As a part of our Epic Games 20th Anniversary celebration we wanted to feature some of the wonderful composers who have created music that was included in our Epic Games 20th Anniversary Original Soundtrack (available for free here!) Robert Allen is the talent behind the music of Jazz Jackrabbit and Epic Pinball and two of his tracks are featured on our anniversary soundtrack!
Robert currently is married with five wonderful children and is a Senior Engineer. He’s in the early stages of developing a digital content licensing marketplace called New Digit Media. He now makes music for fun in his free time instead of professionally. We caught up with Robert and got all the details about what it was like composing video game music with Epic!
PixelK1tty: When did you first begin composing music?
Robert Allen: I started composing music when I was 5 or so. I don’t believe I ever had the “gift”, but I worked pretty hard at it until I could come up with something I liked.
PK: How did you first become involved in creating music for video games?
RA: Shortly after I got my first PC I was introduced to Bulletin Board Systems. One of the first games I downloaded was the shareware version of Jill of the Jungle. It was amazing for the time. I had never seen or heard anything like it. The graphics were an incredible 256 colors – almost life-like. The sounds effects were strange, but somehow fit, and I was immediately impressed with Dan Froelich’s music. I wanted to do that.
The CATALOG.EXE program that came with the game had a “Calling All Programmers and Artists” screen that I noticed had the same address as the order screen so I called the order number to see if I could get a hold of anyone who could tell me how to get a foot in the door. On a whim, I asked for the founder of the company, Tim Sweeney. As it turns out, Tim was the one who answered the phone. I told him I was a musician and wanted to know how to get into the industry. He told me he didn’t have any projects that needed music at the moment, but I should send him a tape (yeah, an audio cassette) in case something came up. He called me a week or so later and said he liked the music and would let me know if something came up.
About 9 months later he had me try out a few demos from various other developers, one was a game called “Traffic Department 2192″ that was being written by John Pallet-Plowright, one of the Jill of the Jungle level designers. The other was a quirky, windows adventure game from some kid named Cliff. Tim asked if I wanted to work on them, and I jumped at the chance.
PK: What was the process like working with what was once Epic MegaGames (now Epic Games) on the Epic Pinball and Jazz Jackrabbit soundtracks? How did you collaborate?
RA: For me, the normal process for writing the music involved getting art, example screens, or a working level. I would usually talk with the designer to find out if they had anything in mind for the music. Usually some melody or theme would come to me, but sometimes I needed to work at it for a while until something that sounded right.
From a technical perspective, working on Jazz Jackrabbit and Epic Pinball was a bit more challenging since we were moving to using sequenced digital music instead of the AdLib (FM synthesis) music that was common for the day. I’m not sure anyone had published a PC game with digital music at that point, but Epic was all about pushing the limits. Even though the sound engine was “cutting edge”, I was only allowed 4 different sounds at a time and some really stringent limits on the size of the song files. At the time, the goal was to have the complete shareware game, including the music files, fit one a single 1.44 MB floppy disc. Certainly there were musicians who were far better at creating this kind of music, but because of my limits, I focused on some kind of catchy melody or theme that matched the graphics, and a beat that would set the pace of the level.
PK: How do you feel music adds to or enhances the gaming experience?
RA: Wow. That’s a tough question to answer in words. It is really hard to describe how music enhances a game experience, but the best way to know is to play a game while playing completely different music. Game music needs to enhance the experience. That could mean setting the pace, causing an emotion, fabricating urgency or calm. Unless the game is about music, the best musicians do this without getting in the way of the game.
Thank you Robert for taking the time to answer our questions and collaborate with us on the Soundtrack! Epic Gamers, be sure to check out the Jazz Jackrabbit “Menu Song” and “Space” from Epic Pinball by Robert Allen!