Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Flashback - Arcade Auction

It happened in an instant, the morning arrived and somehow I was there to greet it. Like most childhood memories it’s hard to remember exactly “how”, but the “why” was clear: I was totally into video games. Which was what led to that morning in the pre-adolescent hours before dawn in the abandoned Minnesota State Fairgrounds on that precious weekend. The cold-chill wind and desolation was everywhere, except for inside the warehouse-sized arcade, whose garage doors stood open to the fall colors licked by the sun outside.

I knew what to expect, I had been through this before a few years earlier. There would be a few hours of frantic scrabbling through a maze of dormant obelisks; frantically plugging, switching, cajoling, and wiggling the selection of arcade cabinets, jukeboxes, and pinball machines assembled for auction. When luck was on your side, the flip of a power switch would cause an eruption of light and sound and break the early morning silence, signaling an opportunity to test-out one of the fine machines soon to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

It wasn’t that long ago when my dad had rolled-up to our first arcade auction three years ago; That day feels as random in my memory as any. Lured by the potential for free video games, my young, eager mind was baited hook, line and sinker with the promise of unbridled play-time while serious spenders entertained potential amusements for their own home. Fuzzy memories of games like Battlezone, Tapper, Mr. Do, and a million more crowd this first experience as I slowly learned the tricks to making machines sing the song of free-play. Find the power switch, look for the coin-box key, jiggle the wire where quarters flow and cross your fingers that it would all work out.

We somehow left that first auction with a Kiss Pinball machine. It felt like a fluke, definitely not in my expectation to leave that day with a personal plaything (likely more a result of my dad’s love of music coupled with my love of video games). From there on it was rock and roll all night and pinball everyday! Friends and neighbors piled into the basement on occasion to chase the silver ball and trade high-scores for the next few years until the table lost its local lustre and fell into disuse. The story of how it ended up sold at three times the purchase price one summer wasn’t mine, but here I was again lined up at the crack-of-dawn for another auction...this time with some liquid cash in the family and an agenda to replenish the home arcade.

The garage door lifted on the warehouse space, the florescent lights flickered to life, and the portable heaters began blowing, quickly heating up the space. The race was on to assess every machine and weight them in a prioritized, if not overly nostalgic, list of potential. There was Donkey Kong Jr. a favorite and quarter-hog if ever there was one, my dad was focused on Pinbot and lucky for him there was more than one that day, a three-screen Darius held an obscene fascination for me, and it was there too.

Every machine that could be played was assessed on its merits and prioritized in expectation of the auction itself, which was a whole different ball game when you’ve got a stake in the game. Imagine a young tweener scrambling between machines and executing the aforementioned steps towards free-play, going from one-to-the-next in-hopes that a.) it would power on b.) the coin-box would open c.) credits could be racked up and the “assessment” could begin. This process, an exercise in the attempt/ reward loop that so underlies video games, I was living in a real-life simulation hurtling towards the potential of acquiring my own personal amusement device.

I remember the auction moving perilously fast. The Pinbots went for more than we could bid, first-tier arcade machines went fast and pricey, the reality of acquiring any machine was swiftly slipping away. There were some dark-horses in the running, my dad bid and won the purchase of a pinball machine called Paragon. All swords and sworcery, this table came straight from the 70’s and was the perfect fit for a bearded-bard like my dad. With graphics that looked like they should be airbrushed on the side of a van with a heart-shaped window and wall-to-wall shag carpeting, the table felt slow and languorous to my 1980’s addled mind. The rest of the auction passed by in a flash of heat and bidding that resulting in the acquisition of two machines that were underdogs on our list.

The Adventures of Major Havok from Atari. I knew Tempest, boy...did I know that machine. The brilliant red, green, and yellow of it’s vector-graphics display still stands out in any arcade ensemble. Not to mention the spinning wheel mechanism of play. However, Major Havok was another thing entirely. Where Tempest see’s you expunging scourge and hurtling ever forward in difficulty and speed, this Major Havok had some diversity. An introductory screen where you can play breakout and use warp codes to jump ahead? A 3D Space Invaders-like shoot ‘em up? Lunar Lander-like section? Maze shooter? Then top it off with a space base infiltration and explosion? An incredibly deep playing experience that has withstood the test of time and continued to be a challenge even all these years later. Owen Rubin was the chief designer of Major Havoc (see comments, thanks Jason!) and tuning and some level design by soon to become visionary in the video game industry, Mark Cerny.

