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Rethinking the audio loop in games

In this post, I'll talk about the history of looped compositions in video games, and modern approaches to this intriguing technique.

Introduction

A looped composition is an intriguing sonic artifact used in the production of music for videogames. It can adapt itself to many different situations, and it has been in use as long as the videogame industry has existed. It is so popular that even today, music for videogames is still remembered by non-gamers as "tiny, repetitive pieces of music." Nevertheless, the technology and aesthetic of games, along with consumer expectations, have changed, forcing developers to rethink the use of this technique in order to make it relevant in the modern game production environment.

This article has three objectives. The first is to talk about the history of looped compositions and find out why they were so popular and effective back then. The second objective is to identify challenges related to musical implementation in games and the impact caused by loops. The third and final goal is to suggest new ways of implementing music into games, without significantly increasing the budget or time of development.

If you are already familiar with the history of loops, and wish to know more about their application, jump to the last part of this article, "Efficient approaches to musical implementation." Otherwise, start by reading the next paragraph.

What is a looped composition?

In the context of videogames, it is music in which the beginning and end are seamlessly connected. By doing this, the composer is trying to prevent the listener from identifying where the music starts and ends. This composition can be repeated endlessly, and it sounds like it is much lengthier than it actually is.

There are two main reasons to use looped compositions. The first is aesthetical and the second is technical, and they are closely related to each other. To better understand these reasons, we need to go back in history and remember how games were produced during the industry's infancy.

The musical loop in yesterday's videogames

Historically, developers always struggled to fit games into a medium. The available space to store music, sound effects, graphics and other data is finite. The better the optimization of this data, the faster the performance of the game and the lesser the amount of data it requires to be stored. In some cases, optimization is an essential requirement. In the mid-1980s, when the console market started to gain popularity, disk space was incredibly small compared to today's standards. At that time, games had to be very small in order to be viable.

The technical limitation of the file size enters into conflict with the most important aesthetic feature of video games: interactivity. In a game, it is very difficult to know exactly how long a player spends in a given section, since it's the player who decides when to advance. Theoretically, one can simply stay put for many hours in a stage without progressing.

These two reasons, technical and aesthetical, created a huge challenge for game music composers. They needed to create music that occupied a minimum of space on disk, and, at the same time, had flexible length. The same music file could be reproduced for one minute or for several hours, depending on the result of the player's interaction with the game.

That's why the solution of the looped composition was so well received. The files were small enough to fit in the limited space available for storage, and at the same time, could be "extended" to fit most interaction scenarios.

However, looped compositions have significant drawbacks that affect both their production and the effect they have on the listener.

The disadvantages of looping

One of the challenges the composer faces is making the loop pleasing to the ear for longer periods. It doesn't matter how beautiful the composition is. After being repeated over and over, it becomes boring. Here's a simple exercise that proves this: try listening to your favorite music four times. By the fourth repetition, you may not be able to listen to the music at all anymore. The melodies that were once pleasant and pleasing become annoying, and the surprise generated by each new section of the song is gone. In the end, looped music creates an undesired effect: it repels listeners, instead of attracting them.

The length of the loops should also be carefully considered. Even though the same music can be repeated for many hours, it doesn't mean it should be. The songs are still quite short, usually one or two minutes in length. It is very hard to create short songs that have enough elements within them to be interesting for so long. Music is highly dependent on its duration, and the job of the composer is to make music pleasant over time. One of the ways to do this is to create contrast. If a certain part of the music is tense, the other part can be soft, creating contrast and maintaining the interest of the listener for longer periods of time. The smaller the loop, the more difficult it is to create this contrast and the more likely the listener will grow bored of the music.

Contrast is not the only characteristic affected by the limitations of looping. Several compositional techniques also need to be adapted. For instance, if the composer wishes to enhance the familiarity of a melody without repeating it exactly as before, they may want to play the melody in a different key. This technique creates a feeling of familiarity, but at the same time adds novelty, since it's not an identical repetition.

Raising the key of a song gives the impression that the music is growing in intensity. But, at some point the song will reach its looping point and return to its original key. When this happens, the song sounds less intense, thus creating the exact opposite feeling desired when the composer gradually raised the key.

Another technique compromised by looped compositions is the "growth" of the arrangements. This consists of using more instruments over time, making the music sound more "grandiose". However, when the music passes through the looping point, it becomes "empty" and "thin". This happens because there are fewer instruments playing at the beginning of the song, before the arrangements started to "grow".

These are just a few examples of the disadvantages of using musical loops. At the beginning of this industry, these weaknesses didn't seem to have a huge impact. After all, games could now have a musical background, thanks to the loop. This was a great technical and aesthetical achievement.

The situation is different now. Games are getting more sophisticated and almost every technical aspect of game production has improved significantly. Gamers are demanding higher-quality content and developers need to adapt quickly in order to survive.

These challenges and their relationship with looped compositions are going to be further analyzed in the next paragraphs.

New challenges for game music

No matter how sophisticated modern games are, the goal of music still remains the same: promote immersion for the player. Nevertheless, it is hard to achieve this objective using short-length looped musical artifacts that repeat themselves ad infinitum. This wonderful technique is still going to be used, but it needs to be upgraded in order to fulfill the demands of the market.

There are several reasons that justify the revision of this technique, and they vary depending on the game genre, target audience, and the objective each game is aiming to achieve. Since every situation requires a different analysis, this article will focus on one challenge that permeates almost all situations.

The intolerance to repetition

Experienced gamers have developed their musical perception and are perfectly capable of quickly identifying the looping point. They don't accept the "illusion" of musical extension through loops. The use of this technique, once pleasant in the 8 and 16-bit generation, now causes repulsion instead of immersion.

Even players with less experience are now capable of identifying the musical repetition. Perhaps not all of them will be able to pinpoint the exact location of the looping point, but they know the music is repeating. In the end, the result is similar, and the music becomes undesirable.

Besides that, the wide range of affordable digital music playback devices have changed the way we consume music. Players (and music consumers) have a huge arsenal of music content available in their pockets. Many are accustomed to listening to hours of diverse music throughout the day and this has made them even more demanding. When they play games with repetitive musical content, their tendency is to simply ignore the music by turning it off or lowering the volume.

Many modern games also provide the option to replace the game's music with the music stored on the device. So there is no good reason for a player to continue listening to repetitive music if it can easily be replaced.

It is important to note that these statements are made based on observations of players behavior, as well as informal conversations with other people working in this industry. The aim of this article is not to be a scientific basis for proof of facts, but a document that discusses the challenges of this market and serves as guidance and inspiration for professionals that produce games.

As previously mentioned, this article is not attempting to discourage the use of the loop. This technique is still crucial in almost every game, and there are many examples of wonderful products (some that are even references for musical production in the industry), which continue to use loops in a way similar to previous generations. The purpose of this analysis is to alert game producers to the challenges of creating music for video games and the impact that the use of the loop may have in some situations. In the end, the artistic decision whether to use the loops or not, as well as the implementation approach, must be aligned with the product, the target audience, the budget and the intended goal.

The response of the industry

Producers of games referred to as "AAA" (games with high production values) are aware of this context change and have updated their approach to the musical production of their games. The solution, in some cases, is to produce more music, thus making the content more diverse. Theoretically, more music would help reduce the undesirable effects of continuous repetition.

However, producing more music is not a viable solution for everyone in the industry. There are a lot of independent and small businesses that need to produce low-budget games in order to survive. Often, the available budget is not adequate to satisfy the musical demands of the modern gamer. Companies are stuck with the low-cost solutions of the past, creating short loops that are played continuously during most of the gameplay experience. This approach is economical, but not always effective.

Efficient approaches to musical implementation

In order to create musical loops that minimize the probability of listening fatigue, it is first necessary to assess the needs of the project. Try to find out how much time, on average, players spend during each session, stage or segment of your game. In this article, this will be referred as Gameplay Time. Given the non-linear nature of the games, it is impossible to know exactly how long players spend in Gameplay Time, but it is crucial to have an estimate based on the game planning and, more importantly, the analysis of test results using various players' profiles.

To avoid excessive musical repetition, the length of the music should be greater or equal to the Gameplay Time. In this ideal scenario, the player would only listen to original music. However, it is hard to achieve this goal in low-budget projects. If the music length is equal to 50% of the Gameplay Time, it will be repeated twice, which is tolerable and does not bother most gamers. But if the music starts to repeat 3-5 times, it can become too repetitive, repelling the player. The worst case scenario is when the music is repeated more than five times during the Gameplay Time.

The table below shows the relationship between the number of repetitions of the loop and the sensorial results for most players.

Musical implementation and listening fatigue

If the music in your game results in scenario D, the best solution is to create more musical content and try to approach scenario A.

However, if you can't produce more musical content, due to budgetary or scheduling constraints, there are some workarounds. It is important to notice that even AAA games are using these techniques as a strategy to minimize the costs of the project. All the solutions cited below are related to the concept of dynamic arrangements (horizontal and vertical).

Solution 1 - Inversion of the parts of the song

Description: Songs are divided into different parts which are presented one after another over time. In popular music, these parts are often called A, B, bridge and chorus. By making some adjustments, it is possible to change the order of the parts, making a slightly different, new version of the song. The more parts the music has, the greater the possibility of combinations.

Advantages: The music doesn't start exactly the same way during different Gameplay Times. This mitigates the feeling of repetition at the moment the player starts to listen to the music. It is especially useful when the same music is used in different sections.

Disadvantages: Once the song completes its loop cycle, the player realizes that the same song is being reproduced. Depending on the listener's experience, they may even perceive the order replacement before the completion of the cycle.

Suggestion for implementation: The composer needs to export different versions of the song, with parts in different places. It is also possible to export each part separately and then assemble them in real time within the game engine.

Solution 2 - Mute the melody

Description: The melody is the most memorable element in music. If you think of any music right now, you will probably remember the main melody. Melodies are powerful sonic artifacts that, if used properly, can make your game even more memorable. But melodies have a drawback. If they are repeated too much, they can repel the listener.

Advantages: It is possible to increase the number of loop repetitions when the melody is muted, without harming the player's immersion.

Disadvantages: If the melody is often excluded, the music can lose its impact and fail to be memorable.

Suggestion for implementation: Ask your composer to export two versions of the song, one with melody and one without. Then play them alternately, trying to carefully find the balance for the repetition of both melodic and non-melodic versions. You can also mute the tracks that play the melody, if your game engine has this feature.

This technique is used in the Skyview Temple, the first dungeon of Zelda: Skyward Sword. When Link is in the main room, a melodic version of the theme is played. When entering smaller rooms, the main melody is muted.

Solution 3 - Implementation of silence

Description: An aggressive version of solution 2. By repeating the song a number of times, you can simply turn it off when the number of repetitions approaches the aforementioned scenario D.

Advantages: As there is no music, the player won't experience the undesirable effects of listening fatigue.

Disadvantages: If the game is silent for a long time, abrupt reintroduction of the music can be jarring.

Suggestion for implementation: Play the loop 3 times (approaching scenario C). After the third repetition, let the music subtly disappear. Leave the game in silence for a while and repeat the operation. You can also mute the music until the end of the next stage/segment.

This solution was used in Halo. When the player spent too much time in one stage, the music simply disappeared.

Solution 4 - Random playlist

Description: This solution proposes the use of different songs played in random order, similar to a music player with the shuffle option enabled.

Advantages: The player has a greater diversity of music content available during Gameplay Time. Furthermore, the music can be tailor-made to match the theme of the project. The result is better than simply replacing the game's original music with the playlist.

Disadvantages: At some point, the musical content will start to repeat.

Suggestion for implementation: Play the songs in random order, but don't repeat the same file twice in a row.

Solution 5 - Expandable end

Description: This is a short loop that can be added at the end of the music file. After a few repetitions of this loop, the full song can be reintroduced.

Advantage: The effect is similar to solution 3, but more subtle. When you create a loop at the end, you can mitigate the effects of listening fatigue and prepare the player for the next musical repetition.

Disadvantages: The expandable end can become annoying if overused, just like any other musical loop.

Suggestion for implementation: Ask your composer to create a short loop (30 seconds is more than enough), using the same BPM and percussive elements of the music it will be connected to. This file should be flexible enough to connect with the beginning of the song.

Conclusion

To make your music production even more interesting, try to combine these solutions. You can create a random list (solution 4) with songs with expandable ends (solution 5). You can also use songs with expandable ends (solution 5) that may repeat without melodies after a while (solution 2) and fall into silence (solution 3), returning with parts reversed (solution 1). Basically, any solution combination can be made and they all have a similar result: the expansion of the existing musical production of your game, maintaining the quality without significant increase to production costs.

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