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Game Developers Conference: Ask Me Anything about being a video game music composer

Leading up to her lecture during the upcoming GDC 2021 event, composer Winifred Phillips offers highlights from her Ask-Me-Anything session from GDC Summer. Topics include looping strategy, composer workflow, team dynamics, recurring themes, & networking.

Winifred Phillips, Blogger

June 14, 2021

19 Min Read

Promotional photo used in connection with the Ask Me Anything session with video game music composer Winifred Phillips, taking place as a part of GDC Summer.

By Winifred Phillips  |  Contact  |  Follow

Hey everyone!  I'm videogame composer Winifred Phillips.  GDC 2021 is coming this July 19th to the 23rd, and I'm excited that I'll be giving a talk during this year's conference!  My talk is called, "From Spyder to Sackboy: A Big Adventure in Interactive Music," and I'll be sharing more details about my talk as the conference gets nearer.  Once again, GDC will be a fully virtual game industry event this year.  I think all of us who have participated in GDC's awesome online events over the past year have really enjoyed the experience.  Considering the long list of structural and logistical changes that had to be made, it's amazing how smoothly everything went!  Over this difficult year, these virtual GDC events have nurtured a sense of community, offered lots of great content, and helped us all feel a little less isolated.  In addition to the virtual Game Developers Conference main event, GDC also offered a special GDC Summer conference in August, and this is when they first introduced the live Ask-Me-Anything sessions that will be making a return during the upcoming GDC 2021 conference.  I got the chance to jump into one of these Ask-Me-Anything sessions last year, and it occurs to me that folks who never got a chance to attend that GDC Summer event might like to get a taste of what one of these Ask-Me-Anything sessions were like.  With that in mind, I thought it might be helpful to post a partial transcript of my session here.  What follows are some edited extracts from my full Ask-Me-Anything Q&A.  The session was hosted and expertly moderated by journalist Alissa McAloon (pictured below) of the popular Gamasutra site, who fielded questions from the audience members participating in chat.   So here are the transcript highlights from our session!

Photograph of journalist Alissa McAloon of Gamasutra.com, conducting the Ask Me Anything session for GDC Summer 2020 - included in the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips.Alissa McAloon: Our speaker today is the prolific game composer Winifred Phillips. You might recognize her work from franchises like Assassin’s Creed, God of War, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, and The Sims. So, I guess we’ll just jump right into it here and then we’ll pull some questions from chat. How does game composition differ from other areas of music composition?

Winifred Phillips: Game composition is a different philosophy. The game engine has to essentially be able to take the music apart and put it back together in different ways. That’s really interesting, because as a video game composer it means I’m not thinking about beginnings and middles and ends. I’m thinking about states of being, of activity, of thought, of action… of ways to feel at any particular moment. You express that musically, and then you create a whole assortment of those kinds of musical statements that can be then assembled into its own vocabulary. A kind of peculiar grammar.

McAloon: Whole complicated beast, because with most narrative, you have that beginning, and middle and end… and that’s your safety blanket. But not having that in music seems a little intimidating.

Phillips: It’s true. When I first started, it was hard to get your head around – the idea of creating music that seems interesting and involved and has a lot to say, and yet isn’t giving you signposts that are pointing towards the direction that you’re heading. Because when you create big set-piece moments within a musical composition, then it really draws attention to itself. Especially if the music was designed to loop.  A representation of looping musical content in video games, as included in the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips.Then you can feel the repetition happening, and that’s a big issue to deal with structurally. You want to make sure that the music feels natural, as if it were being created specifically for the gamer’s experience. You don’t want to give away the magic trick that’s going on underneath. You have to keep in mind the unique nature of video game music when you’re creating it, so it functions well within the construct of gaming itself.

McAloon: From chat, we have a question: have you ever had to make music for a game without seeing what it looks like? If so, what is that process like?

