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Game Freak and the production of Pokémon

Interviewer: Yamaha Instructor Shigeo Aoki

Game Freak inc. has developed and produced the world-wide hit video game series, Pokémon, since the release of Pokémon Red Version and Green Version (for Game Boy), in 1996. For sound creation, they used Cubase. We interviewed Mr. Shota Kageyama who, as sound leader, supervised the sound within the game during the creation of the latest Pokémon Black Version and White Version (for Nintendo DS), in 2010.

What video game music have you been involved with?
I started working for Game Freak in 2007, and I was involved with the production of Pokémon HeartGold
Version and SoulSilver Version, as well as its soundtrack CD, Nintendo DS Pokémon HeartGold and SoulSilver — Music Super Complete, which were released in 2009. I was also involved with the latest game, Pokémon Black Version and White Version, as well as its soundtrack CD, Nintendo DS Pokémon Black and White — Super Music Collection, which were released in 2010. Other major music productions I was involved with before Game Freak include one for a simulation Role Playing Game (RPG) for the Nintendo DS called Luminous Arc (Marvelous Entertainment Inc.), and one for an action game for the Wii called Super Smash Bros. Brawl (Nintendo Co., Ltd.).

How are the staff members for music/sound source production organized?
We have four members in the sound team. Recently I have taken charge of the background music (BGM), but the members are expected to handle both BGM and sound effects. For the latest project, Pokémon Black Version and White Version, I supervised the game sound creation and I assigned these four people to positions that best suited their personalities. I experimented a lot to find out best methods and to learn who might be the best for certain kinds of music.

At Game Freak, how does the sound team interact with game creation?
In most game productions, sound is created in accordance with instructions from the director (such as the request to make music for a particular situation or a list of sound effects that include an explosion, countdown, etc.). At Game Freak, however, sound creators often take initiative in planning the game, expressing comments like: “I would like to add this sound”, “Let’s use this music”, or “You should direct the scene this way”.

The latest project, Pokémon Black Version and White Version, especially used interactive sound (music changing in accordance to the players’ status or emotion), and the sound team took initiative in planning the game. I mainly created the sound system together with game programmers. It was very hard because I had to learn how to load the music data into the game, as well as find out about the game hardware. The fact that the music team could also lead the game production was interesting and motivating.


Can you tell us about the music production system in Game Freak?
In the beginning, everybody could choose their own DAW, but now everybody uses Cubase. For game music production, which mainly uses an internal sound generator, a detailed MIDI editing feature is essential. I like Cubase’s intuitive processing, which enables me to do what I want to do. Maybe I am simply not an expert with other DAWs [laughs].
I even converted other DAW users to Cubase, explaining how easy Cubase is. They liked it too, and thus Cubase became the universal DAW at Game Freak. Having universal software within the company is a huge benefit because we can share the project data. As for the platform, we use Windows PCs because they are easy to systemize with the machine for developing the game. I use a PC running the 64-bit version of Windows 7, which is optimized for DAWs.

What third-party plug-ins do you use?
Spectrasonics Omnisphere, Stylus RMX, Trilian, XLN Audio Addictive Drums, NI KOMPLETE 6, EastWest Complete Composers Collection, VIENNA ENSEMBLE PRO, ETHNO WORLD, Yellow Tools INDEPENDENCE, and other sound effect libraries. I also use Wave
s Platinum as effects. All members of the sound team have these plug-ins installed on their PCs. I am personally interested in several other plug-ins [laughs], but we only use the ones needed for game development.

Is there any work unique to Pokémon?
There is a job to create the “cry (voice)” of Pokémon. This “cry (voice)” is very important in making the game world of Pokémon reflect the personality of each Pokémon. Pokémon are creatures of the fantasy world, so we try our best to emphasize the reality of their world.

The concept of Pokémon Black Version and White Version was to have players enjoy encountering totally new Pokémon, and there are more than 100 new Pokémon. We created new cries for the new Pokémon. There are more than 600 kinds of Pokémon, including the current versions, and each one of them has a different cries.

As the game hardware advances, their voices evolve. For the old generation of Pokémon, to express these Pokémon’s presence and life, we tried to keep the characters’ ambience by sampling the sound from Game Boy and so on. It was interesting to listen to their cries and how they paralleled the history of the hardware, enabling you to understand the creative attempt to express emotions allowed by the evolution of Game Boy.

Is there any game-specific required skill in sound production?
You need to be knowledgeable in internal sound generators and developmental machines, as well as have music production skills. The sound generator of Nintendo DS has limited polyphony, and it is the sound designer and his/her technique that’s needed to create the sound within this limitation. So I utilize all of my energy when choosing the sounds. For example, when I choose a sound, I take everything into consideration including voicing, whether the sound of a drum set is necessary or should be cut for listening purposes, or whether or not it is reasonable to cut some sounds when
bass sounds and the bottom note of a piano chord are in unison, etc. I utilize very detailed programming techniques along with musicality. Maximum polyphony includes sound effects (SE), so it requires expert skills [laughs].

