Hello everyone, Retroplayer here. I very recently had the pleasure of interviewing composer and sound designer Stuart Duffield. Stuart, an industry veteran, has composed for games such as Overboard, G-Police 1 & 2, RC Revenge, and Nations – Fighter Command. If the PS1 generation was important to you like it is to me, chances are Stuart played an important role in your gaming memories. For me, personally, his work while at Psygnosis perfectly encapsulated the feeling of that unique gaming era. It’s quite hard for me to put it in words, but listening to Stuarts music evokes such a strong sense of nostalgia, and brings me back to when the industry seemed simpler, more imaginative, with great potential on the horizon. A better time for gaming, I feel. Still, Stuarts work didn’t end with that era, dear readers. He’s as active as ever, providing atmosphere and soul to some of the games we play even today. But I’ll hand it over to the man himself…
Stuart- Hi TGL…! OK, well I’ve been into games ever since I can remember… I played on the ZX81, the Spectrum, an Intellivision system, an Atari, a BBC Micro, Acorn Electron, NES, SEGA Master System etc… I’ve been a music fan my whole life, and listening to bands and artists inspired me to learn musical instruments. I’ve now worked in the Games Industry for 18 years – I worked in-house for Psygnosis, Acclaim Studios, Blitz and Rebellion, and I currently work freelance.
Retroplayer- Were you interested in making music even from an early age?
Stuart- Yes – I played guitar from about age 6, I also taught myself the drums and played in a few bands. I was keen to write my own stuff, and at one point got hold of a 4-track tape recorder, which was amazing at the time! I went on to learn piano and music theory, and separately I’d also been messing around with audio on computers – using sound envelopes and sequencing drum patterns.
Retroplayer- What composers would you say have directly inspired you?
Stuart- Well from the Games Industry it would have to start with Chris Nichols and Matt Furniss as I worked with these guys when I started out. Otherwise it’s hard to narrow it down as I’ve been inspired by so many composers… I was blown away by people like Stevie Wonder, Mike Oldfield and Prince – writers who also played / recorded their own material. I grew up watching films that John Williams had scored, so it’s hard not to be inspired by him. Then there are other composers like Lalo Schifrin and Danny Elfman, whose stuff I love.
Retroplayer- How did you break into the games industry?
Stuart- A trainee position came up at Psygnosis (at their South West office). I got to hear about it as my brother worked there as a programmer, so I applied. The interview went well (which included going to Psygnosis HQ in Liverpool), and I got the job…. I was over the moon!
Retroplayer- In general, how would you say you approach your work?
Stuart- I always aim to provide whatever audio is best for the project – whatever is most appropriate. It means having to be adaptable (and be able to produce a variety of styles in terms of music composition). I also aim for the highest possible quality, and along-side this I am always learning! Whether it is musical styles, composition techniques, mastering skills, new software, middleware tools – I’m always learning something which hopefully improves what I create in the long-run.
Retroplayer- Two Psygnosis games you worked on that were both released in 97′ were Overboard and G-Police. The music to Overboard has a very organic feel to it, Stuart. How did you approach this composition?
Stuart- I wanted the music for Overboard to reflect the graphical style of each different location (as well as suit the mood of the gameplay). So in developing the styles, I established instrument sets for each location, and the tracks were written around these. The music was also meant to reflect the bright / colourful, fun aspect of the game, and being closely involved in development helped overall.
Stuart- Yes, completely! Having 2 different styles of music to work on at once was challenging and interesting, and it helped to define the music for each game. The two games were like opposites in terms of audio – one was serious and high-tech, the other was wacky and fun. I was managing my own schedule, and being able to switch between the dark world of G-Police and the light world of Overboard was ideal!
Retroplayer- For G-Police and its sequel, G-Police: Weapons of Justice, were you inspired by any particular sc-fi material?
Stuart- Films that were a definite inspiration were Alien, Outland (Starring Sean Connery), Star Wars, and Blade Runner. I guess I was inspired by the Wipeout soundtrack too – it had such a massive impact it was hard not to be impressed…
Retroplayer- What was your goal when undertaking your soundtrack for G-Police?
Stuart- I wanted the music to be dark like the storyline and visual style, and also wanted it to be cinematic – as the game had an epic, film-like quality about it. Additionally I wanted to reflect the unwelcoming futuristic urban environment, and the tension. Beyond that, we wanted the music to suit the gameplay experience as much as possible, and so went with Patrol music tracks which switched to Combat tracks when the action picked-up. For G-Police Weapons Of Justice this was extended to writing specific music for different vehicles.
