On Sound Design and Goodwill



While working on an upcoming scene, we discovered a need for a classic ‘Spin n’ Say’ toy to be created, with which the player will interact. It’s been a while since I played with this kind of toy, and after a brief search around the house I remembered how few of my sons’ toys make noise (you gotta do what you can to stay sane). A few seconds on the internet later, I was well-reminded of how this toy works: pull a lever, a dial spins, and delightful low-fi narration and animal noises ensue. In our toy’s case, there’s also some buttons and an extra lever.

Some of these sounds are simple to make, basically put a microphone in front of something and press record. A few edits and minimal processing, and there you have it. So, I figured I’d head to the thrift store and see what they had. At first I saw nothing like what I needed - almost everything was digital with very few mechanics (no buttons, no moving lever, etc). I was about to leave when I threw some toys to the side in frustration, and the perfect toy was revealed. Lever…check. Spinning dial…check. Unbelievably annoying sounds coming from a tiny speaker inside a cheap plastic case with a happy farmer on it…CHECK.


Once back at the studio, my first priority was to get the batteries out of this thing. I’d need to be able to pull the lever and isolate the mechanical sounds I wanted. A few minutes of recording and editing later, and that work was done. I then wondered how to approach making our own narration and animal sounds, and most importantly how to make them sound like the toy. I have lots of tricks up my sleeves (ie; effect plug-ins and hardware), but was concerned with the time it might take to mimic the toy via processing,  and my declining mental health over that course of time.

Glancing down at the toy, which was face down with its guts hanging out the back, I realized I could probably add an audio input without much fuss. Then, mimicking the toy would be as easy as pressing play and putting a microphone in front of it. Thanks to the general state of things in my studio, my soldering iron/hacking tools were already out and ready to go. About 10-15 minutes later, I sent out a recording of a team-favorite track made through the toy. After a few very silly late-night voiceover sessions with Mike, we had our toy fully-realized in the game.


With all the fancy tools we have these days, I often forget about more organic, natural approaches. I’d probably still be tweaking some knob on an EQ, or auditioning impulse responses, if I hadn’t have just hacked that toy. Now I have a new tool on the shelf for whenever I need that ‘awesome’ sound again, and the world can rejoice in having one less Farmer whatever-his-name-is toys in circulation.


We haven’t talked about it publicly, but back in June of 2013, we were contacted by a documentary film director who had seen a one-liner mention of our game on killscreen, and was interested in finding out if we’d be open to letting them come out and visit our family in order that he and his partner might produce a documentary about the making of the game.

Thus began the production of the film “Thank You For Playing.”

You wouldn’t think it so, since our family has been so public and in the news about sharing the game, and we’ve been part of a web-based documentary before, but letting a film crew in to our personal, creative and professional lives was a little scary.  We are not the producers of this film.  It is independent of us.  Before this project, we did not know David and Malika, but we decided It was important that people see the parts of our lives in-between the scenes of the game.  Life happens in the middle and so does death.  David and Malika were with our family the three days leading up to Joel’s passing.

They recently posted a teaser trailer announcing the film, and have set up a facebook and web site to promote their project.  We hope you’ll support them.


On Work, Joy and Love.

In the midst of all of the struggle and pain in this last year, our family experienced a lot of joy.  I think that would likely be one of the most surprising aspects of our family life to one outside looking in.  

Joel’s illness often tethered us to our home for long stretches of time.  While I went to work, Amy would often spend many consecutive days driving more than an hour each way to Denver and back from Children’s Hospital; spending most of each day with Joel and one or more of our children in a tiny treatment room while Joel received chemo or waited for tests.

So when we received good news or had breaks in treatment, we loved to take long road trips as a family. 

One of the longer trips we took lasted two weeks and took us from Colorado to Washington, down the Coast of California to San Diego and back through Arizona.  I will always treasure our road trips, eating pizza in swim trunks at the local hotel; all six of us sleeping in a room with narrow; hard beds; driving for hours at a time through redwood forests and snowy mountain roads in van that smelled of 4 very messy boys, their toys and fast food wrappers, and dance parties.

One of the other blessings that has been mixed into my life is the ability to support my family and the cost of treatment through work on “That Dragon Cancer” as a full time job.  When I started this project with Josh, I had plenty of code experience, but very limited 3d artistic ability.