Then there was Orbitor1 by Stern. If you’ve ever played this table, you would know. It’s playfield; concave plastic stretched over a molded moonscape, backlit with flickering lights. It’s bumpers, spinning and magnetic centrifugal forces that attract and propel the shiny pinball to greater reaches and wilder trajectories. With a synthesized robot voice that implores you to “Shoot Pinball Again” or announces that “You Got Double” when multi-ball is unlocked, the sound of Orbitor1 can be called a formative experience to my game audio career. If you’ve ever happened across this one, you remember! There is nothing quite like the feeling of having the ball flung behind the flippers and coming out the other side with your game still in-progress. Orbitor1 is a one-of-kind experience that demands to be played.

How we ended up at the end of that auction with three machines, two of which stand as strange anomalies in their genre, at the end of that fateful day still escapes my understanding of history. Here I stand, 30-ish years later at their parting and it’s impossible to tell you just how deep their influence on me has been. Even through their years of dormancy and disuse, their bond and legacy in me has been a continuum that runs through my story. The year Orbitor1 spent in a loft overlooking downtown St. Paul. When the kids were young, in the garage entertaining on sunny days. The thread of video games runs through my history to this day as a Technical Sound Designer in the gaming industry. These formative experiences shaped my view of the future from those early days and is somehow responsible for my place in time.

It is with a hope for the future space explorer, pinball wizard, or arcade archaeologist that these machines will find a new home with the Seattle Pinball Museum and their legacy and story will be long told.

Wow wow wow wow very nice try again,
Damian Kastbauer

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Tales of a Technical Sound Designer

I haven't been writing much lately. An article here or there, but nothing too crazy. It dawned on me last year that I used to do quite a bit of writing. Writing has been one of the ways that I use to process my experiences and sharing those experiences with others has been a fundamental part of my growth. It turns out that after 10-odd years of writing and processing, I was looking back on a body of work that represented my formative years in game audio. Between officially published articles, interviews, and a couple of series, there was more than enough to pull together everything into some semblance of a form. So much everything, that I decided to self-publish a two-volume collection that is now available for purchase digitally (PDF) or printed on-demand (B&W or Colour) as: Game Audio: Tales of a Technical Sound Designer

Order here: eBook & Paperback Editions & Amazon Kindle Editions

The articles contained within continue to be available online: Game Developer Magazine in the GDC Vault, Audio Implementation Greats at, Lost Chocolate Blog in the very same place it's always been, with a few articles and interviews strewn across the net-scape. There is something to pulling all of these together and the strength-in-presentation they acquire by doing so. A bit of history and hopefully some timeless insights into game audio and the process of discovering ones passion comes into focus through the 500 total pages across the two volumes. (It also highlights my curious relationship with words, phrasing, and my struggle to frame these ideas in a way that communicates passion and complexity.) A worthy en-devour for those who are interested in charting a path through time and possibly pickup some game audio nuggets of wisdom along the way.

What a way it has been!

My first-few articles writing for Game Developer Magazine, reviewing audio middleware tools, or the Audio Implementation Greats Series, attempting to highlight the unique position of audio implementation and elevate it into an art in-its-own-right, feel like the first-steps on a journey that I've been on since taking the first steps so long ago. The inappropriate grammar, the run-on sentences, the oblique references, the terrible 1980's song quotes, all align in what I hope is an enjoyable expedition into the mind of a technical sound designer. Wild pontification on everything interactive audio: from the now-past to potential futures and beyond!

Meanwhile, somewhere between-the-lines of various interviews, a loose definition of Technical Sound Designer can be found. A sticky-wicket to nail down, the nomenclature once quothed by Rob Bridgett, Technical Sound Designer has grown to encompass many things to many people and potentially surpasses the narrow restriction of language in doing so. For an industry that has continued to fan-out in specializations (See "Knowing a Thing Or Two" in Volume 01) is there room for a "Technical Music Designer"? What about a "Technical Audio Director"? Where does that leave "Audio Implementor"...does that imply entry level experience?

The exciting part is that this is all being discussed TODAY and will likely continue to be a nebulous blob of uncertainty for a while. Maybe you'll come across some wild terminology within these two volumes that has settled into a kind of standardization. When I first jumped in, nobody could decide what to call an Event. Since then, with the help of audio middleware, we seem to be equipped with much of the vocabulary we need to discuss our craft. Then along came VR Audio and things are just getting started again.

But before I get ahead of myself, I just wanted to take the time to thank everyone for their support and inspiration over the years. A project (or career) of this scope does not happen by itself or without the help and understanding of many people along the way. Thank you.

If you have a chance to read through these florescent tomes of game audio, feel free to drop a line and let me know how it went. I'd be fascinated to hear about your epiphanies or frustrations with these writings.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Game Audio - Conclusions from GDC 2006 Reprise

I wrote this to the team at 0 A.D. where I was once the Audio Director (which was quite a lofty title for a then-scrappy loose conglomerate of individuals scattered across the globe). As we head into another year of the Game Developers Conference I thought it would be great to reflect on these words, 10 years later, and try to soak-up any value that might lie within.

