Sep 17

Development Diary – Combat Music

staff_Kenley_KristoffersonThis 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.

And together…

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:

Aug 28

The nuances of sprite animation

staff_james_vanniekerkI’m Katherine Tymchuk, 3D Artist and Animator for the upcoming mobile game The Horus Heresy: Drop Assault. 

The Basics of Motion

Tacticle MarineWhat personality would a seasoned Terminator have? Is he proud warrior with his shoulders up, or a primal beast, hunched over his lightning claws in anticipation of battle? How would the Heavy Support Squad run under the weight of his rocket launcher? How can we convey the Conversion Beamer tearing through all of time and space? These were some of the questions we asked ourselves when starting to work on the animations for The Horus Heresy: Drop Assault. We’re very luck in that there is a ton of great visual reference from the Warhammer 40,000 universe. However, there isn’t a lot of reference for these things in motion, which led to some unique challenges in creating our own animations for each troop type in Drop Assault.

Believe it or not one of the animator’s best tools is their body. We act everything out. Seriously! I wish I had videos of us running and jumping around our office pretending to be the Titan landing on a base or the Dreadnought scorching enemies with its Flamers. Acting and moving helps us understand how we want characters to move. Seeing that motion in action provides the best reference. We also spent time interacting with the various sculpts from Games Workshop to get a feel for how everything from vehicles to weapons to characters function. With our concepts and ideas firmly in place, we built animation “rigs”, a skeletal structure similar to puppetry used to bring our characters to life, and went to town.

The Devil is in the Details

Tacticle MarineSeveral challenges were introduced when we decided to use sprites instead of full 3D models for the troops and buildings in Drop Assault. Using sprites allowed for greater detail on our troops to be closer to the original Games Workshop models, while using less memory so our game could run on older devices such as the iPad Mini and the iPhone 4, however it meant extremely tight management of frame count and texture space.

This meant that we had to change our established animation workflow. Normally animations are done at 30 to 60 frames per second for use in game and animations are generally anywhere between 2-10 seconds in length. Most animations in Drop Assault have 6-10 frames in total. When rendering our characters in sprite form we had a very limited number of frames to work with. Every frame had to count. With each one we would need the character to strike just the right pose or to achieve a readable silhouette. Every animation was reviewed countless times to ensure that each frame added to the animation, and that the motion was smooth and fluid. Once animations were approved, we rendered all of our troops in a single lighting scene to add consistent light, shadow and special effects. That was the easy part.
We then packed each troop’s series of frames onto sprite sheets. Using these sheets, we re-created the animations in Unity. We used Unity’s Mecanim animation system to create animation trees for easy transitions and blending, but we also ran into further challenges.

That’s a Lot of Animation

Tacticle MarineEach troop had three or four animations (idle, walk, attack, etc.) and were rendered in 8 or 16 directions depending on how they looked when rotating (big tanks, for example, needed more directions to rotate smoothly). Each unit also has four different legions. For the Tactical Space Marine alone, that adds up to a total of 256 animations. To avoid setting up each animation manually in Unity, our tech team wrote tools for swapping frames on the fly. We also had to be smart with our sheet space. Tricks such as not rendering out the full Fire Raptor gunship five times when only the thrusters are animated were used wherever possible, to be efficient without sacrificing animation quality.

As a fellow Warhammer 40,000 player (go go Dark Eldar), it was an honour to work on the animations for Drop Assault. Seeing your army and the team’s hard work come to life has been the most satisfying part of this project, and now it’s hard to go back to the tabletop game without imagining my troops running around the battlefield slicing, shooting and blasting their way to victory!

Stay up-to-date on all things Drop Assault on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube