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Interview #028: Mark Kilborn (Audio Director at Raven Software)

We're always elated at JP'S SWITCHMANIA when we get to talk with a professional in the industry who is also a gamer! Enter: Mark Kilborn. Mark is the Audio Director at Raven Software and throughout his career, has worked on the Call of Duty series alongside many other blockbuster hits! So without further ado, let's learn more!

Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Sure! My name is Mark Kilborn. I'm currently the Audio Director at Raven Software, one of the Call of Duty studios. Early in my career I moved around and worked on several projects including Project Gotham Racing, Borderlands and others, but I eventually settled here. I'm just shy of 10 years with Raven.

My wife and I are both gamers and have been since we were young. We collect games as well.

What was the first console and game you remember playing?

It's hard to say for sure. I have two memories that I think of and I can't remember which was first. It was either playing some 2600 games at my cousins' house when I was super young, or it was Christmas 1985. My father went on a business trip to NYC in Fall of that year, and he picked the NES set with ROB and all the goodies. It was a pretty mindblowing Christmas for me. I still have the system I received that year, and it still works!

What is your fondest childhood video game memory?

There were so many games I loved as a kid, but Metal Gear, Mega Man 2 and Ninja Gaiden on the NES are three that stick out. I played those games a lot. Metal Gear in particular was the game that first made me aware that game sound was a thing that people did for a living.

Since 2006, with Tony Hawk's Project 8 and Bionicle Heroes, you've been working in the video game audio industry. However, prior to that, was this a career you always had a passion for?

Yes! I decided when I was very young that I wanted to do this. Metal Gear was the first game that really caught my attention and made me realize that people did this for a living. I wandered a bit, I even had a false start in college, but in the end I decided to give it a shot and attempt a career as a game sound designer. It worked out, thankfully!

What was it about audio that interested you so much?

With Metal Gear and other games, and films I watched as a kid, I quickly became aware that the sound was influencing the way I was experiencing the game or film. The music is an obvious one as it can be used for tremendous emotional effect. But the sound effects were fascinating too. The satisfaction of the coin pickup sound in Super Mario Bros., Mega Man's teleport sound at the end of a stage, the use of drones and industrial textures in the early Silent Hill games, and a lot of films, particularly the work of Alan Splet and Ann Kroeber, it all just struck me as incredible. I wanted to know how to do it.

As I started learning more in my teens, I started piecing together how this was being done. I discovered that there's a lot of thought and work that goes into it, and that ultimately it's all a sonic illusion: you're fooling people into believing in an experience. I've always loved magicians and magic tricks (though I'm not great at them), but learning how to create and use sound to support an experience and take a player on a journey felt like a way I could be a magician. I've been obsessed with it ever since. And I mean obsessed. 15 years into my career I still stay up late some nights reading trade magazines, technical manuals, reading interviews with sound professionals I aspire to be like, etc. I'm pretty sure this is going to be a lifelong fixation.

Throughout the years, you've held numerous roles as Sound Designer, Audio Lead, and Audio Director. For those unfamiliar, could you describe your role and responsibilities?

An Audio Director is responsible for everything that comes out of the speakers, and all of the efforts required to get there. It's a pretty long list. The sound effects, the music, the dialog, how it's all blended together, how it's all hooked up to the game itself (animations, code, level triggers, you name it). Also: the staff required to get the job done, the budget required for them to get it done, the software and hardware required to get the job done. It's a hybrid of creative direction of a project and management of a team in a sound studio that operates within a larger game development studio.

The Call of Duty projects have largely been collaborative efforts in recent years, so it's a stretch to say that I've been responsible for every sound that comes out of the speakers of every COD game. There's an Audio Director at each COD studio, we all collaborate on the projects, we're responsible for the collective outputs of our teams, and we're responsible for helping the creative directors of each game achieve their vision for the game. In my case, Raven has contributed to a lot of the COD games, so I've had a chance to work with all of the other studios over the years.

Out of all the consoles and games you've worked on, is there a particular favorite that you're most proud to have been a part of?

I've got things I love about just about every game I've worked on, but I have a soft spot for two in particular.

Singularity, when I first started at Raven, was a hell of a lot of fun. It started as a very horror-focused game, but turned into this science fiction action thing that blended first person shooter gameplay with B-movie monsters and characters. I love it so much. I feel like I got to work on a cult classic game, and as a fan of games and films like that, it thrills me that I got to have a small hand in it.

