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Portrait of a Collaboration: PowerUp App

I absolutely adore collaborations. Be they with game developers, animators, fellow audiophiles or creatives of any stripe, I love the social nature of the experience.

George Hufnagl, Blogger

March 13, 2013

10 Min Read

I absolutely adore collaborations. Be they with game developers, animators, fellow audiophiles or creatives of any stripe, I love the social nature of the experience. Brainstorming, exchanging ideas, supporting one another, learning about a new field, critiquing to improve the project; not only can it be a great relationship builder, but you can learn more about your own discipline and how others perceive it. Growing up, I participated in a variety of  team-centric activities - baseball, marching band, jazz combo playing Chuck Mangione tunes - so either my spirit of camaraderie has been cultivated over time or perhaps it’s in my nature. Or both. Either way, I think I've made my point. George loves collabs.

In 2009, I began shifting my focus from writing music for the concert stage to sound design with a primary focus on game development, so naturally, I looked forward to working with other creatives.The shift was in the cards for awhile and there was no better time than now (that is, the “then” now and not the “now” now... stay with me here). Of course, never having worked in this medium before, my initial experiences were pretty awkward. I was learning all kinds of new tech and nomenclature, virtual teams formed and dissolved by the month, and I had no context for what the sound designer’s role was in the creative process. I knew that, in the most basic sense, s/he is responsible for the creation and delivery of audio assets, but there were many questions beyond that:

  • Who holds creative authority over the project?

  • Do I get a say in the game design’s aesthetics?

  • Am I able to offer design ideas?

Depending on scope of the project and team size, this inquiry can be quite extensive. For me, then, this was one of the most anxiety-producing points in a collaboration, especially when it’s someone with whom I’ve never worked. One never knows if the person will be open to your ideas or if it will be a situation like in “School of Rock”:

Dewey: “But Ned, no power plays, man. I’ve got vision up the butt, so just go with it.”

Fast forward to “now” now. Having had many wonderful, collaborative experiences since those first wobbly steps, I am much more comfortable with myself and the development process. It’s different every time at least in small ways, of course, but I did wish, though, that I had had some knowledge of how a collaboration might go or, at the very least, some solidarity in that awkwardness. Therefore, I felt it would be beneficial to share a slice of my experience with a real-life example. For those of you who are either venturing out into this area for the first time or who like to see how others work, I salute you.

I’ve chosen to highlight an app I worked on recently with Jacob Van Order of SushiGrass called PowerUp, A Retro 8-bit Video Game Camera.

Retro 3 Retro 2 Retro 1

This example works well because the audio asset list was small, the collaboration had a quick turnaround time and it can be demonstrated how the collaboration fared with some detail. First, Jacob describes the point at which he and I were introduced.

I had taken off work 3 whole months in order to work on PowerUp full-time with the product being an app that was 100% my vision from concept to execution. I spent weeks detailing the visual assets that went into the app. I obsessed over fine details and animations. I tested, retested and beta tested until there were no known ways I could crash the app. All this time went into the craft of the app because I wanted to put 100% effort into one of my products. But some of the feedback I got consistently was that, considering how playful it was, the app was "too quiet". And I had to agree. After all, sure, I spent numerous hours as a kid staring at the screen while playing my favorite games but I spent just as much time having the songs of Mega Man 2, Super Mario Bros, Duck Tails and other games stuck in my head.

At this point, I tried to go at it alone. After having an app that was conceived, designed, programmed and constructed by myself, the last thing I wanted to do was lose control of the sound effects. After some recommendations, I tried a programmed called "CFXR" to try to eek out what I thought would represent the sounds of the era my app represented. And it worked… sorta. Slowly, I saw myself doing something that I used to disparage — I was assuming that because I had a tool, I was instantly a craftsman. Coming from a job in graphic design, people would approach me with slipshod representations of what they were trying to communicate with something they "designed" in PowerPoint. There were no considerations of the 7 elements of design, no years of experience backing up the decisions and no considerations of craft to produce a seamless product. I recoiled in horror as I realized that I had become the very monster that used to hand me a print out and tell me to "make it look pretty".