Phillips:  Yeah, yeah, that actually happens quite a lot! More than you’d think. And I think it has a lot to do with the way in which game development happens. If you’re creating music for a film, you tend to be brought in when the film is somewhere near its final cut. You’re not creating music for the film while it’s being shot, or while it’s in preliminary edits. The composer needs to know what the final beats are – how the shots are going to go. But games tends to be in development when I’m brought in, and sometimes there isn’t anything playable yet. Or if there is, its early character designs, with the arms jutting straight out, A depiction of the famous "t-pose" from video game development, as illustrated in the article by Winifred Phillips (video game music composer).and just floating over an abstract-looking geometrical grid. It gives me no idea of what the game is going to look like or feel like. And you have to be able to cope with that… kind of plumb the depths of your own imagination to kind of fill in those gaps. Research really does help a lot, because we have to bring our own inner life to the envisioning of what it is we’re scoring, when we don’t have those kinds of visual helpers to guide us along.

McAloon: So, in the same vein, Christian in chat wants to know: how do you ensure that sound effects and music mesh together really well and form a consistent experience? As opposed to a random mix that doesn’t jell quite well?

Phillips: Yeah, that’s a great question, Christian! I think the best way to go about that is to have a really nice working relationship between the composer and the sound designer, the sound team, the audio director. We’re all on the same page, and we’re working together, and sometimes it’s trial and error. The sound design team may not actually know what the sound effects are going to be doing when they ask me to compose the music. I might be ahead of them in terms of the workflow… For instance, I deliver music for them, and then they experiment with the sound design. They come A depiction of a mixing board, illustrating a discussion of sound design iteration in game development - as included in the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips.back to me, and they ask me to tweak things – if they’re not fitting together properly with the sound design decisions that are being made for the game. Or on the other hand, sometimes the sound designers have just gone ahead and changed what they were doing to fit the music that I was delivering. I think it depends on priorities. With such a collaborative process, it’s very fluid, and it’s about personalities and artistic ambitions. Everybody’s trying hard to make sure all the elements come together. It’s a conglomeration of so many different creative strategies. So many different viewpoints coming together.

McAloon: Just to expand on all that, how long is your typical involvement in a project? How long are you working alongside those developers?

A depiction of a yearly planner, included here in a discussion of project scheduling for the video game composer (in the article by game composer Winifred Phillips).Phillips: It’s hard to answer. It depends on the project. I mean, I’ve been on indie teams with short development schedules, and I’m in there hitting the ground running. Just cranking out the tracks. In a month or so, I’ve completed all the work for it. And on the other end of the spectrum, I’ve been in projects that have had me working on and off for years. They’ll come to me, and ask me to deliver a cache of tracks for them to incorporate. Then they’ll go off, and they’ll work on the project, and it will be very fluid. And they’ll come back to me later and say things like, ‘the game is completely different now so we need you to revise the music,’ or ‘we’re thinking about a different style.’ The interactive implementation scheme may have changed. There are a lot of different pitfalls to it, but also some really great things can come out it.

McAloon: Another question from chat here, from Brian – on thematic development. Any suggestions on incorporating recognizable themes into content without getting samey or redundant through overuse?

Phillips: Good question, yeah. Themes are tricky in videogames. Particularly with looping content that’s going to be repeated a lot. You can play a game for hundreds of hours, and there are only a few games that are actually requisitioning hundreds of hours of music. So there’s going to be repetition happening. I like to break themes down. State them in a very recognizable and dynamic way when it’s an important, An iconic "music" image used within a discussion of thematic fragmentation, as included in the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.set-piece moment in the game, and you want to create a musical signature for the project. But then you can break it down into fragments. Motives, small segments, just a few notes… something that might not be consciously recognized as a part of that theme. Then you can sprinkle it elsewhere and it just communicates in a subconscious way to the player. It asserts the game’s musical identity without really being overt about it. And you can also use them as figures. Ostinatos. You can restructure a theme to be an underlying pattern, with other original material on top. That’s a way to also assert the theme, without it being a foreground element. It’s not front-of-consciousness, but it's still there, asserting an identity. I think that’s always a great thing to try to strive for – to sprinkle a sense of identity into everything you’re doing.