As you see from this picture, the uncanny valley is very real, and I was slipping from the ledge.  Over the last year, I’ve had the pleasure of throwing myself fully into work as an artist for the first time.  Working with Josh and Nat and Ryan, and learning and experimenting,  writing and drawing and sharing our story with the world has been tremendously fulfilling.

 And I’m grateful, that even though my skill does not yet match my taste, that we have the opportunity to honor Joel through this project, as well as the time and resources to create something beautiful and that gets more beautiful the longer we work on it.  This is especially vital to me now as we grieve; having the chance to throw all of my ability, and love, into work that matters to me has never been more important to my health and the health of my family.

I hope that this post encourages you, first that choosing work that matters too much to let yourself fail and choosing to go after it even when your skill doesn’t match your taste, is work worth completing.

This isn’t just my art, this is our art, and I think that is an important distinction.

It’s built on the experiences we choose to share together, and the beauty we choose to make together.

Create with each other, Learn from each other, Love one another.  It’s worth it.

We have some big news to share with you.  We are launching That Dragon, Cancer on the game console OUYA in 2014.  Additionally, OUYA has chosen to invest in the game to assist with development costs and ensure our game gets made.

If you haven’t heard of the OUYA (pronounced “ooh-ya”) yet, here’s the pitch:  OUYA is an open, indie-loving, Android-based, affordable ($100 US) micro game-console that hooks up to your television.

Why the Living Room first?

If you’ve read about our game at all, it may come as a surprise to you that we’d choose to bring That Dragon, Cancer to the living room first.  The living room is typically a gathering place.  It is likely not the first place you’d choose to play a dramatic adventure game dealing with the subject of childhood cancer… and perhaps for many, this game may be too personal an experience in the presence of others.  

Our hope, however, is that while this may be a personal experience, that it will be a shared experience.

We’ve taken our demo to very large conventions like the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, a business mixer at a cigar bar, a salon at the “Unwinnable mansion,” the Sensory Overload that is E3 in Los Angeles, Games for Health in Boston, and the indie-sponsored Gamescape in Baltimore.  My sister represented us in the UK at the Eurogamer and RockPaperShotgun sponsored Rezzed in Birmingham, and the awesome team at Second Impact Games stood in our place at the Develop conference in Brighton.  

As I’m sure they all can attest, the neatest part about showing the game in public is the conversation afterwards.  We’re finding that when you share your heart with people, they want to share their heart with you, even in the middle of a loud convention-center floor.  That’s what we want to do.  We want to create a safe space for people to talk about hard things.  

We can’t think of a safer place to share in meaningful conversation, food, laughter, and yes, even video games than your living room.


Why the OUYA?

If you’ve followed the often turbulent launch of the OUYA, you may be wondering why we’re partnering with such an outspoken upstart.  Well, the short answer is, they have the guts to make something they believe in, in an industry that is stacked against their success.  They aren’t complaining about what the industry should be, instead, they’re making it in their image.

Making games is a tough business.  It’s expensive, and competitive, and it’s often brutal and unforgiving.  The television game console has been a platform that few indies have had success in. It is prohibitively expensive for most indie studios to publish and high development costs prevent most publishers from taking the risk with a “game” that, say, explores the trials, joys, and tears of fighting childhood cancer.

We needed a partner willing to take a chance on us, and who was able to see the interactive medium for what it is capable of and not just for its current market trends.

At this point, you might think we’re stacking the deck against ourselves by launching on a console in its infancy.  Perhaps.  The road has been rocky so far for OUYA.

But we believe in what they’re trying to do, and we believe in the people doing it.  Dealing with hard things, and building new things is not easy.  Especially when the world is expecting failure but holding their breath for success.  

We believe there is a space for game experiences like ours alongside the space marine shooter and the next candy sorting game.  The OUYA presents us with an opportunity to shape that space by bringing our game to a round table that equally values the scrappy upstart with the established publisher.  We believe when other developers do the same and when gamers and non-gamers in a family living room can experience what we’re creating, the conversation about what games are and what they can be will expand.

The OUYA team put their hearts and their money and their reputations and the contributions of 63,416 people who believed in what they’re doing at stake to create something special.   

We want to build it with them.