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4/26/00 - Zaxxon

jackson For those not in the know, Lee is the director and producer of all things aural over at 3D Realms, makers of Duke Nukem 3D and the upcoming Duke Nukem Forever. Lee is also the Democratic Precinct Chair for Dallas County Precinct 2142, winning the write-in race by being the only person in his precinct who voted for that position! (He wrote himself in). He wrote Grabbag (Theme to the Duke Nukem games), perhaps the most widely known computer game theme song in existence. Even though he used to work for the IRS, he's a genuinely cool guy. We were lucky enough to grab a few minutes of his time for this interview.

Stratos Group: Your official job title at 3D Realms is 'Music/Sound Director.' What exactly does your job entail?

Lee Jackson: On the surface of things, my job description means that I write music and create sound effects for our games, as well as for some games produced by outside developers like Remedy, Wildfire, n-Space, and the like. Look deeper and you'll see a lot of other things that I'm responsible for.

First, I handle all aspects of voiceovers, including casting, directing, acting, producing, editing, and occasionally scripting (George or someone from an outside team that we're working with usually handle scripting, but I throw things in at times). Second, I'm responsible for all sound design, which includes buying CD collections, recording sounds, and editing sounds to create new effects. Third, I handle everything when it comes to music. This means that I'm not just a composer - I also perform, engineer, produce, and master all recordings of my works. No outside mastering agencies are involved. Finally, I'm responsible for handling some of the legal chores, like making sure that we have contracts with any outside recording studios and/or voice talent.

SG: What's your favorite game ever?

LJ: Geez. Raptor is one that I had a lot of fun with, as were Duke Nukem 3D and Wacky Wheels. I have to give the nod to an old arcade game called Bosconian, though. I held the Austin city record on it for a while after it first came out. It drove me crazy during my college days - if you took too long to finish a level, the game would really start coming after you. Very intense for its time.

SG: What's your favorite recent game (Last year or so)?

LJ: To be honest, between work on Duke Nukem Forever and my health problems, I haven't had a lot of time to play anything at all. From what I've had the chance to watch others play, I've liked the look (and sound) of Grim Fandango, Unreal, and DarkStone.

SG: I know you're a very 'punny' guy who has won the Neologism award from the Washington Post (more than once if I recall correctly). How did you get into making puns for competition?

LJ: Quick clarification - I only won the Washington Post Neologism contest once, on the first time I entered. I won the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships three times, in 1991, 1992, and 1995.

How'd I get started? I've been doing puns and generally throwing monkey wrenches into the English language as long as I can remember. My parents had another name for it - "being a smart-ass," if memory serves. The way I see things, English is a very rich language, and deserves being screwed around with.

As far as competition goes, I saw a broadcast of the O. Henry Pun-Off World Championships back in the early 80s on Austin's public access cable channel. It intrigued the hell out of me, so I signed up for the ninth annual event (I think it was 1985). It took me a couple of years to get decent at it, but I eventually worked my way up, winning second place in both the prepared pun and improvisational shoot-out categories in 1990. I finally won my first title in 1991, then again in 1992 and 1995. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to go back since then, due to work responsibilities and health problems. I hope to return for next year's event.

SG: What are your other non-gaming hobbies?

LJ: Right now, I'm into cooking and barbecueing, and I'm trying to get started growing my own herbs for the kitchen. In the past, I've been into photography, model rockets, and programming.

SG: I saw on your .plan file that you enjoy anime; what's your favorite anime movie?

LJ: Ghost in the Shell ranks right up there, along with Patlabor 2, Vampire Hunter D, Macross Plus, and Urotsukidoji. I also like some of the TV and OAV series, like Birdy the Mighty, Blue Seed, and Sailor Moon. Yes, I said Sailor Moon, but NOT the North American dub - the fansubbed Japanese editions are extremely good, while the NA dub is barely watchable. The only dubs that I like so far are Gundam Wing and the old Speed Racer series. I'm still sort of new at anime, so I haven't seen some of the classics like Akira, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and others yet. I will eventually, and I'm sure they'll be added to my list of favorites.

