Uelmen Talks History with ShackNews

Matt Uelmen, composer of music and sound for past Diablo games, and now the up-coming and much anticipated Torchlight, which has been starting a buzz among the Diablo community, had an interview with ShackNews' Nick Breckon last Friday. We will start off with the most pertinent to us as gamers, and that is where he began his gaming history:

Quote from ShackNews »
Shack: What was your relationship to gaming back then? Did you play a lot of games growing up?

Matt Uelmen: I was born the exact summer that Pong [became] the first big commercial video game, back in the early 70s. So I kind of always felt it was in the background. My first console was an Atari 2600 when I was about maybe ten years old. So that was definitely my first experience with that, and I got to see the... I was the target age of the golden age of coin-ops, because in a lot of ways the coin-up world had its peak in '83 and '84, much like the 2600 had its peak around the same time. And then Time Warner kind of crashed when Pac-Man was over-manufactured. It's funny how it's ancient history. [laughs] But that was certainly the backdrop of my childhood, and I love those games.

That would mean Uelmen is now pushing forty and still at work in the video game industry, albeit with a brief break after 2007. It's easy to see how, combined with his talent, he came to be where he is today. Skip forward through a college life of American Studies and rocking out with a locally-brewed band en bar and we see how he managed to hook up with Diablo I's company, Condor:

Quote from ShackNews »
Shack: Was it always your goal to become a video game composer specifically?

Matt Uelmen: You know, it was more just a nagging idea that I had around the time I was graduating from college in '93. [...] I just remember having a sense that I definitely wanted to be in music for a living, I definitely enjoyed games. I liked the idea of trying to get into an industry that had so much potential. And it was really good timing too, because I actually managed to squeeze into the business in a real lull, in 1994, when both the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis had kind of fizzled out.

Shack: How did you end up at Condor, which eventually became Blizzard North?

Matt Uelmen: I ended up at Condor because I had a document from Nintendo that listed all of the third-party developers. One of the companies listed there was DTMC, which was a place that [future Blizzard/ Flagship developer] Matt Householder was working in. And I talked to Matt, and he said, "Well, actually we're not doing any development here." I think they were mostly distributing Japanese titles, but I'm not positive. The company itself is based in Hong Kong.

But he said, "I know a bunch of young guys that are starting something up very close to me here in Redwood City, and you should visit them." So I did, and my first meeting with Dave Brevik and the Schaefer brothers was them tearing apart a version of 3DO football, and talking about how absolutely horrible it was. [laughs] It was an interesting experience, just because of how unusual these guys were. Most of my experience that month, in terms of dropping off my demo tape, was giving it to some nice secretary, and maybe I'd see kind of a small development pit with a dozen guys in the background. [...] But eventually I kept on bugging them, and they gave me a job. And I'm still working with Max now, after all these years, at Runic.

Uelmen went on to reminisce about working on an unfinished NFL title and Justice League for the Sega Genesis, in which he actually did a voice-over, then:

Quote from ShackNews »
Shack: How did Condor make the leap from doing Justice League Task Force to something as ambitious as Diablo?

Matt Uelmen: Well, we had a lot of help from Blizzard. I think, in terms of the Blizzard legacy, [Blizzard co-founder] Allen Adham was kind of the main genius behind the whole story. He was always a low-profile kind of guy, so you don't hear his name very often. But in terms of all the great things that Blizzard has done, and definitely did when I was there, especially in that era, Allen was a big part of making that happen. So we had great help from guys like Allen down there, and the guys that ended up founding the Guild Wars series of course, Mike O'Brien and Pat Wyatt, and I think Jeff Strain went with them. Those three guys were really important in terms of putting the Diablo series together, especially Mike and Pat.

And so having their help, having a lot of really great story work from Chris Metzen--who was just kind of a young kid like I was at the time--really helped put it together. Those guys were a little more experienced, in that they'd already released the first Warcraft PC game, and had done a good dozen or so ports of different titles. It was a really good combination. I think both the original Diablo and Diablo II really were what they were because you had the kind of Blizzard Irvine polish and work ethic, and technical capability and QA, combined with the Bay Area quirkiness and personality. Those really were the two elements that put it together. It doesn't work without either half, in my opinion.

It's interesting to see how all of these different people finally came together from different backgrounds to ultimately create the game we praise today and the game company that now has income larger than some countries, small and modest as it was back in the day. Perhaps some day one of you will have an interview and be able to look back nostalgically at DiabloFans. You know you want to.

Quote from ShackNews »
Shack: What was the first thing you wrote for Diablo? How did you approach that project?

Matt Uelmen: The first stuff I wrote for Diablo in terms of dungeon music was a real disaster. It was kind of all over the place. It was like, trying to do a full fake orchestra really badly, because I had no idea how to do it, on the one hand. And then doing this really cheesy, amped-up heavy metal stuff, that sounded like this really kind of... direct input guitar. The first half-year of working on that, all my attempts at action music were just really bad.

I did have Tristram more or less in my mind, just from previous stuff I had done. That was relatively easy. That was mostly just based on noodling around on my 12-string. I pretty much knew where that was going from the very beginning. But I didn't really get the formula right for the dungeon music until I got over the idea of trying to do a traditional fantasy thing, and more embraced the idea of just trying to have fun with big percussion and big guitar sounds.

Shack: It's funny, because I think that's what sets that score apart. Getting away from the big fantasy thing, which was certainly overdone then--and still is, really.

Matt Uelmen: [...] When I think of that medieval vibe, I think of the mid-70s folky stuff, that Led Zeppelin did on Led Zeppelin III.

