Simon Viklund Interview: Not Just a Musician (September 2011)
Simon Viklund is a rare talent in the games industry: he splits his time approximately equally between designing games and creating their soundtracks. He was the creative mastermind behind the revival of the Bionic Commando series and produced remixed soundtracks for Bionic Commando Rearmed and Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition. More recently, he helped to set up Overkill Software and is currently serving as creative director, music composer, and sound designer for the eagerly anticipated Payday: The Heist.
In this interview, Viklund discusses balancing his work as a game designer and musician on a range of projects. He reflects on his creative experiences on the Bionic Commando revival, confronts the mixed reception to Street Fighter III's new soundtrack, and finally reveals why he thinks Payday: The Heist is an ugly ducking that'll grow into a beautiful swan.
Interview Subject: Simon Viklund
Interviewer: Chris Greening
Editor: Chris Greening
Coordination: Chris Greening
Chris: Simon Viklund, many thanks for your time today. You've dedicated much of the last few years to reviving classic franchises of Capcom in small-scale and large-scale projects. Could you tell us more about your background? What first attracted you to Capcom's classics?
Simon Viklund: I'm a 31 year old guy from Sweden, I've been a gamer since I got an NES for Christmas back in the mid 80's. I was a part of the game developer GRiN and worked there with sound and music from 2000 to 2009. I'm most famous for directing and doing the music for Bionic Commando Rearmed.
In the mid 80's, I visited one of the first game shows in Sweden and saw Mega Man for the first time, and that's when my fascination with Capcom began. As a working composer, it isn't so much that I've been attracted to the classics as it's been Capcom contacting me and asking me to work on remixing the music for them — which of course has been a huge honor!
Chris: For the first part of the interview, I'd like to reminisce about your revival of Bionic Commando. What inspired you to develop a remake and sequel for this tremendously entertaining game? Were you surprised that Capcom were receptive about reviving it in such a grand way?
Simon Viklund: The Bionic Commando revival was Capcom's idea, and they got in contact with us through a production company they hired to look for promising western developers. Keji Inafune was flown over, we showed him our tech and he said "either it's GRiN or we won't do it". I have always loved the NES version of Bionic Commando, so for me it was a huge thing when I was told we'd be doing Bionic Commando 2009.
During early development, we were informed that Capcom was planning on hiring another company to do a port of the NES version of BC to help market BC2009. We lobbied that GRiN should do this "port" and that it should be a proper remake — and they agreed. I was thrilled to get the chance to work as a director for a project — and not just any project but a remake of one of my childhood favorites! I took a massive work load but it was a great experience for me.
Chris: Before you worked on these titles, you scored two original games — Ballistics and Bandits: Phoenix Rising — in a contemporary manner. Did the precedent of these projects influence your approach on Bionic Commando Rearmed or did your influences shift between these projects? Do you think the blend of Eastern and Western cultures was partly responsible for the popularity?
Simon Viklund: My approach to making music to games is to find a mix between the music I find suitable for the project in question, the music I enjoy, and the music I have the skills to produce. In Ballistics and Bandits, I dabbled with some rock, techno, big beat and industrial stuff. I was very much inspired by the Quake III soundtrack, Fatboy Slim, and Chemical Brothers at the time and you can hear that clearly in the music.
For the Bionic Commando Rearmed soundtrack, the three elements (what's suitable, what inspires me, what I can do) converged so perfectly — and also the original material had such great melodies and harmonies — and I believe that's why that soundtrack kind of hit it out of the park. I was very inspired by Crystal Method and Justice at the time, and again, you can hear that clearly in the music.
I've never seen the melodies of the original game as particularly Eastern, but maybe they are? I think they are just very, very strong melodies playing on top of some very clever chord progressions. They're just very solid musical compositions, and of course that is part of why the remixes became so popular too.
Chris: This year, you returned to Bionic Commando to score Bionic Commando Rearmed 2. Could you share to us how you captured the new storyline and elements of this game? Was it a challenge to focus primarily on composition, not remixing this time?
