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In this entry, I will be talking about the art and techniques of composing songs appropriate for the smallspace, casual, and low-resource market.
Iconic Casual Compositions
Casual and indie games have really made a name for themselves in the last decade, taking more and more of the market share from typical big budget titles. Once upon a time, Zynga was king and knew their business. They turned small, easy to digest things into very, very large and lucrative things people couldn't put down and constantly harassed their friends. Instead of giant teams working many years on giant titles, games have a new market of quality games made by small groups and released on platforms that fit in our pockets. So what happens to audio?
Small really means small
When working on a smaller title, everything is indeed smaller. Unless you’re very lucky, you’re likely working on an extremely tight budget. Not just financially, but system resources, file sizes, milestones/shipping dates, and certainly in the way of assets. In order to load-up or download quickly, all assets from art to audio are likely going to be squished to pancakes. Compose with this in mind. You may not have the opportunity to create multiple tracks, creating a soundtrack that nurtures and grows over time. You may have to tell the whole story in a two-minute track on repeat. Definitely talk to engineering to find out exactly what you’re working with, but it likely won’t be as much as you hope.
Quick and Dirty
There may be restrictions to the type of audio you can create. It's possible the platform engine can only use mp3 for your audio. That means it's tricky to compose on a tight loop, so plan ahead. Even more frustrating, you may not be able to get a seamless loop if you’re forced to use mp3. Compose with this in mind as well, by crafting just a hair’s pause purposefully into the end of your song. End on beat 3, but make it meaningful. When you compose your loop, that tiny pause shouldn’t rub your nerves raw. to compose a breath or a pause into the score directly so it sounds natural to the listener. Nothing irritates like a loop with an accidental break at the end as the mp3 has inserted its own silence (data).
Compositions need to be quick and to the point as well, as they will likely be on a tight loop (30sec-1min). Try to make sure there’s not one moment that “jumps out”, because on repeat that will grow exhausting. If you're really in a bind with the length and size of the audio, consider less melody in your music. If there's something someone will hum because it's catchy, but they are humming it for 15 seconds every 30 seconds, that will upset even the most distracted of gamers. Something fun and catchy now turns irritating and annoying.
Instruments casually laid out
Find out if you're stuck composing mono due to engine constraints or for maximum compression. Your beautiful stereo track will sound very squished and ugly converted to mono, but if you compose with it in mind from the get go, things will be much better. Composing in mono means you need fewer competing instruments in their own frequency ranges, so, have one high range instrument (e.g. flute), one bass, and one rhythm kit instead of trying to layer complex winds and polyphonic strings into your songs. Look to use instruments that sound decent even at very low quality. Guitars and plucked instruments retain a fair amount of their quality, and drums hold up well. Instruments with long releases should be used carefully, and refuse to use anything with very high frequencies such as tambourines and cymbals. Check with your art team, it's possible 8-bit sounds are just what the game needs.
Parting thoughts… before you logout
Remember to be creative and original in your scores, to only draw inspiration from sources. As much as it may sound like a good idea to look at the million-dollar Facebook games and copy off them, take a careful listen instead. Are they making an impressive sounding song that only lasts 20 seconds, meant only to excite the user the first-time on listen with the expectation that they'll turn off the audio on future playing? Is that the goal of your audio as well? I would hope the end goal is to create music and sound that doesn’t get turned off and muted. Instead, try to treat players to a rewarding listening experience, even if it's bite-sized!
Harry Mack is an audio designer with more than 10 years industry experience, composing video game music and sound effects for over thirty titles. For examples of his latest work and samples, visit www.harrymack.com.