Monday, 4 December 2017

The Daysailer and the Night Cave

I've finished a new song! It's a longer instrumental track with an extensive cello solo towards the end. :)



For this track I had a lot of fun playing around with delay (echo). The rhodes (the piano-like instrument that's heard throughout) has a rhythmic echo at every 8th note. This means that the rhodes is basically constantly playing harmonies with the notes it played just before, which is a pretty interesting effect. At 2:58 I even switch to playing triplets on the rhodes while the delay keeps going in normal 8th notes. So the echo and the original notes have a different rhythm there, which gives an even more interesting effect.

In case anyone wants to give playing it a try, here's the sheet music for the cello part, plus a recording of the song without the cello, to play along to:

This is the longest track I've finished so far and I'm really happy with the result. I hope you enjoy it! ^_^

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Lament

I've recorded a new piece! It's a short sad cello solo called 'Lament'.

The composition itself isn't really new: I wrote it way back in 2001. However, I never managed to record it to my own satisfaction and thus never published it online. After all these years I've now finally managed to make a recording that I'm happy with. It's not perfect of course, but I finally dare publish it and share the sheet music.



In case anyone wants to give it a try, here's the sheet music:

I found another recording I made of this one from 2010. I wasn't happy with it back then and indeed, listening to it now makes me realise that I did get quite a bit better at recording my cello since then. Part of that is in technique, like having a better microphone, using a clicktrack and stitching together recordings to combine the best parts from several recordings. But I can also hear that I have more control of my cello now: especially my vibrato get better and there's less unwanted noises in my recordings now. I've been playing cello since I was a kid back in 1992 and it's really nice to hear that I'm still getting better at it by practising a lot in my spare time.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

The Master Waits

I've composed and recorded a new song! :) It's called The Master Waits and it's a duet for either two cellos, or viola and cello. Here's a recording:



I'd be honoured if anyone else were to play this (not that I expect many cellists read this blog ;) ), so here's the sheet music:

This composition came about when I was improvising a bit and discovered that you get a pretty cool sound if you pluck the open C string at every beat and then add various chords on top of that. I had so much fun with that that I decided to write a composition around this idea. :)

Initially I thought this one was pretty easy to play, but it turned out to be really hard to get the pitch exactly right for all of those chords. Keep in mind that unlike a guitar, a cello doesn't have frets, so if you're finger is only 1mm off, it already sounds bad. There's quite a lot of dissonance here (on 0:19 the plucking part even plays G and g# together) which is always difficult to play. On top of that comes that when plucking you can't listen and adjust the pitch as you go: it needs to be right immediately. Luckily I made different mistakes each time I recorded this piece, so with 4 recordings for each part I got every note right at least once. A somewhat sad score, but after stitching those recordings together it sounds great so it really doesn't matter.

I had a lot of fun composing and playing this one, so I hope others will have fun listening to it. Enjoy! :)

Sunday, 5 November 2017

The Light Deep Down

I've made a new song! It's an instrumental track that features a lot of cello, in combination with vocals and digital instruments.



There's more cello here than you might realise: the eerie scratching sound at the beginning and ending is also cello! :) Normally as a cellist you wouldn't want to make a sound like that, but here it adds to the atmosphere nicely. This sound is achieved by slowly playing on the open G or C string, too close to the bridge while applying too little pressure.

The cello solo at 1:57 has distortion applied to it, making it sound a bit closer to an electric guitar than a cello normally would.

I've made sheet music for the cello part, and a recording of the song without the cello so that it can be played along to. The result is quite different from any other cello music I know and I find it quite fun to play along to. Here it is, in case anyone wants to give it a try:

The vocals towards the end were sung by Joyce Scheeren and the faster bass in the second half was played by Thomas van Dijk.

I've been writing music for years but have always been struggling with actually finishing anything, so I'm really glad that I've managed to finish and share two new songs in just two weeks. I've got a bunch more almost finished, so I hope I can keep up the pace.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Never be ashamed of your process if the result is good

Over the years I've composed quite a few songs that include my cello, but I never dared actually record and release them. I did publish some recordings before, but I've always marked them as "unfinished" or "quick sketch" or some other excuse, planning to practice more and make a better recording later on. Today I finally have one that I consider "finished", but the process ended up quite different from what I expected back then. It's called Growl, and it's a loud cello duet. Have a listen!



