Sup y’all? =) Following up last month’s fantastic conversation with stig, I’ve another thoroughly engaging read for you good folk with yet another silly talented friend of mine (how do I find myself surrounded by these amazing people anyways, geez….).
If you’ve been in or around the chiprealm for a good few years now, you’re very likely familiar with Boston chip duo BR1GHT PR1MATE. Then again, if you’ve just gotten into it all in the last year or so, maybe not so much. This is largely because the talented team of James and Lydia Primate have both been deeply involved in the creation and development of a very unique indie game called ‘Rain World‘, which just released via Steam and Playstation. Today’s interview features an in-depth convo with James about his work on such. Really good stuff once again. Read on below.
Hoodie: Hey James! Welcome to the blog!
To kick this off, give us a quick intro of who you are and what you’re about.
James: Hello old friends! I am James Primate. You may remember me from some adventures in chiptune land under the name Bright Primate, with my partner Lydia. I’ve also been working as a composer for videogames for a while, and over the past few years have transitioned into game development proper for my company’s first release: Rain World, which is available from Adult Swim Games.
I’m legally obliged to say that last line by the way, lol.
Hoodie: hahaha Works for me! Makes that topic transition all the easier. ;)
But for real, we’ve at least been in touch since early 2011; did some fun stuff together here and there. And then you largely disappeared into a mysterious realm called “game development”, which produced an equally mysterious realm called Rain World. Where to even begin, man? haha
James: It’s been a pretty wild journey to be honest! 5 years, and you wouldn’t even believe me if I told you how much work it was. Initially I was just involved in Rain World as a composer and sound designer, but with indie especially games it’s often a “all hands on deck” sort of situation. Joar, the programmer and initial designer, was thoroughly wrapped up in programming so I wound up picking up the slack on things like world-building, level design, narrative design, marketing and PR, business stuff and eventually even project management. Interestingly, having a background putting on chip shows and touring was a tremendous help! All of that organizational and hype-man skill-set directly applies.
Hoodie: Funny how that works in life!
I’ll admit, though, I wasn’t too surprised to see you get sucked deeper and deeper into the process as it continued; kinda how life works when you’re as much of a “doer” as you are. It was kinda fun to watch from the outside. Happy you came away with your sanity intact, though! (or most of it? maybe? ;)
James: Mostly! It was hard work, but a thoroughly amazing experience. We had the advantage of a lot of early hype for the game, and as a result a lot of people believed in our vision, so we basically got the greenlight to go wild and do whatever we wanted. And that was, of course, to go Maximum Uncompromising Art Weirdo. We knew that delicate balance of circumstances will probably never happen again, so we absolutely made the most of it. On the music and audio side this meant things like 140+ tracks of music, complex AI-driven multi-tiered dynamic music systems, intensely detailed world audio; things that a more commercially oriented project would kick me out of the building for even suggesting! Its been amazing.
Hoodie: Wow. Is it right to say y’all were *insanely lucky* to get that experience? Clearly, the faith was deserved, but still, to get that kind of creative freedom and support from the get go nowadays, that’s too damn rare.
James: Oh, I would say so! I mean, a lot of it is hard work (very hard work) and the ability to consistently deliver. For some context, when we were approached by publishers we already had a fully playable game as well as the longest running development blog in TIGSource history, as well as a decent following and lots of press, so if they were going to take a risk we probably seemed like an easy bet. But even so, to have all of that in combination at the same time is like the planets aligning. A syzygy!
But hopefully we’re not talking all business here!
Hoodie: Pshhhh. No way. It’s mostly just a front to learn what kinda pizza and burgers you ate during the dev process.
James: MANY kinds.
Hoodie: Good local grub is one of the most closely guarded secrets by some folk after all. Gotta do what you gotta do to get that info, yanno?
James: Sheesh, man I gotta try to get healthy now. I don’t have the “Oh noes, I’m in a constant state of stressful crunch so I HAVE TO eat burgers and pizza for every meal,” excuse any more.
I’ve been eating salads. Doing yoga.
Hoodie: Both of those are in fact very good things.
All about ’em myself. The yoga in particular. Makes all the difference in my wacky back’s health.
(And that’s okay. You can hide the burger and pizza secrets for now. I’ll try again another way and time when you’re least expecting it….)
