About once a week, DigiPen graduates Deepak Chennakkadan and Michael Pitaniello say the entire building where they work starts to shake. Rather than following the earthquake drill and ducking under their desks, they simply keep working and calmly note that, as Pitaniello puts it, “The president has probably stepped out for coffee.” At Redmond’s Turn 10 Studios, makers of Microsoft’s popular Forza Motorsport games, three luxury sports cars sit in the lobby, one of which belongs to studio chief Alan Hartman. “It’s a Black Ford GT he got custom built,” Chennakkadan explains. “When he takes it out, you can hear the entire building vibrate, because the engine is really powerful.”
Weekly vibrations aside, high-end cars and the dynamic, powerful sounds they make are a daily concern for the two alumni, both of whom work on the critically acclaimed Forza Motorsport 7, a game released in 2017 that the studio continues to support with new content. While their day-to-day roles at Turn 10 are somewhat distinct — Pitaniello works as an audio programmer and Chennakkadan as a tools programmer — the two share a lot in common. Both are graduates from the BS in Computer Science and Digital Audio program (Chennakkadan in 2017 and Pitaniello in 2018), and they each attribute their love of sound and music to playing the guitar.
Chennakkadan’s guitar was given to him as a gift by his uncle at age 16, sparking a passion that would lead him to an audio engineering degree in his native India. “After a while, I realized it wasn’t as challenging as I wanted it to be,” Chennakkadan says. Having gained experience with existing audio recording software and plugins, he soon became interested in learning how to actually program and build them himself.
For Pitaniello, who grew up in a musical family in West Virginia, a degree at a state school in musical performance with a focus in guitar led to similar restlessness. “I did performances here and there, started playing weddings, and realized this wasn’t something I could do for my whole life,” Pitaniello says. Supporting himself with web development gigs on the side, a spark went off when Pitaniello found a job listing at Valve for an audio director position. The job required a background in both audio and programming, an overlap between his two interests he hadn’t previously considered.
When Chennakkadan and Pitaniello decided to take the plunge and return to school, each made the same discovery. “There were two, maybe three schools in the entire country that had an audio programming degree,” Pitaniello says. “DigiPen was the way to go.”
Chennakkadan also quickly found himself on DigiPen’s website. “I went through the course curriculum and realized, ‘Oh, this is exactly what I’m looking for and what I want to do. It combines all my passions’ ” Chennakkadan says. “I couldn’t find that anywhere else.”
At DigiPen, both jumped into as many student projects as possible. “One of the things I really liked about the [BS in Computer Science and Digital Audio] program is it was firmly planted both in programming and content creation,” Pitaniello says. “I’ve got as many sound design projects under my belt as I do video game projects from my time there.”
Chennakkadan also found that, thanks to the program, he was able to wear many different hats. “I would take every role that had to do with audio,” he says of his game team experiences, “all the sound design, all the music, all the audio programming, sometimes gameplay and tools programming too.” Despite his audio specialization, his omnivorous appetite would land him the role of creative lead on his final game project, Magnolia.
Today, the two say their work at Turn 10 is actually a lot like DigiPen. Aside from the fact that around 10 other DigiPen alumni currently work at Turn 10 — one of whom, James Farris, helped Chennakkadan land his initial job interview — there are other similarities as well. Both give presentations on their work to the entire studio, much in the same way they had to do so for their DigiPen classes. They also have to communicate outside of their own personal skillsets. Having learned to speak the language of multiple game development disciplines at DigiPen, they’re able to do so more effectively at Turn 10. The two graduates also apply the “fail faster, recover faster” ethic they were taught by their professors, knowing that it’s sometimes best to scrap something and start over or pare back from an overly ambitious scope in order to deliver a viable product on time.
Lastly, both say they encounter one another about as much as they did back in school. “Deepak’s actually been helping us out a lot lately,” Pitaniello laughs. “It’s uncanny.”
As a member of the tools and automation team, Chennakkadan is responsible for building and programming the unique in-house toolsets, software, and editors that content creators, both at Turn 10 and external companies around the world, use to create and implement content for Forza Motorsport 7. “Content creators will send in requests and say, ‘Hey, we need to be able to do this, and it will increase our workflow by a huge margin of time.’ And we build the tools that allow them to do that,” Chennakkadan says. After his manager heard about his passion for sound, Chennakkadan was made responsible for helping the audio team with future tools investments, where he interfaces frequently with Pitaniello.
On that side of the equation, Pitaniello is responsible for helping with the game’s audio systems. “It’s about how we get sounds from the game to the speakers, from point A to point B,” Pitaniello explains of his team’s primary challenge. In a car racing game like Forza Motosport, a series lauded for its hyper realism, that’s no easy feat. In fact, Pitaniello and his team often have to ask themselves an important question: How realistic is too realistic when it comes to the Forza experience?
“You can actually go out and watch drone and cockpit recordings of real races, and it’s loud,” Pitaniello says. “You can’t hear the car next to you it’s so loud.” For the game, he says, the team will typically make certain concessions with the goal of delivering the best player experience. “It becomes a question of, ‘Now that we’ve chosen which sounds are necessary, accurate, and actually add to the game, how do we balance all that together so it’s an enjoyable package?’ You have to account for that so that you’re not just blasting the player.”
Once the ear-blistering realism has been dialed in to an enjoyable level, then come all the complex environmental factors to consider. One feature of Forza Motorsport 7’s intricate audio systems, for example, is how it simulates real-world sound reflection. “Your car makes a bang, and it bounces off a wall or a tunnel or a car driving by and comes back to you,” Pitaniello says. “How do we properly reflect that audio in a 3D world that’s very loud to begin with?”
Then, of course, there’s Forza Motorsport’s changing weather conditions to consider. “So you’ve gone from a bright clear sunny day to — oh, it’s raining and there’s lightning. So now we’ve got to tell our systems … you’ve got rain coming down on the hood. Maybe you don’t even have a hood, or you’ve got wavy wipers or maybe no wipers at all,” Pitaniello says. “It’s all about putting together the specific car you have and seeing how it reacts to the world around it in terms of these audio systems.”
As Pitaniello and Chennakkadan have discovered, the realism in a Forza game isn’t by accident. Much of Turn 10’s staff are real-deal gearheads. One recent staff party was even held on the roof of the company’s garage.
“It was basically everyone from Turn 10 getting out their sports cars and displaying them,” Chennakkadan laughs. “You have all sorts of people who are really into racing for fun and have really good sports cars and try to go to car meetups. The engineering lead, he’s actually a rally driver, so every once in a while he goes to Canada and does a rally race. And my tools lead, he helps him in the pit changing tires. It’s pretty awesome.”