Driv­ing beat

How FOAM is com­bin­ing mu­si­cal lean­ings with a need for speed in Drive Any Track

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How FOAM is fus­ing mu­sic with rac­ing lines in Drive Any Track

Talk­ing to Steve Mil­bourne and Phil Clandil­lon, co-founders of Lon­don­based de­vel­oper FOAM, about their path into game cre­ation feels like an im­promptu trip to the pub. They’re a re­lent­less tag team – two friends with a 15-year his­tory who chat about their achieve­ments offhand­edly (“Steve made a mu­sic video on his mum’s cam­corder and it got on MTV,” says Clandil­lon), as if each step of their mu­sic industry ca­reer in the early days of the In­ter­net was the by-prod­uct of a good night out. But once talk turns to their de­but game, Drive Any Track, ex­per­tise of the sort only long ex­pe­ri­ence pro­vides peeks through

They’re mu­sic buffs first and fore­most, hav­ing spun FOAM out from a col­li­sion of minds in the tech depart­ment at Sony’s mu­sic la­bel. Or rather, they were the tech depart­ment. As Clandil­lon and Mil­bourne tell it, there were pre­cious few peo­ple around the turn of the mil­len­nium who had com­bined the web with mu­sic in a cre­ative ca­pac­ity.

Mil­bourne, the son of pro­gram­mers, fell into it nat­u­rally. “Around the early 2000s,” he says, “I went to work for an in­die record com­pany, and they didn’t even re­ally have the In­ter­net there – they were still just an­swer­ing phones. I got the In­ter­net in and did some dig­i­tal stuff, started cod­ing and de­sign­ing.”

As a web-based graphic de­signer, Clandil­lon found him­self in a sim­i­lar po­si­tion, fid­dling with Flash in ser­vice of in­die dance la­bels be­fore any­one else had the chance. Though the no­tion of ‘get­ting the In­ter­net in’ as be­ing any more in­volved than ring­ing up an ISP is now un­think­able, it caught Sony’s at­ten­tion, and the pair were head­hunted.

“We kind of had free rein,” Clandil­lon tells us, “be­cause Sony said, ‘We don’t know any­thing about all this tech stuff. We’ll give you some money; just go sit in a cor­ner some­where and do it.’”

Quite how their ex­per­i­ments with Flash and PHP mor­phed into a cabi­net of ad­ver­tis­ing awards nei­ther seems sure, but shoe­horn­ing the video for AC/DC’s Rock ‘N’ Roll Train into an Ex­cel spread­sheet as ASCII art spat out one Me­di­aGuardian In­no­va­tion Award, two Cannes Lions, a CLIO, a UK Mu­sic Video Award and over a mil­lion first-week down­loads. Mil­bourne is still be­mused.

“The mar­ket­ing per­son came to see us, gave us a £500 bud­get and said, ‘Can you do some­thing on Face­book for AC/DC?’ They were a to­tal not-dig­i­tal band – they didn’t even have their mu­sic on­line at that point [2008]. But we looked at the mar­ket re­search, and none of the peo­ple who were their fans can re­ally ac­cess Face­book at work.”

“We thought, ‘Right, we can get through the fire­wall by putting some con­tent in Ex­cel,’” Clandil­lon ex­plains. “The dif­fi­culty was pro­gram­ming ASCII to run like a video. We found this Bul­gar­ian guy, Svet, who agreed to do it for about £150. It took him ten min­utes! We con­verted the video line by line into ASCII art and ended up with this mas­sive ar­ray of text, and ev­ery 25 lines we just looped the ar­ray.” FOAM op­er­ated as a side project within Sony for about a year be­fore go­ing solo. And Drive Any Track is the unashamed prod­uct of mu­sic geeks and petrol­heads, com­ing at a time when both founders feel cur­rent con­soles and Steam Early Ac­cess demon­strate po­ten­tial for mu­sic games be­yond hit­ting things on rhythm. Their cus­tom en­gine, the Mu­si­cal En­vi­ron­ment Gam­ing Al­go­rithm (MEGA), pulls out the ‘big mo­ments’ from any track in a mu­sic li­brary and gen­er­ates a course that fol­lows the ebb and flow of the song.

“We started by us­ing a plat­form called the Echo Nest,” Clandil­lon tells us, “which was avail­able on­line. It was an API, and it re­turned mu­sic anal­y­sis data. We started to use that as some build­ing blocks to build race­tracks and stuff.”

“Echo Nest were re­ally good with us,” Mil­bourne says, “and then they got bought by Spo­tify, who shut it down for pub­lic use.”

FOAM was forced to write its own tech, and fol­lowed that up with sev­eral mas­sive data­base wipes, oblit­er­at­ing ev­ery player-gen­er­ated track when MEGA was found to be spit­ting out im­pos­si­ble stunts. Early Ac­cess pun­ters are not renowned for their pa­tience, but FOAM has got al­most all its early adopters on side, and the team swears by the process.

“We’d never have been able to get a sam­ple size big enough to test all the pro­ce­dural gen­er­a­tion,“says Mil­bourne. “There were 100,000 songs in the data­base when we wiped it. Even if we got a test­ing com­pany in, they wouldn’t be able to con­vert that many songs.”

Con­fronted with their easy pas­sion for games and mu­sic, and their will­ing­ness to drop or ex­per­i­ment with fea­tures at the com­mu­nity’s be­hest, it’s hard to imag­ine some­thing like a few data­base wipes sour­ing FOAM’s stand­ing. The pair’s heav­ing tro­phy case and the ex­per­tise nec­es­sary to busk some­thing like MEGA are masked en­tirely by the feel­ing that FOAM be­longs among the fans.

MEGA pulls out the ‘big mo­ments’ from mu­sic and gen­er­ates cour­ses that fol­low the ebb and flow

FROM TOP FOAM co-founders Phil Clandil­lon and Steve Mil­bourne

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