If you were playing PC games in 1997, there's a good chance the echoing guitar strum that introduces the town of Tristram is a permanent fixture in your mind, always ready to bring back a flood of memories when Blizzard North's action-RPG clickfest Diablo is mentioned.
That soundtrack was the work of Matt Uelmen, whose 13-year career at Blizzard also included the score to Diablo II and its expansion Lord of Destruction, sound design on the original StarCraft, and composition on World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade.
In 2007, Uelmen left Blizzard and spent two years away from game development before joining upstart Runic Games to provide both the musical score and sound design for the company's well-received Diablo-esque downloadable PC game Torchlight and its upcoming Torchlight MMO.
The new job is something of a reunion for Uelmen. Runic was founded by Travis Baldree, an experienced action-RPG developer, as well as Blizzard North co-founders Max and Erich Schaefer and former Blizzard North programmer Peter Hu -- all four of whom had experienced a setback when their most recent employer Flagship went out of business and they lose control of their game Mythos.
In this in-depth interview, Uelmen reflects on his game career, his current position at Runic, how the industry has changed, and his own diverse musical influences.
What's it been like working with Runic, which has several of your former Blizzard coworkers, particularly after they went through that tough situation with Flagship?
Matt Uelmen: Everybody involved in Flagship was so talented. It was a shame to see all the drama providing such a distraction for so many talented people. I was very happy to see things get focused [with Runic] really fast, and really proud of Max [Schaefer] and Travis [Baldree], in terms of refusing to no longer have their own studio. Mere moments after, the dust hadn't even cleared, and they were already doing their own thing.
Every business, especially creative business, needs risk-takers like that. There wasn't even a moment's doubt for them. Travis has such a core of good guys, and the thought of having that team break up was painful and unthinkable. They'd grown together the previous few years working on a few things, and Max is a smart enough guy to realize how special a lot of that talent up there [in the Seattle area] is.
Have you been there since the beginning?
MU: I've been remote in LA the entire time. I started the first week of 2009. I was going back and forth on the phone with Max about when I officially started, but I interviewed in October or November 2008.
You had to interview? [laughs] Was there a realistic chance of you not getting that job?
MU: I can't read their mind. They have been really, really nice in terms of letting me be remote, but there definitely was a chance of not being 100 percent sure that situation could work, and it was unusual that they gave me that latitude. It worked out really well. I have a nice space in Southern California.
It seems like it had to be. They're making a game like Diablo, with some of the guys from Diablo, and I think everybody's most intense memory of Diablo is hearing that first guitar chord from your soundtrack. How did it feel getting back into that space?
MU: Because I had to do sound effects work as well, we didn't really have the luxury of me dwelling on my musical choices too much. I had about nine months total production time on the project. And even though they gave me a lot of help with implementing sound effects and we leaned pretty heavily on a couple libraries to get the job done, there was still a lot of work making sure all the monsters had individual personalities.
I also had to do some work with voiceover. A lot of people had to pitch in to get the voiceover done at the end, and to get the script tight. Music was something where I got to spend a few weeks every couple months, except at the end of the project.
MU: At the end, I had a chance to really focus on music for a good couple of months. I saved the production on the first interior and the main theme for that period, when I hoped my chops were at their best.
But I was actually working with [music software] Logic for the first time. By the time I was finishing up work on World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, my computers were three or four years old and I really hadn't re-tooled my approach, so I kind of had to start from scratch.
I'd worked with Vienna samples before, which I used pretty heavily on [Torchlight] for the orchestral stuff, but I had to start from scratch using Logic as a platform. I can be a late adopter or a technophobe, so that was another element that made the job interesting.
You've done some orchestral work, but a lot of your music runs very counter to what we usually hear in games. It's often more sparse, more organic, and more about texture than most game music. How do you start out on a piece?
MU: Yeah, I think it is a texture-driven thing. And you always want a live element in every track, even if everything else is going to be from a sample library. It feels a lot more musical if the listener has the image in their head of somebody physically performing the music. That's definitely good practice no matter what your soundtrack approach is.
I think a lot of times, people underestimate the ability of listeners to subconsciously notice when something is too sample-heavy, especially when it's the first texture you put in the foreground. That should be as live as possible.
There's a lot of synth going on in the Tristram track, but what everyone remembers is that introductory live guitar. It biases your interpretation of the whole thing.
MU: That was string samples, more than actual synth. There is a lot of actual synth in the rest of the Diablo soundtrack, just not in Tristram. But, that's right.
I definitely try to use that approach when I have the luxury of time.
How did you approach writing material for Torchlight, which had to clearly reference Diablo without simply rehashing it?
MU: It was a little tricky, just because the games do have so many similarities that it's hard not to make a lot of the same choices. I really couldn't judge if I was successful. I'm sure some people found the music way too derivative and referential to Diablo, and other people didn't feel that way.
But it was really different to just sit down at the piano. I tried to write a relatively strong basic melody first, so hopefully that makes it significantly different. The actual melodic structure is actually a lot more conservative than [Diablo's] Tristram in some ways. It's more of a traditional progression and melody.
Diablo struck me as relentlessly textural -- it's a constant wash over you, putting you in that world, as the bassline melody travels to the different instruments. Torchlight feels more optimistic, evoking more of a fairy tale feel.
MU: Yeah. There's not the big doomy melody that I drive into the ground all through Diablo. But that worked well for the Diablo series. That thematic material tied in from the original Diablo all the way to the Lord of Destruction [expansion pack] music. I'm sure you'll see the return of that theme in what Blizzard's up to now [with Diablo III]. That will be interesting to see.
How conscious are you that there's someone out there working on Diablo III who is tasked with living up to this thing you've created?
MU: Well, I'm aware of it, but I think that that team definitely has all the talent they need to get the job done right. I'm good friends actually with Joseph Lawrence, who is doing a lot of the audio work. I'm looking forward to it being its own distinctive thing.
You know, I'd really love to hear Joseph's ambient music out there more. I hope they don't feel they need to be too influenced [by my music], and that they are free to do their own thing, because the gamer in me thinks that would be more entertaining.
One of the tracks they use is a new recording of your theme, with a much heavier orchestral treatment.
MU: Well, I think you can't necessarily assume that a promotional track is going to function as an in-game track.
Similarly, I was speaking to [Runic co-founders] Max and Erich [Schaefer], and they were saying how strange it was to be showing Torchlight at PAX last year, and then across the hall seeing this huge Diablo III banner.
MU: I'm sure it will be great. It will be interesting in the next few years to see how viable single-player is as a genre. That's the real challenge. I think Torchlight was so successful because we marketed it so cheaply, and we depended on the good will of any potential pirates out there -- you know, keeping the DRM on the light side, and trying to make it easy and convenient. That seemed to be relatively vindicated.
But it's hard to do that with a big game. Blizzard may be one of just two or three companies that can really do a viable single-player game and doesn't need to monetize it beyond the box. It's really hard. The more you go from a $5 download to a $50 box, the harder it is for the average player to resist the temptation to grab it from a torrent. That's the dynamic you have to fight with.
Of course, the math doesn't always pencil out. If you want to spend $10 million or more developing a game with that level of content, you can't really have the pricing scheme we had for Torchlight. Torchlight was really only successful in the context of the time and the money that went into it.
It's a shame. I feel, in a lot of ways, it's a bit like the Busby Berkeley era -- you know, the big MGM musicals that had their day, and those old big bands that used to barnstorm across the country with 20 or 30 pieces.
The era of huge productions.
MU: Yeah. And then the economics changed. The fashion and the economy of the whole thing conspired to end that era. I mean, I don't really stay up at night worrying about it, but I feel like I got to see the glory years of the single-player game as a genre, and the economics are conspiring against it right now.
It's a shame, because I think people really enjoy it. I know do, having the ability to just buy a single-player box or download one thing. It's about having the idea of a game being a self-contained universe that you don't need to get fresh content for all the time. It's a certain kind of experience. It will be interesting in the next few years how publishers deal with that.
Well, even you guys are making an MMO next.
MU: Yeah, but it's, you know... [laughs] Hopefully, we just get to keep on making games for the next few years with that team, at least. That's all we're looking for.
What were you up to in the few years between Blizzard and Runic?
MU: Mostly being a dad. I have a couple sons, and my wife has had a pretty intense few years in terms her career, so a lot of the two years I took off were about trying to be as supportive as I could. Obviously, my first goal is just making sure that my family is a healthy, functioning unit.
It would really have been impossible to do all the things I want to do well. I could have still tried to work and have her do school and have our toddler, but it's tough enough to make a transition to being a good caregiver when you're coming out of an experience working at a place like Blizzard.
It really wasn't an easy transition, I'll tell you that. [laughs] You know, when you're working on stuff that's really successful, and WoW is making more money than most countries' GDPs, to be in that bubbly existence and then going to raising a toddler was an interesting transition. It was actually really hard. I think I learned from it.
When you left Blizzard, was The Burning Crusade your last project?
MU: Yeah. I actually left Blizzard the day Burning Crusade shipped, just on principal. I wanted to make sure I was there until it was literally on the shelves. I was really proud we were able to help that audio team develop a great approach for delivering the tons and tons of content that MMOs need.
I think it was kind of a trendsetter. I mean, it's stupid to directly compete with WoW in my opinion, but if you want to, that's how you have to do it. You need tens of hours of music if you really want to create a big MMO user experience, I think, and I helped push things in that direction.
You basically went from Diablo to World of Warcraft. Those are very different musical experiences.
MU: When I moved to Irvine in 2005, yeah. I really tried to get on that project [WoW] with both feet on the ground running, in terms of trying to address the challenge of keeping that title growing. It was exciting to be there, because the subscription numbers kept growing from 6, 7, 8, 9 million. It was fun. It was a nice challenge. I really was excited about the challenge of being able to hit those targets.
For the four years prior to that, were you basically working on what Diablo III would have been, if Blizzard North had stayed around?
MU: I guess at this point I can say, yes, more or less. Blizzard has always had a number of projects, though, that may or may not see the light of day. Some of those have been talked about, but there definitely was more than one thing going on development-wise at the time.
I was really happy, though, that I did an orchestral session shortly before the studio was shut down, having that live orchestral stuff to draw on. That really was my life saver, and I was proud of the fact that I was able to motivate getting some orchestral stuff recorded despite the project and the team being in the kind of state where shutting down was on the table.
It's also the largesse of Blizzard that they paid for a session in that context, which is to be thanked. But it actually worked out really well to have that material to work with later on.
Diablo, particularly the first game, is a very personal experience. It's grim and dark, very understated and claustrophobic, and the music echoes that. World of Warcraft has a much more bombastic soundtrack, which fits more with the orchestral arrangements. I suppose Lord of Destruction has some of that as well. But you tend to be associated with the less grand stuff.
MU: Yeah, I definitely did a lot of the more Wagnerian, bombastic approach for Lord of Destruction. Even the original Diablo had the big Richard Strauss organ swell at the end of the theme, so there were some of those moments.
And at this point, it's only a small part of the WoW world that has my music in it, like levels 60 through 70 in Outland, which is probably going to be increasingly de-emphasized as that world continues to grow or get re-worked. Some of that has a fairly intimate feeling.
I really wish that [former WoW lead composer] Jason Hayes had a chance to stay with that team, because I loved his music and thought it was a great fit. He's definitely capable of doing some intimate-sounding tracks that could satisfy that small peripheral sensation. Of course, the nature of the game is massively multiplayer, so you're going to have that feeling. It's never going to have that survival horror vibe, because there are hundreds of people potentially in the same instance as you.