Again, on another recommendation (shoutout to Benedict Fritz!), I was introduced to George. I sheepishly handed over my crayon-drawing equivalent of sound files and gave him examples of something similar to what I wanted. Again, coming from a design background, I knew how important it was to communicate your intent upfront but letting the subject-matter-expert take it from there. And though this was tough as the app was, up until this point, my 100% vision, I am so glad I did. George listened intently, worked quickly and efficiently to come up with sounds that blew me away. He had the knowledge and foresight to produce sounds that went way beyond what I had envisioned but conveyed what I wanted to communicate within the app better than my crude facsimiles. The result was something that felt right in place with a controller graphic that took 3 days to complete and code that was endlessly tweaked. This was my first time working with a sound designer but definitely not my last.

It's clear that we had a very pleasant experience and have developed a mutual respect for each other. After all, when I first opened the app I, too, was impressed with how well Jacob had thought through the presentation and flow. When you can operate something easily without instruction, then you know someone took their time in development. How did it go so well? Here is how we got there, together. 

When Jacob sent the initial build of the app to me, it sounded like this:

Initial PowerUp App Sounds

As Jacob does with his own discipline, I find it always helps to encourage people to provide sound references when they have an idea of what they want their project to sound like. Wanting to get a sense of what sounds seemed nostalgic to him and appropriate for the app, I asked him to send a list of sound effects in addition to what he implemented above. So, after spending a goodly amount of time playing with the app, figuring out its logical flow as the user might experience it, and listening to the audio both in the app and on the reference list, I sent an email to him with my thoughts:

I listened to the sounds and, while I think you have some great ideas to represent the nostalgic appeal of the app, I was wondering how you'd feel if we layered in some acoustic elements to help give them shape. For instance, on the shutter, I think it might be helpful to have an initial click, like a standard film camera, but then dovetail into something like you have as the reference. I only say that because the touch UI might benefit from a tactile response in the sound. I could surely work to represent that in the core sounds, but bringing in some [non-synthetic] sounds could help give them a little more weight. Let me know what you think.

Jacob's response:

Thanks for sending me the idea. I suppose I'm in a funny position. I guess I've always assumed that it would have a strictly synthesized sound as I have an affinity towards that sound.

But then again, visually, the app is, a mix of the skeuomorphic (bottom) and 8-bit (top) visuals by design. If I can mix those two styles in a way that works (in my opinion), then why not the sound, right?

I suppose that because the shutter is such a crucial part of this app, we could do this: why not try your approach for just the shutter. If you think the explosion sound is wrong, try something else. I will say that it will be an uphill struggle for you to change my perception but I will keep an open mind. If I like it, you can do the other 12 sounds in that style. If not, then I'd prefer a strictly synthesized palette.

This was a perfect response from Jacob. While I wanted to still honor his original plans for the app, his openness to my own creative contributions allowed me room to experiment and really take ownership of the sound design. It was the second paragraph in his response regarding the combination of nostalgic/contemporary design that resonated with me and suggested that we could do something similar with the sound design. After all, since the app's design and camera filters do not reference just a single point in time, why couldn't the sound design follow suit? We had the time and there was wiggle room in the budget, so off we went! With only about 5 days to finish the project, we rapidly exchanged audio and builds, tested and tweaked, critiqued and encouraged, making sure that we were both satisfied with how it sounded. We even added new sounds that weren't even on the original list! Here is a sample of what it sounds like now:

PowerUp App (Sound Design Sample)

I've thought about why this process went so well and why we had so much fun:

  1. We each presented well-reasoned, creative ideas. 

  2. We held a mutual respect for each other's abilities. 

  3. We listened carefully and responded in kind to one another's opinions.

And BOOM, you have a great combination of elements to make it happen. While this project briefly demonstrates how two people might work together, it serves as a great example of what I get out of doing this work. In other words, while the first two points above will get projects done, No. 3 builds relationships. I hear it over and over again - "it's all about the people." In a creative field like this, that's what keeps me going and reminds me of how great collaborations can be.

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