10 Years and Still Growing – An Epic Adventure In The Casual Gaming Space

When SomaTone Interactive opened its doors in 2003, the notion that “casual games” would one day generate billions in annual revenue was inconceivable to most of the traditional video game community, who largely dismissed this sector of their powerhouse industry.

Much to the surprise of many early doubters, however, the casual games marketplace wound up exploding beyond people’s wildest dreams to become the most dominate and stable sector of the video games industry today.

Early in the game, we at SomaTone believed in the potential of casual gaming. So much so that we bet all our chips on this untapped market, wholeheartedly building a team with shared passions for music and sound design, video games, and audio excellence, to service this yet-to-explode corner of the industry.


Humble Beginnings Set the Stage

Like many great start-up tales, SomaTone’s story began in a less-than-glamorous way, in a studio located deep in the SoMa district of San Francisco, surrounded by a rehab clinic, a regular collection of homeless sleeping on the door step, and the ripe smell of human waste ever-present. Kane Minkus, STi co-founder and my former business partner, lived on the couch in the control room, and received regular collection agency calls and even personal visits from “Vinny” looking to collect on thousands in unpaid debts, money that was used to furnish and equip SomaTone’s humble facility.

In 2005, after a period of unsatisfying forays into film, radio, interactive websites, and AAA games, SomaTone fortuitously found itself working on two previously unknown “casual” games, called Diner Dash (Playfirst) and Mystery Case Files (Big Fish Games). These landmark titles had relatively few companions, with Zuma, Luxor, and the initial offering of Bejeweled being among the “hits” of the era. Big Fish’s MCF was the first massively popular Hidden Object Game– a genre that would soon define its legacy as a publisher of games, and Diner Dash (and all of its sequels) is still an iconic casual game nearly 10 years later.

From the early days of PC Downloadable titles until now, the Casual Games industry has experienced relentless growth, even while the industry has continued to reinvent itself. With the discovery that women like to play video games too, this demographic exploded casual games into mass popularity, and other advancements in technology and game platforms arrived fortuitously to add fuel to this genre’s growth. Facebook’s game platform in the early 2010′s, and the success of Zynga–which at the time accounted for nearly 20% of all Facebook revenue–put casual games into high gear. SomaTone was privileged to be on the cutting edge of the Facebook, (social games) revolution, with nearly all of Zynga’s games flowing through our studio, not to mention many others from other publishers following suit. And if the Facebook social game phenomena weren’t enough, the wild popularity of Smart phones, and the relatively recent adaptation of games to this platform, further reinvigorated an industry already on steroids.

SomaTone’s steady growth alongside this marketplace came about through a mix of good old-fashioned passion, hard work, pavement-pounding, boot-strapped blood and sweat, and most of all a fervor that sprang from a true and equal love for audio production and the business of creativity.

More than one thousand games later and ten years after launching into this highly competitive business, SomaTone enjoyed its best year ever in 2013 by working on more than 150 projects, delivering our best music, SFX and audio leadership, and posting our highest annual revenue numbers between our three studios, to the shared credit of our highly talented and dedicated 15-person team.

Equally interesting, while 2013 marked a high point for SomaTone, this was also the year when three of the former pillars of AAA game audio production–Soundelux DMG, Technicolor’s Game-Audio Division, and Dane Tracks– all shuttered their doors and pulled up stakes. We’re humbled by the fact that our once little-known, under-the-radar game audio studio has steadily grown to have now surpassed these former titans of the game audio community. We’re grateful for an incredible odyssey with all of our partners, from the independent developers to the major developers and publishers that we continue to work with.


Changing Faces, Changing Landscape

In the last ten years, the industry landscape has changed so radically that I barely recognize its terrain. This is most strikingly realized during my annual engagements with Casual Connect, the first and most widely attended Casual Games conference, which is, despite its equal growth, now attended by less than 1/10th of the companies who originally dominated those conference halls, and an ever fewer ratio of casual game industry executives, who seem to have migrated away from this industry as it has reinvented itself. It’s ironic, that with each shedding of its skin, there is also shedding of those companies and executives who had made such intrepid growth possible.

SomaTone now faces the start of its second decade in a duality, as both part of the diminished old guard who embraced casual games early in its genesis, as well as survivor, and beyond that, a blossoming leader, in an industry that has reinvented itself more times then Arnold Schwarzenegger (and with much greater success!)

The reinvention of this industry seems to be working on a 3-year cycle, with mobile games now entering its 3rd year of dominance (depending on when you mark your calendar) and already we can see the tablet, the Smartphone’s larger and more powerful cousin, beginning to position itself for a coup.

Through it all, SomaTone has navigated the changing landscape by honoring the same core principles as always, which reflect a deep love for, and commitment to, audio excellence, creative leadership, and the ever-captivating business of creativity.


The Four Pillars Of Creating Excellence In Audio

Where in the creative process does work go from good to excellent? From excellent to extraordinary? Is an initial concept, or first step, the seed for excellent work? While a good seed idea is important, anyone can come up with great ideas. The reality in audio and music design is that the critical (and most difficult) work happens in the last 20% of the project. This final, key phase of the creative process often brings about subtle adjustments and intricate fine-tuning that can make all the difference in overall audio excellence and creativity.

Here are the Four Pillars of my creative process that allow me to get to excellence:

1. Plan it. Know what you’re creating. Have a plan for it. Also expect that what you start with will hardly ever be what you end with.

2. Aim High. Find inspiring references and use those as benchmarks. Aim to exceed.

3. Expect the Unplanned. Creating something astounding always takes longer and requires more work than you think. Anticipate that. Expect it. And leave room for it.

4. Challenge it. Get feedback on the work beyond yourself. There’s nothing as helpful as a fresh eye or ear on the work. Beware of falling into the trap of relying on feedback too much. Balance external feedback with gut instinct.

With these Four Pillars in mind—I aim to enjoy the creative journey toward excellence each and every time.

Check out this exclusive Ratchet & Clank orchestral recording video and interview with lead composer Michael Bross…


The Value Of A Sound Design Team

Creating soundscapes, not just sound to enhance player experience

While working on a farm-themed game recently, the client told me that they had found a bird sound effect for sale on a website that they thought was similar to a bird sound we had given them. He asked, should they consider just buying their sounds one by one from an online source?

For a simple game with very minimal sound needs, the answer might be yes. If you just need a single bird sound, or the sound of a door closing, you might find what you need from an online library. The majority of the time, however, you will not be able to come up with an overall quality audio experience just by sourcing some raw sound effects. Even in the case of something as simple as a door closing, the timing of the animation, the material of the door, and the space that the door is in need to be considered in order to make an appropriate sound for it.

The farm game is a good example. There were a few simple sounds needed, like the bird, a cow moo, and so on, but almost everything else required hours of work from one of our designers. One short little animation for a power up was a barn quickly shaking, expanding, and then the doors blowing open in a cartoony way. The animation only lasted about three seconds, but in order to create the proper effect, ten separate audio files had to be recorded or sourced from our library. It needed a couple of wood-creaking sounds for the barn expanding, a synthesized sound of a rising pitch for the barn getting bigger, an old fashioned camera flash kind of poof sound for the barn doors blowing open, a wood hit for when the doors bang into the barn, sounds of air whooshing out, some chickens clucking, and a few more. Then, a designer has to put these together in a way that sounds natural and convincing. The end result is a sound effect that matches a unique animation exactly, something not possible when sourcing sound effects from a library without a design team. Buying each of these sounds individually and having someone that’s not an audio designer put them together would not only get a lower quality result, it would also actually cost more. Below is a video example of the sound design that was just described.

This just scrapes the surface of what the audio team does as an integral creative partner. Experienced sound designers approach a project from a holistic perspective: they’re not creating isolated sounds, they are creating soundscapes — an overall integrated sonic experience that includes the creation of SFX, music, voice-over and then finally, the careful mixing all of the elements so that they work together in the game to provide the best experience for the player.



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Michael Bross Interview about Sound Design in KingsRoad

KingsRoad Q&A With Michael Bross

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