from the rest of our team we managed to find a solution that fit our intention of keeping things simple.
RT: I have personally used solo UE4 quite extensively over the years and I believe it’s a great tool to master. Even on its own without any middleware it could achieve great results but usually the implementation process and mixing in-engine could take a little bit longer. UE Blueprints could offer almost an endless array of tools to create nearly any system one wants. On the other hand, older versions UE4 had a few setbacks as well I believe, such as the limited reverb settings but thankfully there is convolution reverb now which is an amazing upgrade :)
On top of the detailed spatialization, text-to-speech has helped Minecraft Dungeons push forward blind accessibility in games (with this game streaming on several channels owned by blind gamers). Were there any elements of accessibility that you took in mind while planning the sound for the game?
I think the integration between accessibility and traditional design will increase even more in the coming years and I hope we can be a part of that inclusive development.
PH: We were aware of the benefits that the amount of spatialization would have for blind players. It was however something we discovered along the way rather than something we aimed for at the start. Regardless of accessibility as we tend to think about it, a good rule of thumb is to be able to play the game blindfolded, being guided just by audio. So I think all of us are very happy to hear that people are able to play the game that way. I think the integration between accessibility and traditional design will increase even more in the coming years and I hope we can be a part of that inclusive development.
SA: As a general design philosophy I think accessibility is great to keep in mind. If you don’t communicate clearly, you fail on accessibility. We discussed this quite a lot during audio development. We could have done even better and that is something I hope to improve on future products.
And finally, Samuel, since you have worked at Mojang since 2015 – going from Lead Sound Designer on Minecraft to Audio Director of Dungeons – what has been most exciting for you to see as the franchise evolves? Were there any particularly challenging decisions that you made as Audio Director to help the series take this bold step forward?
The future will be challenging, but it will also be rewarding.
SA: Dungeons is definitely one of the most exciting things that has happened since my start. The updates we do for Vanilla are getting bigger and better for each time as well, so that’s also very exciting. Right now I feel very happy that we are a growing audio team working with sound and music. It has of course also been a huge challenge to suddenly explain how and why I have done things in a certain manner. But it has been very educational both personally and professionally. I feel we are in very exciting times in Minecraft history and that the audio team is standing on solid ground. We have proved with Dungeons and the Nether Update that the audio department of Mojang has improved and matured a lot since I started. We will always have the challenge of keeping authenticity while developing and innovating. Lastly it will be up to us to keep this balance, and I’m sure it will be a huge challenge. But I’m very confident in the audio team we have today.
The future will be challenging, but it will also be rewarding.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share?
SA: Look for the eye.
A big thanks to Samuel Aberg, Peter Hont, and Rostislav Trifonov for giving us a look at the boldly evolving sound of Minecraft Dungeons – and to Adriane Kuzminski for the interview!
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