James: Game development does not lend itself to healthy lifestyle. It’s amazing I don’t have scoliosis or whatever after spending literal years hunched over a laptop for 18hr a day.
Hoodie: You heard it here folks: the secret to being a productive (functional? ALIVE?) game dev cat is YOGA.
All kidding aside, legit, though, I need it too! Physical and mental health care are definitely important, maybe even moreso for a gig like this. Gotta take good care of yourself to keep kicking ass!
In all honesty, this is a point that I wanted to talk about: how DO you manage your own personal self care while working on a demanding project that you love (that fact almost makes it even “worse”; as least as far as how much of yourself you pour into it)?
James: Honestly, from what I’ve seen from music, games, everything, it’s all about the long haul. You have to be able to put yourself in a situation where you can grind for years and capitalize on every opportunity. So you have to find a way of being healthy; or at least whatever that means in a productivity sense.
This doesn’t necessarily mean “healthy” in a stock photo of people laughing in a field of daisies, but moreso finding a way of maintaining that sweet spot of creativity and energy. Like I would never, ever, ever say that my methods are “healthy”. When I work I stay up insane hours and can often be fixed to a spot for 12-16 hours just focusing on one thing. That’s not healthy in any way, shape, or form and I can’t advocate it. But it does work for me! So I had to find ways to balance that out and keep it sustainable so as not to crash or death-spiral.
You are 100% right that working on something you love ups the ante though. You are vastly more willing to make personal sacrifices than if it was just a job, and that can definitely become even more unhealthy. I won’t pretend I’ve navigated that particularly well myself. But in the end I am quite proud of the result, so hopefully as long as there is some karmic balance it all works out.
Hoodie: People are vastly different creatures. What works for one is anathema for another. It’s more or less figuring out what works for YOU, yeah, which, uh… can be tricky enough on its own! haha
Especially in this bizarre, yet oftentimes rather wonderful transitional age we live in. There’s a lot of discovery and redefining going on, and a lot of it tech driven.
James: Yeah, and for better or worse it’s allowed for a much wider range of ways one can succeed. For instance I’d literally die in an office environment. I’m highly motivated and very hard working, but I can’t handle bureaucracy and artificial hierarchies in the slightest so I’d be basically unemployable in many traditional work environments. lol But here we are now in a world where you can Kickstart or Patreon and it’s a whole different story.
Hoodie: Paradise and/or hell depending on how you navigate it, yeah. Interesting times for sure.
On that note, let’s dig a little deeper into your involvement in the whole process of Rain World. Since the soundtrack was your initial gig, let’s start there.
What was it like designing such a diverse, immersive soundscape for this unique of a game? That alone seems like quite the task!
James: A dream come true! OR nightmare come true, however you want to put it.
Hoodie: A little of both would be my guess. haha
James: Rain World was a very special case for me. Generally speaking I only take game soundtrack jobs where I feel that I have a very solid vision and can elevate the game through the music. Rain World was that x1000 though! When I first saw the project posted on the TIGSource forums (back when it was called “Maze Runner”), I had a complete picture of the music and sound world in my head. Hours of it! In fact it was so strong that I had a nightmare about the game coming out and it having terrible bleep bleep music and SFX! So I immediately wrote around 12 tracks of music to get the concept and moods down to show the designer, Joar, and my pitch was basically “You have to let me do this soundtrack because anybody else is going to mess it up”. hahah But even now even years later through so much progress and development, almost all of that original music is being used in the game!
Hoodie: I’m guessing those 12 tracks became a foundation of sorts to build upon once you got involved. It ended up, what? 40+? Along with sound sfx and such as well I’m sure. Quite the work!
James: Oh no, much much more than that! The total soundtrack is around 140 complete tracks, and around 190 if you include the various dynamic parts. But it will take me a little while to get that all into a listenable format for proper release. The 40 track album that was release along side launch, “Selections from the Rain World OST”, are just what I consider to be the bare essentials of the narrative, etc.
Hoodie: Wow. Much more than that indeed!
James: The sound effects and world design was a whole other thing as well. Repeated sounds, either looped or triggered, have always been a thing that takes me out of a game mentally. So I got pretty deep in preventing that here. Every action sound in the game has around 12 variations, which are then also dynamically controlled for pitch value and volume level depending on circumstance. The idea being that things in the world sound, well, “normal”; organic. And then there is ambiance audio like wind, machinery, atmosphere, background mechanical sounds, etc etc., for 1600+ rooms. It was quite the scope!
Im telling you, we went wild with the overkill here! But once in a lifetime opportunity, right? We wanted to take advantage and move the art forward.
Hoodie: Overkill is good sometimes. Definitely in this case!
And going to that extent with the sound design, it breathes more “life” into the game. Quite literally.
It’s just not every day you run into someone either willing or able to go to that extent. Awesome that you were able to with this experience.
James: Agreed! And as we were going for an immersive, natural feeling world, I think it greatly contributes to the experience. Since we’ve been so busy in the run up to release, and then all the quick post-release patching of course, I have yet to really start talking about all of that stuff publicly, so this is fun!
Hoodie: Yo, keep hitting me with whatever. This is fascinating. The nerd that I am, I’ve been infinitely curious about this process the entire time you’ve been involved, but never wanted to bother you because of the intensity of it all. So go for it! haha
James: Pshhh, you know I can talk! Okay so one other aspect that I think is pretty interesting is how the sounds and music were made. Many of your readers are competent producers themselves, so I’ll go a bit deep here…
Hoodie: PLEASE DO.
James: Basically we had a concept: what would music sound like if it had evolved in this broken junkyard world? There wouldn’t be orchestras or violins, there would be JUNK. It would be sounds of metal and rusty pipes being banged, gravel hitting rocks, warbling alien voices. That stuff is usually coded as industrial or edgy (which admittedly we did quite a bit of as well), but we sought a full world of moods within that concept: some harsh, some light-hearted, some beautiful, some elegiac.
So to do that boiled down to some interesting production techniques. Almost every sound you hear in Rain World is a taken from field recordings of natural environments and then processed. But not just the percussion or whatever. Sound instruments are all taken from small samples (say the scraping of a fork over a radiator) and quickly repeated or oscillated at high speeds and filtered, turning them into strange otherworldly sounds. Some of the lead used for slugcat melodies (such as the cinematic intro) and growly basses are processed vocal samples of my writing partner Lydia singing, then chopped and processed into alien language, full of emotion and texture then blended into the cacophony of chain drums and warbling metal basses.
In certain more progressive music circles these musique concrete techniques are fairly common, but to do something this in-depth, and for a such a long and immersive work, I think is something quite unique.
Hoodie: As a rec tech and sound design cat myself, that insight is AWESOME.
Lydia: I’m Lydia Marsala Primate, the other half of chiptune duo Bright Primate, like James said. I worked on some of the music, and even did a bit of creature voice acting for Rain World. I got involved with the game pretty early on, but not with the music. I have a background in marketing and promotions, so at first I was mainly a Brand Ambassador for Rain World, helping James demo and promote the game at a bunch of video game conventions, partially because Joar was all the way in Sweden, and all the conventions we were going to were in the states. Later on though, when James got swamped with doing level design and a bunch of business stuff for Rain World, he needed help with the music. So, I ended up writing a bunch of tracks, specifically for some of the creatures in the game, which was super fun! I also did some voice acting for many of the animals in the game, like the lizards and the lantern mice.
Hoodie: Omg. You did some of the lizard voices.
I’d say maybe this would make them less frightening to me, but naaaah. hahah
Lydia: Haha Yep. I also did some voice acting for some beings you encounter later in the game, but I will try not to be too spoiler-y about that.
Hoodie: That’s amazing. Somehow this makes the game even better to me. haha
Awesome to hear of your considerable involvement in Rain World all the same. Not surprised, of course! I’m aware of your capabilities as well! ^_^
Lydia: Aw, thanks!! It was really fun doing the voice acting stuff because I hadn’t done that before, but I had been working on a bunch of music for some other indie games, right before James brought me on to do some music. It’s been an interesting ride, to say the least!
Hoodie: I can only imagine. Playing it certainly is! :O
Thanks for jumping in with some quick thoughts!
Lydia: You’re welcome! =D
Hoodie: Okay James. So we’ve talked in more detail about your music composition for the game (and could talk a lot more, but we should probably keep moving onward or we’ll be here forever… haha).
