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Amir Rao

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Original author: 
Alexa Ray Corriea

In a presentation during E3 at Sony's PlayStation booth, Supergiant Games' showed off their upcoming game Transistor running on PlayStation 4, with developers Greg Kasavin and Amir Rao providing commentary over a gameplay trailer released earlier this year.

Kasavin says Red's weapon, the Transistor, has been infused with the consciousness of a man who has passed away. Part of the game's story will be unravelling the nature of the relationship between Red and the man who has become the Transistor, Kasavin said.

Players will be able to set up attack sequences, scheduling out a series of moves that will best combat the enemies Red has to face. Players will be able to "set up a strategy on their own terms," Kasavin said. The Transistor...

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In this post, I discuss the pitfalls of beginning an indie game project with friends and colleagues and how they can be avoided.

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Actor Logan Cunningham voices Rucks, the narrator of Supergiant Games' Bastion. Creating the character in collaboration with sound director Darren Korb and studio director Amir Rao added new dimensions to a long-standing friendship. The three first met on their neighborhood soccer field and in high school, growing up in San Jose.

The Supergiant sound team is in the running for three VGA awards, with votes currently being accepted on the Spike website. In this interview we hear about the creation of the voice of Rucks from the actor and sound director.


Logan Cunningham at the E3 Expo in Los Angeles

What was it that led you to pursue a career in acting?

Logan Cunningham: When I was in high school I had done some acting with Darren, but I didn't train as an actor while in college. I studied basically everything else. When it came time to graduate Fordham University at Lincoln Center as a journalism and communications student, also studying a lot of English, film and visual arts, I realized that everything I had been studying was leading me back to acting and the theater.

Acting was very difficult, and I liked that. In my life, acting and writing are the two things that I've done that have been the hardest and the most fun. I've been out of college for five years, and have spent a lot of time thinking about being an actor. While I don't go on a ton of auditions, I do whatever comes my way. That was, ironically, how Bastion happened.

Did you feel that your interdisciplinary background was something that helped inform this performance?

LC: Certainly. I think that if you are an actor you should study as many things as you can.

When you began creating the character of Rucks, you had not been thinking of yourself as a voice actor. What preparation was necessary to satisfy the requirements of supplying narration for the game?

LC: Voice-over in general is a technical challenge. It's easier than live action acting, in that you don't have wardrobe or makeup and you can get away with more. Obviously, I would never be cast as Rucks in "Bastion: The Movie." But I can produce his voice.

There are things like diction and speaking clearly that are much more important in voice acting. I wasn't as used to that. The majority of the very early work with Darren was in finding that voice. What made it harder than live acting was never having a whole, completed script to read. I've since learned that this is pretty much the plight of all voice actors in videogames, who generally don't get whole scripts for security reasons.

Lyrics by Greg Kasavin, vocals by Logan Cunningham

Were suggestions you were receiving from writer Greg Kasavin helpful in building the character?

LC: A big influence on the sound of the voice is Ian McShane from Deadwood. Greg would send links to YouTube clips, which was great timing because I had just started getting into the show. In the credits of Bastion, I thank my friend Marcus for lending me his DVDs of the series the summer before, where I developed a huge actor crush on McShane and his voice.

Before Bastion, I had not been comfortable dropping my voice that low. When I was in school I was the kid that the teachers always asked to read out loud, which I hated doing. I was really self-conscious about the deepness of my voice and would pitch it higher in my everyday speech. This was a new thing for me, feeling comfortable in that lower register. And I have Deadwood to thank for that.

What kinds of exercises were you doing in order to capture the right sound for the character?

LC: Before we would start each session I warmed up with a blurb from cereal boxes, film synopses from Netflix envelopes, whatever was around. I did that four times in total: as Daniel Day-Lewis's character Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York, as Sam Elliot, Al Swearengen from Deadwood, then finally as Rucks, after all that. Doing those three passes, somehow Rucks would come out.

Apart from the mechanics of finding the voice, were there insights into the personality of the character that came from Greg's writing or your own choices as an actor?

LC: The script we used came to us as a Google document, split into six columns. The column next to the lines themselves were pointers from Greg, giving some context. He had written an extensive backstory to Bastion that I was not privy to until the game had been unveiled publicly. I didn't even meet Greg until seven or eight months into it.

From the lines and my own imagination, I sensed that archetype of an aging gunslinger. I got the loneliness and the regret. It was clear to me that he had spent most of his life alone, but also that there was a lot going on with the character. I was eager to read that backstory that Greg had written once I learned of its existence, and once I did I realized that I had been on the right track.

