Variety is the Spice of Life (Especially for a Freelance Video Game Composer)
This old adage has been used in many ways over the years. It is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of being a freelance video game composer. To be able to work on a variety of different projects is the sweetest gift that a game composer can receive.
Not only does it keep one from becoming stale, it also enables the ongoing growth of new ideas, musical styles, cross-genre hybrids and, most importantly, the ability to not be pigeonholed into one gaming genre, one platform, or one engine.
Composers and sound designers that multi-task on everything from mobile games to consoles like PS3 , children's games to first person shooters, are usually not only working more, they are also pretty happy, due to the variety of their work.
As a freelancer, the ability to move from one project to another with ease is essential to maintaining a solid business model and enhancing your business development successes by attracting more and different companies that need to outsource their project's game audio.
Most successful game companies are not trapped in genre-specific titles or game subject matter. They understand that variety is an important aspect to attracting different cross-sections of players. They may have titles that range from shooter games, fantasy action games, a role playing strategic series, and children's adventure games.
Their ability to attract various demographic groups is a key marketing strategy that ensures more visibility of their products. This is especially true of small to medium sized companies. The big guys can zero in on one area, as their marketing and production budgets are larger.
Smaller companies need to constantly attract players, and the best way to do so is to offer an array of titles and subject matter. If you are doing work for one of these companies, the best way to be offered more work is to be agile enough musically to evolve with their projects.
Skip the routine. Being a composer that works with different musical styles I always have to adapt to new styles, or study genres of music that I may not be quite as familiar with. Because video games are just that, games, we as composers can actually be on the cutting edge of creating new styles, or blending two or more genres together to come up with new and exciting sonic landscapes.
Freelance game composers don't have a regular 9 to 5 routine, and we need to avoid falling into the trap of having our music become routine as well. By branching out and embracing new styles or learning about older styles that are unfamiliar will keep you working more in this industry, and will ward off the demon of writer's block.
I recently worked on a fun mobile game project that needed to capture the feeling of being secluded on a space station. There were many ways to create this through music. After a few meetings with the producers, I took my notes back to the studio and began to put some ideas together for them as initial sketches.
What I came up with was a short piece that crossed the melodic feeling of an early classical string quartet with ethereal New Age ambient backgrounds. To me it was something that I thought might need a "sell" to the production team, as I wasn't sure that this is what they had in mind. I dropped a rough file to them to check out, and they were back to me immediately saying that I had captured the feeling that they needed. Great! Now we knew exactly what we had to do going forward to create the musical texture during gameplay.
Here is a rough example of the game: DotBot Rough Video
A Change is as Good as a Rest
This is another great old adage that rings true. At the same time that I was working on the DotBot project, I was also working on a PC game using the Unreal Engine. This was a first person shooter that need a completely different style of music and sound design. The project needed high intensity music that clearly fit the feel of the game and the action that took place.
After meeting with the production team, it was evident that they had a firm idea of what they wanted musically. It was important to them to have three different "feels" for the music: 1) Sneaking music - they wanted a low intensity electronic texture that occurred during gameplay when the player was searching for enemies but were not detected as of yet . 2) A higher intensity feeling for when the action was heightening and the enemy was aware of the player's actions. Everything in gameplay was speeding up, but not yet full bore excitement. 3) The third level of music would be the highest intensity and would be out-an-out action, a boss battle that would be relentless.
To do this I used an idea that I read in a Jason Graves interview. Jason is a great composer and very articulate when discussing composition for games. His idea was to write one longer piece of music that can be used as a the theme for the game and orchestrate it in such a way that you can then pull three different thematic elements from it and re-orchestrate them to fit the 3 categories. Sounded easy!
Well it was an approach that I have never utilized before, so I thought this would be a great project to try it out on and learn from it. A change is as good as a rest, right? I combined electronic elements with distorted wah-wah backwards guitars augmented with cellos, violas, basses and violins to create a wall of sound for the highest intensity levels and stripped out those elements for the other two intensity levels.
Here is a link to a rough video montage: Cipher Rough Video
What I learned from Jason's approach was that it created a very cohesive sonic structure within the game, and musical variations could easily be drawn from it to create different textures. Exactly what they had wanted!
So there you have it. Avoid the routines and expand your horizons. Two key elements that can help you be busier, more creative and get more enjoyment from being a freelancer. I hope that some of these ideas can work for you.