Conclusions from GDC 2006

Posted 07 April 2006 - 05:07 AM
by Damian Kastbauer (aka LostChocolateLab)

I promised a little wrap up so here goes:

Disclaimer: This write up is focused strictly on the experience SURROUNDING the actual tutorials, sessions, and lectures. What follows in the seedy underbelly of the conference, and should be seen as a secondary focus, apart from the hard skills and learning from industry professionals.

Looking back on the week that was GDC 2006


  1.  No thinking, only doing.
  2.  I can sleep when I get home.
Most of you know I headed out to GDC, Demo Reel in hand ready to take on the world with experience gained here, and through other contract work I’ve accumulated over the past year. While I don’t regret the singularity with which I headed out west, I feel that in hindsight I might now be able to offer a better perspective on what the convention is all about, and how one might prepare for it. Truth be told, nothing can truly prepare you for your first time, but I’ll throw out some observations that might help fill in the picture of what is to be gained. (Or at least what made it through my filter)

GDC is all about levels:

Are you the next Eisner Award winning artist? The next Marty O’Donnel Halo 2 scoring master chief musician? The next Sid Mier waiting to happen?

Understanding all this and more can be yours at the largest conglomeration of be’s and wannabe’s in the industry. Being immersed in the culture is a fantastic way to see the levels of skill, dedication, and talent stacked up against you in the industry. The people working and who want to be working are on display and only a handshake away. Most are hungry to be either recognized or validated for their hard work, and taking the time to get to know some of them is what it’s all about.
  • If you were wondering where you fall in the hierarchy of creatives out there angling for all the same great game jobs, GDC is where you can find that answer.

I remember you from last year, and other stories I overheard:

It became swiftly apparent that I was playing at an insider’s game. Most of the heavy hitters in my industry were well connected, they knew people who knew people…and most importantly had been coming to GDC for YEARS! For some it was reconnecting with people that they met/saw last year at GDC, or maybe worked with or corresponded with last year. This recognition and continuation is an immediate induction into the “I’m for Real” Club, and that MATTERS. 

Anyone can go to GDC and be surrounded by prophetic greatness flowing in the lecture halls, that's the beauty of it. But not everyone KEEPS coming back year after year to re-educate, see friends/clients, and keep up good contacts.
  • People want to feel secure that you’ll be around for the long haul.
  • These people mean business, and part of business is continuity.
  • (If you plan on going one year, plan on it for the rest of your career)

You can’t shut it off, but please put it away:

If I were to tell you that GDC is not all about networking, it’s all about “Relationship Building”, you’d tie me up in a burlap sack and flog my with pink bunny rabbits. But the truth of the matter is, while I did a fair amount of networking…by the time Thursday night hit there was a vibe in the air and it was apparent that no one really wanted to talk shop anymore. Sure there was the formality of introductions, but if you didn’t move on to entertaining subjects pretty quickly, eyes started wandering and drinks were quickly emptied in an attempt to dash to the bar for a refill. Some of the best experiences were ones spent unraveling the hours in inebriated conversation, people want to know that you can get down and cut loose as a human being. (not that drunken cavorting is a necessity, but there is a certain ilk with which it holds much water)

  • People want to meet real people.
  • They want to share interests but don’t want to be defined by them, and they want to have a good time. (If that overflows into talking shop, fine…but it could just as easily be futurist theory, ice fishing, or who would win in a fight between Superman & Mighty Mouse.)
  • Prepare to talk and listen without pimping. Be yourself and your @#$%-pirations will follow.

Never underestimate the failure of memory:

You’re going to meet a lot of people. Without going into too much of a personal diatribe on the benefits of taking notes, let me direct you to Darius’ GDC Networking plan. This guy’s got it sussed out, he’s done all the hard thinking for years so that you don’t have to. Read his stuff and benefit from his wisdom.

I came back with 54 business cards and notes on 52 of the conversations. What can I say about the 2 I missed? “Hi, we met and talked…nice knowing ya!” Now that’s not to say I didn’t leave a potentially deep impression on those 2 (I was sporting a potentially brain damaging beard at the time), but I also didn’t get the chance to reconnect with them first after the conference. My bad. (I still think I did pretty good my first time out.)

  • Read the Blog on networking at GDC.
  • When you see the guy in the orange shirt next year, thank him profoundly.

What is this all towards and for?

We all want to do work that satisfies us and fulfills our creative desires. Screw the fuzzy talk, WE WANT JOBS! Anyone will tell you there’s no one way to that goal, and from the stories I’ve heard it can be nothing but true. No one knows when their first job in the industry is going to come. Some try to secure their placement through school, some bury their noses in books and code, while others take the straight path in the back door through friends, relatives, or “relationships”. Whichever way or ways you choose, you can always increase the odds by being a person that people can easily work with and by that I mean COMMUNICATE with.