You had in fact grown up with Amir Rao and Darren Korb. How did that relationship form prior to development on this game?

LC: Amir and Darren went to elementary school together and have been friends since they were seven. Amir I met in eighth grade. Almost every season I would play recreational soccer on their school's team, the Cougars. I stopped playing in high school and became a theater kid, but in high school it turned out that Amir and I had a lot of mutual friends in common. The three of us all went to New York for college, and they were the familiar faces that I had in the city. The three of us have stayed friends since.

darrenkorb_santamonica_tn.jpg
Sound director Darren Korb in Santa Monica, California

You've described the genre of Bastion's score as "acoustic-frontier." How did you find a sound for the music score that was unique and fit with the environment that Supergiant was looking to create?

Darren Korb: Early in the process we tried to pin down a tone for the game. I was lucky enough to be involved from the beginning, and stumbled upon "acoustic frontier trip-hop." That was something that everyone seemed happy with, so I was looking for everything to fit that genre as a kind of thematic glue for the game.

Trip-hop uses sampled beats. The juxtaposition of the trippy hip-hop and the frontier acoustic guitar made for a fun mix. World One now has a Byzantine kind of sound, with Middle Eastern and Asian influences here and there. For World Two, I've gone more in the direction of Bayou and Western frontier. Each world has its own musical tone.

The soundtrack's concept of the frontier complements the visual quality of the Bastion sprouting up around the protagonist as you explore. Was the personal context of exploring new territory as independent developers at all informing the decision?

DK: Yeah, part of the idea behind the frontier vibe was to give you the feeling that the world around you wasn't settled. Being an unsettled independent game company, we delved into this project not knowing what was ahead of us.

Are there scores for past games that stood out in your memory at the time of working on the soundtrack for Bastion?

DK: My favorite music score for a game is Marble Madness. I love it so much. Another of my favorites is Dungeon Keeper for the PC, Windows 95. Back in the day I would put the actual Dungeon Keeper game disc in my car and would listen to the music tracks on it. As far as music in games goes, I grew up playing games and they are a big part of my influences, along with bands like Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, Weezer and They Might Be Giants. But before I liked rock music, I liked game music.

Have you found that joining the development team has allowed you to be directly involved in your role as musician?

DK: I love being a part of Supergiant Games. Not only do I get to do something that's incredibly fun, I get to work with friends of mine, who I really get along with. Because it's such a small team, I feel that everything I do has a large effect on the overall project. The soundscape of the game is directly affected by the things that I do. It's nice to feel like I have a stake in the project.

What kind of tone did you feel was right for the character of Rucks, and what do you feel the game gains by having the narration serve as an enduring element of the gameplay?

DK: We did some experimentation, looking at other memorable narrators that we really enjoyed, like Alec Baldwin in the Royal Tennenbaums, or Sam Elliot in the Big Lebowski. We looked at how narration like that fit with the quality of Logan's voice, and started to build the character a bit from the outside in. It started off with the aesthetics of his voice and then became more about who he was and what he was all about.

The narration in this game tells the story in an unobtrusive way that happens while you're playing and it gives context to your actions. During development, I would play levels that didn't have narration on them yet and I kind of had no idea what was happening. When the narration is added, you always know what's going on. You know your objective, and everything has a context.

bastion_01tn-thumb-478x268-987.jpg

What kind of attitude did you want the narrator to have toward the playable character of the Kid?

LC: I knew there was an affection there. Rucks really has no other choice but to like the Kid, because there's no one else around. I think he likes the Kid and sees a lot of himself in him. Fans of the game have theorized that Rucks may in fact be the Kid in a Star Trek-esque causality loop. I never saw it that way myself, but I can see how other people would.

Who was supplying the vocal effects found in the game? It seems like that may have fueled speculation about whether those characters were actually related somehow.

LC: The Kid's exertion sounds are Darren. There are two male Ura at the end of the game, and Darren and I both did the sounds for those.

Additionally, you are singing on the soundtrack. When you were listing the subjects you studied in college, I noticed that vocal performance did not come up. How much background did you have as a singer prior to this game?

LC: Not much. I had been in musicals, though it's the one kind of acting that I'm not particularly fond of doing. When I see it done well, I love it. Darren wrote a musical with his older brother and it was chosen for the New York Theater Festival. There were two performances about a month ago. I was actually their assistant director, stage manager and on-stage briefly in a panda suit.

