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Sunday, September 3, 2000, 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Local tech

PC game producers score big sound at Benaroya Hall

by Sharon Pian Chan
Seattle Times technology reporter
Benaroya Hall hosted its first commercial recording last week. An orchestra of 100 musicians crowded onto the stage and produced a sweeping, John Williams-esque grandiose arrangement.

But it wasn't a movie studio that had reserved the hall. It was Verant Interactive, the PC game company owned by Sony. The 100-piece orchestra? Its sound was streaming into a recording trailer backstage where it will eventually be spliced onto Sovereign, a multiplayer PC game.

The recording is the largest project ever for a video game, with a $200,000 budget in an industry where sound budgets typically average $30,000. The soundtrack could push game-music composition to a whole new creative level, garnering artistic respect for a genre which, until now, is usually associated with electronically synthesized boppy tunes. If it was memorable, it was only because you couldn't get it out of your head.

Forget about the sophomoric toots of Super Mario Bros. The soundtrack to Sovereign rivals any movie score. It has the slow, sweeping passages suited to sweeping panoramic landscape shots, the creepy dissonant build-up measures of foreshadowing tension and the blow-out brass and cymbal crashes of a raging battle scene.

One can almost imagine upraised swords, men on horses charging and dive-bombing fighter planes dropping from the sky.

"I'd like to take game music to the level of film," says Jeremy Soule, the composer of the score. Soule, a Seattle resident, has composed the tracks for games such as Total Annihilation and Icewind Dale, both of which won him best game-score awards from IGN and Gamespot.

With Sovereign, he's shooting for the Grammy music awards, which introduced a best new media soundtrack category for next year. When the game is released next fall, it will contain 45 minutes of orchestral music looped into the segments from the recording sessions with Northwest Sinfonia at Benaroya Hall. Verant also hopes to release a separate CD soundtrack.

If the score sounds ambitious, the game specs are equally so. Sovereign, an online multi-player empire-building game, is capable of holding up to 500 players from countries all over the world. Each player grows his or her own population and then battles other players to take over the world, using tanks, fighters, airplanes, artillery, spies, diplomats, propaganda, even oil monopolies.

San Diego-based Verant Interactive is setting up servers in North America, Europe, South America and Asia and providing real-time translation for five languages.

Fantasy game EverQuest, Verant's first title, has 300,000 subscribers, 68,000 of whom are playing online at any time. An independent marketplace has sprung up around EverQuest with fans auctioning off their characters on eBay and other characters renting out game services by the hour. Verant envisions a similar evolution with Sovereign.

"We want people to listen to the soundtrack when they're not playing the game," said Clint Worley, game producer at Verant. "Video games surpass movies in revenue. If movies have music like this, there's no reason video games shouldn't."

Sharon Pian Chan's phone number is 206-464-2958.

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