Another important factor to consider is data capacity of a game. The skills of a sound designer are challenged by trying to create good sound within the limited data capacity. Sometimes, graphic data and sound data fight over the data capacity [laughs]. It is another important skill to make the data capacity as compact as possible.

What’s the reason behind releasing the soundtrack CD, Pokémon Black and White — Super Music Collection?
Our priority in producing the soundtrack is to have listeners enjoy the same feeling they have when they are playing the game. So we try to provide the same listening experience on the CD.

The previous Pokémon had too many songs, and thus we could only record one loop due to the limited recording time. It was unfortunate that the most exciting battle music faded out after only one cycle, so this time, we used two loops. As a result, it ended up with four CDs, but I think it will be a good listening experience since the soundtrack includes musical effects of the game. Also, there is a “surprise” bonus track in which the music is picked up and rearranged by each sound staff member. I would really like everyone to listen to this arranged version because the entire sound staff has a special connection with it. I picked up the song called “Sayonara”, which is used toward the end of the game and arranged it for an orchestra and piano version. I hope listeners enjoy the differences between those which are heard in the game. It would also be nice if this soundtrack leads people to buy the game.

What are the upsides and downsides of Cubase for you?
I really like Cubase’s MIDI functionality, especially piano roll and list display. When creating games, you always tackle with data capacity and maximum polyphony, so the logical editor is very useful because I can thin out the data or shorten several notes at once. I think the logical editor is so deep that a book can be written for this function alone, but it would be even better if I could edit by simply selecting t top note or root note. One of the reasons why I keep using Cubase is there are so many Cubase users around me. Many game music creators are also Cubase users, so I can exchange information. Also, there is a wide variety of publications on Cubase from entry level to high end, which means there are many users and there is fulfilling support.

It is not a big deal, but Cubase has a unique resolution display. Also, the controller lane was suddenly changed in the 5.5 update, so I had a hard time until I started getting used to it. Most new features added with every update are interesting, but as with the example regarding the 5.5 update I just mentioned, changes within user interface can be confusing at first. It would be useful if the user could choose to use the previous user interface. Also, one function that is especially required in the game production or movie production environment is to enable users to do multi audio jobs and export movie data within Cubase — this would be very helpful. As for Cubase 5, I like the multichannel export function, PitchCorrect and LoopMash. Cubase 6 was announced and I can’t wait. I’m sure LoopMash 2 is a lot of fun while the scaling tools and Note Expression may help me take a more innovative approach toward MIDI creation.

Lastly, is there something you’d like to tell the people who want to become game music creators?
First of all, it is important to have character in your work. It is also important that you are able to play a musical instrument. I think it will reflect in your work if you have played an instrument or have played in a band. One’s musical experience will be exposed in a song, such that (for example) the song will have great groove and will feel like you are listening to real instruments even if it is programmed. DAWs are getting more and more useful, but you should face music itself instead of depending on features or tools or ready-made things, otherwise, it’ll be difficult to be a composer for 40 or 50 years (I’m telling myself too).

As for game sound, I have pride as a professional in the game music industry in how to create fun expressions unique to the game world, how to tightly connect sound with the fun aspect of a game. In this regard, it might be useful for you to listen to the music and sound as a whole, including SE and direction when you play games. Lastly, many types of creators are involved in game production, so communication and team skills will be necessary. If your music creation knowledge can clearly explain why such music is needed for a particular scene, or why such direction will make the game better, you can realize your vision in the game and increase the quality of the game itself. It is also important to present your opinion about your work in your own words. I hope this may be helpful for you to realize your dreams.

What made you enter the game music industry?
I started playing piano when I was four years old and from the 4th or 5th grade onward, I started to enjoy arranging and composing music rather than following a score. I liked games, too, and my parents used to take me to orchestral concerts of game music. So I was familiar with game music. In junior high school, I started to listen to various types of music, including J-pop and American music. In my senior year, I heard “Moldau” on desktop music (DTM) in music class, and I was surprised to find that such system existed! This is what I want to do!

Then I started DTM, but to be honest, my first gear was Yamaha’s XGworks! Then I switched to XGworksV3.0, SOL, SOL2, and then to Cubase VST5.

In high school, I created programmed a CD and I received the Best Composition reward in a national contest; after which I wanted to be a composer. Later in college, I was playing in a band while making a demo tape, and I sent the sound source to various record labels and music production companies. After I graduated college, I started working part time for a game production company for sound debug/sound effect creation and learned about music production thanks to Mr. Yasunori Mitsuda of PROCYON STUDIO CO., LTD. And now I’m working for Game Freak.

Shota Kageyama, sound designer/development division, Game Freak

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