Retroplayer- As a gamer of a particular generation, the PS1 Psygnosis era is incredibly memorable to the point where I think that it’s hard to re-capture the feel of that generation. While the studio still technically exists, I don’t think it’s the same as it was back in the 90′s. Tell us a little about what it was like working with them, if you had complete creative control on your work, and about your departure from the company.
Stuart- You are absolutely right; the feel of that generation was incredible, and when the PS1 came out everyone was blown away. There was always a positive energy in the studio, and everyone in development was enthusiastic and wanted to do great things. I got to work with lots of talented programmers, artists and designers, and there was a real buzz in the office – it wasn’t like ‘work’ at all.
At the time it felt less corporate than the industry has become – it seemed less about Profit and Loss, and more about creating fun and engaging games that looked amazing. For the most part yes, I had creative control over my work, which was totally rewarding. But I was always mindful of my colleagues, senior management, and gamers who would be playing the game – ultimately they needed to be happy with the end result…
My departure from Psygnosis came about when the parent company (Sony) closed down the studio in 1999. It was a real shame as there was so much potential yet to be realised, and at the time it did feel like a golden age of development had come to an end.
Retroplayer- You’re quite involved in almost every aspect of the audio creation of games. Would you approach sound effect creation differently than you would composition?
Stuart- There are similarities in how I would approach both composition and sound design for a game – the audio need to be appropriate for the product, and to the highest quality possible. I’d aim to reduce repetition as much as possible, and introduce new content throughout the game.
To a degree, sound effects are determined largely by the environment, or weapon, or character – e.g. different footwear, surfaces etc. However, I’ll work with the lead designer to make sure the sound effects match the style they want to achieve.
Where composition differs, is that it helps to convey a mood: e.g. danger, tension, success etc or an emotion. Writing for this purpose can be more demanding, as you have to ‘find’ this from somewhere while writing…
Stuart- Yes, to some extent similar skills apply to music and sound effect creation. You have to know what sounds fit together well, and be aware of what sounds fill certain frequency ranges – to avoid a ‘muddy’ mix. Some sound effects are pure fantasy, and you need to be really creative – and certain key sound effects are almost like little musical jingles. (And when you are creating something that is going to be heard over and over, you have to be confident in its quality).
There is also the mix side of things – for both you need to put certain sounds in the foreground and some sit in the background. There should also be dynamics – with sometimes the sound being subtle and other times being more obvious.
Retroplayer- What do you feel is your best work to date?
Stuart- I always think of the music for G-Police as a triumph, it was an immense game and I felt there was a huge responsibility to make the music live up to the game. I’m also proud of the reactive music I wrote for Nations – Fighter Command (seamless transitions between Calm, Tension and Combat states). I’m also pleased with the music I wrote for RC Revenge (themed per location, and seamless music switching).
Finally, I’m proud of the music I wrote for Summer Heat Beach Volleyball – it was a fun title to work on, and the music tracks had to sit alongside licensed music, so it challenged me to raise my game.
Retroplayer- Over the course of your career, how have you personally seen the industry change?
Stuart- The whole industry has grown massively, and become more professional and corporate – but there is still a huge amount of creativity. I’ve seen games get bigger (and need more content), and as a result teams have steadily grown, as have studio sizes. When I started out one audio guy might compose all the music and create all the sound effects for a game, and now it’s normal to have multiple audio designers on a project. Plus there are now more specialised areas of responsibility – e.g. Sound Design, Music, Voice Production, Cut-Scene audio and Implementation.
What is refreshing though, is the current rise of independent game developers making XBLA / PSN and iOS / handheld games. I love developing huge console games, but I also like the idea of creating all the audio for a smaller title…
Retroplayer- What’s next for you?
Stuart- Right now I am writing music for independent release, and creating music and sound effects for a handheld game. Something I’d like to do more of is reactive music!
Retroplayer- Do you have any last words to our readers, many of whom have no doubt enjoyed your music over the years?
Stuart- Well I always feel honoured to have worked on so many cool games, and to anyone that has enjoyed my music in a game I just want to say THANK YOU for buying the game!
To all the TGL readers to have got this far in the interview – THANKS for reading… hope you continue to enjoy all the good stuff that The Gaming Liberty does…