Bill Mueller - Senior Sound Designer at ZeniMax Online Studios

Sound Designer Interview: Bill Mueller

Bill Mueller is a sound designer with over 13 years of experience working in both the television and game audio industries. To just name a few of the projects he has worked on: League of Legends, Dungeons And Dragons Online, Elder Scrolls Legends, and Fallout 4. We had the chance to ask him a couple questions on his career so far, focusing on his current role working on The Elder Scrolls Online!


Tell us a little about yourself and how you started working as a sound designer?

I have been a gamer my entire life.  I remember my first “gaming” system was a Commodore 64 and my parents would let me stay up late on weekends playing it. They eventually got me an NES and a really old black and white TV that they put in my bedroom; I was hooked (I still own that NES to this day).  I’ve always been really fascinated with the behind-the-scenes aspect of things and was always curious about how TV shows were made, or how albums were made, that sort of thing.  I always wanted to work in gaming, but never really thought it would be a reality.  I ended up going to Umass Lowell for Sound Recording Technology with the hopes of working in a recording studio or TV station, but the gaming bug was always in the back of my brain.

My first gig was working in radio as a Production Director, and I eventually made my way into television where I was nominated for 3 New England Emmy Awards. I loved doing both, but the urge to work in games was just too strong and I had to give it a shot.  I decided to put a lot of focus in trying to meet people at local studios (Boston) and see what I could do, and I ended up getting a job at Turbine working on Dungeons and Dragons Online as an Associate Producer. Even though it wasn’t sound design, it allowed me to get my foot in the door in working with the audio team coordinating VO sessions and such.  Eventually, an opportunity arose to be a Sound Designer with a start-up company called Seven45 Studios working on a music performance game. It was the perfect opportunity for me with my background in music recording and sound design.

So tl;dr, it took a while before getting my first “break” as a Sound Designer, but what I learned along the way has been a huge help.

 

Fallout 4 - Developed by Bethesda Game Studios, published by Bethesda Softworks
Fallout 4 – Developed by Bethesda Game Studios, published by Bethesda Softworks

You have worked on one of my favourite games, Fallout 4 by Bethesda Game Studios. How did you get involved with that project?

One of the really cool things about working at ZeniMax Online and being under the ZeniMax Media umbrella is that there are many awesome studios who are also under the umbrella with us. Not only Bethesda Game Studios, but iD, Machine Games, Arkane, Tango Gameworks and others.  It’s easy for us to all stay in touch.  When Bethesda was working on Fallout 4, which is a HUGE game in size, we were in between content releases for ESO so we had some time available. They reached out to us to see if we could help out with the “death blows” they have in the game. We all jumped up and couldn’t wait to help haha.  It was a lot of fun to work on those.  We also got to help out and do the audio for The Elder Scrolls: Legends which is a digital card game that was released this year. That was a lot of fun, too.  We got to use a lot of the assets we made for ESO (with some tweaks), create new stuff that worked for a card game, as well as work on cinematics.  There are many benefits of working here, but this is one of my favorites!

 

ZeniMax Online Studios
ZeniMax Online Studios

You are currently working as a Senior Sound Designer at ZeniMax Online Studios, who designed and developed The Elder Scrolls Online (published by Bethesda Softworks). How did this opportunity come about?

Luck? Haha.  So, I was at 38 Studios, which unfortunately was shut down back in 2012.  I was looking for work, had interviewed at a few places, got some offers I didn’t love, and no offers from places I really wanted so I kept looking.  A friend of mine who was also a Sound Designer at 38 had landed a job here at ZOS, and he reached out to me to let me know that they might be looking to hire another Sound Designer onto the team and was wondering if I would be interested.  Next thing I know, I am flying down here for an interview and got the offer.

This is why, in this industry, it’s really important to make contacts and keep contacts.  You never know when opportunities are going to pop up.

 

Elder Scrolls Online Questing Gameplay
Elder Scrolls Online Questing Gameplay

Since this game is online, how do you prioritize sounds when a player is questing with hundreds of other players?

We have a system that differentiates the sounds the player makes versus the sounds everyone else makes.  We call this system MvY or Mine (the sounds you the player make) Vs Yours (the sounds everyone else does).  When certain sounds are played, the game determines who made the sound – was it the player or was it some other player or an NPC.  That information is fed to our audio engine (Wwise) and we are able to use it for different things.

  1. Volume – When a player activates an ability, we let the sound play at 0db; effectively, we do not adjust the volume. But when some other entity activates an ability (unless the ability is done to the player) we lower the volume by -4db. This helps clear up the mix around the player so the actions that are most critical to the player dominate the mix.
  2. Priority – We use the same data to determine what priority a sound should get. If the player makes the sound, it plays at a high and constant priority. When another entity makes a sound, it plays at a lower priority that actually lowers the further away the sound is. We dynamically change the priority for those sounds based off distance (the further away the sound is, the lower the priority).  This ensures that all the sounds the player makes will never get culled due to playback limits. By changing the priority on the other sounds based on distance, it helps to make sure the sounds going on around him/her are played so the mix still feels right, while the ones off in the distance get culled if need be (and hopefully the player won’t even notice).
  3. Positioning – This is more helpful for surround applications, but also stereo as well. For any sound the player makes, we force that sound to play 2D and in front.  All non-player sounds are played 3D. Again, this helps with the mix a lot and allows the player to better pinpoint where other sounds are coming from.

All of these combined help to clear up the mix for the player so that the actions they take are the loudest, always play, and are positioned in the mix in a way to help pinpoint other sounds.  It’s a fine balance because you don’t want the game to sound empty, but the player needs to always feel like the most important thing.

 

Elder Scrolls Online Gameplay Screenshot
Elder Scrolls Online Gameplay Screenshot

Tamriel is massive, how do you approach creating the soundscapes for so many different cities/towns?

Each city/town and zone gets their own unique soundscape.  We start with getting a basic understanding of the zone or city first.  Basic stuff like, “Is it a desert, or rain forest? Maybe a swamp area” to deeper stuff like, “What are the people like in this area? Is it a busy city with lots of merchants selling things, or is the city inhabited by a more shy-type of people that don’t like visitors”.  That sort of thing.

It’s very important for us to make sure the world feels alive. Players can spend hours and hours in our game, and we want Tamriel to feel alive to them.  To do that, we build our ambiance in layers.  We have base loops that play – very subtle, very bare – but then we add on top of that 3D oneshots that randomly play around the player.  These can be anything from the wind blowing, to birds chirping, a cricket doing its cricket thing, or a volcano rumbling.  We play these at random intervals and in random locations around the player.  So you won’t always hear the wind play in the same direction, or a cricket come from the same piece of grass.  It helps to surround the player inside Tamriel and make it feel unique every time they enter it. We change the ambiance based on the time of day as well. For example, changing the type of wildlife you might hear, from birds during the day to crickets at night.

In cities, we will add walla (ie: unintelligible background chatter), but again, to make it feel more alive there’s plenty of actual VO for various types of characters as well. You might hear a merchant yell “We sell the finest swords!” or walk by two NPCs having a conversation about their cat.  A drunk guy who just got out of the bar might yell at you to “Get out of my way!”  We even track a player’s progress through the game’s content and play VO based on the various quests they have completed. This helps make cities feel even more alive as you might have completed a quest that saved a town from a deadly disease, and when you enter the town a few days later, someone might say “Isn’t that the guy that saved us?”

The art, fixture and world building teams all do a great job at building the world to look and feel alive as well, so it’s our job to support anything they build, such as rivers, waterfalls or animated fixtures like windmills.  We even place sounds on static fixtures (fixtures that don’t move) to help sell the world.  A good example are boats that are docked; though they don’t move, you will hear them creaking like they would in real life as they bob up and down in the water.

It’s the small details that don’t exactly stand out because people are just used to hearing them in the real world that really help sell a soundscape.

Our composer and Audio Director Brad Derrick will write music that compliments each part of the game as well.  So when you enter a cave that might have a lot of enemies lurking around, the music will change to something more ominous. Or you might enter a big city like Vivec City and a powerful fanfare will play.

