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