PopCap’s Guy Whitmore Talks Musical Trials And Triumphs On Peggle Blast

Here’s an unusual suggestion for playing Peggle Blast when it hits mobile devices on December 2: just for the heck of it, take a while to make a shot instead of rushing to the next one.

PopCap’s composer and Sr. Studio Audio Director Guy Whitmore won’t care. In fact he’d probably appreciate the fact that you took the time to enjoy the music, up to two minutes of it, that can play between shots.

That might not sound like such a surprise for a franchise like Peggle that is synonymous with music, particularly of the grand, orchestral variety. It just wasn’t so simple to continue that heritage in Peggle Blast due to a very real constraint. While the music and audio for a console game can take up as much space as necessary, for all intents and purposes, the same isn’t true for a mobile game that is looking to fit everything it has to offer into a 50MB package.

That’s 50MB for the entire game, by the way. Whitmore and his team had just 5MB for all the music and audio combined, forcing them to get creative.

“That sounded like an impossible task at first,” Whitmore said recently by phone. “In fact, we went through the seven stages of grieving and the whole bit. Then we kind of came back to it. I’ll admit I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I thought, ‘You know, some of the stuff we were doing in the early 90s might come in handy now.'”

Without getting too technical, it involved sampling. Not the kind of sampling P. Diddy once used to turn old R&B songs into hip hop hits, but a library of single-note samples that can be triggered in any order to create any kind of music that might be necessary.

Or at least that’s how it was explained to this relatively musically uneducated writer. Suffice it to say, it’s a much more efficient way to give Peggle Blast the soundtrack it deserves.

“With literally 3MB or less of orchestral, single-note samples, I created 30 or 40 minutes of music,” Whitmore said. ” In the future, if I wanted to add another 20 minutes of music, that’s only going to be a couple hundred K of memory added, because all of the samples are already in the game. Of course I was concerned, am I going to get the quality I want, but it actually turned out great.”

Whitmore noted that if future updates call for more music — say, seasonal tunes for a holiday event — it’ll be easier to add it in since the foundation is already there. And despite an early experiment with a music box (which Whitmore assures us is still in the game in some form), his team was able to return to the orchestral sound Peggle is known for and make it work.

Even with the initial problem licked, there was still a question of how to incorporate the music into a game that has more gameplay styles than Peggle 2 in a way that ensured the audio and visuals stayed synchronized. When you’re playing Peggle Blast, there’s music playing in the background while you work to line up your next shot. But how does the game know to move on to something else?

“The simple answer is, after the end of every shot, the music system gets notified to move to the next phrase,” Whitmore said. “But it doesn’t do it immediately, which would sound musically awkward, it waits until the next kind of musically sensible place, the next measure or the next phrase, and it moves on at that point. So whenever you’re playing the game, it always feels like it’s progressing naturally, and one phrase lasts one shot, more or less.”

That’s true unless you have only one orange peg left, when you’ll hear a more tension-filled section that’s waiting to explode into “Ode to Joy” if you can complete the level. But it also takes us back to where we started, which is that the soundtrack is smart enough to scale to the speed at which you play.

“If you’re playing quickly, the phrases will walk through quickly,” Whitmore said. “If you’re playing slowly, you’ll get to hear the depth of each phrase. That was the challenge that was a little different from Peggle 2 as well, because their phrases progressed based on how many orange pegs are left, regardless of where you are or how many turns you’ve taken. I had to come up with a system that could work across different gameplay scenarios. One shot, one phrase was as simple as I could make it, and it turned out to be musically satisfying too.”

Clearly, a lot of thought went into how all of this works. Even things you might not otherwise notice, like the way the choir that sings every time you get a free ball hits a chord that matches the music being played in the background, have been carefully considered so that everything sounds good.

Not too many mobile games have been lauded for their music and sound, but Whitmore thinks it’s only a matter of time before that changes.

“I think part of it is just mobile is finally getting to the point where we can do some really interesting things, and a lot of developers are still thinking in an older model of what mobile is,” he said. “We’re just trying to think forward about taking advantage of the processing power and the fidelity that we can get out of these things. For my attitude, it should sound just as good as a console game. That’s kind of my goal, anyway.”

It would only be fitting if Peggle Blast helps accelerate that process, given its heritage. Just remember it’s okay to play it slowly. Think of it as rewarding Whitmore and company for all their hard work.

And for a look at the recording sessions for Peggle Blast, take a peek at the video below: