February 13, 2009

GameZone Chats with Halo Wars Composer Stephen Rippy
By Louis Bedigian

“Throughout development, it was important to the whole team that Halo Wars have its own identity."

Stephen RippyNo series has had an impact on the FPS genre like Halo. Sure, Call of Duty has been huge, and GoldenEye 007 did a lot for N64 back in the 90s. But Halo created a legion of fans unlike any other – the kind that made Halo 3 break pre-order records before its release and break sales records immediately at launch.

It's no coincidence that, like other historical video games (Mario, Zelda, Final Fantasy, to name a few), Halo's music is instantly recognized by most gamers, even those who don't normally care about the music that plays in their games. Halo's music is very distinct; the kind of soundtrack that feels like it could not have existed without this FPS.

Thus, when Microsoft decided to create Halo Wars and take the series to another genre – real-time strategy – they needed a composer capable of making the switch. They chose Stephen Rippy, the man behind the Age of Empires series, as well as Age of Mythology. With Halo Wars due next month and the soundtrack scheduled for February 17, Stephen Rippy took a few moments to talk with GameZone about his experiences working on the game.

You've said that each of Halo Wars' worlds/environments feels a little different, and each of the main characters brings something different to the mix. With that in mind, did you aim to create a distinct sound for each character and location?

Stephen Rippy: For the various environments, I made rules for myself: this one can’t have any orchestral parts, this one can have guitar but no piano, and so on. Each one got put in a slightly different instrumental box so that the character of the music would change depending on where the game takes place. Each world also got a short intro piece where I tried to put in a little bit of everything – so they’re all unified in that way. There are a handful of character themes that play mostly during the cinematics – though probably the one that’s most prominent actually doesn’t belong to a character at all, but rather the ship Spirit of Fire.

You've also said that more than anything else, you wanted your tracks to fit comfortably into the existing Halo universe. How do you go about this without repeating what has already been done in the Halo series?

SR: I guess that happened out of listening to the previous soundtracks and filtering that material through my own tastes. I did my best to break the music down into elements that were identified with the Halo universe that I could repeat, and then just tried to write in that style.

In trying to fit within the Halo universe, did you spend time playing/listening to the previous games or focus primarily on Halo Wars?

SR: Aside from the sort of “analytical soundtrack listening” I mentioned above, I’d already played through the first two Halos when I joined the team. Halo 3 came out once I’d started writing, but I made sure to find the time to get through that one as well. So I’ve definitely put in a few hours in that world!

What are the differences in working on a game like Halo Wars, which is an RTS spin-off of one of the biggest FPS franchises, compared to a game like Age of Empires, which has stayed in one genre and is a franchise you were with from the beginning?

SR: Really, it wasn’t so different once the ball got rolling. I think if we’d tried to continue the Halo series with another FPS, that might have been a real shock to the system. But I feel pretty comfortable working in an RTS environment by this point. The biggest change – and biggest challenge – was trying to find the sweet spot between what people have come to expect from the series and what I hoped I could bring.

Are you bringing any of what you learned or created with the Age of Empires series to Halo Wars?

SR: Yes, I assume so – though it’s hard to quantify. In a way, I tend to think of this as the next step in a line that started with Age I (going on twelve years ago now!)

Star Wars games and movies sound alike. Most Mario games sound alike. But with Halo, you have an opportunity to create a sound where, if the RTS spin-off continues, players could differentiate between the two just by sound. When they hear one, "That's a Halo shooter." When they hear the other, "That's a Halo RTS." Was this a factor in your composition process?

SR: It was to a point. I think the music still needs to have one foot in the style that’s been established. However, throughout development, it was important to the whole team that Halo Wars have its own identity – and that definitely affected my thinking. If there is ever a sequel, it’ll be interesting to see what elements of the music get developed further and if there turns out to be the kind of branching off that you’re describing.

What can you tell us about the Halo Wars score? We know what Halo 1, 2 and 3 sound like, but obviously that isn't enough for us to imagine the sound of Halo Wars.

SR: Oh, I’m terrible at this… There are a lot of live orchestral performances mixed with a lot of synths and electronic sounds. Parts of the score are very ambient, and parts of it are dense and rhythmic. But then I could be describing any of the Halo titles!

What instruments are you using? Are there any that are significant to Halo Wars or Halo in general?

SR: There is a ton of stuff happening instrumentally, but it all tends to center around the piano and choir; to me, these are integral to the Halo sound and I didn’t want to change that.

Are you working with any interactive music elements?

SR: Yes, the music system is based on the Wwise tools. In our game, the changes are pretty much limited to significant battle events – such as attacking an enemy command center – but it does make a difference.

Real-time strategy games tend to have lengthy battles, which can lead to repetitions within the music. What are the ways around this? Longer songs? More variety?

SR: In our case, each battle cue is broken up into sections, and there are several different mixes of each of those. When a cue is triggered, an intro plays and then the game randomly picks between all of those elements for as long as the battle continues; once it’s over, an outro plays and then it’s back to the regular "world" music. It was an interesting way to work, and I’d like to push it further if there’s an opportunity in the future.

Anything else you'd like to share about Halo Wars' music, sound design, or any other element?

SR: Only that I really enjoyed the chance to work in the Halo world. I hope that everyone is pleased with the results!

Thank you for your time.

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