SG: Who deserves more credit than he/she is currently getting in the industry?

LJ: Joe Siegler. He's one hell of an asset, and I'm glad we've got him. ;-)

[Editor's Note: Joe Siegler is the man behind 3D Realms' fly website, their forum moderator, tech support file author, CD-ROM master maker, and miscellaneous task handler. He was also the voice of Duke in Duke Nukem 2 and a level designer on Rise of the Triad.]

SG: If you weren't in the gaming business, where would you be, and what would you be doing?

LJ: I'd probably be either still stuck at the IRS doing accounting or some computer security job, or I'd be doing tech support somewhere. I got a very lucky break when Apogee hired me, and another even more lucky break when they promoted me to Music and Sound Director. I don't think I could be where I am today if it wasn't for the help and support that I've received from people who are or have been here. Besides, it's just generally hard to get a job as a composer nowadays. ;-)

SG: A lot of fuss has been made in the past few months about the effect of video game violence on adolescents. What's your take on the issue?

LJ: I have a 13 year old son who plays video games. Quite a few video games. The only reason I let him is that I know that he can tell the difference between reality and fiction. Brenda (my wife) and I have raised him this way, and we have seen that he knows the difference. If he ever shows any sign of trouble with this, we call an immediate stop and put things back on the right track before we let him play any more games.

The "problems" with video game violence today aren't with the violence onscreen. The problems are with the parents who don't raise their children to understand the difference between shooting pixels and shooting people. Parents should watch what their children have access to, especially when it comes to games that are rated for people over the age of 17 (like ours tend to be). If they give their 13 year old kid a game for people 17+, then they should watch like a hawk and stop things immediately if they don't like what they see. If they don't want to take on that responsibility, then they shouldn't let the kid have the game until they turn 17.

There is something important that everyone should keep in mind about the game business. We don't write babysitting programs. We write games. We mostly write games for people over 17. If a parent decides to use one of these games as a babysitter for someone under 17, then they're using it for a purpose other than for which it was written, and they must accept the consequences of their actions.

SG: Video game music has recently been added to the list of Grammy Awards in the form of 'Other Visual Media.' I for one think it's about freaking time; some of my favorite soundtracks are from games. The problem is that the soundtracks have to be sold separately in CD form as I understand. I'd think this would eliminate the majority of game music from contention. What do you think of this, and do you think game composers will finally get the credit they deserve?

LJ: Okay, this is one that I'm not even sure about now. I have seen some reports that if the game soundtrack is included on the game disc in CD Audio format (e.g., a mixed-mode or CD-Extra disc), then it would qualify for consideration. I haven't been able to verify this yet.

I will say this, however. To my knowledge, motion pictures and television shows must release their music separately from the movie or episode(s) in order to qualify. They can't just send in a VTR tape or a movie reel and say, "here it is, put it on the list." For that same reason, game composers can't expect to send in a game and say, "here you go, play level E1L6 and put the music on the list."

If a completely separate CD or DVD (with no game content) is required for consideration, then your point about eliminating a lot of music from contention is valid. Most publishers won't go to the expense of printing up audio CDs, mainly because they don't consider themselves to be record labels.

If the news about CD Audio tracks on the game CD being eligible is true, then that eliminates a big barrier to game soundtrack nominations. It's very easy to create a mixed mode CD - we've done it for Duke Nukem 3D (Plutonium Pak and Atomic Edition only), Stargunner (the first one we did), and Shadow Warrior. All it requires is some spare room on the disc, and bingo! You've got music that can potentially be nominated.

SG: Where do you see the industry at 5 years from now? The same types of games, only with improved technological aspects? Massive multiplayer worlds? Something completely different?

LJ: Wherever the Internet takes us, that's where we'll go. If the Internet is still in its current shape 5 years from now, I don't see much change in the gaming industry. If broadband access becomes more universal, then you might see more people doing bandwidth-heavy online games.