McAloon: Building that into a question from Tim – what is your process to avoid over-composing a section or scene in a game? Can you share examples of how you’ve done that in the past?

Phillips: Good point. It’s a fine line. You don’t want to do too little; you don’t want to do too much. For Assassin’s Creed Liberation, I used a four-chord An illustration of a four-chord motif composed by video game composer Winifred Phillips for the Assassin's Creed Liberation video game.pattern. Very subtle. But it was the central building block of the main theme of the game: this four chord pattern that repeated over and over again. And I was able to use that in the game a lot. It was very subtle, very low-keyed, almost subliminal in the sense that you could recognize it when it came back, but it wasn’t anything that would arrest your attention. It was a stealthy construct that I could use to create a sense of identity without having to overwrite the piece.

McAloon: To branch into some more day-to-day operations, we’ve got a couple of questions I’m going to fuse together. The first one is from Dan Cooper in chat. Wants to know if you have any recommendations for effective time management strategies when you’re composing or preparing to compose for a game?

Phillips: Nice! Yeah. The first thing I do is make sure that I’m well aware of when the deadlines are, and how much material I’m going to need to prepare in order to meet them. You can look at your own speed, in terms of how many minutes of music you create a day, and then figure out what your working schedule and your workflow should An iconic illustration of the "workflow" concept, as used in the article by Winifred Phillips (video game music composer).be like in order to meet those deadlines. Everybody is going to have a different workflow – a different comfortable output per day. That is going to be an important consideration when you figure out how you’re going to schedule yourself, how much time you’re going to need to devote to different tasks each day. It’s a really personal choice, too, because we’re all very different in the way we approach music composition. I wouldn’t want to say there’s a one-size-fits-all solution. But as long as you’re taking those deadlines seriously, and asking yourself what you need to do to get those deadlines handled, I think you’ll be okay.

McAloon: So, for people looking to get into composing music, we have a question here from Mallory, who wants to know how does an aspiring composer work their way up? And then we also have another question asking about networking as a composer?

Phillips: I think it’s important to try to network. Of course, in-person conferences were helpful for doing meetings, but if you can set up online meetings, that could be helpful. Just get involved in the community. Even writing articles about what you’ve learned from An illustration of the concept of Networking, utilized in a discussion of making contacts in the video game industry. Included in the article by BAFTA-nominated video game composer Winifred Phillips.past projects and offering them up to the game audio community can increase your presence. It does matter if people know you’re there. And if you’ve had experiences working with student teams and or small indie projects, and you feel like you can share what you’ve learned, that can make people aware of who you are and what your skills are. If you’re a student and you can get involved with student teams, that’s amazing. You can meet people who then can be a network of contacts as you move forward into the industry. You can keep in touch with each other, and eventually work together in a more professional capacity.

McAloon: Next question here from Nicolas in chat – can you speak to the public acceptance of video game music, and the Library of Congress game music event you participated in?

Phillips: That was really exciting! I was asked to give a speech at the Library of The Library of Congress logo, included in an article discussing the AMA session at GDC Summer 2020, from the article for video game composers by Winifred Phillips (game music composer).Congress about game music. It was the first event of its kind held at the Library of Congress focusing specifically on game music. It was a great event! They had this whole arcade section, and it was just an amazing thing to watch people really excited about video games in such a hallowed setting. Symphony tours are another great example. I think they’re great in elevating awareness of game music within a larger community, getting people to understand that it isn’t the bleeps and bloops of yesteryear. Photo of video game music composer Winifred Phillips giving a lecture at the Library of Congress (Whittall Pavilion, Thomas Jefferson Building, Washington DC). Winifred Phillips' lecture was the first video game music composition lecture given at the Library of Congress.That it is now a serious art form that people who aren’t gamers could still appreciate. Symphony tours like the Assassin’s Creed Symphony world tour – I’m fortunate to have a composition featured. The Assassin’s Creed Symphony is a great opportunity to elevate music from a famous game franchise. To make more people aware of both the music itself. So it’s one of the greatest vehicles for visibility, and a way to elevate the authenticity of game music.

