Part I: Nelson Everhart & Todd Coleman, The music of Wizard 101 (Interview by The Friendly Necromancer)
On Thursday, January 29, 2009, Todd Coleman and Nelson Everhart joined The Friendly Necromancer on a conference call to informally chat about the music of Wizard 101. The following is Part I of the Q&A session.
Friendly: I just want to thank you from the player-base for making Wizard 101 a game that is easy on the ears. You’ve created something fantastic that really adds a new layer to the game.
Nelson: You’re welcome.
Todd: Thank you!
Friendly: Before we start the meat of the interview do you have any initial comments on the feedback you’ve received on your music for the game?
Todd: The feedback has been universally positive. We’ve received extremely good feedback from my standpoint on the game and the soundtrack specifically. I do agree with you that it adds a layer of atmosphere that kind of accentuates and punctuates all the other layers. I have to give a lot of credit to Nelson on that. (Pauses) I do believe this may be the first time that Nelson and I have ever been on the phone together as far as I can remember.
Nelson: This is one of the first times if not actually the first time we have ever been on the phone together.
Todd: It’s kind of interesting. We worked almost entirely over e-mail. I kind of started my career as a writer. But, I would basically write up a general feeling or thought, that would not necessarily be coherent, of “here’s the kind of feeling I’m going for.” I would sometimes reference, you know, movies or send some screenshots of the general architecture, mood, or atmosphere, and then Nelson would just immediately start iterating and coming up with music, and it worked really well, which is actually kind of surprising (laughs). Because really, I don’t think we ever even spoke, it was all over e-mail. I would write and he would iterate--I would write and he would iterate--and the result was fantastic.
Nelson: I believe Todd is just a really good communicator; out of the gate he would give me everything I needed, and when it was difficult he would help smooth things through the gate a little bit, you know, by giving me input, like here’s a movie or a soundtrack for you to consider or here’s a screenshot for you to consider. It was a lot of material that was motivational or inspirational.
Todd: I recall a lot of times when writing Nelson a paragraph, I would tell him, “Here’s what this world is about. . . .” I would include visuals and describe emotions. I would tell him, “Emotionally this is the kind of feeling we want to give . . . .” I was surprised by how powerful the results were when the music would come back. Even the initial cuts of the music, when they came back to us, they were so close to the mark that a lot of it was just tweaking the music from there.
Nelson: There was a lot of good information conveyed about the emotion and the specific vibe of the track and also about what they wanted the player to feel in any particular world or part of the world. This information was really integral in nailing that feeling quickly. We did well working that aspect over e-mail.
Friendly: This question is for Nelson, and Todd, you can chime in as needed. How did you come upon this great job?
Nelson: There is a gentleman by the name of Jools Watsham who was working for Kingsisle at the time; he’s since moved on. And, I had worked with him at a company called Acclaim entertainment. When the company went bankrupt around 2004, everybody kind of went their own direction. We just sort of stayed in touch. He wound up working at Kingsisle and asked me if I was interested in the project. That’s how I became involved.
Todd: Jools came in early on as our producer and then he left us to go start his own company called Renegade Kid. William Haskins from the AP slot took over, and he and Leah Ruben have been on the production side ever since. But, Nelson has stuck around through the whole thing! (laughs)
Friendly: (laughs) I am very happy that he did and I think the rest of the fan-base is as well since it turned out fantastic!
Todd: I am delighted actually with the way things have turned out. The music does a great job of setting things apart, and it does a better job tonally of setting the mood. Music is the red-headed stepchild typically for a virtual world, and I think we’ve done a really good job of elevating that up to a much higher level.
Friendly: I agree. It’s sad when people tend to tune that out and turn on their own MP3 players.
Todd: Well, at some point it is bound to happen. If you have a game that is hundreds of hours of game play, how many people will turn it off? And I think generally we have music that is engaging. It’s interesting. It doesn’t get too repetitive. We have a variety in our mix of tunes, and it makes for a great longevity.
Nelson: That was definitely one of the considerations when we made the music for this game is that people are going to play it over and over and over again. We tried to change tempos a little bit, modulate, and present different keys throughout yet keep it consistent and keep it delivering. It was one of the music’s goals. You hope that somebody gets something out of it.
Todd: Nelson I don’t know if you realize this, but in the office we’ve taken the Wizard City Commons music (sings the tune) . . . People have actually come up with words to that!
Todd: So I’ll hear people singing around the office, (sings) I want to go to Wizard School, to Wizard Wizard School. I want to go to Wizard School. Wizard School is cool, yeah!
(laughter from all)
Todd: So people have come up with their own lyrics, which is pretty humorous.
Friendly: That’s awesome.
Nelson: That’s awesome. I love that people did that.
Todd: Even though you’re recording this, you’re not allowed to play me singing. You don’t get my permission for that.
Friendly: (Laughs) Don’t worry, you’re safe.
Friendly: So, Nelson, you use to work at Acclaim, is that right?
Friendly: What other music titles would you claim as your own?
Nelson: Hmmm, which ones should I claim?
Nelson: The first one I did for Acclaim was called South Park Chef’s Love Shack, which there’s no real cross-over in that game’s music to this game.
Nelson: Also, Vexx for the PS2, XBox, and Gamecube. The score for Vexx is the one I sort of compare to Wizard 101’s score. However, in that game I kind of used more techno elements mixed with orchestral elements, and that worked well for an adventure based game.
Friendly: So you obviously have played Wizard 101 before then, you had to in order to come up with the sound track.
Nelson: Yeah I played. Todd got me on early, and it wasn’t like I spent a large amount of time leveling a character. It was more like just running around and getting a sense of the vibe and the wonder and what I personally heard inside my head as I was running around the levels.
Todd: It was definitely more challenging for Nelson to play the game before I got him the ability to teleport to different levels. We didn’t want it to take him 60 hours of game play to get to where he needed to be to do his job.
Friendly: (laughs) that’s great. Ok, so, Nelson, since you had told me earlier that use a Macintosh, do you want to plead your case to have the game released on that platform so you can play it again?
Nelson: I will be the first person in line to play the game when that happens.
Todd: There actually is an emulator out there. Some players brought it to our attention. They downloaded it and were able to bring up the game on it.
Friendly: Wow. Well there you go, Nelson, you’re one step closer to playing the game now. I’ll add you to my friend’s list.
Nelson: I’ll have to check that out.
Todd: We don’t want you to get addicted though! Believe me, we can’t let people even here get too addicted because we need them to make the game.
Todd: They’re not allowed to play it too much.
Friendly: (laughs) ok, so what made you all at Kingsisle choose the more orchestral sound when you were creating the score for Wizard 101.
Todd: It’s a good question. I remember early on that some of the music was a little more electronic sounding, and I’m not sure what caused us to shift to go more orchestral. Do you remember, Nelson?
Nelson: I remember initial conversations about what sort of vision we wanted to portray. When you write music for other media there’s so much of pop culture that can play in terms of evoking or even avoiding a certain style. And, orchestral music can be used to evoke this particular environment because the fantasy genre or world in film has a lot of orchestral elements to it. To some degree, and coming from a different point of view, the scale that you’re trying to convey of a world is enhanced by the powerful sound of an ensemble. And it’s very flexible because you can do so many things with it. You can take the music and really kind of roll it out to look forward to the last encounters. It’s great to be able to keep some of the power of orchestral music in reserve for the last stand.
Todd: I know that we definitely wanted to get more cinematic in combat and maybe the fact that it was cinematic combat was what took us that direction as he was saying. Film and the orchestral sound are very married to each other. So when combat came into focus maybe we leaned more that direction. I know that we wanted to lean away from being too electronic because we definitely wanted the world to be grounded in fantasy. We wanted to set ourselves apart to a degree to the idea that the wizard city world and the rest of the spiral were not mixed too heavily with the identity of players from earth trailing into this world and feeling like they're in a different place—not carrying too much from our world into Wizard city. You don’t see things like baseball caps and pop culture . . . in anything other than the writing, you won’t see pop culture references in the Wizard City world.
It’s hard to remember this all correctly, we started working on this what three and a half years ago, so some of those initial inspirations have faded over time.
Friendly: Well I definitely have not missed the European Band influences in the Prospector Zeke quests. All of those are very good pop culture references in the game. You did a good job!
Todd: And they keep that in the writing. I told people that puns are fine. Keep it in the quest names and keep it out of the world as a whole. I drew a weird arbitrary line in the world: here’s where you put your jokes; don’t put it over here.
Friendly: Right! Good decision, good decision.
Friendly: So, Nelson, was it a demanding process writing the songs? It sounds already like you had to go back and rethink things at least once to change from electronic to orchestral. How much input did you get from your fellow employees that played the game? What was the collective looking for and maybe what you had to sacrifice personally for the game?
Nelson: Well at the end of the day it’s all about serving the vision of the game and trusting that Todd was directing the vision for the best possible outcome. And, at the end of the day, it’s really about making him happy with how the music sounds--not me. I couldn’t really see on a daily basis how it was coming together. So it was about trusting him and when he was saying, “Yes, this is working.” As far as the stylistic considerations that went back and forth, I didn’t really look at those as setbacks. It was like an exploration of trying to find the voice of this game, rather than asking what kind of voice I was going to have in the music.
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In Part II Todd and Nelson talk about the theme music for Wizard City and their favorite pieces of music from the game. Nelson also touches on a few technical aspects of his job.
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