To celebrate the recent launch of The Walking Dead: Destinies, I thought I’d catch up with one of its directors, Randall Ryan—a prominent figure in the realm of sound design, voice acting, and musical storytelling. As the leading force behind HamsterBall Studios, Randall has been contributing to the gaming industry for well over twenty years — a work ethic that has helped the likes of Chivalry 2, The Lord of the Rings Online, and World of Tanks: Modern Armor come to fruition. In addition to this, Randall has also been making moves for industry titans over the years, with partnerships ranging from Blizzard to GameMill, Activision to Nickelodeon. So, for the sake of grasping a deeper understanding of HamsterBall Studios’ work, I thought I’d reach out. Here’s how that particular encounter went:
Hi, Randall. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. Tell us a bit about your background as a composer. How did it all start for you?
Randall: I have been a musician all of my life, starting to take piano lessons when I was 5. I was a traveling road musician for almost 15 years. I started writing songs in my teens and carried that into my professional career. It seemed a natural progression when I decided to quit touring to continue on as a songwriter and composer.
Moving on to HamsterBall Studios — when was the company founded, and how did it manage to grasp a foothold in the gaming industry?
Randall: The company was founded in 1995, and it was originally focused on commercial music: jingles, audio signatures, scores, etc. The field was extremely competitive, and we started doing voice-over work because, even though the margins were much slimmer (especially because I was not directing originally) there were more vo opportunities than music. The thinking was that if we could get clients to use us for vo they’d be more likely to come back to us for music, which turned out to be erroneous. The tendency was to see voice resources as just that, and music resources as separate entities. So then we started rebranding ourselves as a production company, which led us to start looking at other niches outside of advertising. Ultimately, this led us to the interactive industry, which proved to be quite lucrative in the late 90s, and eventually led us into the video game industry.
HamsterBall has been producing scores, voice-overs, and original sound designs for well over twenty years. How does it feel, being in “the game” after all this time?
Randall: Most of the time it simply feels like what I’m supposed to be doing, probably because the majority of my adult life I’ve been an entrepreneur in one form or another. And then there are days where I think of something that we created and realize how long ago it was; it’s occasionally a little mind-blowing.
Tell us a bit about the process. How long does it take to compose an original score, and what are some of the steps you’d need to take to achieve the best possible results?
Randall: I’ll answer this in 2 parts, since the vast majority of what we do now (well over 90%) is voice-over casting, directing, and back-end production.
Music has always been tricky. Everyone thinks they understand music, which most often translates to “I know what I like.” Unfortunately, what one likes rarely has a thing to do with what is right for a project.For whatever reason, that is a difficult concept for most people to comprehend. This isn’t the same when it comes to voice-over work, however, especially with respect to voice direction. (I’m going to set advertising aside, because there are wholly unqualified people who feel they are “experts” and can direct, even though they have no business doing so.)
With vo, the entire process of casting through recording sessions through editing, mastering & processing entirely depends on how extensive the project is. It can take days, or it can take months or even years. It all depends on the number of characters, the length of the scripts, and the depth of the performances. We are very hands-on with the entire process. I have cultivated relationships with thousands of actors over the years as well as their agents. We spend a lot of time determining who is going to receive auditions. We do not believe in cattle calls, or simply sending sides to agencies, nor do we ever post auditions on sites. So even when we’re not working on projects we’re searching for actors. (And not just English-language, especially now.) We’ve been doing this long enough that most of the time the actors are coming to us, and there is generally a backlog to review. But there is no such thing as “we have enough.” If nothing else, there are always niches and specializations that need to be made more robust. (As an example, we are currently looking for someone of Korean ethnicity with an American English accent to fill a main role.)
Our focus on casting and directing has always been more of a film approach. By that, I mean bringing fully-developed, 3-dimensional characters to life, not stereotypes or typical roles. It’s both funny and satisfying to see that’s where the video game industry now finds itself.
Music. The biggest change has to do with the amount of content. For years we always had to be cognizant of file size and storage. This wasn’t really a problem for us, because I came out of the interactive industry before doing my first game. The foray into interactive came out of the question: “why is there no audio on the internet?” (This was 1996.) There was no storage, no high-speed internet, and there were no standards. Because I had grown up in the age of programming one’s own synthesizers and building one’s own computers, I felt that I could solve this problem. So I built PC shells that each had different sound cards in them. I created my own tiny samples of instruments as well as used the onboard MIDI sounds of each card to determine what I could push across 14.4 and 28.8kbs modems so that users receiving them could get the audio without noticeable hitches and it would sound the way the music was intended across the majority of the equipment that was prevalent. (I could go on and on about this era!) The company was called InternetSound at the time, and we exploded right along with the dotcom era. Thankfully, we got lucky with moving into video games before the dotcom bust occurred, or we would have likely gone under with almost everyone else.
These lessons were the same with early video games. We always had to be cognizant of file size, load times, and the users’ equipment. It certainly allowed us to garner more work because we had already learned these lessons, so I was usually composing with sample banks and onboard MIDI sounds from the get-go, rather than composing with full-bore audio and then trying to figure out how to re-purpose it, which is what many of my colleagues were doing. We also used passages over and over, turning “stems” on and off to give them a different mix and sound without having to reload or push additional content. The mastery of the tech was as important as mastery of music. If you didn’t have the tech skill you couldn’t really compose for games. And in some ways, this helped thwart the “I want to hear music that I like” issue, because there were simply some things that were impossible to truly create because of the tech limitations. That’s probably one of the reasons that I was able to compose far more unfettered until the 2010s, because no one was questioning the compositional styles; everyone knew the palette was limited or needed to be creatively cobbled together, and they certainly didn’t know how to do it.
Nowadays, scoring is almost indistinguishable from film. Yes, there are differences, and yes tech still comes into play, but the barrier-to-entry is far less than it was. Now, it’s almost back to the same place it was when I began: the competition for composition is fierce, and the developers and publishers all have more of a voice in determining the direction of the tracks, whether or not they actually know a thing about music composition. So it’s very easy for a composer to get into a difficult position where they’re constantly being asked to rewrite and tweak their scores, and managing that process has, in some ways, replaced the understanding and manipulation of tech as the hardest aspect. For me, that’s an exhausting battle, and one I don’t have to fight as a Casting Director and Voice Director. Hence, the company decision to focus on voice.
The amount of time it takes to compose now is, of course, dependent on the scope of the game. AAA titles can take months. Ideally, no matter the scope of the game, the composer is allowed access to the build so that they can hear how the score sounds in different situations. Unfortunately, that’s not often an option due to everything from concerns for secrecy to not having a dev kit to the sheer issue of delivering builds online or being able to check-in files into the build in any sort of quick time frame. In many ways, I can’t answer much of what is going on now because I am rarely composing for games. Most of my composition time is now spent writing songs that I wish to write and submitting them as licensed music tracks. I’ve been fortunate to have tracks placed in TV shows and movies from time-to-time. It’s “mailbox money.” It’s hardly my bread and butter, but it’s nice to get a check in the mail every so often. And there are no rules; I’m simply writing and throwing things against the wall. As I often say, if you wake me up in the middle of the night demanding to know what I am, I’m going to spout that I’m a musician, even though that’s really not my day job any longer. But I am compelled to write, play, and perform.
If you had to recommend playing just one video game that you’ve worked on over the years, what would it be, and why?
Randall: That’s tough. If you’re talking just about gameplay experience of a game we’ve worked on, as opposed to specifically playing it to experience what HamsterBall did for the game, then World of Warcraft still has to rank at the top of the list. It has been the most-played AAA game and has survived for over 20 years for a reason.
If the question is what game would I suggest to experience what we brought to the table, then perhaps Lord of the Rings Online, for which we have cast and directed all of the voice actors since its inception in the mid-90s. If the question is about music composition, then I would go back to Railroad Tycoon 3.
Tell us a bit about The Walking Dead: Destinies. How was it, working on the game as one of its directors? Any plans to reconnect with Flux Game Studio in the future?
Randall: This is the 3rd game I’ve worked on with Flux, so we’ve developed a solid working relationship. As for voice direction, both directors, Gillian Brashear and myself, are very proud of what we accomplished. We had a mixture of actors from the TV series as well as casting soundalikes and NPCs, and we got wonderful, believable, and emotional performances from the actors. There were certainly challenges. For instance, the show actors were not all in Los Angeles, so we did have to travel to various locations to record, meaning sourcing studios and mastering source material from different environments. And it’s also always a little more challenging to coordinate schedules with celebrities, and some of the actors that we wanted to work with from the series simply weren’t able to make it happen within the time frame necessary. But we had a really good vo production team and that made all the difference when things really got time-compressed.
2023 has been a great year for video games. Tell us, what are your plans for 2024? Are there any projects in particular that we can look forward to?
Randall: I’m sure you know that I can’t really speak of anything we’re working on. Such is the nature of this industry. But there are two projects in particular that I’m really looking forward to getting into, one of which will likely take us beyond 2024. Beyond that, I’m jazzed about the additional opportunities we’re getting with European developers, and am anticipating that we’re going to continue to cultivate more non-American-based projects.
Amazing. Any final words for our readers?
Randall: Every so often, you get lucky in life. For me, that’s meant falling into an industry that has given and continues to give me a solid reason to wake up jazzed every morning. The depth and breadth of video games continues to be amazing, and I rarely feel that my creativity is being hamstrung.