Simon Viklund: Yeah, it was tough because I felt I had a lot to live up to after the Bionic Commando Rearmed soundtrack. I had a bit of a writer's block from the pressure, and decided early on to let a few of the iconic melodies from the first game return in the sequel, like the recurring themes in the Zelda and Mario games. This helped me gain momentum in the composing of new material too, and pretty soon I had a good collection of tracks.
I think the Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 soundtrack is great, but it didn't get much attention partly because the game wasn't a big hit and also becase the music wasn't used in the trailers for the game. Jakob Tuchten's brilliant editing of the release trailer for BCR was undoubtedly one of the reasons for the success of "Power Plant" and the BCR soundtrack in general — it was pretty much a music video! It's ironic how a piece of music's chances of becoming popluar rides so much on visual presentation.
Chris: You were also involved in the next-gen revival of Bionic Commando. Could you outline the extent of your musical and wider input on this project?
Simon Viklund: I only did music for BC2009 during pre-production, and most of those tracks were thrown out when we went into full production. At that point, we hired two composers to do all the music for that project, while I started working on directing and composing for BCR. One of my pre-production demo tracks was reworked and turned into a track that's on the BC2009 soundtrack, and they also used a drum loop that I did for a track in BCR for the BC2009 "version" of the same song — that's why I'm credited on the BC2009 soundtrack. Jamie Christopherson, Erik Thunberg and Trond-Viggo Melssen did most of the work on that soundtrack.
The most important work I did for BC2009 was supervising the voice recording sessions and creating all of Spencer's sounds (the player weapons, the bionic arm and the main character's foley).
Chris: Why do you think it wasn't as successful financially or critically as the remake?
Simon Viklund: I think BC2009 wasn't so popular for several reasons. The game had some irritating flaws, and marketing for it wasn't that strong. Also, people seemed to get the notion from somewhere that the game would be an open world and bashed it for being "too linear". If BC2009 is linear then what is Gears of War? The game got some bashing that it deserved, and some that it just didn't deserve.
When people are reminded of BC2009 now a few years later (like when Spencer appeared in Marvel vs Capcom 3) you can read in the comment threads around the internet how a lot of people have grown fond of BC2009 over time. A lot of people agree that the game wasn't as bad as reviews said it was at the time it was released.
Chris: You also remixed two of their oldest soundtracks — Final Fight and Magic Sword — for Final Fight: Double Impact. What unique features of these soundtracks did you aim to bring out? Were many elaborations necessary?
Simon Viklund: Actually, Trond-Viggo Melssen and Erik Thunberg did the music for Magic Sword. After GRiN, these composers formed Fathom, which is a music production outsourcing company.
Chris: Your latest project is Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition. You described giving the 'BCR' treatment to the soundtrack, though there are a few differences, such as the incorporation of rap elements. Could you elaborate on how the two soundtracks compare?
Simon Viklund: These soundtracks are not so different musically — I bet you could rap on top of many of the BCR tracks — but how the soundtracks came about is very different. When it was to be decided who would do the BCR soundtrack, I had to convince people that I could pull it off. The producer at Capcom wasn't into techno, but even he eventually admitted that the music fit the game very well.
For Street Fighter III, it was Capcom contacting me — and doing so because they already knew my sound and desired it. Street Fighter 3 always had an emphasis on "street": the nu soul, acid house, jungle, hiphop... it was what was hip and had "street cred" in the mid to late 90's. While hiphop still stands strong today, the other styles are very outdated (anyone who says the musical style of SF3 is timeless is nothing but a fanboy), so Capcom hired me to bring in my sound, which is heavily influenced by what's hip today: electrofunk, dubstep, etc.
They sent me screenshots of the new main menu design, which had a gritty concrete wall as background, and told me they wanted the remixes to bring a rougher atmosphere to the game: Hard electronic music is a lot more mainstream today than it was in the 90's. I have no illusions that my remixes will be "hip" ten years from now, but they will be an interesting sample of their time just as the original tracks are. That goes for both the SF3 and the BCR soundtrack.
Chris: It's fair to say that there has been some backlash towards the music of Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition. Why do you think this is? Do you think you took a misstep in your approach, or do you think remixing classics is always going to be divisive?
Simon Viklund: My guess is that it's a combination of my remixes going so far away from the original sounds, some SF fans being disappointed with what I've done with their favorite character theme (and they absolutely have the right to feel that way), and then a lot of haters just going off under the protection of internet anonymity. People are emailing me rants about how they'd rather listen to Justin Bieber than the SF3 remixes and stuff — I'm just laughing about it because it's so juvenile. I get a lot of fan email as well, so I guess it's an "either you hate it or you love it" thing.
I'm not digitally remastering the old songs and just upping the audio quality — I'm doing complete reinterpretations. There's no use in having two versions of the same song in a game if the two versions are too similar: A remix has to do something completely different, bring a new vibe. That's what Capcom hired me to do. I understand that the new vibe will be hard to swallow for hardcore fans and those who are not into hard electronic music. However, they can always just set the game to only use the original soundtrack. Case closed.
Chris: On such revivals, you have collaborated with other composers and performers such as Jamie Christopherson, Adam Tensta, and Chris Kline. How do you scout for talent such as these individuals? Is it rewarding for you to create music as a team?
Simon Viklund: Chris Kline did his interpretation of the BC main theme on his own — and the decision to hook him into the product wasn't even mine — so I never met him.
Working with Jamie Christopherson was a suggestion from Capcom because he had worked on Lost Planet for them. I was in frequent email contact with Jamie providing him with the original NES songs for inspiration, feedbacking on his work-in-progress tracks, and eventually got to fly over to LA and attend the recording of the horns that performed on his BC tracks. That was a cool experience.
Jamie is very talented and did a splendid job with both his reinterpretations and his original tracks. I talked to him not too long ago and he said he wasn't too happy with his contribution to BC2009, but I think it was great. He's probably just become even better since then, so he knows how much better he could have done it today.
On SF3, Capcom and I had agreed that I was to look for local talent here in Sweden to replace the rap vocals on the soundtrack. So I contacted two unsigned rappers and recorded demos with them specifically for the project. I also got in contact with Adam Tensta to see if he'd be interested, which he of course was (he's a true gamer), so I sent the two unsigned rapper demos over to Capcom together with links to a few Adam's videos and let them choose. They liked them all but eventually decided to go with Adam.
Chris: Whereas Bionic Commando and Bionic Commando Rearmed were treated with exuberant soundtracks, no such soundtracks have been announced for Bionic Commando Rearmed 2 or Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike Online Edition. Why is this? Would you consider releasing them, either commercially or free, in future?
Simon Viklund: The music to all these games is completely owned by Capcom — the original tracks as well as my remixes. In other words, whether or not there's a soundtrack is completely up to Capcom. I always let my contacts at Capcom know if I get a lot of requests for a soundtrack release, but it's even better if people contact Capcom directly (like, through comments on their community site) and tell them. If there seems to be enough people interested in the soundtrack, it will be relased either free or as a paid download — I'm sure of it.
Chris: Since the closure of GRiN, you have bounced back to form Overkill Software. Could you tell us about this shift? Have you recovered from the loss of GRiN or do you still miss your time there?
Simon Viklund: I have definitely recovered. I had six or eight months when I was a bit disenchanted and "low", but once Overkill picked up pace I pulled myself together. We though we'd get into the cellphone app development circus but eventually decided to get back into "big game".
Overkill is a small team in which I get to do sound design and stuff again, so in many ways it's like going back to when GRiN was starting up, which feels refreshing. However, we can apply our contacts and experience from 10+ years in the business so Overkill is going to be built completely different from GRiN. And we're going to do what we want to do — and own our own IPs — rather than being a work for hire company for Hollywood film studios.
Chris: As creative director of Overkill's Payday: The Heist, it'd be interesting to hear more about how you approached the game. In an industry dominated by first-person shooters, how did you ensure Payday: The Heist is not another clone?
Simon Viklund: Actually, we have tried to avoid feeling any fear of being passed off as a clone. Ulf Andersson and I serve as creative directors on the project and the approach of the entire team has been very prestige free: We won't steer clear of controller mappings and game mechanics made popular by other games just for fear of being accused of plagiarism — because why change what already works? We want to make a game that's really tight and fun to play, and not get lost in the pretentious idea of changing stuff just for the sake of changing stuff.
