In this interview, Gord shares with us how he maintains an innovative work environment and a resilient business model with the help of meditation, his love for spreadsheets, the strong local indie community, and of course, the amazing skills of his teammates - Em Halberstadt, Joey Van Alten, Chris Tammik, and Rachel Sim.
Written by Adriane Kuzminski; images courtesy of A Shell in the Pit, Miguel Araujo, Infinite Fall, and Awaceb.
Hi, Gord – to start off, how many games have you and your team worked on at A Shell in the Pit so far?
We have done full soundtracks and/or soundscapes for over 30 titles and had smaller roles in at least an additional 15-20.
Could you tell us a little about your personal history of getting into game audio and the beginnings of the studio?
I thought I wanted to score music for film. I won a scholarship to VFS’s Sound Design for Visual Media program and half-intended to leverage that as a back-door to film composition. Then I fell in love with sound design in general, and particularly game audio due to how innovative one can be with real-time implementation.
Were you inspired by a specific composer or game?
Even though it’s not at all the type of music I write myself, Jessica Curry’s score for Dear Esther was the first time I heard game composition with my picky-ass hipster ears and was like “oh wow, ‘game music’ ain’t what it used to be.” So much emotional depth and just… class. Jessica Curry’s music is just classy as all hell. As far as dynamic audio, the incredible ability to set the tone in INSIDE – almost completely sans music – is the first thing that comes to mind.
Since your team does both sound and music, what kind of games or genres do you keep an eye out for?
It is important we work on games that interest and aesthetically mesh with my team as individuals, so the type of games we pursue are influenced by who has bandwidth. There is plenty of crossover for all of us, but if indie-narrative-fan Em is the only one with bandwidth, we aren’t going to pursue a local co-op shooter. Chris doesn’t have quite as much curative freedom since Moona, our audio tool, is used in any Unity game developers want to use it in.
Could you tell us a little more about Moona? What games have employed it and how has the studio benefited from it most?
Moona is our Unity-based audio tool that covers a lot of the basic logic functionalities that other audio middleware tools might provide. It gives our sound designers much more sophisticated control of the Unity audio engine, including voice and instance prioritization, lead & follow action presets, RTPCs, and a bunch of other things. It’s led by our audio programmer Chris Tammik. Chris started with us as a sound design contractor, but when I saw how passionate they were becoming with audio programming in their spare time I knew there was no way it wouldn’t be an asset for us to bring Chris on full-time and simply have them do that. We were struggling with 3rd-party anything (middleware, plugins, etc.) with VR games in particular, so I really wanted us and our developers to have more control of our projects at a more technical level. When a project needed to be using a constantly updated version of Unity on tight hardware-driven deadlines, relying on large tools with complex codebases became overwhelming and I felt like a real pest hammering their support lines all the time. I decided I’d much prefer, in many cases, to have someone on the team who could tackle issues with more immediacy.
Audio implementation in Moona
It also allows us to mold the tool on a project-specific basis. For instance, Parkitect has an orthographic viewpoint which introduces really weird attenuation issues when you have tall emitters in 3D space. The top of a tall tower with people yelling on it might be 100m away from a merry-go-round in the game world, but to the viewer they may only be a few pixels apart, so the user feels like they should have equal loudness. Where the heck does the listener go? This was a huge problem for which Unity had no native solution that persisted literally for years, but Chris was recently able to fix it by making modifications for Moona. Now we have that as part of our toolset for other orthographic titles, should they arise.
Games that have used Moona (and its previous rudimentary version, TaT) are Splitter Critters (this was the first game, and it used TaT which actually blew up in our faces immediately before launch, haha. Software development is hard), The American Dream, Fantastic Contraption (we were recently forced to switch from Wwise for very particular spatialization plugin issues), Parkitect, Iron Tides, and a few unannounced titles.
With three employees at A Shell in the Pit, how do you balance everyone’s roles and personal goals?
Now four! We just hired Rachel Sim. To answer your question, it’s important to me to minimize micromanagement. Everyone at A Shell in the Pit has as much autonomy as they want on projects, which is why it’s so important everyone can work on stuff they enjoy, believe in, and feel ownership over. I often see our company as an incubator for artists with only as much managerial meddling as is asked for/required from myself. It takes a lot of trust, which is why I am very careful about who I hire. Everyone on our team is capable of self-management to varying degrees and I only step in to fill in those gaps of variation.
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Along with hiring people who are creative and independent, minimizing micromanagement, and seeking projects that interest your employees and fit in their bandwidth, what other qualities do you believe help in running an ideal indie studio?
I spend a LOT of mental and emotional energy on making sure we have a sustainable business model and ensuring we have multiple income streams and aren’t relying too much on one thing. Just as there must be room for failure creatively as a sound designer, you must also make room for failure as a business owner. If I am hiring people I want to be hiring them indefinitely, so losing one contract or having one revenue-share game tank cannot be the thing that sinks the company. My worst fear is running out of capital and having to lay people off. I think I’m doing alright, but I probably have a few more years to really get this sussed out. I have piles and piles of spreadsheets calculating our overhead costs, incomes, salary contingencies, affordable bonuses, etc. Without a word of a lie, I get a huge kick out of spreadsheets. Like I think they are really fun and would totally be happy working with them all day every day. The only reason I do music and sound design for games is because I don’t think I could handle the endemic pressure brought on by the fame and glamour of the elite spreadsheeting world.
Ha! I can only imagine their inner-circle is filled with Macallan scotch and macros.
As a volunteer mentor with the Audio Mentoring Project as well, what do you think of mentorship in the indie game audio world?