It does speak to the importance of music in a game, though. Diablo's music really hammers home the themes in that game. Even in World of Warcraft, there are times when you might need to suggest a particular feeling musically, because the game on its own as a huge multiplayer experience may not provide it entirely.
MU: It could definitely reinforce it, and I think one thing they've been really successful at with the music they've done for WoW is trying to give the different zones different personality. You can try to give more of an intimate feeling to a particular zone. I tried to do that a little bit with Nagrand, the desolate part of Terokkar Forest. It's Bone something...?
I'm not really familiar, sorry.
MU: Obviously I'm not either. [laughs] But I was trying to go for that vibe there, and I think it worked out reasonably well. It was just a lot of real estate in Outland. It was a big game world. And that's why I tried to get so much music on the clock for it. It's all a blur now.
One thing that impressed me based on the limited time I've spent with WoW was that every zone really has its own identity, from the colors to the music and so on. That was very successful.
MU: Well, that music team for the original vanilla release, which I wasn't a part of, did a great job getting very different flavors from the different composers. Jason [Hayes], Glenn [Stafford], Derek [Duke], and Tracy [Bush] all have their own distinctive sound. That whole team approach can actually work out pretty well. I've seen that in games more in terms of small teams of composers. It's the logical way to go with MMOs, I think.
Outside of huge productions like MMOs, though, it seems to me that the idea of an in-house composer is becoming increasingly rare in the game industry. It seems to be moving more towards a freelance or outsourced model.
MU: Well, there are places like Blizzard, and you know what Bungie has done with Marty O'Donnell. There's definitely something to be said for having the consistency of an in-house person. Even in Hollywood, a lot of the most successful directors kind of have a go-to composer.
Yeah, like the Coen brothers and Carter Burwell.
MU: Exactly. Tim Burton and Danny Elfman.
Still, some roles in the game industry seem institutionally undervalued as full-time roles within the studio itself. I would say writers remain another one of those.
MU: The thing about the narrative element is that you don't always want a strong narrative -- but you never want a bad narrative. It's hard to get right. If the game is emphatically not narrative-driven, but you still want the atmosphere that a good narrative gives you, that can definitely come from the writing or the music. Hopefully, both will give you some of that sense.
It's hard to do right, because [narrative] is usually not the focus. It really shouldn't be the focus, because the whole essence of games is that you're supposed to be the one drawing the story forward, especially in [games like] Diablo or WoW.
So what instruments are you tooling around with these days?
MU: I bought a classical guitar for Torchlight, which I've gone back and forth with. That's pleasant to play because it's such a nice, quiet little instrument.
That's very much in the character of the game, too, the pastoral quality of the nylon strings.
MU: I really wanted to emphasize that. That color is not featured as prominently in the Diablo universe.
Yeah, the Diablo music is all about those resonant steel strings.
MU: Exactly. Other than that, it's really about what I can find time for. I'm actually looking forward to [our next] project, when I'm hopefully going to have a chance to do a lot of writing for live strings.
So, in my mind, what I'm doing is trying to visualize string writing. That will be the instrument in my head. I want to take advantage of the fact that I could hopefully get a lot of live textures in the soundtrack and maybe put on some of the synthesizer sauce, as the contrast to that.
You mean more of an overtly synthesized sounding thing, as opposed to synth mimicking live instruments?
MU: Right. Hopefully, the live strings will kind of free me up to do a little more of that.
You sort of earn the right to do that once you have a strong live element.
MU: Yeah, exactly. If you earn it with a nice, tactile, crunchy underscore from the lower strings especially, then you can get away with having a big spacey pad in the middle of it. Whereas if stuff is too sampled out and mechanical feeling, you really don't earn that movement.
It's always nice when you can afford to do that, because synthesizers have a reputation of being the cheap version of something else.
MU: Which is ironic, because they were actually extremely expensive when they came out in the '70s.
I possibly did a better job in the original Diablo than I did with subsequent stuff in terms of letting the synth [be itself]. I just let the resonance get cranked up, doing big sweeps with those textures. I like the sound of the old gear.
There's a very distinct sound when you think back to the '70s, when bands like The Who were first using synth. It was very front-and-center.
MU: Yeah, it's funny how distinct that sound is. That whole 16th-note thing that Pete Townshend did -- I guess it became the sound of the CSI empire these days. I think every CSI variant has its own Who song. It's "Who Are You?" on one, and...didn't they use "Don't Get Fooled Again"?
Yeah, where the guy always takes his sunglasses on and off, and then he tells a joke, and then Roger Daltry goes "Yeah!!"
MU: [laughs] Cheesy puns and Daltrey scream. Yeah, exactly. They never use "Eminence Front," though. That's my favorite Who jam.
I always found that song interesting because it doesn't sound like a lot of Who songs. It's more of a groove.
MU: It's driven by the 16-note sequencer note thing that they were using with "Baba O'Riley" and all those classic '80s ones. It's kind of disco-y. It builds up without ever getting there, which makes it fun. It's a great song for a fight or coming into a ring. And I love the lyrics. It's one of Pete Townshend's better examples of really putting you into a human emotional place.
Townshend is one of my favorite musical personalities of the 20th century; he's a great writer. As far as that synthesizer use goes, though, it was rarely used as a stand-in.
MU: There was a little bit of stand-in stuff.
Like the Mellotron [string section-emulating keyboard]?
MU: Yeah, which I love the sound of. Or the [Mellotron precursor] Chamberlin. I love the Chamberlin flutes, and that great sound in [The Beatles'] "Strawberry Fields Forever," and Zeppelin used it in "Stairway to Heaven." You'll hear samples of the Chamberlin flutes all over the place in Diablo.
It wasn't until samples got much better in the late '80s that you started to hear the horrible fake saxophone stuff.
That's the worst.
MU: Especially fake trumpet. John Chowning is the guy who really developed [frequency modulation] and was the mastermind behind successful FM-based synths. His original paper was all about modeling the partials and overtones from a trumpet, and it was very cool and effective, but the sound of an FM trumpet is one of the most unpleasant sounds ever created. It's right up there with Viper car alarms, which probably had more musicality than an FM trumpet.
They're more honest, at least.
MU: [laughs] They're more honest in terms of function dictating form.
I'm curious how much all this thinking is reflected in Runic's current project.
MU: Well, I'm curious, too. It seems like it should all come together. We have more or less the time and budget issues figured out. It's always a real treat to write for a big live ensemble.
I like the idea of making it really string-focused this time for a few different reasons. I think that'll be good for me. Hopefully, I can play to my strengths. I think I've always had a much better touch with strings than winds and brass, so I'm going to try to emphasize that.
I've always felt game soundtracks overemphasize the really smooth, homogenous nature of strings, without putting enough focus on the individual tenors of the various string instruments, like you'd get in a smaller chamber orchestra.
MU: The main piece I've been studying is one of the last things Richard Strauss did, called "Metamorphosis." It's somewhere in between a chamber group and a full orchestral string group, and he does a lot where it's just three strings at a time doing contrasting voices.
That's the nice thing with strings, though. You can either go for the big toothy thing where they're playing one gigantic line, or you can take a 48-string ensemble and give them all individual lines, and it functions reasonably well in both of those roles. That's what makes it fun.
Kirk Trevor, the conductor I've had a chance to work with and hopefully will be working with again soon, is particularly good at that stuff because his background is as a cellist, which gives him an exceptionally good sense of how to get good stuff out of strings.
Hopefully we can do it when it's not freezing. The last few times I went up to Bratislava, [Slovakia, to record with the local orchestra] was when it was in the teens, Fahrenheit, and I had forgotten my thermal underwear. It's a bad scene. But this time it will be a slightly warmer time of year, which will be nice.