The conventional wisdom that says that video games are big business remains indisputable. In 2013, the industry’s revenue was estimated at a whopping $93 billion worldwide, $5 billion more than the estimates for the movie and television industries, and more than six times the $15 billion the music industry hauled in internationally last year. But in games, increasingly, “business” and “art” don’t seem at odds in the same way they are in those other entertainment realms–particularly the film business. While every industry relies on mass-produced blockbusters, even games from major publishers can lean away from the “uncanny valley-looking white dude grimaces and shoots things” model to something boldly creative and new.
That’s what Sony Santa Monica did with Hohokum, out this week on the PlayStation 4, PS3, and Vita. The unconventional game from British developer Honeyslug (the reviewer for Gawker Media’s games site Kotaku described it as “almost definitely the strangest video game I’ve ever played in my life”) involves floating around and bumping into brightly colored, visually distinctive objects while an ambient, electronic music score accompanies the experience. It plays less like a conventional video game and more like the vision of a few close-knit collaborators–which is, of course, exactly what it is. The collaboration yielded a game that defies easy, or any, classification. But Hohokum also represents a departure from industry norms for the pace and process that drove its creation, and, via a partnership with indie label Ghostly International, it represents a music-driven experience that transcends standard notions of soundtracks and licensing.
That concept was born out of the friendship between game designer Ricky Haggett of Honeyslug and artist and illustrator Richard Hogg. “The original idea for the game was just that we were friends–‘Hey, let’s make a game together.’ [Hogg] had never made video games before,” Haggett says. “It was a collaboration between somebody who makes video games for a living and somebody who is from outside that world.”
Haggett and Hogg each brought their individual skills to the project: Haggett with his interest in Flash and physics engines, and Hogg with images that could fire up Haggett’s imagination. Hogg sent Haggett a drawing of “this crazy machine that was taking some weird raw materials in from one side and then spitting out some funny-looking beans on the other side,” and the two used that as a starting point.
Hohokum developed very slowly–the website that the pair created for the game, until recently, featured only demo artwork and a teaser declaring “Hohokum coming 2011″–which is befitting a game that is more art project than product. “It was always a project we worked on in our spare time,” Haggett says. “It wasn’t like we had this idea and then we were working on it for a solid period of time–it was something we sort of noodled away with in the background for a good couple of years, when one of us had some time. Sometimes [Hogg] would draw some more stuff and sometimes I would work on some more prototypes, but it never had a central story as such. It always had a certain atmosphere and a playfulness and a degree of creativity to it.”
Over that time, Hohokum developed into something much bigger than either Haggett or Hogg imagined. What had started as a project they experimented with in their spare time became much more ambitious. The team grew–animators, who like Hogg had never worked in video games before–joined the team, and Sony Santa Monica became involved in the project.
Bringing Sony in brought not only a publisher and additional design resources–it also provided Haggett and Hogg with the missing piece of what Hohokum would turn out to be: Namely, a game rooted firmly in music.
“When we were first talking to Sony Santa Monica, I don’t think we realized that they had these amazing music resources,” Hogg says, “But that’s a big part of what they do, both in terms of composing music and also licensing music.”
Alex Hackford, who does A&R for Sony Computer Entertainment, sat down with Hogg and Haggett to talk about music that might feature in the game. “We sent him a link to this playlist we had made, and when we went out to see him we sat in his office, and he was sort of laughing at us: ‘You do realize that about half of the music on this playlist is all from the same record label, right?'” Hogg recalls. “Neither of us knew that. It turns out that I was quite a big fan of Matthew Dear, and Shigeto, and Michna, but I had no idea that they were all on the same record label. It sort of seemed like serendipity, really. So the obvious thing for him to say was, ‘I’m going to give them a ring and see what they say about getting involved with this game.'”
The label that serves as a home for Matthew Dear, Shigeto, Michna, and the other artists who appeared on Hogg’s playlist is the Ann Arbor-based Ghostly International. Ghostly’s director of creative licensing and business affairs, Jeremy Peters, recalls being contacted by Hackford.
“Alex from Sony’s team reached out to us and kind of pitched, ‘Hey, this is a weird idea–what about doing a soundtrack to an entire video game?’ It sounded like something that was not going to be easy, but would be awesome and would probably be fun. We were excited at the possibility of doing that and working with the team at Sony and Honeyslug to find the right artists out of our catalog to compose tracks for the soundtrack, and find pre-existing tracks that made sense to help build out the beautiful and engaging visual side of the game.”
Sony and Ghostly began working together on Hohokum in the fall of 2012, and Peters eventually brought 13 of its artists–including Matthew Dear, Tycho, Shigeto, Willits & Sakamoto, and Com Truise–into the project. Suddenly, the ongoing project that Haggett and Hogg had been developing for years in their spare time had a new rush of collaborators.
Music licensing is a big part of video games–from the heyday of Rock Band to the stadium stompers that appear in each year’s edition of Madden–but what Ghostly and Sony put together for Hohokum went beyond simply picking out songs to accompany parts of the game.
“We got everybody on the phone and explained what the idea behind the game was, and how it was going to look and feel with the music,” Peters says. “Some of the artists are fine with licensing music to ads that end up being wallpaper, and that’s okay, but we all cherish these instances where you can really put the music against something where it works collaboratively together.”
Once the concept was explained–that the pre-existing tracks would fit in alongside music that would be written specifically to accompany the various levels of Hohokum–the artists got to work. “We started working to sketch out some of the music for the levels with Sony and Honeyslug,” Peters says. “We would work back and forth with the team, and as the level got to different states of being finished, and they knew more about how the music would fit, sounds would change. It was really a back and forth between not only me and the team at Sony and Honeyslug, but also the artists that were composing for the levels, too. It sounds trite to say it, but it really did feel like an organic project where things grew into where they were supposed to be.”
Hogg, meanwhile, notes that there’s at least one part of the game–though he didn’t want to give away which part–where the music and the game mesh completely. “There’s one bit where the music is very interactive, and it’s almost like it’s hard to say whether it’s music or a series of sound effects that happen,” he says. “In that instance, it’s a very rich collaboration with the musician.”
That sort of collaboration is important not just to game designers who are seeking new ways to innovate, but also to musicians, who, working in an industry in decline, are looking to the $93 billion game industry as a world of creative possibilities.
“These sort of collaborative projects are going to happen more and more and more,” Peters suggests. “We realize that there are likely going to be a ton of people coming to our artists’ music through this project–and probably the other way around, too. Folks who wouldn’t necessarily play video games might really love the idea that there’s a brand-new Matthew Dear track that was composed specifically for Hohokum. I think it’s definitely going to happen more.”
Even with a lot of hands in the final product, in a changing games industry where creators look to find more opportunity to place “artisanal” games alongside the blockbusters, Haggett is confident that Hohokum achieves his creative goals.
“One thing we’re very conscious of is that it does feel like a thing that’s been handmade by a small group of people,” Haggett says. “Hopefully, when people play the game, they’ll get the sense of humor of what those people are like and what stuff we’re into. Although it’s a kind of game set in these alien worlds, I’d like to think there’s a lot about it that sort of reveals the personalities of the people. You can sort of sense the humans behind it, I think.”