It’s tremendous. Lowering the bar of entry for the less privileged has been the guiding principle in founding the Vancouver Sound Designers Group as well as the podcast (Beards, Cats & Indie Game Audio or BCAIGA). We want to share information at as low a cost as possible and psychologically empower people from all walks of life by interviewing and hosting talks from soundies and composers of all backgrounds. I try to incorporate these ideals into A Shell in the Pit as a company.
Photo of the Vancouver Sound Designers Group by Miguel Araujo
Speaking of the podcast, not long ago in one of the episodes (and in a guest post for Designing Sound) you talked about meditation. Has this practice affected how you approach daily life at A Shell in the Pit?
I can’t lie, I am still not in a steady habit but I know it’s good. I often rephrase it for the less… open minded – I’m from a small, conservative (by Canadian standards) logging town so have I vestigial unease with anything that may lead to me hearing the word chakra – I reduce it to its most banal description. For me, “meditation” is leaving the house without my phone and going & sitting somewhere for 30+ minutes. “Meditation” is intentionally boring myself until all my restless thoughts of bills & deadlines wear themselves out and my brain can get to work on more interesting things. I assume the more one does this, the faster one can get to this productive state. This is how I have solved many of our more complex business-oriented problems as well as come up with some decent sound design ideas.
Can you give us an example of one of these times?
I came up with our dynamic budgeting spreadsheet via my poor man’s “meditation”. It is a spreadsheet that automatically tallies assets lists into a budget based on the filename prefix. It allows us to collaborate with developers on both the game’s asset list and the budget all at once, giving budgetary control to the developer and allowing them to balance their priorities with contracts paid at an asset-level. I also came up with all our different budgeting models by just sitting and thinking for a long time. Rarely do we lose contracts over our pricing, because by mixing and matching revenue share with up-front payments of some sort we are able to come up with something affordable for almost anyone.
If that doesn’t convince people to unplug once in a while, I don’t know what will! This system must save you so much time and give your developers a sense of ease. In another episode of your podcast, however, you talked about something equally as important: failure – and how not every project is guaranteed to be a hit, no matter how much time and love you put into it. Do you have any words of advice to help others become more resilient in these situations?
Keep surging forward. Of the multifarious ways a project can underperform, most are wildly out of our control as audio professionals. One cannot force the public to love anything or bend the winds of the cultural zeitgeist. Failure in chaos does not reflect the quality of one’s work or self. We are children holding out our little soap carvings hoping Mom & Dad will like it, but maybe our sibling kept them up screaming for attention all night and they’re worn out & we don’t get the reaction we were sure we’d get from them. In the moment it is devastating, but I promise it’ll be a lot easier to overcome that sting of failure by getting lost in a new carving than by sitting in your room in circular negativity. Revisit it later with less raw emotion for objective analysis. All our “failures” (which I don’t see that way) hurt less because we have always had new things to occupy us.
What a beautiful metaphor and wise way of looking at it. Makes it no surprise your team has been so successful. What do you find most fulfilling about running A Shell in the Pit?
Providing “dream” jobs to a diverse staff. I want and desperately hope we can keep them that way. So many “dream” jobs in entertainment wind up being so crushingly illusory. There are too many stories of excessive crunch, harassment and toxic work culture. I am trying – even if it is just with our tiny, young company – to fight against that by taking cues from great workplaces like Klei & Audiokinetic. We may not have free beer & skittles at the office… or even an office… but when I can tell everyone is doing the best work they possibly can because they love what they are doing and aren’t burnt out, overworked or apprehensive for the sustainability of their livelihoods, I feel like we are really accomplishing something.
Klei is, of course, your neighbor in Vancouver – do feel the local community plays a role in helping you maintain a dream workplace?
Without a doubt. I may be biased, and Vancouver isn’t without its flaws – it was recently awarded the top spot as the Least Affordable City for real estate in North America – but we have one of the best indie game communities in the world, largely (if not entirely) attributable to the organization Full Indie who hold monthly meetups and yearly Summits with world-class speakers. Em just did a talk on the sound for Night in the Woods at the most recent summit and brought down the house!
It seems like every time I see news about that game, it has won another award! Are there any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
I’m very excited for Wandersong, launching in 2018. I have written over 50 songs for it and I have to write another 50 in every imaginable genre. Em has been working on the SFX for it with Greg Lobanov, the developer, who built us arguably the most capable & complex audio tool Gamemaker has ever seen. We will also be releasing The American Dream in the near future, by far the most subversive game we’ve ever worked on, and Joey & I will soon be launching Full Metal Furies, the next game from the developers of Rogue Legacy. Parkitect is wrapping up as well! Tons going on.
That’s a lot of exciting stuff. It will be fun to hear what you compose for Wandersong, knowing your diverse yet distinct writing for Viking Squad, Bunker Punks, Splitter Critters, and Okhlos (to only name a few). Considering the sheer amount games your studio has created sound and music for, which project are you most personally proud of?
That is like picking my favourite child! So I cannot. Em’s work on Night in the Woods is some of the best sound design in indie games ever, in my opinion. Fossil Echo was one of our best team efforts, and Moona has come such a tremendous distance since Chris began developing it that it has even replaced a major middleware tool in one of our biggest projects.
Great stuff! And finally – a very BCAIGA question – if Doctor Who suddenly popped out of his TARDIS and offered to take you any place in any time period so you could record one sound of your choosing, what would that sound be?
This might be everyone’s answer, but I’d love to do some field recording in the Jurassic period & get me some extinct sounds.
Thanks for sharing with us! Where can people follow you and the rest of the team on social media?
We are all on Twitter:
A big thanks to Gord McGladdery for sharing his wise perspectives from running A Shell in the Pit
– and to Adriane Kuzminski for the interview!
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