Jukebox Heroes: Chance Thomas talks about scoring Turbine's expansions

Jukebox Heroes A chat with Chance Thomas about scoring Turbine's expansions

For many Lord of the Rings Online players, the name Chance Thomas is synonymous with the feel of virtual Middle-earth. From the earliest days in the game, explorers have traversed the Shire, Moria, and beyond listening to Thomas' melodies. So we were excited to hear that Turbine is bringing Thomas back to score not only Riders of Rohan (his first soundtrack for the game since Mines of Moria) but also Dungeons and Dragons Online: Menace of the Underdark as well.

Thomas is an Oscar- and Emmy-winning composer who's been working primarily in the field of video game music since 1998. Being a huge fan of MMO soundtracks, I made it a personal quest to talk with him about these two new scores and how he feels about working in this genre. In the weeks ahead, I'll be reviewing both Rohan and Underdark's soundtracks, but today I wanted to focus on the man behind the music.

Join me, then, as we embark on a voyage to worlds far away, sailing on the wings of a song. Geez, that's cheesy, ain't it?

Massively: Why did you decide to focus your career on video game scores?

Chance Thomas: I think I was lucky. Sometimes a person's whole life can swing on the hinge of a seemingly very small decision. That's what happened to me in 1996. One of my friends told me about a job posting for a composer at Sierra Online in California. I looked into it and got hooked!

How is it different to compose for video games compared to movies or television?

I continue to stay interested because scoring for interactive games is such a pioneering adventure. Imagine the challenge of creating dramatic music when you have no idea how the timing of that drama will unfold. Since each player becomes director, actor and editor, unleashing the drama according to his or her individual game play decisions in real time, you end up with thousands and thousands of potential "edits" to compose to. Inventing constructs to underscore that kind of spontaneous dramatic arc is invigorating!

What's your favorite non-Turbine soundtrack that you've composed?

That's an insanely tough question to answer. Do you have any kids, Justin? It's sort of like asking which one of your children do you like the best! Composers pour their hearts and souls into a score, and as a result, each retains a preeminent place.

Quest for Glory V was my very first game score, so it has high sentimental value for me. The ChubbChubbs premiered at Graumann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood and even won an Oscar, so that one feels glamorous. James Cameron's Avatar: The Game offered me the chance to record the finest brass section in the world with guys like Rick Baptist, Jim Thatcher, Phil Teele and Alex Iles. It still blows my mind when I hear some of their takes! Peter Jackson's King Kong, Champions Online, Inspire, Pawn Stars, Marvel Ultimate Alliance, Monopoly Streets, The Life of Christ, Dinosaurs 3D, Ghosts of Mistwood -- each owns a permanent corner of my heart!

Jukebox Heroes Chance Thomas talks about scoring Turbine's expansions

How did you originally become involved with Turbine?

Back to the idea of life swinging on very small hinges: I started with the original Middle-earth Online team in 1998, having no idea how big a role Tolkien would end up playing in my professional career. If you include the work I did on unreleased games like Treason of Isengard or Shadows of Mordor, I've been involved with music for at least 10 different Lord of the Rings games to date. About half of those occurred while I was under contract with Vivendi-Universal Games as Tolkien Music Director. When Turbine acquired the MMO license, I was still under contract and created the live orchestral, choral, and acoustic ensemble music that ended up in Shadows of Angmar.

You've had the chance to compose for two very famous IPs: Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons. Is it more intimidating to score for well-known IPs, or is it just another day in the job?

Great question. For me, the more rich and well-defined the fictional world, the more I can sink my teeth into a creatively interesting and emotionally satisfying score. There's so much more to sink your teeth into!

You did double-duty on Turbine's two most recent expansions. How did you approach each score, and were there any similarities between the two?

Riders of Rohan and Menace of the Underdark are completely different scores. Each was approached independently, on its own merits. Let's talk about how that was approached.

In my writing studio there are five walls. One wall is completely covered with screenshots, sketches, maps, and notes from Rohan. When I would get ready to write a cue for Rohan, I would stand in front of those images, imagine myself in that world, and totally immerse my imagination in the feeling of being there, of living and breathing the Rohan experience. The details the Turbine art team wove into each of those images, combined with my knowledge of Tolkien's writings on the subject, brought very clear and distinctive musical ideas to mind.

Another wall in my studio is completely covered with screenshots, concept art, world objects, and notes from Eveningstar, King's Forest, and Sschindylryn in DDO. Immersing my imagination in that world conjured up very different musical ideas from the Rohan wall.