I'd love for others to also play this composition, so I've made sheet music for it as well. Let me know if you end up playing this composition: I'd be honoured and would like to hear how it went!
I've also made a start with making a page that collects all my music and sheet music. It currently doesn't contain much yet, but I intend to record and release all my compositions. That means I have a lot of work ahead of me, as I need to record another duet, two solo cello pieces, two trios and a bunch of songs that combine cello with electronic instruments. I'll add songs to music.joostvandongen.com as soon as they're finished.

The reason I never finished recordings before is that playing cello well enough for a recording is incredibly difficult. This is difficult on any instrument and the particular challenge of cello is to play perfectly in tune. There are no frets like on a guitar, so place your fingers a millimeter too high or low and you're out of tune. Since most compositions require jumping around the fingerboard it's a huge challenge to always jump exactly the right amount.

I always figured I would solve this by practising more, and indeed I did practise quite a lot (for a hobby player, that is). However, by now I've played cello for over 25 years and I'm still not there. I'm not a professional cellist who can practice several hours every day for years, so I've finally concluded that I'm just not going to get good enough to live up to my own requirements. But I want to share my compositions! So I've reached a different conclusion: while I'm going to keep practising to get better, I'm henceforth also going to 'cheat' wherever needed to make recordings sound better.

I use two main cheats. One is that I play with a clicktrack: while recording I hear the ticks of a metronome on my headphones so that I play at a constant speed.

The other and bigger cheat is that I record the song a bunch of times. I then mix and match parts from each recording to get a complete recording that sounds acceptable. I tend to make different mistakes every time I play a song, so if I record it enough times I'm bound to get every note right at least once. Growl is a duet, so two cello parts, and each of the two cellos in Growl is a combination of six different recordings. Heck, if needed I can even use autotune to correct an individual note (this is used exactly once in Growl).

Mixing recordings together works a lot better than I had expected beforehand: if I mask the seams carefully then afterwards I can't even tell where they are. You might think you can hear them, but the lifting or shifting of the bow sounds so similar to a seam in the mix that you need to be a real specialist to be able to tell the difference.

Working like this makes me a bit cynical, since I wanted to be a good enough cellist to just record everything once and it's perfect, and clearly I'm not. However, if there's one thing game development has taught me, it's that it doesn't matter how you make something. The only thing that matters is the end result. If it's fun to play, then it doesn't matter whether the AI is truly intelligent or just pretending to be so. It's okay if everything is smoke and mirrors as long as the player doesn't notice it. The same goes for any creative endeavour: if it sounds/looks/feels good then it is good. There's no higher goal other then the end result and your creation isn't any worse or better depending on how you got there.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Working with generic room-based matchmaking

When creating matchmaking for a game you can either build it all yourself, or use a generic system provided by the platform you're releasing on. Steam, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo all offer similar room-based systems. The basic idea is that clients can create, search for and join game rooms, and the actual decision which room to join is entirely made by the client. There's very little actual logic happening in those matchmaking servers. Today I would like to discuss how they work and what benefits and limitations they come with.

As far as I know most smallish games build their matchmaking using these generic room-based systems. The big triple-A developers seem to usually build everything themselves from scratch, but that's too much work and too much server maintenance to be feasible for most smaller developers.

Our own game Awesomenauts initially launched using these basic room-based systems. We didn't develop our own matchmaking system Galactron until years later when we concluded that the requirements for a genre as demanding as a competitive MOBA don't sit well with the limitations of such generic room-based systems.



The specifics of the systems that Steam, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo offer aren't public and thus can't be discussed here, so I'm not going into any detail on how they each differ from the generic ideas described here. However, they share enough that I feel this post is very relevant if you ever make matchmaking for any of these platforms, or another platform that's built on similar ideas.

The basic concept is that the platform holder runs servers that handle rooms. A room usually represents a single match with a bunch of players in it. For example, in Awesomenauts a room would have the 1 to 6 players in it that are playing together in a match. If a player wants to join a match then the game will ask the server for a list of all rooms that have a spot left for at least one more player. The game then chooses which room is the best fit and requests the server to join it. Upon joining the game receives a list of the other players in that match and can make a connection with them and start playing.

It's important to realise that the room doesn't actually run the game. It's not a gameplay server. Usually one of the players is the gameplay server. All that the room does is keep a list of who's in the match and allow players to search for matches to join. The room is only intended for finding and maintaining lists of matches and can do very little else.

Since the room doesn't handle the actual gameplay it can often be closed once the match has started and the players are connected. Only if you support drop-in do you really need to keep a room up once the match has already started. Whether closing the room once the match has started is actually how it works depends on the platform though.

The server that handles the room can do some basic logic, but generally not much. One of the most important things it does is limit how many people can be in the room. You usually set a limit and if two players try to join at the same time while there's only space for one, then the server will make sure only one actually succeeds. This solves one of the more hairy race conditions around matchmaking.

Rooms aren't just usable for matches: you can also use them for some other things. A simple example is a chatroom. This is simply a room that players use to exchange chat messages, for example if you have global chat somewhere in your game's menus. Whether rooms scale to large numbers of players for a true global chat varies per platform. This case also shows another use of rooms: often it's possible to send messages to other players in the same room through the rooms server, without actually connecting to other players.

Also, if the client is in a room it will get notifications of changes to the room and of messages being sent through the room. You shouldn't expect rooms to be able to handle high numbers of messages or send them quickly, but something like a chatroom where lag isn't really an issue might be suitable, depending on the platform.

A more common use of rooms outside gamerooms and chatrooms is setting up a party to play with: this is also usually a room. This kind of room starts out with just one player in it, and if that player invites friends to play together then they join her party. The party leader then does matchmaking to find a room with enough free spots for the entire party.



Joining a gameroom with a partyroom of several people is often a hairy thing to develop. If the platform holder didn't supply anything for this particular situation then there are a lot of things that can go wrong that you need to solve. For example, what if a party of 3 players starts joining a room that has 3 empty spots, but by the time two of the players in the party have joined someone from outside also joins that room, taking up the final spot? In that case you need to roll back the joining for the two players who already joined and go back to searching. The number of edge-cases that might occur here is pretty horrible and is just one example of why developing an online multiplayer game is so much more work than developing a single player game. (For some more reasons check this blogpost on why adding multiplayer makes game coding twice as much work.)

Another interesting challenge when using generic room-based matchmaking is what supposedly happened to one of the Gears of Wars games at launch. Rumour has it that their matchmaking broke down because lots of clients all decided that the same room was the best one to join. Only a few got in before it was full, and then the remaining players all tried joining the same next room. Since each time most would fail it often took so many tries to actually get into a room that the matchmaking took forever. This particular situation is difficult to test without a large playerbase and definitely something to consider during development.

Rooms allow for additional data to be stored in the room. This data can be used in any way the developer sees fit and will probably contain information on the game mode, the skill of the players in the match and the map on which the match takes place. This way when a player is searching for a specific game mode the game can look through the list of rooms for one that's the desired game mode. This also allows the game to check whether the other players in the room are at a similar skill level as the player. Rooms can hold arbitrary data as the developer sees fit, but they generally don't allow for a large amount of data, so only the essential stuff is stored here.

While it's often relatively easy and quick to use the matchmaking systems that platform holders provide, there are some downsides to this approach. One of the most important ones is that if you make a multiplatform game then you'll need to build this again for each platform. If you're doing simultaneous launch on 3 platforms then this is going to take a serious amount of programming work.

You might think you can reuse a lot of your code since the basic ideas behind these rooms are so similar, but in our experience the platforms have just enough differences that this approach quickly becomes a horror story. The old version of the Awesomenauts matchmaker supports 5 platforms: Steam, X1, X360, PS4 and PS3. We tried to abstract away the platform-specific details as much as possible, but adding code for all the weird edge cases each platform introduces has turned our old matchmaking codebase into one big tangled mess where any change might break any of the platforms. Designing a good architecture for handling the differences between these systems is a tough challenge, especially if you're doing it for the first time.



Note that the room systems on various platforms also can't connect to each other. So if you want to do cross-platform multiplayer then you basically need to write your own matchmaking servers.

Another problem of using these generic room systems is that they allow for very little server-side logic to be run. This is a huge limitation on how well you can match players. This is also the main reason we redid the entire Awesomenauts matchmaking code and built our own, called Galactron. This launched in 2016. The limitations on matchmaking imposed by a lack of server logic is a big enough topic that I'll write a separate blogpost about that soon.

