Although Kevin Regaemy is a musician whose tunes have been heard by millions around the world, most people wouldn’t know his name.
You can't download it off iTunes and you won't hear his records spun by DJs at the local dance halls. To hear what Kevin does, you have to plug in a controller and insert a disc: because Kevin makes the music and soundscapes for video games as the co-founder of Vancouver’s Power Up Audio.
But for someone who's dedicated his adult life to video games, Kevin, 30, does not look or act as one would imagine a stereotypical gamer. He is friendly and not at all nervous to talk. The sleek trim of his beard is only matched by the slim cut of his suit. But as soon as he does speak, you'll realize that Kevin bleeds pixels.
“It was the Christmas tradition, my dad would get us all the parts for a computer, but would wrap them all separately," Kevin recounts.
"We had games but had to wait to play them, until we got that screaming machine up and running!"
Kevin’s dad was an entrepreneur, but coded computers as a hobby. Playing games was a family event. After this self-described "game-centric" upbringing, what's a hobby for most is an obsession for Kevin. By way of example, Kevin often spends his time speed-running: a style of gameplay where gamers spend years re-playing and mastering a game to complete it as fast as humanly possible.
He held the world record for running a game called Brothers. Normally, it takes over three hours to finish. Kevin can finish it in under half of that.
Kevin has a strategy for everything, whether it’s gaming or his other passion: music. He's played piano and the trumpet for decades, and he’s always known he wanted to combine his love of music with his love of video games. Even when he was a teenager, Kevin went through the arduous process of editing the sound files of his favorite games. For fun.
“My friends and I would be playing Worms; Armageddon, and when they’d yell ‘Incoming!’ we’d hear it in my voice,” Kevin says.
“It was pretty damn cool.”
He came to Vancouver in 2008 to pursue a career in video game audio. After a one year program in audio engineering, Kevin signed on with a major game studio and started what could have been an illustrious career working on blockbuster titles which would go on to sell millions of copies.
Kevin despised it.
His face scrunches up and he goes to great effort not to name the studio, but you can see in his eyes three long years of being stuck in a dead-end job.
“There was no artistic control, and it was very disconnecting,” he says, “It was about getting the work done, not the quality of work.”
“It was ‘creative,’ but not the kind of creative I needed.”
Kevin is passionate about his obsessions and his art. Following orders as an underling wasn’t going to cut it; Kevin wanted to be the final boss. There was one serendipitous benefit to the job, however. It was at this large studio that he first met Geoff Tangsoc. Kevin and Geoff worked closely on a few projects together, and had the same obsessive attitude towards video games.
When Geoff admitted he could beat Megaman 3 literally blindfolded, Kevin knew they were going to have a lasting friendship. But three years after they started working together, Geoff could no longer handle being just one part of the assembly line. So Geoff quit in spring of 2012.
Geoff was gone. And Kevin was working in the field of which he’d always dreamed, in one of Canada’s biggest cities for game production, at one of the largest and most well know studios in the world. The decision for him was easy.
Two months later Kevin quit too.
Kevin and Geoff were now were unemployed, albeit extremely talented, audio gamers. They were sitting on three years’ worth of savings that can only come from being bachelors in a boom software business. According to a 2015 report by the Entertainment Software Association of Canada, the business of game development has risen by 31% over the past three years, with 143 new active studios opening in the same period of time. Behind Montreal, Vancouver was the largest city in Canada for game development, and many independent creators were starting studios.
All the pieces were sitting there wrapped up, waiting to become a screaming machine.
That summer, Geoff and Kevin drew up the plans for their business: working as contractors to develop and perfect the soundscapes for the games of other studios. They strategized for a long time before making their decision. Months of deliberations, the setting of goals, and the creation of a five year plan. They put up a large amount of their own cash, and for the rest, gathered capital from family and friends. That fall, they would incorporate as a small business, giving themselves the wonderfully nerdy moniker: Power Up Audio.
At the time, they were also terrified out of their fucking minds.
“Hell yeah I was nervous. It’s a hard industry,” Kevin says, “"I'm a confident guy, and so is Geoff, but failure was very realistic."
Kevin and Geoff decided to focus on one of their biggest strengths over comparably experienced engineers: they knew games and they loved games. They made a six minute comedy reel of sound effects and recorded voice, in the vein of a radio drama.
“They were all just inside jokes about games,” Kevin explains, “like a drill sergeant saying ‘here’s your standard issue combat knife, effective range zero to fifty metres, depending on your internet connection.’”
“That was our first time ‘faking it’ until we could make it.”
Although the reel had a positive reception, there was still the issue of finding and contracting actual work. At one point, Kevin had a rolodex of over 800 different developers he’d contacted for work. The majority of which never called back.
“We just had to grin and bear it,” Kevin says, “it was tough.”
Luckily for Kevin and Geoff, their breakout hit was not far away. Game developer and friend Matt Thorson brought them on to do the audio for a Playstation game he was developing called Towerfall; Ascension. Thorson ended up selling the exclusive rights of the game to Sony in a multi-million dollar deal, and with Sony’s promotion, it became extremely popular. Thorson was now a millionaire, and both Kevin and Geoff had a massive hit to start their portfolio.
The next big game they worked on was Crypt of the NecroDancer, a dungeon-crawling adventure where all fighting and movement is set to an ever-changing drumbeat. It was a project that seamlessly blended music and gameplay together, and with that, Kevin finally got to crack his fingers, exercise his creative chops, and take the reins of the controller; Ready player one, press start to begin.
Kevin was finally challenged in a way worthy of his obsessive nature. How do you take sounds normally melodic or drawn out (a creaking door, a zombie’s moan, or the draw of an arrow) and turn them into quick, percussive beats? It took long hours sitting at a synthesizer and a microphone in his home studio
His favorite story from development, however, was when Kevin suggested an entirely new feature for implementation.
“I turned to the developers and asked, what with every successive hit of the sword, [the hero] cries out, like in Legend of Zelda,” Kevin remembers, and proceeds to demonstrate: “Hip! Hap! Hyap! KYAAAH!”
Crypt of the NecroDancer went onto success as well, even getting nominated for three major awards, two of which were for its audio composition. Work kept coming to Power Up, and with it, more success. In fact, for such a relatively young business, Power Up has been extremely successful.
“We just turned three and a half,” Kevin says, “We had our five year plan and that’s in the past. We’ve already blown past it.”
“We didn’t have girlfriends, we didn’t have social lives. We just worked, worked, worked, and it’s all paid off.”
The most recent payoff for Kevin and Power Up was their work on a game called Darkest Dungeon. It’s a game that’s near perfect for Kevin; it’s ridiculously difficult, it requires long hours of practice and dedication, but that just makes success beyond rewarding. It was released this past January to critical acclaim and has sold over half a million copies.
Moreover, it was nominated for the February Independent Games Festival awards in a majority of the categories, including excellence in audio design. Kevin and Power Up got to travel to Vegas to help promote the game and Sony has its sights set on it for a major purchase. Power Up also continues to receive wave after wave of contracts. They are currently booking late into the summer of 2016.
By no means does Kevin discount how important the accolades, the awards, and the success of his business are to him. But Kevin just wants to work on audio, work on games, and practice his art.
“We’re basically all things by which you measure success or happiness,” Kevin comments right before he heads back to work.
“Our souls are nourished.”