He talks about the approach he has to music, that it is more of an abstract and open-ended feeling that he tries to imbue in to his art, and then goes on to talk of his work with sound effects, which he also did minorly in Starcraft, to which he said the trick is "it's hard to do something that a player is going to hear literally thousands of times". I'm sure we can all relate to hearing spells in Diablo and Diablo II spammed left and right. Finally, they moved on to discussion about Uelmen's work with Diablo II:

Quote from ShackNews »
Shack: Let's tackle Diablo II. How early did you start working on that?

Matt Uelmen: Oh, very early. It was a long project, actually. We pretty much knew we were going to make a sequel as soon as Diablo was released. The first year was actually really, really hard, because our ownership of our ownership was a company called Cendant, which was involved in probably the biggest stock market scandal up to that point. Basically it was similar to Enron in a lot of ways, a few years before Enron. So that was intensely demoralizing. And we had already started to hemorrhage some people that were really significant.

It's actually kind of been buried in history for whatever reason, but a bunch of guys from around that time, the Cendant scandal, started a studio called Fugitive. And then there was another studio called Spark Unlimited that was also founded, and the guy on that team, Ben Haas, was the animator of the original Diablo. So it kind of hurt to see him go, in terms of losing something that was that core. He was also involved with a lot of iconic Diablo animations, of the monsters especially. He really kind of gave Diablo this boxer personality that he has.

To which he commented that animation was a large part of the feel of Diablo II, since 2D lends itself more easily to atmospheric setting and animation.

Quote from ShackNews »
Shack:[...] It's a more global soundtrack, you're obviously pulling from more influences. Act II in particular, you've got that great Harem track later into the act, and I know you did some session work with a percussionist for that act.

Matt Uelmen: Mustafa Waiz, right? Yeah, yeah. Mustafa was a friend of Scott's, and I have not seen him since we did that session. But he was actually an Afghan. This was three years before that giant Buddha statue was blown up there and any American really knew what Afghanistan was, unless they had a doctorate in British history, or had a sense of recent Russian history. But I didn't really think much about that; I was amazed by his musicianship. And he's actually not used on that Harem track; he is the basis for the desert stuff. Probably the better stuff. I can see people not liking the disco-y part of the desert stuff, but the more interesting of that stuff is based around his hand-drum playing. It was a real privilege to be able to work with him. I hope he's doing well, wherever he is.

Shack: Yeah, that desert stuff is great. And did you do a session with a female vocalist for that Harem track?

Matt Uelmen: That was just from a stock CD, Heart of Asia, from Spectrosonics. That was just me chopping up a sample CD. I think people could have some kind of interesting image of a woman doing a session and wailing away, but it was just squeeky old me in front of my computer. An interesting story about that though, is she actually... the original track has quarter-tones in it, and I actually had to tune all those out. The reason it sounds a little more palatable to Western ears is that I had to go phrase by phrase and make some of the quarter-tones into semitones. It would seem horribly out of tone if you would hear the original because with our cultural conventions, we don't really know how to listen to quarter-tones.

What's this? The wailing lady from the Harem isn't a hundred percent organic from the Diablo team? Ah, well, I hadn't noticed and I'm sure it fooled a good amount of players for the last decade. It would have been interesting to hear how it would of sounded without being fiddled with, though I'm sure Uelmen knows infinitely better what should and shouldn't be put in to a Western video game. They then moved on to progress with Lord of Destruction, the first and final expansion to Diablo II to date:

Quote from ShackNews »
Shack: How quickly did you move onto Lord of Destruction?

Matt Uelmen: Lord of Destruction was only released a year later, and I didn't have the town music or the Wilderness music wrapped up on Diablo II until January 2000. So Lord of Destruction, I guess I was writing for it as of September that year, and then we did the orchestral session for Slovakia in January. But that was also a very short soundtrack. I didn't write very much music for it. It pretty much needed those two good pieces.

Shack: And that was your first time working with a full orchestra?

Matt Uelmen: Yeah, that was definitely working with a genuine, full-on orchestra. It was a pretty terrifying experience. It was great working with [conductor] Kirk Trevor. The musicianship there is really amazing. Actually both times I worked with Kirk Trevor and the Slovaks, I wrote it straight on paper--I didn't preview it with any MIDI files. So I was kind of making it much, much scarier for myself than anybody would.

Shack: Is that something you enjoyed enough to where you want to do more orchestral stuff in the future, or do you prefer doing more personal work?

Matt Uelmen: Oh, I absolutely do hope I get to do more in the future. That's kind of why I hope at least 10 or 20 percent of the people that play Torchlight actually buy it. [laughs] So I can afford to do it next year. Yeah, it's a lot fun. Any time you try to get a real musical phrase out of a sample, as much as I'm really amazed by how good the piano library I'm using can be, it's still always a struggle in terms of getting that kind of musicianship... the way an orchestra can really think about a phrase, intonation... it's much easier to do with a live group. It's actually kind of counter-intuitive, because due to a number of factors, recording with an orchestra here in the States is really expensive. But in a lot of ways, it's actually cheaper and easier just to get a big group and do it right live, instead of trying to jam samples into sounding like they're not samples.

The interview then went on to the dramatic break-up of Blizzard North and the dissipation of many of its greatest contributors to their various newer companies and Uelmen's work on World of Warcraft and his transition to work on Torchlight with Runic. His work, however, will live on with us from Diablo and Diablo II, as well as Diablo III.


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