For the tech side of games, I've predicted a move towards more photorealism. We'll eventually reach a stage where true photorealism is possible, but maybe not in the next 5 years. We'll get close, though, as long as video card manufacturers keep up their current rate of development.

SG: Megadeth had originally been contracted to do a cover of your Duke Nukem theme, Grabbag, for inclusion in DNF. I haven't heard much about this lately; are they still doing anything with DNF?

LJ: Sorry, can't answer this one. Area 51 rules apply.

SG: I still remember hearing the track at the end of Shadow Warrior, the 'Who wantah some Wang?' track, and laughing out loud. I'd imagine you had a good time putting that one together. What project of yours did you enjoy the most?

LJ: Lo Wang's Rap certainly ranks up there, mainly because it was so spontaneous. It was supposed to be used by GT as part of their E3 video for Shadow Warrior. I'd been asked to throw some rap music together and send it to GT. They were to put some words to the music and send them back for a recording session with John Galt (a.k.a. the voice of Lo Wang). We did the session, but the words just didn't fit. Add to that the fact that John can't find a rap rhythm to save his life, and you've got a problem.

So, more or less out of panic, I started pulling outtakes and snippets from other recording sessions and loading them into SAW Plus (our multitrack editor of choice at the time - it's now SAW Pro). I cut, spliced, pasted, and otherwise arranged these on the tracks until I had a semi-coherent two part story. When I finished, I got the team in to listen, and everyone got a good laugh out of it. We sent it to GT, but they decided it wasn't quite what they wanted for their E3 video. It eventually wound up on the game CD as a bonus song that you got for finishing the game.

The only thing that came close to being as much fun was coming up with the full version of Grabbag, better known as the theme to Duke Nukem 3D. If you'll recall the initial shareware and retail releases, Grabbag was there, but only the first half of the song was used. The rest hadn't been written yet.

You see, Grabbag was actually an experiment, inspired by a day-long session of listening to heavy metal CDs. I tried pasting together what I heard as the basic bits that defined a heavy metal song, like the scales, mode changes, rhythmic hits, and so on. I had to stick with General MIDI sounds, which made the job a lot harder. Eventually, I came up with a short tune that I considered a grab bag of heavy metal elements. When it came time to save the song from Cakewalk, I chose the only name I could think of that really applied: Grabbag.

Anyway, to shorten an already long story, I brought the song up to the office and put it on the network. I didn't consider it anywhere near finished, but I needed feedback on it, so I had the team play it and comment on it. Eventually, I was told (while standing in line to see "Star Trek: Generations" with the rest of the team on opening night) that Grabbag had been chosen to be the theme song to Duke Nukem 3D. I was stunned.

When the game turned out to be a hit, we started on the Plutonium Pak add-on. After I'd finished with the songs for the new levels, I decided that Grabbag needed to be finished properly. So, I got to work on it and came up with a version that was included as a "hidden" CD Audio track on the Plutonium Pak and Atomic Edition CDs. This was the *real* fun part, since I was free to use the full awesome (at the time) power of my (at the time) state-of-the-art Roland SC-88 Super Sound Canvas to create the rest of the song. I was also able to really let things rip in Rick Wakeman fashion with the keyboard solo. I really enjoyed doing that bit. ;-)

What I wound up with was a song that has since inspired quite a few different interpretations. I've heard rave versions, straight rock, remixes, and of course the recent cover by Megadeth for the "Duke Nukem: Music to Score By" CD.

I don't know which was more fun - Lo Wang's Rap or Grabbag. Both were great experiences, although in the end, I think Grabbag will live on a bit longer.

SG: And finally, do you enjoy goat hoarding as much as we do?

LJ: Sorry, I stick to gerbils. Actually, they stick to me, at least until the cane syrup washes off.

SG: Thanks again for taking the time out from DNF to do this, Lee; we appreciate it!

LJ: No problem. Thanks for asking.

If any of you are interested, you can check out both Lo Wang's Rap and Grabbag here.