INTERVIEW: Rob Hubbard

He probably didn’t realise it at the time, but in the 80s and early 90s, Rob Hubbard was gradually composing his way into video games history.

He’s behind the soundtracks for some of the best loved games of that era and although the word ‘iconic’ can be thrown around, when it comes to Rob’s work it almost feels like an understatement.

How did you get started in writing music for video games?

I was working as a professional musician in the 80s I just kept hearing that computers were going to be huge. I just happened to get a C64 and started learning programming.

I taught myself Assembly language and I thought that educational software was going to be a big thing, so I wrote some…and basically that didn’t happen!

I started looking at the games side of things and started writing one of those instead. Unfortunately the company I was involved with went bust just as I was finishing it.

The people who did see the game said it was rubbish, but the music was really good! I thought there might be an opening to do game music because it was pretty ropey on some of the early releases!

I then did a mail out to all the companies I could find in the magazines and about six months later I got offered a job to do a game. I then did Thing on a Spring for Gremlin Graphics and it kind of snowballed from there.

How challenging was it to develop music for 8-bit systems?

It was a challenge because before I was doing that I was working with synths, 4 track tape recorders and things like that so suddenly having just 3 channels made me have to think in a completely different way.

You get into a different mindset about doing these things, realising straight away what the limitations are and it’s basically just a lot of hard work and being very tenacious about editing things to the nth degree to try to get as much as you can out of what’s available.

You’re a musician by trade, how different was the process of coming up with music for video games compared to using instruments or more traditional systems?

The actual process of coming up with music is the same in a lot of ways actually. You need to have a little seed of an idea. You need to have something that gives that idea a springboard so it can take off.

For me a lot of time I’d be improvising on a keyboard and when I came up with something I’d write it down on manuscript paper so I didn’t forget it and then I’d code it up.

How closely did you work with the developers to compose the right soundtrack?

It varied a lot. Sometimes I’d actually get on the train and visit the programmer to get a look at what they were actually doing, what direction things were going and what period of history the game was set in. We’d go into some detail about what they were trying to do and then I would try to reflect that in the music.

At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes I’d just get a phone call to be told “we’re doing this game, this is the title”. I’d ask a couple of questions and that’s all I’d know.

In some cases I’d do the music but I hadn’t seen the game and wouldn’t even see the finished product.

Abertay has always been a leading university in developing the education of what’s required for video games.
Rob Hubbard | Abertay University | Honorary Graduate

How did it feel to receive your honorary degree at Abertay?

It was a great honour. It took me completely by surprise and I was just blown away by it to be honest.

What advice do you have for students hoping to break in to the industry?

I think you have to be incredibly intelligent. You need to be extremely passionate about what you’re doing and you need to understand that the creative process is not an individual thing anymore. In other words you need to be prepared to leave your ego at the door when you’re working for some of the bigger companies because even though you might have lots of creative ideas they might not welcome your creative input. In some ways that’s a bit sad because it never used to be like that.

You also need to be prepared to work incredibly long, difficult hours and if you’re writing code you have to be prepared to pad out your schedules by about 30% because you’re going to get some really nasty code bugs that’ll be difficult to track down.

How important do you feel Abertay has been to the video game industry?

Abertay has always been a leading university in developing the education of what’s required for video games. When I was up there I was quite surprised at just how much Abertay is on the cutting edge of some of the newer technologies like VR.

I was quite blown away by that.

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