Singing is something I do reluctantly. I knew going in that they wanted me involved on the soundtrack in some capacity, but I had no idea what it was going to be. The soundtrack came out on a Friday, while I got the song from Darren only the Monday before, and we recorded it on Wednesday. Darren wrote a Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash kind of song, that required a looser, more relaxed kind of singing style forgiving to someone like me, without technical vocal training. We did it in maybe two takes. He had to rewrite the guitar track I was singing over, because it turned out I could sing much lower than he thought I could. We're really happy with how it turned out.

Lyrics by Darren Korb, vocals by Logan Cunningham

The soundtrack has been very well received. It has millions of plays online. That must be gratifying.

LC: Yeah, the number of plays is some insane number. Out of everything about the game, the reception to the sound has surprised us the most. We all knew that Darren writes good music, but witnessing the crazy response to that has been a really nice surprise.

Could you tell us a little about your thoughts on Jen Zee's art style, seen in the game? When you saw Rucks for the first time, was that image something that meshed with your vision of the character?

LC: That was pretty much what I thought he would look like. What I really like about Jen's portrayal of Rucks is that he's a little threatening looking. He's not totally a kindly elder. Like everything she did in Bastion, there's a lot of layers to the look of the character.

There's an edge to it.

LC: Yeah.

What was your experience, having been on the development end for so long, finally playing through the finished product?

LC: I was floored by just how good it was. People sometimes question our "indie-ness" when they see the WB logo, but the truth is that it turned out the way it did because every single one of the seven people who worked on this were amazing at what they did. For those without a background in development, there's a lot of mystery to how a game is made. But, in fact, you can do it, just with labor and a small amount of hardware.

Playing Bastion from start to finish for the first time, I was so proud of it. More than anything else, I was happy for Amir for having pulled it off. When I had heard that he had started his own company with Gavin, it was surprising to me. For most of my life I had known Amir to be a huge gamer, an English major and intellectual. It was therefore a little shocking to discover that he was now an entrepreneur. But he's done it, terrifically.

Your character has popped up in a number of unexpected places outside of Bastion. There was a segment on the Dorkly website, showing Rucks narrating Mario games.

LC: I've seen that video everywhere and I like it. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, or whatever. There seemed to be a lot of people, to my eyes, that thought that was me speaking, which was a little disturbing, but that's fine.

There was also the wedding you narrated.

LC: Yeah, the guy emailed Greg. We were going to be recording anyway, so we thought, "Why not?" Our recording session was actually interrupted by that earthquake that hit New York back in August. We did it, sent it out and then we didn't hear anything. There wasn't even confirmation that the lines had been received, so we left it at that. Then this past Friday, I guess he emailed Ars Technica about it. That was how we found out that he had gone through with it and used the recording for his ceremony.

Do you have thoughts on the potential for working with Supergiant in the future, expanding upon the collaboration so far?

LC: There's enough in the lore to support another Bastion game. I, for one, would love to see a prequel happen. Rucks as a young man, in his hayday, would be an interesting place to go. All I know is that if what Supergiant does next requires a voice that I would be appropriate for, I'll be there.

[Images courtesy of Supergiant Games. For more information on Bastion, see the Supergiant website and soundtrack album. See also our GDC 2011 group chat with Darren Korb and other composers of indie games. Photos by Jeriaska.]

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Earlier this year, Supergiant Games made its indie debut with the XBLA and PC hit Bastion, which received warm reception from critics and players alike. Now that the team has its first title under its belt, studio director Amir Rao says the team's "initial fears have subsided."

Rao notes that while several key members of Supergiant left traditional development at EA to move away from the risks and restrictions of big-budget development, going indie came with its own set of worries.

At this month's GDC China, Rao will outline the benefits and hardships of indie development in a session titled "Maximizing Risk: The Building of Bastion." During this lecture, he will detail the origins and development of the studio's debut game, and offer advice to other developers looking to pursue their independence.

In anticipation of his talk, Rao reflects on the driving forces behind Supergiant's inception, and points out some tips for making it in the indie space.

How and why did you and the team of other EA vets decide to go indie and make Supergiant Games?

Supergiant Games was started by Gavin Simon and me -- both of us worked at EALA on Command & Conquer 3 and Red Alert 3. We were inspired by the success stories of people like The Behemoth, 2D Boy and Jonathon Blow. We left EA to create games that were more personal to us. It was a decision born out of ambition and passion to try to make the kind of game we could never have made on a large team at a big company.