Tell me more about getting sucked into the artwork development, because wow, it’s a BEAUTIFUL game!
James: Ah! Thank you, thank you. Yeah the level design and level art role came about purely by accident really. On small teams its not a situation where you can say “oh I only do this one thing, I only do music”, you really have to be able to pickup what needs to be done to have any hope of actually finishing. And for us, a huge bulk of the work was the world construction, the map, the rooms, etc., as we were stuck with an ANCIENT and horribly slow workflow (like it literally takes days to render some rooms.) We looked at what needed to be done as far as AI and creature design and it was clear that Joar had more than his work cut out for him with the programming and if we wanted to have the world scope that we wanted, someone else was going to have to pickup the slack. I had already written a bulk of the music that was to be done, so I flew out to Seoul, where Joar was living at the time, to have him teach me the level editor that he had made for Rain World. I already had put quite a lot of thought into the world-building and structural aspects, so there was a very strong direction as far as what the experience was going to be and what needed to be done to make it happen already. It was just a matter of me learning the tools to make that happen. And I’m so glad I did! It was a very rewarding experience. I’ve always liked to think that I have a bit of visual flair, so getting the opportunity to spend 3 years mastering a tool kit like this and building an entire whole world from scratch is an unbelievable situation to nurture and develop a skill. I’m really proud of the work.
Hoodie: Oh damn. So it wasn’t even a toolset you were familiar with. You had to learn it FOR this project. This was, uh, one helluva gig, James. hahaha
James: No joke. Flew to Seoul to learn the tool I was going to spend 100hrs a week at for the next 3 years. We weren’t messing around here, haha.
Hoodie: This project gets a little more ridiculous with every bit I learn about it.
The BEST sort of ridiculous, but ridiculous all the same. haha
And heh, even after y’all release the job is never done. First patch is out and about, with some pretty good feedback on it. Guessing you probably helped there too, and/or will likely be on deck for future ones and/or DLC?
James: Oh yeah, its all a team effort. Bugfixes and minor patches are mostly Joar, but anything that goes out winds up on tens of thousands peoples computers at once which is scary as hell! You realllllllly don’t want to corrupt somebodys 60hr sav file or make some tweak and suddenly people running Windows 8 can’t boot the game or whatever…
So of even tiny patches require like 3 layers of planning and weeks of QA. Then factor that in with all the additional content we want to, and yeah. As you can see, outside of all my flowery artsy blather from above, its also a proper Job too! haha
Hoodie: A’yup! Most things worth doing are in the end.
Beyond that are there any future projects on the horizon, including new BR1GHT PR1MATE material, of course? Or is just Rain World followup for now?
James: Lydia’s got a few really cool game projects she’s working on right now and I’ll be occupied with Rain World nonsense for a while yet, but after that we’d like to take some time to play around with music for music’s sake and figure out where we want to go from here. I feel like I’ve been in a cave for 5 years and am just coming out. Got to figure out who I am now.
Hoodie: Well, to be frank, you kinda have been. lol It’s only fair after an ordeal like that to take some time re-center. Take your time getting there. You’ve earned it. =)
Before we wrap this up, have you any advice for other folk who are anxious to get into the indie game dev world?
James: Hmmm! Well okay, this is definitely going to sound strange and harsh, but I mean this in a completely real and concerned-for-your-wellbeing manner: my advice would honestly be to… consider not doing it?
Imagine that a job asked you to do super intense all-consuming work for 3-5 years on the vague promise that you’ll maybe be paid after it’s done if things go well. Would you take it? Probably not, because that’s goddamn crazy! But generally speaking that’s the reality of indie game development. We were extremely lucky to have had a number of things go our way with Rain World, but I’ve been a part of 11 other game projects and only a couple of those have come anywhere close.
But if you’ve survived my discouraging above paragraphs and still want advice I’d say that number one thing is perseverance. Not every project is going to succeed, not every project will even finish, but if you are dedicated and power through you will find that opportunities and even success will come. And what you’ll need to get there is friends and collaborators and business partners that you trust and enjoy working with day in and day out, because in the end that’s what really matters!
Hoodie: Thanks for that blast of brutal honesty. Doesn’t really sound strange at all to be honest. Just very realistic!
Thanks for your time, James. It’s much appreciated as always!