Jukebox Heroes: Tracy W. Bush opens up about WoW, Dungeon Runners, and DCUO

Justin Olivetti
J. Olivetti|09.17.13

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Jukebox Heroes: Tracy W. Bush opens up about WoW, Dungeon Runners, and DCUO
Jukebox Heroes Tracy W Bush opens up about WoW, Tabula Rasa, and more
Odds are that even if you don't know who Tracy W. Bush is, you've allowed him to pipe music from his mind directly into your ears at one point or another during your MMO gameplay. Bush has contributed to tons of MMO soundtracks over the past decade-plus, including World of Warcraft, Tabula Rasa, Dungeon Runners, Auto Assault, and DC Universe Online.

It was actually this column's discussion of the Tabula Rasa soundtrack that prompted Bush to write in (fun fact: Blue Turns to Grey was the first track he wrote for the game, but the team held off putting it in until the very end), and I asked him if he'd be open to chatting about his collective work here. That didn't take much arm-twisting, no sirree.

So with that, I'm going to turn the mike over to Tracy Bush and let him share with you what it's like to create soundscapes that echo so powerfully in your memories.

Massively: You have quite an extensive history with MMO music and composition. How'd you get involved with them in the first place?

Tracy W. Bush: The first MMO I ever worked on was WoW, and at the time we were working on it, it was just another of the games that was in development at Blizzard. Jason Hayes was in charge of the music, and he'd been going solo on it for quite a while by the time the rest of us (Derek Duke, Glenn Stafford, and I) got involved. The rest of us had been working on Warcraft III and its expansions, then we were working on another game that never saw completion. We were looking for something else to work on, so we wanted a piece of the WoW pie. When it came time to split up the remaining work (since Jason had done so much already), we decided to start with the capital cities, to give them some of that Warcraft III epicness that we'd just come off of. Since I'd written the Night Elf music for Warcraft III, I handled Darnassus. I did a few more tracks from there but not a ton. Jason did the lion's share of the work on Vanilla WoW.

When you were working on World of Warcraft, did it feel different than, say, working on one of Blizzard's other titles? Did the music need to be different to fit into this genre?

Absolutely, and it took a lot of getting used to. The music from Warcraft III was fully orchestrated, and each piece needed to have an opening theme that you built on, a middle "ambient" section, and a final strong summation. The hope there was that even though we didn't have an interactive score, the individual pieces would have such dynamics that occasionally it would feel interactive. As it turns out, it worked out that way more often than not; people would be building their bases during the beginning theme statement, then do a little exploration when the music was ambient, then have a big battle during the massive end bit. We used to get comments from people who talked about how interactive the score was, which it wasn't at all, but we designed the music to give the illusion of interactivity.

But I digress. Those pieces were written to be massively epic in the hope that it would make the skirmish level battles seem gigantic. In WoW, the style Jason pioneered (which most MMOs do to this day) was a very bare bones approach. Strip out most of the orchestration, get rid of all of the hugeness, and let just a few instruments state your theme. Let it build a bit, let another instrument take over the melody line, then let it fade out. Support it (lightly) with a trace of structure. Do not resolve the song. If you do that, the mood that's set by the previous piece kind of holds over, and then when you go for a bit without some music you're sort of frozen in the mood left by that unresolved bit from the last piece. Eventually, here comes a new bit of music, sticking to that kind of feel, and the mood of the area is reinforced. Lather, rinse, repeat. It's an incredibly effective way to set tone and to define the characteristics of your sub zones.

What's one of your favorite memories or pieces from the WoW soundtrack?

In talking about the style of composition in the last paragraph, I was playing "Elwynn Forest" in my head. I'm listening to it right now. It's one of the first things Jason wrote, and it stands up so amazingly well. Just tremendous stuff.

One of my favorite memories of working on WoW was the Tanaris music. I was trying to capture that desolate, empty desert vibe, but it could be very frustrating. I was using huge reverbs to imply those big distances, resonant strings to give a Middle Eastern vibe, but I was forever on the hunt to find samples that I could use to help paint that musical picture without having to rely on specific instruments as a crutch. I wanted there to be the illusion of music, but nothing you could catch on to, nothing you sink your teeth into. Music that was almost a mirage in and of itself. When I finally saw it in the game I was very happy; I think I captured that vibe pretty well.

What did you think after WoW blew up big in the industry and millions of people were now listening to your music?

I've always felt incredibly lucky to have worked on the games that I have and lucky to see the success that those games have met. As a musician, you're lucky to just have a gig where someone is paying you for your music. To be able to support a family, that's a huge victory as a musician. To have it blow up like it did and have so many people like the work that you've done is just a massive bonus on top of that. To this day it's very hard for me to wrap my head around, that magnitude of success, that many people having heard what I did in that 12x12 office in Irvine. Just unbelievable.

Moving on from WoW, what did you think of your time with NCsoft? What was it like juggling so many titles?

NCsoft was a very rewarding experience for me, professionally as well as personally. When I started at NCsoft, there was no audio department; they outsourced everything they did there. I was the first audio professional they hired, and from there I was allowed to assemble a team. The people I hired there were incredibly talented, and they've all gone on to do great things. Two of them, Andy Brock and Pedro Seminario, now work at Blizzard, and Jeremy Robins is now the audio director at Crytek in Austin. Great guys, every single one of them.

NCsoft was a very different company than Blizzard was. Since it was so spread out and there were so many small development teams all over the world, each with its own sub teams and audio outsourcing, that many times it was like juggling cats. There was a time in 2006 where we had 15 concurrent titles in development, all of which I had to touch at some level or another. Of course, many of those were cancelled. Some of them may have shipped in their native countries, but I never saw them here.

Each game in development had its own budget and its own set of rules, its own hierarchy to be navigated. Tabula Rasa and Dungeon Runners were both developed at the Austin studio, so I was most closely involved in working on those two games.

I hear you've got a great story to tell us about Dungeon Runners?

Dungeon Runners is, without a doubt, one of my favorite games I've ever done. It was originally a straightforward dungeon crawler called Dungeons, Inc. that was being developed by Vigil, and they eventually just sold us the game, engine, all art assets, everything. They wanted to get started on Darksiders, and NCsoft assembled a small team to finish up Dungeons, Inc. It was Mark Tucker, Stephen Nichols, and I, with a few others. Just a really small team, and we were just told "finish this game."

So we met in the smallest conference room in the Austin studio (more of a supply closet, really) and tried to bat about ideas for what we could do to finish the game. The story was kind of bare-bones, and we were having a hell of a time just trying to sink our teeth into the existing story. Finally we just said, "Why don't we just throw out the story, the premise, everything, and just tell a parody story? Just make fun of the whole concept, the whole functionality of MMOs, all of it?" That first meeting we came up with a one-page concept, including the name of the main town (Townston -- still very proud of that), and we went from there.

Dungeon Runners was the first game where they just let me off the leash. They let me write the music however I wanted. I wrote all the dialogue, performed as many of the voices as I wanted. My wife and daughter performed a few of the voices. I roped some other NCsoft folks into doing a few lines, even Richard. The music was a mish-mosh of straightforward Diablo-style dungeon crawly stuff in the exploration bits, but when it came to the boss fights, each of them was a specific sub genre of music. I did country and western, black metal, klezmer, an oompa loompa song, disco... I can't even remember them all. I had a blast.

We had no marketing budget, so I took my camera from home and we shot a few live-action commercials: one where I kicked the artist Jon Jones in the nuts; one where Mark Tucker is sitting and rocking back and forth on a playground pony in a park in Austin. The main marketing guys didn't really push back all that much, except for the line in the first video, which was "Dungeon Runners. We won't kick you in the nuts." They made us change that to "junk."

What do you remember most from your time at SOE?

SOE was a lot of fun, but it also represented a period when I stepped furthest away from asset creation and more into team management. There were folks in Seattle, folks in San Diego, folks in Austin. Patches for EverQuest and SWG, just a lot of outsourcers to juggle and lots of meetings to attend. There was very little time for writing music or sound design, so I had to just be OK with that. I always tried to write at least two or three songs for every game, which I did, but it's not representative of my finest work.

However, it is also when I got to do one of the most rewarding things in my career, which was directing the voice acting on DC Universe Online. Getting to meet actors from, in a literal sense, every one of my favorite TV shows and movie series... well, there's really nothing like that in the world. Actors from Star Wars, Star Trek, the animated Batman show, True Blood... I can't say enough about it.

Getting to work with the Firefly actors was just a dream come true. Before I left I was in the process of trying to cast a few more Firefly actors as DC characters. Ultimately I planned on casting all of them just to say I reunited the cast.

What were some of your favorite soundtracks or pieces?

Of my own? I know it's the height of predictability to say "my most current work, CHECK IT OUT," but in all honesty the score I just completed for Scribblenauts Unmasked is some of the best work I've ever done. I loved working on Warcraft III because it was my first real stuff I ever wrote. Tabula Rasa was a lot of fun, writing in a more modern style. Dungeon Runners, just for the sheer variety, knowing that I could write in so many different styles.

Why did you get out of the MMO industry? Do you ever think you'll make music for these games again?

Since I've always been a "company man," I write whatever they tell me to. Since I'm at 5th Cell, I'm writing for whatever game types they make, which at this point is console emergent gameplay stuff. I like the variety. If 5th Cell makes an MMO, then, you know, I'll be writing for an MMO again.

When's the last time you got recognized for your work in these games by fans? Have you autographed body parts?

It doesn't really happen that I'm walking down the street and someone spots me and goes, "Oh, snap! Dude, those brass runs on 'Orc 2' were inSAAAANE!" It's a nice, anonymous life. When I'm out with industry friends, sometimes they try to get me to do the murloc gurgle to impress someone else. My daughters have actually started to do that; they're very proud of me. That feels good.

I have autographed body parts at the Dungeon Runners launch party. There were 15 people there, so we got to know them pretty well by the end.

You got a chance to do some voice acting for games too. Did you like that?

I always like voice acting -- I was an actor before I was a musician. That's actually how I got noticed at Blizzard when I started there. I was in IT, but they were doing unit voices for Starcraft. I did a Professor Frink impersonation, and that was the first science vessel voice. At a certain point, someone wisely figured that that was perhaps a bit too on the nose, so we changed it to a Montgomery Burns voice, but using the same lines. That's why the science vessel sounded like it did.

When I was on DCUO, I got to be the voices of Calculator, Ambush Bug, Deathstroke, and Booster Gold. That was kind of a dream come true. I was always a big fan of Booster from his early days in the Justice League International.

Thanks for sharing with us!

MMOs aren't just about looks; they also have great soundtracks that often go unnoticed. Heroes don't stand for that! Every 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!
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