All of these combined help to create a sonic world that is Tamriel and help to make the player feel as though they are a part of it, and not just an avatar inside a game.

 

Elder Scrolls Online - Wrothgar
Elder Scrolls Online – Wrothgar

Is there one specific city/town that you would say is your favourite soundscape?

Wrothgar is one of my favorites, mostly because it reminds me of home.  There is a section of Wrothgar that takes place in the mountains and is covered in snow. It’s a forest area with lots of wildlife and trees.  I am originally from New England, so snow is something I am very much used to.  One of my favorite things was how during a snowy day it was always loud – the wind blowing, kids playing outside, snow plows going by all day… Then at night, everything settles down.  I’d be out walking my dog and the silence was always so perfect.  Everyone is inside, snow plows are gone, and all you would hear is slight wind, your footsteps, and the crack of branches off in the distance from snow that was too heavy for the branch to carry.  When doing audio for Wrothgar, I wanted to emulate that as much as possible. During the day, the soundscape is very busy – lots of wind, lots of wild life going off – but at night it becomes much more subdued.  The wildlife stops, the wind gets very light, and most of what you hear is the player footsteps and the random branch cracking, or the snow blowing across the snow on the ground.

 

Bill's Templar Elder Scrolls Online character
Bill’s Templar Elder Scrolls Online character

What character and class would you or do you main in ESO? Why?

I have a Templar that I play on the live servers.  I have always loved playing support-type classes in multiplayer games, and the Templar has a good set of abilities that allow you to do that.  Doing dungeon runs is one of my favorite things to do in the game, and getting to the end knowing I kept the group alive is always fun.  You don’t always get all the glory, but I think that goes back to my answer to the first question.  I’ve always liked to be the guy who does the work behind the scenes.

 

The Elder Scrolls Online
The Elder Scrolls Online

Looking back on your 13+ years of working as a sound designer, what has been your favourite project to work on?

It might sound cliché because I am working on it now, but I mean this honestly: I love working on ESO. I have always been a fan of the Elder Scrolls series, so to get to come to work every day and work on one of my favorite game franchises of all time is a dream come true. You add that to the fact that I work with some really talented people, not just in the Audio Department who help push me creatively each and every day, but across the board, and I feel like the luckiest guy on the planet.  It’s a real team effort working in games.  I get to make really cool stuff because people here are creating really cool stuff.  We are currently working on Clockwork City for our next DLC game pack, and the ways that this studio is pushing the boundaries for this game is such an awesome and fun challenge.  I truly love it.

I also worked on a music performance game called “Power Gig: Rise of the Sixstring”.  The game was a commercial flop; I think the year it came out, one publication called it the worst game of the year.  But I learned so much working on that project both professionally and personally that it really helped shape who I am today as a Sound Designer and person.

 

And finally, what is your best advice to those looking to get into video game audio?

I get asked this question a lot. If you ask 20 different game sound designers how they all got into the industry, you will get 20 different stories.  However, they will all have one central theme and that is “don’t give up”.  As cliché as that sounds, it’s true.  The gaming industry is a niche industry, and doing audio in games is a niche within a niche.  It’s hard to get your first break so you need to keep at it. You need to keep getting better at it, and making contacts, and getting better, and finding small side jobs, and getting better.

For me, I would record or download video for various games, either trailers or gameplay. I would take out all the audio and replace it with my own.  I would do one, show it to friends, get feedback, and make it better. I would try to do at least two videos a month, learning from my mistakes and making things better.  I went to local meet-ups to meet with various game studios in the area, made friends and contacts.  Once I was in, that didn’t stop either.  I kept meeting people and getting contacts, kept trying to get better and better at what I do.  Eventually I got my break, but it came because I didn’t stop trying until it happened.


Sound Ideas would like to thank Bill Mueller for taking the time to answer our questions for this interview!

To view Bill’s Portfolio, Credits and Resume, visit his website:

http://www.billsaudio.com/

 

Written by: Erin Dunt (@ErinAmber_D)

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