At the same time, the Payday definitely contains enough great thematic elements and innovative mechanics for the game to stand on its own: You take hostages and trade them with the police to get teammates who have died back into the game, you can shout at enemies to intimidate them and make them drop their weapons. There's some great innovation in how streamlined the upgrade system is, and more.
Chris: Do you think the title will appeal to mainstream gamers?
Simon Viklund: We know that we're a little like the ugly duckling, the underdog — and we like it. When you watch a trailer it's easy to pass judgement on the product because all you get is a completely detached experience of how it looks and sounds. Because of this, our trailers get some "looks meh" comments on the Internet, but hear this: Everyone who has actually played the game (at E3, ComiCon, GamesCom, etc.) has become completely absorbed by it and loved it. They leave with a smile and a racing pulse, and they can't wait for the game to come out.
The controls are just so tight and the action is just so engaging — and those are qualities that don't project through a trailer. That is the answer to your questions about what about Payday will appeal to gamers — there's not specific feature we can point at and say "that's gonna wow people", but rather an overall tightness of the experience that the game provides.
Payday is an ugly duckling that'll grow up to be a beautiful swan to any gamer who gives it a try. You can take my word for it.
Chris: Of course, the interview wouldn't be complete without you talking about the sound too. Will you be composing the soundtrack yourself or relying on external talent?
Simon Viklund: I have produced most of the Payday soundtrack myself, but for the main theme that's heard in the main menu I have collaborated with Rob F. Blom, who is a very talented producer of orchestral music. Then when you get into the load-out screen, there's a remix I've done on Rob's track which serves as kind of a transition genre-wise to the music that's heard in the game.
Then, the actual in-game music is very electronic, although not as melodic and dance friendly as the music I usually make. It's a mix of distorted breaks, trashy rock drums, electric bass and atmospehric synths that's more common in movie soundtrack. I guess you can hear some influences from Frontline Assembly and industrial music — more suggestive than my usual stuff but still with a good beat. There's so much information shared through voices in Payday that the music kind of has to take the back seat, and the distorted drum sound works perfectly to provide a hectic pulse even if the music is turned down low.
Chris: Should we expect cutting-edge sound design too?
Simon Viklund: Sound design wise, Payday is very innovative in terms of communicating information through the voices of the in-game characters. Rather than having the guy in the ear piece tell you everything, the game checks if you have a teammate nearby who can relay the information instead (regardless of whether the teammate is controlled by AI or your friends).
All the thousands of lines have been recorded in a loud, booming voice and also in a high intensity, screaming voice, and the characters change to the screaming voice as the action intensifies. They shout stuff like "I've put an ammo bag over her, come fill up!" and "we gotta trade a hostage to get Dallas back!" and the screaming mirrors so perfectly (and thereby amplifies) what you as a player feel in those intense moments, and it adds so much to the soundscape which would otherwise consist mainly of gunfire and death screams.
Then of course there's been a lot of love going into creating the weapon sounds, because after all it's an FPS. I did all the weapon sounds for Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 1 and 2 for PC and got a lot of praise for that work from gun nuts — and I also did all the weapon sounds for BC2009 and Wanted: Weapons of Fate — so I feel confident.
I can mention that, for those last two games mentioned, a lot of people seemed to reject my idea that weapon sounds should be somewhat sophisticated and focus more on mechanisms sounds rather than just being a loud mid-range "bang"... So for Payday, I'm trying to restrain my "pretentious" side and go loud! I maintain that the weapons sounds in BC2009 and Wanted are great though. I blame people's cheap speakers, haha.
Chris: Many thanks for your time today, Simon Viklund. Is there anything else you'd like to say about your work on Capcom revivals or Payday: The Heist? In addition, is there any message you'd like to leave to your fans across the world?
Simon Viklund: Thanks for having me! I want to encourage everyone to give Payday: The Heist a try (preferably playing together with friends) — we'll try to get a public demo out before release. The game will come out on PS3 and PC later this year.
Also, to anyone who's interested in me or the projects I'm involved in, check out my website, YouTube account, and Twitter account. I do some music outside of game projects too, so anyone who likes the BCR soundtrack should check my original tracks out.
Lastly, I want to say that if anyone wants to listen to Justin Bieber rather than my music, then that's totally fine with me. To each his own. ;-)