McAloon: Running out of time here, so I’m trying to sneak in a few more quick questions! Jeremy wants to know with who or what functional roles do you most frequently and closely interact as a game composer? And I’m going to add – do you have any tips for communication between yourself and the teams you’re working with?

Phillips: Good one, yeah, that can vary really wildly depending on the type of team you’re working with. Sometimes with one of the larger publishers, you’ll be working with a producer, because the music is being requisitioned by the publisher and not by the development team. So the publisher has a producer who is specifically assigned to An illustration of the concept of team communication, used in the article by BAFTA-nominated video game music composer Winifred Phillips.oversee your work and make sure everything is on track. On the other hand, if you’re working with the development team itself, it might be the audio director, or might be a sound designer if it’s a smaller development team and they don’t really have a lot of audio folks. It just might be that you’re talking to the sole audio person on that team. And there have been projects I’ve worked on that have had nobody on audio at all, and I’ve been talking to a programmer. So in terms of who you’ll be talking to – it does depend upon the structure of the development team itself. In terms of communication – I think you have to be sensitive to the way the team wants to communicate. Because that’s key. Everybody’s different, and you don’t want to try to assert your own preferences onto a team. Some teams are really comfortable with emails. There’s an audio director I’ve worked with quite a lot who writes very long, complex, helpful emails with lots of detail. That’s fantastic, because then I have everything very solidly stated, so I love that. But there are also other teams who don’t like to work that way. It’s more freewheeling, more in-the-moment. If that’s where the creativity is happening, then that’s where we need to be. We need to be comfortable with whatever communication form is at the heart of the way the team works, whether that’s bulletin boards and Slack groups, or Discord, or Zoom, or Skype, or through long emails. Anyway they want to do it, we need to be ready to do it that way.

McAloon: I want to squeeze in one more question. Jennifer wants to know if there’s any music composition book in general you’ve read during your career that’s had an impact on you? Or any resources you want to offer people looking to learn more about this?

Phillips: Well in terms of a book I’ve read quite a lot… I’m always going back to The Technique of Orchestration by Keenan and Grantham. Because it’s nice to dip back into just the nuts and bolts… to have a book to remind yourself of what music is, at its heart. So that’s the kind of stuff I like to revisit over and over again.

An image of the cover of the book A Composer's Guide to Game Music, written by video game composer Winifred Phillips.McAloon: I’m news editor at Gamasutra, and not to promote my stuff too much or my site, but you have a Gamasutra blog, so that would be a great place to check out and find more information!

Phillips: Oh yeah! Oh, and I’m just going to have to say it! My book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music – that can be helpful! From the MIT Press.

McAloon: Thank you everyone for so many wonderful questions, I’m sorry we couldn’t get to all of them. I hope you all have a wonderful GDC Summer!

A photo depicting video game composer Winifred Phillips at work in her music production studio.Winifred Phillips is a BAFTA-nominated video game composer whose latest project is the hit PlayStation 5 launch title Sackboy: A Big Adventure (soundtrack album now available).  Popular music from Phillips’ award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score is featured in the performance repertoire of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which made its Paris debut in 2019 with an 80-piece orchestra and choir. As an accomplished video game composer, Phillips is best known for composing music for games in five of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: Assassin’s Creed, God of War, Total War, The Sims, and Sackboy / LittleBigPlanet.  Phillips has received numerous awards, including an Interactive Achievement Award / D.I.C.E. Award from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, six Game Audio Network Guild Awards (including Music of the Year), and three Hollywood Music in Media Awards.  She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the MIT Press. As one of the foremost authorities on music for interactive entertainment, Winifred Phillips has given lectures at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, the Game Developers Conference, the Audio Engineering Society, and many more. Phillips’ enthusiastic fans showered her with questions during a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything session that went viral, hit the Reddit front page, received 14.9 thousand upvotes, and became one of the most popular gaming AMAs ever hosted on Reddit.  An interview with her will soon be published as a part of the Routledge text, Women's Music for the Screen: Diverse Narratives in Sound, which collects the viewpoints of the most esteemed female composers in film, television, and games.  Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.    

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