The generic room-based matchmaking systems that platform holders provide make developing matchmaking a lot easier than without. They save you all the hassle of developing and maintaining your own servers, so unless you're doing a large production, chances are they are the best option to efficiently develop the matchmaking for your game.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

Taking live soundtrack improvisation to the next level

I've previously written about how Rene Derks and I did a live musical improvisation to someone playing Journey and Ori And The Blind Forest. This was a pretty unique experiment already, but recently we kicked it up a notch with an even bolder performance: instead of knowing what was coming, we let players choose whatever game they wanted to play and we had to improvise live music to that. Since this was an experiment not all of it worked well, but I think it was a success: a bunch of games turned out pretty awesome and we learned a lot. Today I'd like to explain how we approached each game and why some of them worked, and others turned out not to be a great fit for this format. I've included a couple of short videos from the performance, check 'm out!

The basic idea for these performances is that we mix live improvisation with gameplay. Instead of playing the original game's soundtrack we come up with new music on the spot and try to respond to whatever is happening in the game. The result is a truly adaptive soundtrack, by the magic of spontaneous improvisation. As always with improvisation, some of it sounds bad, a lot sounds okay, and some moments are pure magic that can only be experienced there and then.



For the previous performances we had chosen specific parts of the games Journey and Ori that would have a nice emotional arc to add music to, and we thought beforehand about the kinds of emotions and melodies we wanted to do for the various sections of those games. While that makes for better music, it's also limiting: we can't do a whole lot of games that way and experimentation on the spot is somewhat limited. So when we got a chance to try this again at Abunai in August 2017 we chose a different approach: we went in deliberately unprepared. We had a Switch and a laptop with some 40 Steam games installed and let players choose whatever they wanted to play. We improvised to whatever they did.



Beforehand we thought that if 25% of our performance was awesome, 25% was okay and 50% sucked, we would consider it a successful experiment. We may have done a little bit better than that, but not much: some games indeed didn't work, and for some games we only figured out what kind of musical approach worked after a few minutes of struggling.

Another change we made compared to the previous performance is that we played in a small hall in a corridor. During our previous performance at Animecon was had a big stage. That's great if a performance is a big success, but it creates a lot of distance to the audience and you need a lot of audience to make it work. At Animecon on average we had maybe 20 viewers, which made the hall look like a big empty failure. So at Abunai we requested something much simpler: a spot that people walk past on their way to other events at the con, and some couches. This reduces the distance to the audience and makes it easy for people to watch for a few minutes and then walk on. In total we reached way more people this way, and it was much more fun to do. There was even room for musically fooling around with the audience a bit.



The first player of the afternoon chose Limbo and this was also the most successful game for us. During the afternoon we could easily see whether we were doing well by checking whether passersby stayed to watch and listen. They did for Limbo.

The reason Limbo is so great for this kind of musical improvisation is that it has a slow pace with a strong emotional arc. First a player walks for something like 20 seconds, which is a nice duration to set a mood musically. Then he approaches a trap. We know the game so we can start increasing the tension by playing something eerie. Then the player interacts with the trap and might even die a couple of times, which are great opportunities for doing something special musically. In this case I played 2 high shrieking notes at every death, combined with a few hard hits on the djembe by Rene. By doing the same thing at every death the whole performance gets glued together.

Limbo is slow enough that Rene even saw room to play something similar to sound effects on his djembe. For example, he played taps that mimic footsteps, drum rolls during slides and a deep bass when the player lands after a slightly deeper drop.



The second game that was chosen was Ikaruga, an insane bullet hell shooter. This was very difficult for us to react to: the screen is filled with bullets practically all the time so there's isn't really any kind of arc that we could latch onto. We ended up just playing a fast beat and only really reacting during boss fights. It worked somewhat, but the whole idea of the music reacting to the game was kind of lost here and cello+djembe isn't the best possible combo for a fast beat.



The worst of the day and the only complete failure was Tekken 7. A player brought a laptop to show his skills at beating the final boss on the hardest difficulty. He was incredibly good at the game so that was impressive to see, but making music to this was practically impossible. The action was too fast to follow and the camera constantly jumped around to emphasise specific scenes. For a short bit we tried to play sound effects on the punches, but the game is so fast that we totally failed at seeing them coming.

Figuring out what to do with the next two games was really interesting. Spelunky is a game with a rather constant state during gameplay: every five seconds you kill an enemy, grab some loot and do some platforming. Individual events are too fast to react to and the flow of events is pretty much constant. However, Rene noticed that during each level the player is always going down. I tried following this progress by starting each cave on the highest string of my cello and then dropping to the next string as the player drops. While this idea is nice, I feel it was too subtle to be picked up by the audience. In hindsight it might have been better to react to how much health the player had left. Spelunky is a rogue-like game so the tension of being low on health is really high.



During The Binding Of Isaac we found a better trick. For each floor Rene chose a base rhythm that he expanded as the floor progressed, building towards the boss fight. During empty rooms he went back to the floor's basic rhythm. While Rene kept playing this beat on his djembe, I stopped playing altogether. Whenever the player cleared a room, I played a short melody; the same one for each room. I had another melody for opening a chest. And then as the player reaches the final boss of a floor, I started actually playing and driving up the tension. I think this worked really well and it shows a very different approach compared to what we did during the other games.

Next up was Broforce, in 3 player coop. Sjeez, that game is chaotic! Each level is just 40 seconds of constant gunfire and explosions. I had no idea where to look or what to respond to. This was almost as bad as Tekken 7. Ugh.

So I shivered when the next choice was Ultimate Chicken Horse: another super chaotic multiplayer game. However, here we found a fitting approach. A match of Ultimate Chicken Horse is a series of short rounds, where each round starts with everyone modifying the level a bit, and then everyone playing it. Each phase lasts around 15 seconds. Reacting musically to the actual events is impossible in this chaotic game, but instead we simply did something special for the phases. During the building phases I did some goofy plucking on my cello, deliberately playing melodies that sound a bit childish and dumb. And then during the action phase I played a faster, more aggressive variation with the bow. Rene made this contrast even stronger by not playing at all during the building phase and playing a really fast djembe rhythm during the action phase. I think this captured the back and forth of the gameplay phases quite well, and was a good fit for the wacky art of Ultimate Chicken Horse.



We ended with two slower single player games: Zelda and ABZÛ. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a great fit for improvising music. Most things the player does take long enough that you can react to them. Walk for half a minute, fight for half a minute, look at your loot for a bit, climb a hill, swim some water, another battle. Each of these steps takes long enough that you can really react to them without turning the music into a chaotic mess that goes all over the place.

ABZÛ is an even slower game. Like Journey it's a gorgeous game that's mostly about looking and experiencing, with very little challenge in the gameplay. The serene under water gameplay is a great fit for setting a mood through music, but I think our instruments weren't the best fit here. Djembe and cello are interesting for many things, but underwater moods are difficult with this setup. Also, after playing for around 2.5 hours the sound got a bit stale for us.



Nevertheless, during the final round of ABZÛ another interesting thing happened. The player had overlooked that he needed to free a little robot before a door could be opened. Instead, he repeatedly pressed a button on the door, hoping it would open. I played two simple notes each time to accentuate that it didn't work, and since the player kept trying, I kept playing those same two boring notes. This went on for way too long and the audience started laughing at how stupid that sounded. This was one of the nicest and most direct bits of audience interaction we had. It also taught me an important lesson: sometimes it's okay if it sounds bad musically if the interaction is fun or interesting in some other way.

Finally, after the performance we had dinner at Rene's parents. They happen to own a piano and Rene also plays that, so we started jamming some more, despite having played so long during the day already. This sounded quite wonderful and it taught me the biggest change we should do if we do this kind of performance again: we need a more diverse set of instruments. I can only play the cello, but since Rene plays both keyboards and percussion we should just bring both to diversify the sounds and moods we can play. Or maybe we should even get a third musician next time!


In the end I think this was a really interesting experiment. The quality of the music varied from really awesome to really bad and that's okay: the whole point of improvisation is that you don't know what's going to happen and the moments where it's awesome are true magic, happening right there and only then. The key lesson we learned is that different games require vastly different musical approaches and the trick is to find whatever arcs the game has going and respond to those through music.