This is a technique that I try to teach aspiring and rookie composers. The best way to find your voice is to drench your senses in the fiction you're scoring. You can best achieve this by vividly imagining yourself in that world. What do I see? What do I hear? Is the sun beating down on the back of my neck, or am I in a damp cave? And what of my emotions -- am I afraid? Do I have a sense of history or purpose? Are those I love threatened? All of these things and more help to educate our emotions, which will in turn give rise to the most fitting musical ideas.

What recurring themes did you plant into these expansion soundtracks that you hope players will pick up on?

Let's look at Dungeons & Dragons for a moment. There is a main theme for DDO that players encounter upon login. The melody is old, noble-sounding, and full of portent, with a classical flavoring. It represents the Forgotten Realms, particularly the upper kingdoms.

This theme makes an appearance in several places in the score, whenever I'm trying to hearken back to the history and dignity of the lore.

Rohan is a bit more complex. We have the general Rohan theme with variations for The Wold, Norcrofts, Sutcrofts, and Meduseld. We encounter fragments of the Gondor theme and the Shire theme in the score, particularly in the East Wall. There's a signature riff for mounted gameplay that finds its way into every region.

My hope is that the players will pick up on a sense of continuity within each overarching fiction and the emotional bond between the music and the various segments of the game world.

What would you say are the main emotions running through each of the expansion scores?

Struggle, hope, anxiety, pride, sadness, joy, strength, remembrance.

What's your favorite Menace of the Underdark track? Your favorite Riders of Rohan track?

Sigh. That's really an impossible question for a composer. As you can imagine, every track is created to fulfill a specific game purpose in each title. To the degree that the music hits those purposes, I love it. Ultimately, the players will decide.

Here's a quick anecdote to illustrate. I wrote a piece of music that I originally called The Road Home to play when Hobbits were returning to the Shire from various adventures they may have had outside its boundaries. Instead, Turbine's Audio Director Steve DiGregorio decided to put it in Tom Bombadil's house. It was a stroke of genius. To this day it remains one of the more popular pieces of music in the entire game.

I liked that track as a coming home piece. But I like it even more as Tom Bombadil's tune because it works so well in that role within the game.

Jukebox Heroes Chance Thomas talks about scoring Turbine's expansions

What was it like coming back to LotRO after all these years, and how do you feel that Riders of Rohan's score differs from what you composed earlier?

It had been three to four years since I delivered the score for the Mines of Moria expansion (including parts of Lothlorien). But Middle-earth never really leaves me. So when Turbine's VP of Product Development Craig Alexander got in touch with me and floated the idea of potentially scoring Rohan, it was a no-brainer. It felt like I was coming home.

Having said that, I think that Rohan definitely has its own flavor. In fact, there are really three distinct musical flavors in the Rohan expansion. The East Wall embodies the distant echoes of Gondor's greatness, Boromir's conflict, and the infusion of hope and life coming from Aragorn and Frodo. These musical threads are the most similar to past scores because they are connected to people and places that have played a prominent role in previous releases.

Rohan proper is very much its own thing stylistically. It is a more rustic, rugged, and slightly nostalgic region of the game world. The specific musical colors and flavors I used for Rohan will definitely set it apart sonically from other segments of Middle-earth in LotRO.

And for something completely different, we have Fangorn and the Orc instance. These are musically distinct from anything else found anywhere else in the game.

In your opinion, what makes a song memorable and long-lasting?

If you don't mind, let me couch that question in slightly different terms. Here's what I think makes a piece of music in a video game score memorable and long-lasting. I think it's the emotional impact that a particular piece of music has on us during a given moment of gameplay that endears it to us. It's like when you've been in the forest and night has fallen and you're trying to find your way back to Ered Luin with wolves or Orcs hot on your trail. Suddenly you burst through the trees and see its outer walls, with the moon just rising above it, and the Dwarven theme starts to play -- it almost takes your breath away!

Any final thoughts on these expansion projects?

From everything I've seen and heard, these will be Turbine's biggest and most successful expansions ever. For the faithful, everything you already love about these games is just getting better, not to mention all the cool new features like mounted play, instances, and war bands. The teams have really raised the bar! And for those who may be new to Turbine or have been off playing something else for a while, I totally encourage you to come and give these new expansions a try. Everyone has poured his or her passion and highest ambitions into these titles to make them exceptional in every way.

Thanks for your insight and incredible compositions! If any of you readers are interested in learning more about Thomas, I recommend checking out his official website.

MMOs aren't just about looks; they also have great soundtracks that often go unnoticed. Heroes don't stand for that! Every other Tuesday, Jukebox Heroes will check out a game's soundtrack and feature the best tunes to share and discuss. Your DJ for the hour is Justin Olivetti, and the request line is open!