Making video games is expensive. Especially if you are at the very beginning of your game development journey without any kind of funding other than your own pocket money. In this article I will share some advice on how to save money on the music for your game without renouncing quality.
Needless to say, this will be most helpful to beginning developers that are faced with the challenge of producing a video game on a low budget. But additionally, some of the more well established developers as well as composers might also make some use of the techniques described here since those have been often used in big budget projects by choice, and not by necessity.
Let's get the obvious stuff out of the way. If you have played a video game before chances are you probably heard a looping track on the background. It is one of the most time proven approaches to video game music. Amongst other things, what makes looping tracks so appealing is that they save you money. If you have a gameplay segment that is 10 minutes long, you don't need to pay for 10 minutes of music, the best composers will be able to make a short loop play many times before most people even realize that the music is repeating.
A track that is simply on repeat is different than a track that is specifically designed to loop seamlessly, though. So make sure to communicate your needs clearly to your composer.
Silence is Free:
Not only free but also underestimated. A lot of people seem to think that if a game doesn't have music playing at all times, the silences will feel out of place or anti climatic. The fact is triple-A games use silence as a powerful design tool all the time. As an example, the very popular Dark Souls games are silent almost all the time, boss fights being one of the exceptions. If you played any of the games in the series you know how special the boss fights feel, partially because of the themes that fill the previously quiet soundscape when you encounter them. Silence works very well on games with a darker mood because it reinforces sensations such as loneliness, emptiness, anticipation and fear.
Your game is not dark and somber in mood, you say? You can still use silence to convey sensations of peacefulness, solitude and quietness. As another example, most of The Legend Of Zelda games that feature an overworld with a day/night cycle are silent during the nights. I'm pretty sure Nintendo had the budget to make one or two more music themes for those games, they chose silence because silence sounds good.
Notice that when you choose not to use music, your sound effects will be more evident than ever, so make sure those sound as good as possible for the best results.
Between looping tracks playing endlessly and total absence of music, there might be situations where you would prefer something in the middle. Stingers are short tracks that allow you to effectively use music without the need for full length themes.
To put it simply, stingers are short (a few seconds long), non-looping tracks that are attached to a specific element of the gameplay like a location, a character, an object, a "lose" outcome, a "win" outcome, etc... Probably one of the most common use of stingers (as made famous by the Super Mario games) are "death" or "game over" stingers. Instead of making a 2 minute theme for a "game over" screen (that no one will spend 2 minutes on) make a short and effective game over stinger. Works very well.
Another wonderful (and inexpensive) use of stingers is to introduce locations. Capcom's Monster Hunter series makes great use of this technique. When first entering an area at the beginning of a quest, the player is greeted by a short non-looping track that introduces the area and immediately communicates how the player is supposed to feel about that environment. After the track ends, no music is heard again until the player encounters a monster to fight.
Introductory track for the "Ancestral Steppe" area from Monster Hunter 4:
Yes, using the exact same music on two (or more) completely different gameplay situations, basically decreasing variety and increasing the risk of annoying the player with repetition fatigue. That's as cheap as it gets, right? Not if you do it right. What if I told you that triple-A games reuse music tracks too?
Bringing back music that was previously heard in a different context/situation is a great way to create in the player a mental connection between two (or more) gameplay elements. It is an effective way of communicating without using text or words.
On The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, the main theme starts playing calmly on the title screen, increasing intensity until it reaches an epic/adventurous climax. Occasionally, during the gameplay, the very same track from the title screen starts playing while the player is adventuring around, interacting and exploring the world. Exploration and adventure being such a big part of The Elder Scrolls series, the developers establish a connection between those moments and the title of the game by bringing back the main theme, creating a satisfying effect that almost speaks out loud: "This is Elder Scrolls, this is what this game is about". They did all that by recycling one music track!
Try to think of more cool effects that can be achieved by connecting two (or more) gameplay elements through music. Don't overuse this concept, though, or you'll end up with undesirable results.
Here I focused on some methods which, in my experience, allow you to have video game music of the best quality while maintaining the costs low. Of course, there are extremely undesirable ways to save money on music that will definitely hurt the quality of your game. Those are not listed here. Ultimately, the most important factor will be who you work with, so make sure to hire a composer that is right for you, this alone will save you a lot of time and money.
When working on a low budget, be creative coming up with solutions, don't lower your quality standards and always stay motivated.
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