  • Cultivate your ability to hold conversations with all types of people.
  • It takes all kinds in the game industry and if you can talk to them, you can likely WORK with them.

Addendum to these insights 2016:

Slow down:

There's no hurry, you're at the start of your career and there is time. The pressure of getting a job, paying the bills, and getting started are real...but try to keep in mind that the people you meet your first year at GDC will continue to be around for MANY years to come. This will be my 10th year, I can say without a doubt you will be crossing paths with folks you meet for years to come. I remember myself way-back-when; eager to find a foothold, looking for the spark that would light-up the runway to my future. It absolutely happened thanks to someone I met that very first year (thanks Jory!), 10 years later I wish I could have been as confident that it would (eventually) work out. As one of my oldest friends in game audio told me that year when we met each other in-person for the first time at that GDC...BE EASY! You don't have to drink alcohol, you don't need to stay up all night (although, for the sake of maximizing time you may choose to). Make sure your time spent with other folks is worthwhile, in whatever way speaks to you personally. People will grasp the depth of your character through your actions and expression. Be yourself! Also, be sure to dig the GDC Code of Conduct and create space for everyone as part of the conversation.

Do your homework:

By the time I had saddled up and rode my horse into San Jose for my first GDC I had been reading between the lines of articles and documentation on the internet for years trying to put together how game audio technology actually worked. In the process I came across games I wish I had done sound for, and people I wish I could work with. Dreams for another day, maybe (...but sometimes dreams do come true!). In order to maximize my time I put together a list of folks whose names turned up time-and-again in my online browsing history. These were folks I would love to meet, given a chance, and possibly discuss the work they had been doing in game audio.

I made a list, I cropped in photos, and I carried it with me around the conference halls and after-parties:
These are some people in game audio.

Unsurprisingly a large number of these folks are still around, in my life, and were absolutely fundamental in my growth in the industry and as a person. I still remember asking Peter McConnell about iMuse, sitting cross-legged with The Fat Man and soaking-up knowledge from the man on a silver mountain, and a late-night walk with Karen Collins through a deserted San Jose. I equally remember meeting several other audio folks at the beginning of their careers who would go-on to create some amazing sound for games: Mick Gordon, Mark Kilborn, Will Roget, Sean Beeson, DB Cooper, Mike "Skitch" Schiciano. Shared history is something I value greatly, I'm glad to have shared time with folks and really enjoy watching people wend their way throughout the industry.

Here are some smart and succinct suggestions from other folks:

Akash Thakkar - Just Add Value - GDC 2015 POSTMORTEM
Jacob Pernell - Networking and Finding Gigs
Leonard Paul - School of Video Game Audio: 10 Tips for #GameAudioGDC
Luca Fusi - GDC2014 GDC2015
Stephen Froeber - Networking at GDC- A Beginner's Guide: Part 1 Part 2
Brandon Wu - Surviving GDC: Tips for Game Conference Success
Christina Couch - How to Become a Networking Ninja
Lance Hayes - How to Network Your Way Into Game Audio: Part 1 Part 2
Vincent Diamante - How to Break Into Game Audio
Nathan Madsen - Pursuing a Career in Game Audio
Aaron Brown - How to break into the professional audio industry
Damian Kastbauer - Game Audio Aspirations
Joe Cavers - GDC Advice

Game Audio Podcast GDC 2015: I - Rumble
Game Audio Podcast GDC 2015: II - Vroem
Game Audio Podcast GDC 2015: III - Campfire Celebrations
Game Audio Podcast GDC 2015: IV - Boem
Game Audio Podcast GDC 2015: V - Scro...poef
Game Audio Podcast GDC 2015: VI - Zing Clap

Game Audio Podcast GDC 2014: I - The Glass is Full
Game Audio Podcast GDC 2014: II - The Glass is Right In Front of You
Game Audio Podcast GDC 2014: III - Jittery Glass
Game Audio Podcast GDC 2014: IV - The Glass is Half-Full
Game Audio Podcast GDC 2014: V - Grand Theft Glass
Game Audio Podcast GDC 2014: VI - No Glass Involved

Game Audio Podcast GDC 2013: I - Getting Warmed Up
Game Audio Podcast GDC 2013: II - Audio Bootcamp
Game Audio Podcast GDC 2013: III - Yeah, and That Happened! Really?
Game Audio Podcast GDC 2013: IV - What a Trip
Game Audio Podcast GDC 2013: V - 39 Flights of Loving 

See you there?

Thursday, May 01, 2014

Our lives are like the wind...or like sounds

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind - Hayao Miyazaki
"Our lives are like the wind...or like sounds. 
We come into being, resonate with each other..."