When we approached Stephen Rippy with the proposition for an interview some time ago, we were facing anxiety of sorts. Why you might ask? Well, as veteran Age of Empires/Mythology gamers, the compositions that Stephen and his brother David composed are inherently part of our love for strategy games. Stephen, now an ex-Ensemble staffer, works under the Zynga umbrella. In fact, Stephen’s latest composition for “CastleVille” is now available on iTunes/his official website.
While he might be working on more modern titles, Stephen still carries fond memories of his older titles.
Here’s how we got on….
The Gaming Liberty: Hi Stephen, could you tell us a little about yourself?
Stephen Rippy: Sure – I’m currently living and working in the Dallas area as an audio director for Zynga. I’ve been in the game industry in some capacity since about 1996; before that I was studying art at the University of Texas at Austin.
TGL: Were you always interested in composing for video games or did you endeavour to produce music in any other form?
SR: I had an early dream to do movie soundtracks and then got bit by the rock band bug in high school, but I honestly never thought about doing game soundtracks until the opportunity presented itself.
TGL: During a composition for a project, do you think it’s better to have a strict musical direction in place, or is it more productive to allow composers to venture into their imagination?
SR: I don’t know about strict music direction, but I do believe in having some kind of box to work within. Having no limits at all can be stifling in its own way – it’s easy to become indecisive. I can’t think of anything that I’ve worked on where there wasn’t some kind of happy medium, though.
TGL: Your work on the original Age of Empires, for gamers, has somewhat of a legendary status by now. There’s a real sense of discovery, exploration and the “unknown” delivered through the music; how would you approach a project like this to achieve such a goal?
SR: Thanks! That game was a real collaboration between my brother David and myself, so I’ll have to speak for him a little bit here. I think some of what you’re referring to was intentional, some of it is suggested by the environment of the game, and some of it was beginner’s luck. That said, we did try to create that feeling through our choices of sounds and some of the big spaces left in the music.
TGL: Do you have any fond memories, that you’d like to share with us, about your time creating the music for the original Age of Empires?
SR: Yeah, two stand out. At the very beginning of the project, Ensemble founder Tony Goodman wanted each piece of music to, in a fairly literal way, tell a story. So you’d have a piece that told the story of a hunt, one of a battle, and so on. David and I decided to try to tackle the “hunt” one first, so we gathered up some recording equipment, went out into the woods in Austin, and proceeded to spend the afternoon running around shaking bushes and making caveman sounds. Back at my apartment later that day, we made the most insane piece of music out of all this stuff. It was quickly decided that that particular direction was perhaps not as fruitful as we would have liked, but that track still exists. Safely hidden away in the archive
Much later in the process, I have fond memories of a couple of days off from school being spent in Dallas frantically trying to finish all of the cinematics and final mixes. More beginner’s luck saw us through that, I think.
TGL: Moving onto Age Of Empires 2, the tempo changes slightly and the music becomes a little more “sophisticated” to coin a phrase. Was this “maturity” in the music due to the advancements in technology? Or did you have a solid aspiration for how you wanted the game to sound in the sequel?
SR: It was a combination of things. I definitely wanted to push the sound in new directions and maybe add a little authenticity to the music. I had also graduated by the time Age 2 was really underway, so I finally had the luxury of being able to work on it full time rather than in between classes. For the initial part of the project, I spent a lot of time doing period- and culturally-specific music; however, it turned out to be jarring on the many occasions when what was happening visually didn’t match up with what you were hearing. That led to the more throw-it-all-in-the-blender approach to the score that’s in the game now.
TGL: How hands-on are you with the instruments you use and how closely do you work with Kevin McMullan and your brother David?
SR: I play quite a bit on the soundtracks – as much as I can. One of the great things about Ensemble was that we were always able to keep picking up new instruments to try. Probably the peak of that was Age of Mythology, but it was a great day when my banjo, mandolin, and dulcimer showed up at the office for the Age 3 sessions.
Except for a couple of stray tracks on Rise of Rome and Age 2, David moved into a production role after the first game – and through most of the time that he was still writing, we worked in different cities. Kevin came aboard around the time of The Conquerors, and from then we collaborated closely through probably the early part of Age 3. After that point, we wound up working on separate projects.
None of us, in any case, really ever co-wrote much. I could probably count the number of tracks co-composed at Ensemble on one hand. It was always more about bringing in another set of ears and getting feedback from a different perspective, and that’s something that’s always very valuable.
TGL: With Age of Empires II review ratings at an all-time high, work on The Age of Mythology began. Now, thanks to the Mytholigcal beats, there was a slight change to the formula that wasn’t seen before. Did this slight shift in directionchange how you composed the project? Or did you use the two previous titles as a basis for the new composition?
SR: Very roughly, I’d say that, to me, the best of the Age of Mythology tracks were sort of what the first couple of games were supposed to sound like. We were able to do actual acoustic recordings for the first time, so we ran with that as best we could. I have never recorded so much percussion as we did for that game. Age of Mythology was also the first time we were able to dabble in orchestral work; that was quite an opportunity and really set the stage for the future.
TGL: In time, Age of Empires was to experience a coming of age. With the older titles completed, work then began on Ensemble’s most ambitious project to date: Age Of Empires 3. The soundtrack, a crucial element to the tone and feel of the game, needed to be bigger, better and more epic than ever. Could you tell us a little about how you prepared and developed the soundtrack to meet the new era for the franchise?
SR: From the beginning, I knew that I wanted Age 3 to be a fully orchestral score. To start, Kevin and I talked a lot about what that meant in terms of how the music was structured and what our reference points would be. Then we just started writing until we had some stuff that we liked and it built up from there.
The soundtrack was done in two major pieces. The first session was all of the in-game tracks and the main, win, and loss themes; the second, done about a year later, was all of the cinematic music. I really enjoyed the scope of the second session in particular, moving from bagpipes to the folk instruments I mentioned earlier, all the way to the sort of pseudo-Coplandesque stuff of the game’s third act.
That carried over into The War Chiefs and, to a smaller extent, Asian Dynasties. Ensemble didn’t develop the latter, but I did a little bit of work on the soundtrack. It gave me the chance to record all kinds of great Asian instruments – kotos, sitars, erhus, and whatever else we could throw in the mix – so, in a funny way, it was like travelling back to the beginnings of Age 2.
TGL: Ensemble pushed ahead and developed Halo Wars; which proved to be one of the most revered and successful console based RTS titles to date. Knowing the expectations from Halo fans, how much pressure (if any) did you feel to nail that “Halo sound”?
SR: Oh, I felt a lot of pressure in the beginning. It really took immersing myself in that music and then, more importantly, writing a couple of pieces in that style to get comfortable. Once I felt like I could do it, I let myself try some new things and decided that worrying about it too much would just be counterproductive.
Halo Wars was interesting project in that, according to our original schedule, I didn’t have a ton of time to do it; I was also not involved with the sound design. Those two factors meant I had to really focus on the music and turn something out almost every day. I think, because of that, Halo Wars has a particular cohesion to it that some of my other stuff from the Ensemble days doesn’t have.
TGL: After Halo Wars shipped, Ensemble Studios closed its doors for good. Could you tell us, from your point of view, your experience of this closure and the feelings behind the scene.
SR: Well, it was a surprise and a somewhat scary time. It was certainly tough to wrap up Halo Wars with that news in mind, but somehow people found enough motivation to finish the work successfully. Ensemble was, at its best, a very familiar environment, and the first industry job of a lot of very talented people – so it was a sad and difficult thing to see fall apart.
TGL: Is there a certain gaming franchise you’d like to compose for?
SR: You know, at the time I really felt like I could have done another Halo Wars title. I think I had warmed up to it enough by the end of the project that I would have really enjoyed a sequel. Beyond that, I’m happy to work on just about anything that comes my way.
TGL: Could you tell us a little about the “insider jokes” that relate to some of the song titles you choose? Is this a tradition you wish to carry on?
SR: Oh, I can never divulge those secrets. Most are based on real life; that’s all I can say. But yes, I still do that.
TGL: Do you feel that video game composers get the recognition they deserve?
SR: Yeah, I think more and more that seems to be the case – definitely more so than in the early days.
TGL: With several albums under your belt, your own music is suprisingly mellow. Where do you personally draw inspiration from? Do you find it more difficult to compose for a game rather than your own music?
SR: I’m not sure the actual composing of either is more difficult than the other, but the processes I go through are different. I think it is somewhat easier for me to arrange and structure songs, as they tend to sort of shape themselves based on where the lyrics go. Those two sides of my work have really fed off of each other over the years – very often I’ll try out some instrument or production idea in a song and then use it in a soundtrack piece, and the opposite is true as well. That in itself can be pretty inspiring: trying something new and then getting a chance to build on it.
TGL: Although Bonfire Studios is now part of Zynga, could you tell us a little about the establishment of Bonfire Studios and their aim?
SR: Bonfire was originally founded by my brother David and his two partners and consisted of about two dozen ex-Ensemble employees. The idea was that there was such a pool of talent left in the wake of the closing that it would be a real shame to let it evaporate – so everyone took a chance and decided to give it a shot.
Despite the uncertainty, that was really a great time; it was almost starting from scratch, and people really threw themselves into it. We made many prototypes on many platforms, but to our surprise ended up shipping mobile titles: We Farm and Adventure Bay on the iPhone and iPad, and the Game Chest series on the Win7 phones. At some point, something about us caught Zynga’s eye, and now here we are.
TGL: What’s next for Stephen Rippy?
SR: I recently finished up the music for CastleVille, which is out now on Facebook. That was a lot of fun to do. It was an orchestral score, which I understand to be something of a rarity in the social game space – it was definitely a first for Zynga at least. Those sessions produced enough material that I was able to put out a short CastleVille soundtrack EP on iTunes, as well as offer a few additional tracks to some other Zynga titles that haven’t been announced yet. And I’ve always got some song or other in the works, so I’ll hopefully have a new record of that stuff within a year or so.
TGL: Finally Stephen, what are you playing at the moment?
SR: I’m playing the Zynga games I’m working on, I’m playing the Rolling Stones’ Some Girls reissue, and I’m playing catch-up after being in and out of the office for a couple of weeks.
TGL: Thanks again Stephen!
SR: Thanks a bunch for the questions, and I hope you’ll like the new music!