What was it like to adjust to indie development considering your previous job at a traditional game studio?

We are significantly faster and more nimble than we ever were at EA because we have no production or management overhead. A large team has to manage a complex schedule and deal with lot of risk; they need to plan on paper months ahead. We never do anything on paper. Good ideas get into the game in hours and are iterated on immediately.

What was the hardest part about going indie?

There is a lot of worry in being independent. First, you worry if the game is going to be good, then you worry if anyone will like it, then you worry if it will ever come out, then you worry if something bigger will come out right on top of it, then when it's finally out, you worry if it will sell well enough to let you do a second one. Thankfully, Bastion has done that for us and lot of the initial fears have subsided. I'm looking forward to worrying about something new.

You worked on Bastion without any external funding, correct? Were you ever worried about what would happen if the project were a flop?

Yes, we fully self-funded Bastion and own the IP, and Warner Bros. is the distribution partner for it. We weren't really that concerned about a flop, since the consequences of a flop were well understood: our savings would be wiped out, all the good will we spent with our friends and family would've evaporated and after two years of the most intense work of our lives we would have been left with nothing to show for it. We wondered more just how successful it might be, but always kept our expectations low.

What would you say were the biggest factors that led to Bastion's success?

The team was the biggest factor. We started with two people and grew to seven. Gavin did all the gameplay, Greg Kasavin did all 3,000 lines of narration and half the levels, Jen Zee did all the 2D art, Darren Korb did all the sound and music, Logan Cunningham did the voice and Andrew Wang got us onto the console. If you take away even one of those things, we have no game and no success.

The other major factor in any success we've had were the platforms that we released on. Without digital channels like XBLA and Steam, I am not sure how we would have found an audience for a game like ours.

What advice would you give to a developer thinking of getting into independent development?

Find the right people and the right platforms and just do it. You don't have to quit your day jobs immediately. You'll know when it's time to switch over to spending all your energies on your own work. We quit before even starting the game, but that's not always necessary.

How will your GDC China talk address your experience working on Bastion, and what do you hope attendees will take away from it?

The talk will cover the inception of the company, display early prototypes of Bastion and discuss our methodology for developing, publishing and marketing the game. We'll talk about some of the unforeseen challenges and hopefully help other people out there who are looking to start their own companies or optimize them for even more independence.

Additional Info

As GDC China draws ever closer, show organizers will continue to debut new interviews with some of the event's most notable speakers, in addition to new lectures and panels from the event's numerous tracks and Summits.

Taking place Saturday, November 12 through Monday, November 14, 2011 at the Shanghai Exhibition Center in Shanghai, China, GDC China will return to bring together influential developers from around the world to share ideas, network, and inspire each other to further the game industry in this region.

For more information on GDC China as the event takes shape, please visit the show's official website, or subscribe to updates from the new GDC China-specific news page via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS. GDC China is owned and operated by UBM TechWeb, as is this website.

[Originally posted on sister site Gamasutra.]

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igfchina1.jpgThe Independent Games Festival China
has announced the Main Competition and Student finalists for its third
annual awards ceremony celebrating the most innovative indie and student
games from throughout the Pan-Pacific area.

This year, the finalists offer an extremely broad range of game types and genres, from action brawlers like Pixel May Cry to mobile arcade titles like Super Sheep Tap, with developers hailing from throughout China and its surrounding regions.

Drawing from a prize pool totaling 45,000 RMB (roughly $7,000), IGF
China's Main Competition will give away five distinguished awards,
covering Excellence in Audio, Technology, and Visual Arts, as well as
the Best Mobile Game and Best Game awards. In addition to the prestige
and prizes, winners will also receive two All-Access Passes for the upcoming GDC 2012 in San Francisco.

Alongside IGF China's Main Competition, the ceremony will also host
the Student Competition, which honors six of the top regional student
games, with teams hailing from DigiPen Singapore, the China Central
Academy of Fine Arts, and more.

This part of the competition includes two awards -- for Best Student
Game and Excellent Student Winners -- and offers roughly 13,000 RMB
(roughly $2,000) in cash prizes.

Winners in both competitions will be chosen by a panel of expert jurors including Kevin Li (CEO, TipCat Interactive), Monte Singman (CEO, Radiance Digital Entertainment), Xubo Yang (director of digital art lab and assistant professor at Shanghai Jiaotong University's School of Software), Haipeng Yu (producer, Tencent Shanghai), and jury chairman Simon Carless, IGF Chairman Emeritus and EVP of the GDC shows and Gamasutra.

This year's IGF China will take place on November 12, 2011 alongside
GDC China, which will be held at the Shanghai Convention Center in
Shanghai, China.

Here are the finalists for this year's IGF China:

Main Competition

Billy Makin Kid!, by SLAB Games, Indonesia [Website, Video]

Clay's Reverie, by SuperGlueStudio, China [Video]

FTL (Faster than Light), by Matthew Davis & Justin Ma, China [Website]

One Tap Hero, by Coconut Island Studio, China [Video]

Pixel May Cry, by Feng Li, China [Video]

Pocket Warriors, by WitOne Games, China [Website, Video]

Super Sheep Tap, by aBit Games, China [Website, Video]

The Line HD, by Ant Hive Games, China [Website, Video]

Student Competition

Nanobytes, by Singapore Polytechnic School of Design Splat Studios, Singapore [Video]

Pixi, by DigiPen Institute of Technology, Singapore [Website, Video]

Robotany, by Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, Singapore [Website]

Shadow Fight, by China Central Academy of Fine Arts, China [Video]

Terra: the Legend of the Geochine, by DigiPen Institute of Technology, Singapore [Website, Video]

Void, by DigiPen Institute of Technology, Singapore [Website, Video]

In addition to the awards ceremony, GDC China will also host its own dedicated Independent Games Summit, which offers a host of lectures
covering some of the most pertinent issues in independent development,
featuring speakers such as thatgamecompany's Jenova Chen, Supergiant
Games' Amir Rao, and more.

To attend either the IGF China awards ceremony or the Independent
Games Summit, interested parties can register for a GDC China pass on the event's official website -- see site for more details on deadlines and restrictions.

For more information on GDC China as the event takes shape, please visit the official GDC China website, or subscribe to updates from the new GDC Online-specific news page via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS. GDC China is owned and operated by UBM TechWeb.

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sssep.jpgGDC China
has debuted the first group of lectures in the show's Independent Games
Summit, featuring talks from thatgamecompany co-founder Jenova Chen,
Capybara Games on Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP, and Supergiant Games on its indie hit Bastion.

The event, which is co-located with the IGF China, will take place November 4-6 at the Shanghai Convention Center in
Shanghai, China, and will once again serve as the premier game
industry event in China, bringing together influential developers from
around the world to share ideas, network, and inspire each other to
further the game industry in this region.

This year, the show will feature two Summits in addition to the Main Conference, covering Independent Games and Mobile Games.

The following are the first lectures to be announced for GDC China's Indie Games Summit:

- While video games are undoubtedly a significant form of
entertainment media, they are often treated more like software or
technology than a valid means of expression.

In "Video Games as a Medium for Entertainment & Artistic Expression," Jenova Chen, co-founder of Flower and Journey
developer thatgamecompany, will look at the medium from an artistic
perspective, demonstrating how games can deliver substantial
experiences, feelings, and messages.

- Occasionally, business and design decisions that look awful on
paper can lead to surprising success. This certainly held true for
Capybara Games' Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP
(pictured), an eccentric iOS title that forced the team to take major
risks with its design, business, and production processes.

In "Perhaps a Time of Miracles was at Hand: The Business & Development of #Sworcery,"
Capybara Games co-founder Nathan Vella will provide an in-depth look at
how this unusual game grew into a critical and financial success.

- Finally, Amir Rao of indie startup Supergiant Games will discuss
how his team of EA vets created one of the summer's most popular indie
games in "Maximizing Risk: The Building of Bastion." Here, Rao
will offer a look at Supergiant's "prototyping process, the production
methodology and the conclusions reached from taking the high-risk
endeavor of starting your own studio with your own money," offering tips
for developers who hope to start their own indie studio.

For more information on these or other sessions, please take a look at the official GDC China website.

With registration for GDC China now open, interested parties can go to the event's official website to start the registration process
and gain access to the numerous talks, tutorials, and events the show
will have to offer. Keep an eye out for even more news as the show draws
closer, as GDC China organizers have a number of exciting announcements
planned for the coming weeks and months.

For more information on GDC China as the event takes shape, please visit the official GDC China website, or subscribe to updates from the new GDC Online-specific news page via Twitter, Facebook, or RSS. GDC China is owned and operated by UBM TechWeb.

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