The other is The Club, which I worked on at Bizarre Creations. I didn't do a ton of work on it, but the game itself was such a clever mash up of genres that I was excited to do the little bit I did. It was a weird hybrid of racing game, fighting game and third person action shooter through an arcade lens. I don't think Sega knew how to market it, and it didn't go very far, but it was a hell of a lot of fun to play and a very cool design. I can't think of another game quite like it. And the audio team at Bizarre were just outstanding. I loved working with them in my early days.

Currently, you've been with Raven Software for nearly 10 years! The studio is responsible for one of the biggest franchises in the video game industry, Call of Duty. Taking a look at your resume, you're no stranger to the series so we have to ask: Which Call of Duty is your favorite?

Again this is such a hard question! I have things I love about a lot of them, some as a player, some as a developer. I'm very much a campaign player with a bit of zombies, so my interests definitely lean that way. I loved the campaign of Infinite Warfare, I got very into it when I played through the final build, and hadn't felt that way about a campaign since the Modern Warfare days.

I, of course, love the Modern Warfare campaigns, and I'm excited that I got to be a part of the third one. One of the highlights was the plane crash moment in the campaign, Turbulence. I've got a very fond memory of standing in one of our studios with our senior sound designer Darren, and we were discussing how to pace out every sonic piece of the plane fuselage ripping apart. We mapped it out on a whiteboard. I still love how that turned out.

The Exo Zombies campaign from Advanced Warfare was a lot of fun to work on. I haven't played it since it first released but I was ecstatic when we were working on it. I even buried a sound easter egg in Carrier (third DLC Exo Zombies map) that, as far as I can tell from googling, still hasn't been deciphered. There's a lone YouTube video out there where someone found it in the map and pointed it out, but I've never seen anyone figure out the solution.

I'm also a big fan of Treyarch's zombies games. I'm pretty terrible at them, so I play them a bit then watch the Twitter traffic and YouTube videos to watch people dissect all the easter eggs I'm no good at uncovering. Treyarch are awesome to work with, and I've enjoyed not just playing their zombies' modes but working on some of them as well.

How does it feel to be part of such a growing franchise that has crossed platforms and evolved over the years?

It's a very fun and very interesting place to be. I love working on these games, and I love the people I work with, both at Raven and at the other studios. I love how into the games the fans are. I love assembling the illusion of this huge blockbuster film experience, taking people out of their daily lives and giving them an incredible adventure. I sometimes feel like a little bit of a fish out of water, as my personal gaming tastes tend to go in a very different direction than AAA shooters. We have a lot of FPS enthusiasts, and there are a handful of us who are nerding out about the latest Trails game or weird indie title. So it's odd, but in a good way. I feel like an indie film fan working on Michael Bay films, and I feel pretty strongly that having that perspective gives me a different approach to the devs who live and breathe FPS all the time.

If given the choice, what game (past or present) would you love to work on?My list is so long. But if I had to narrow it down to one, I'd go with Silent Hill 2. For its time, that game made amazing use of sound. Akira Yamaoka is one of my industry heroes, and it would have been amazing to work with and learn from him. But ask me tomorrow and I might pick another game.

Currently, what game(s) are you playing?

I'm always starting games and never finishing them. I'm very bad about that, and having a job and three year old twins makes it worse. It's difficult to make time to sit in front of a console to play for long periods.

The Switch has been an amazing addition to my life though, as I can carry my games with me and play wherever I find little pockets of time. I loved the Vita for this, but the ability to use a real controller and a TV so quickly is even better. My wife, our seven year old and I each have our own Switches, and I've got a dock set up at my studio at Raven, my home studio (where I work sometimes), our game room and our bedroom. So I can play handheld, or drop it in a dock wherever I am if I have a little time, and play.

My current big game is trying to get through a second playthrough of Ys VIII on the Switch. I've also been playing tons of the Hamster arcade releases, I've played a bit of Celeste, Hollow Knight, I've got a Flinthook addiction that I just can't kick, and all of the Devolver releases. I'm wanting to dig into Octopath Traveler, but I want to wrap up Ys VIII before I dive into that.

What are you looking forward to?

Metroid Prime 4. I hope it's good. Shin Megami Tensei V on the Switch. I'm a SMT fanatic, have been for a long time. I'm hoping for another Fallout SP game post-76, but we'll see what happens. It's already out, but I really need to make time to get through Red Dead Redemption 2. And I'm always looking forward to whatever DICE is working on. We have a very friendly relationship with their audio folks, and they do great work, so I love listening to their games every year. Death Stranding. Trails 3. What am I NOT looking forward to? This list could go on forever.

Is there anything else you'd like to share today?

Thanks for reading!

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