From Cinema to Video Games: A Conversation with Chris Hegstrom – Part 1
“I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was my first introduction into user experience, right? Like a UX or user experience. It’s exactly that. It’s like I could put a microphone out in a storm and then all I get is like, you know, wind distortion and then the gain dipping every time there’s a thunderclap or something, you know, and it just sounds completely, you know, just different levels of noise and it’s not exciting. It’s not interesting at all.” — Chris Hegstrom
This episode’s guest in “From Cinema to Video Games” has had a rewarding and winding journey through the UX sound industry. After a ten-year break to work in product sound, he’s returned to video-game audio. Or was the decade of video game audio before that the exception? Only time will tell. Either way, he’s been creating and presenting audio communication for brands, experiences, products, intellectual properties, and other forms of media for over twenty-five years. A music synthesis major at Berklee College of Music, he got his start doing live sound for Blue Man Group, transitioned to audio for interactive media during the dot-com bubble, and eventually found his way into Triple-A video games by 2001.
For the next eleven years, he designed sound and audio systems for games such as Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Star Wars: Episode 3, Burnout Paradise, God of War 3, and Kinect Adventures. In 2012, he found himself at Microsoft on the incubation team for HoloLens, where he worked on audio experiences and systems that would solve perceptual issues as well as immerse and entertain users. He then transitioned onto the UX team and worked on the sound palate for the HoloLens OS.
In 2015, he left Microsoft to start his own company, Symmetry Audio, delivering product and experience audio for Google, Unity, HBO, and Technicolor as well as a number of smaller, local Seattle clients. Amazon offered him a job as Senior UX Sound Designer in 2017, and he worked there for the Devices and Services group, creating sounds for Fire TV, Alexa, and numerous product endeavors across the company. In 2020, he worked exclusively on Amazon Glow, creating the sound palate and overall audio vision for the product before it was eventually shelved at the end of 2022.
He’s currently the Audio Manager at Insomniac Games, overseeing a team of internal and external sound designers on Wolverine. He hopes to inject some of his UX audio knowledge and process into the games industry by helping his team build connections and solve problems with audio.
His name is Chris Hegstrom, and he has plenty to share when it comes to solving problems with audio.
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(0:00:01) – Early Memories and the Power of Sound
As we start things off, Chris tells us how a lights-out rule and a Walkman that could pick up television signals helped him appreciate the power of sound as a child. “11 o’clock would come,” he says, “I would put my headphones in and you know, in bed, with the lights off and everything like that, close my eyes and listen to the rest of the movie, and basically that was the first time that I had the idea of telling stories with sound.” We also talk about a key difference between working at Blue Man Group shows and designing video-game soundscapes. “With video games,” Chris explains, “you’re almost creating friction for the user, right, because it’s this experience and this past time.”
(0:14:34) – Sound Design in Video Games
Chris talks about his early transition to the gaming industry, and some of the different titles he’s worked on over the years. “Lots of different genres,” he says, “between what they call hack and slash, fantasy, role-playing, sort of Dungeons and Dragons, Lord of the Rings to Star Wars, to James Bond to racing games.” We also talk about his work in UI design and the trick of living up to everyone’s expectations of what something as simple as a menu wheel should actually sound like. “Is it going to be like a ratchety mechanical sound,” Chris asks. “Is it going to be sort of this kind of tonal soft sound? Everyone has a different kind of audio image of what that experience will sound like.”
(0:27:00) – Friction Between Teams in Sound Design
Our conversation turns to some of the myths and challenges of sound design, and, as one example, how much work went on behind the scenes for Windows 10. “It had to be a digital sound,” Chris observes. “It had to be something that, you know, matched with the, the color palette. It had to be something that matched with the flow of the interactions, and so kind of working on that would take, like, the first eleven months, right of those 12 months.” He also tells us what video games taught him about UX audio, and all about the different languages of sound design. “If game audio is like writing a novel,” he explains, “UX sound is like calligraphy. It’s something that stands on its own and really has to communicate everything that it needs to communicate in the most pure form”
(0:33:44) – Designing Mobile Notifications for User Experience
We continue to discuss the intricacies of interface sounds, what they have in common with video games, and how they differ. “The emotional endgame,” he says, “might be the same of what you’re trying to get the user to experience, but the methodology of it is much different.” Chris also tells us about the mistakes UX designs sometimes make, particularly when it comes to fusing it with audio branding. “You don’t want to take up more space,” he adds, “in the user’s head than they want you to.”
- How sound is used to tell stories and guide our emotions in film and daily life.
- Designing video games, understanding your audience, and technology’s impact.
- What video game audio and UX sound design have in common.
- Creating audio branding opportunities without taking up too much space.
Tune in next week as we discuss the sonic evolution of video games from 8-bit chipsets to orchestral productions, how the high-intensity audio effects in racing games helped create some of today’s most recognizable UX designs, and what the future, from 3D audio to AI assistants, might bring.
Connect with the Guest
Connect with Chris Hegstrom on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/chris-hegstrom-15029814/
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This interview episode was very skillfully made to sound beautiful by the talented Humberto Franco.