I’m James Van Niekerk, Art Director for the upcoming mobile game The Horus Heresy: Drop Assault. This has been more than a dream title to work on, as I’ve been playing Warhammer 40,000 and Fantasy since grade school.
Here’s a bit of history on my obsession with Warhammer 40,000 over the years.
The Astra Militarum
My entry into Warhammer 40,000 took place in high school, where I played as a World War II-themed Astra Militarum force. This conversion-heavy army started as a labour of love. I quickly learned that while green stuffing helmet brims onto guardsmen makes them look really cool, it becomes murderously time-consuming when you want to expand your force to over a hundred models. All that time and effort was worth it though! I won a Best Painted Army award at a local tournament.
The Dark Eldar
These days I play in a semi-weekly Warhammer 40,000 group with my friends and brother Jonas (who is the lead artist here at Complex Games) where I play a bloodthirsty Wych Cult of Dark Eldar. This army of ladies is a bit touch and go, meaning they tend to win big or lose big. Flying on a fleet of paper kites at break-neck speeds is always a volatile recipe.
Dark Heresy Role Play
On our lunch hour, Complex Games staff can be found immersing in the lore of a Dark Heresy role play game. I play as Withers McCarthy, a decrepit old psyker who has seen the terrors of the warp. We’re a group of mercenaries hired by the Inquisition to investigate the mysterious disappearance of large numbers of psykers to a strange cult in the depths of an un-trusting hive city.
Bringing it all into The Horus Heresy: Drop Assault
My experience playing and painting over many years has been crucially important when making decisions for Drop Assault. From something as simple as, “No, a boltgun doesn’t mount on a predator” to something more technical such as, “That ‘I’ symbol is from the inquisition, which didn’t exist during the time period of our game”, I’ve discovered depths of technical nerd-dom I never knew I had. I’ve learned a lot about the impressively rich lore of the Horus Heresy in the process, especially with the counsel of help we’ve had from Games Workshop and our experienced writers.
One the things I’ve been really excited about is the ability to depict a lot of these amazing Horus Heresy units and effects for the first time in full motion and sound. We’ll be breaking animated ground on loads of unique units and weapons which are exclusive to the Heresy Era. Take for example the devastating Scimitar Jetbike, which wields a Volkite Culverin that violently reduces organic matter to ash, or the Conversion Beamer that fires an unstable beam of antimatter which implodes in a concussive thunderclap. Working with effect artists in the studio to bring these weapons to a visual reality has been amazing. And having the actual gaming context to understand how they are meant to behave has been essential to doing these weapons justice.
So suffice to say, between myself and many others, there are a lot of fans in our office who are all really excited to unveil our dream project to you in the upcoming weeks / months. Stay tuned here for some unit spotlights and dev diaries, where we’ll be unveiling more units and news!
This week’s blog post comes to you from our composer and soundtrack designer, Kenley Kristofferson. In addition to Drop Assault, Kenley’s worked on titles like DuckTales: Scrooge’s Loot for Disney and KRE-O Cityville Invasion for Zynga. He’s uploaded the Combat song to Soundcloud for your listening pleasure and has taken the time to deconstruct each piece of the song and how they fit into the final piece.
Composing the music for Drop Assault has been extremely fun, challenging, and rewarding all at the same time. The Horus Heresy universe is so vast and deep that it’s easy to get lost in its world while I’m researching. The depth and vastness was something that I really strove to accomplish while I was writing the score. There’s an epic quality to it – not like the colloquial “whoa man, that shirt is so epic,” but something out of Greek or Roman mythology. It is epic in the truest sense of the word. But the world is as dark and gritty as it is epic. None of the tanks or armour are clean (save for the Emperor’s), but everything in the universe has been touched by war and that needs to be reflected in the music. The last spoke of this wheel is that there’s something deeply human about this world, despite all of the genetic engineering and mechanization that’s been going on. At the core of each character, there’s a primal and tribal fire that also needs to be shown in the music. Seeing as the Combat music has been showcased throughout this development series, it seems like a perfect place to start.
The first thing we’ll notice is that there are various things going on musically, like the layers of a cake. Let’s take intro and work through each layer in detail. The first hook we hear is that sweeping melodic figure (a little hook of a melody is called a motive). It’s played by a combination of instruments that, when playing the same thing, blend with one another. Just like red and yellow make orange, this single tone colour is made by strings in octaves, French horns, and the soprano voices, which you’ll hear play the motive one at a time:
The motive ends on a note that makes it feel unfinished, almost like it’s asking a question, so the woodwinds will give the answer. Like before, more than one instrument is playing, so this colour is made by flute, oboe and clarinet.
From there, we move into a transition section. You can tell it’s a transition because the music feels like it’s going somewhere – that’s what a good transition does. It creates a sense of uncertainty so that, when you get to the end of it, you feel like you’ve arrived somewhere (and usually somewhere you’ve been before), and we arrive back at the first motive.
Now, a good way to destabilize the music is to have a few different things going on, so that it doesn’t feel quite as grounded. So what exactly is going on here? Let’s start with the low strings, which are pulsing and driving the music forward, but still establishing where the beat actually is:
We also have a colour that’s holding long notes over top. This particular colour is French horn, trombone and choir.
We also have people playing really short notes; in this case, violins, flutes, oboes, and clarinets. Snare drum is playing too, but just to help keep it clean.
Another way of looking at it is that the low people have the pulsing notes, the middle people have the long notes, and the high people have the short notes. But what else is going on here? We also the heartbeat of the orchestra: The Percussion Section (snare drum, bass drum, timpani, suspended cymbal).
And now all together…
Like making a sandwich: Bread and meat taste good, but the combination of bread/meat/lettuce/tomato/mayo/mustard tastes even better. The combination of different rhythms and instrument colours is more exciting than just drums or just horns. We’re going to skip to the ending section now:
One of the strongest elements that make this work is the return of that motive from the beginning – the music comes full circle. However, instead of being in just a few instruments at a time, it moves through the orchestra. Here is the ending, but with only the motive being played (and none of the accompaniment).
That’s the most important thing to hear, but we need other parts to make that part sound great. In music, the whole is always more than the sum of its parts. All of the underlying parts help the section feel like it’s building up to something. In this case, it’s the choir, who is slowly getting higher in range.
A note on choir: In orchestral music, it’s not very strong on its own – it definitely is in choral music, but not orchestral. When you think about “epic choir,” it’s usually epic in its context with all of the other parts. It’s like barbecue sauce: As soon as you put a tablespoon into your recipe, the whole recipe tastes like barbecue sauce, but you would never just eat a spoonful of it on its own. Again, the whole is more than the sum of its parts! Anyway, we also need something to tell us where the beat is, and those come in the string section and the percussion section. First, strings:
It’s a bit like the choir part, except rhythmic instead of long. And the percussion adds to that in volume, rhythm and intensity:
All of these things together create the effect that we’re going for in Drop Assault. We’re going for an accurate and artistic representation of the universe that’s true to its ideals, its creators and its fans. And once more, here is the Combat music in its entirety: