Audio is an intrinsic part of any game and the right music can take the on-screen action from pedestrian to perfect. No longer just a series of loops, it’s developed over the years into a hugely interactive and influential element.
As part of our work with independent game developers, 100% Indie liaises with artists and composers all over the world, and often acts as an intermediary; connecting the skill sets needed to craft a good game.
Michael Bowerman of Embow Music was the first ever subject of our IndieViews and has created the music behind some of the world’s best-known brands for games and TV, including Orange and X-Factor. He first got into writing music for games when at college studying music composition for film and media. While playing Super Mario Galaxy, he noticed how smoothly all the orchestral recordings ran together, and ended up writing his dissertation on the subject.
The importance of music is pertinent across all console types: while the audio in mobile games might not have matched the power of console games in the early years, Michael doesn't believe using a handheld should affect the sound at all. “This is why production is so important now. Headphones are becoming more common but you still need to make sure your music sounds great cross-platform,” he says. “The game is still just as important. For example, Chipzel's Super Hexagon is awesome on Android and that’s the way it should be.”
For any musicians or composers who might be interested in writing music for games, Michael advises that the main transferable skill to start with is a knowledge of signal chains in audio production. “It's quite similar to video games logic,” says Michael, “in that X happens, then Y happens, and then the sound is sent from Y to Z. Many games do still work around one simple audio mechanic which is a great starting point - although more titles do now incorporate much more creative audio.”
The speciality needed in writing the music for this creative game audio is that it needs to go in many directions at any given time, because the gameplay can’t be predicted. As Michael explains, “Film provides hit points for music, which don’t exist in games because of the independent influence of the player. There is the option for developers to include fades and the like - but that's not good to maintain player momentum. Instead, a whole series of directions and routes in composition are needed.”
The real treat with music creation for games is that it’s wrapped within the gameplay audio, and so requires much more than traditional instruments or digital sounds. A specific brief is often the case. “I once needed to create some buzzing sounds for a game about a firefly,” says Michael, “so created a drum kit out of a handheld milk frother. This created the basis for the music throughout the game and helped bring the character to life, which is important as the player needs to connect with the protagonist.”
For some musicians, the game element has been inherent from the start of their musical life. Liam Eagle, of 100% Indie, has always been inspired by games. “I used to just let the opening songs of Ocarina of Time and Final Fantasy play over and over,” he says.
For Liam, the more basic audio style of the 8 and 16-bit consoles of the day actually helped with his entry into game music: “Limitations force the creativity, by narrowing the possibilities of the music - there were more boundaries then,” he says.
Liam, who, like Michael, plays a number of instruments, writes music for games under the name Roof Party and says the interactivity of the internet makes connections really easy, with SoundCloud in particular a gift to composers writing for games on a freelance basis. “I use SoundCloud to curate all my music,” he says. “I pay £3 a month so I can order it as a portfolio rather than just chronologically. Having people hear my best work first is the best £3 I could spend.”
Liam’s social media channels are all linked to SoundCloud, which has proved an effective way of driving people to the music he writes. A timely Tweet is all it can take to meet someone and the instant connection to a full portfolio means a developer can find his or her composer quickly.
Elizabeth Boylan, who as one half of Vector Bloom Technologies created Big Top Ballet, testifies to this from the developer side. She sent out a call on Twitter as she wanted, in her words, a “beats mistress that could awaken the souls of game players”. Musician Ill-Esha responded to the tweet and custom-composed a track entitled Kaleidoscope to fit the style of Big Top Ballet’s opening ‘Paper Ballerina’ scene. Says Elizabeth of the music in her game: “Every time I hear the project start up, and those first notes play in the intro scene, I’m struck with the same enchantment as when I first heard the piece. It’s such a lovely, mysterious composition.”
And therein lies the key. It’s often the music that can drive the whole ambience of the game, no matter how many times the player enters its world, so finding the right audio for your game is a hugely important part of the game making process.
And is making music for indie game developers a good career?
“I can’t speak for everyone but I love the honestly and openness,” says Liam.
“There’s great deal of trust between indie developers and musicians, as well as flexibility, as I guess we’re all in the same mindset. Payment terms can depend entirely on the developer or musician. For example, one developer I’m working with is being charged per track - half in advance for a package of ideas, from which they’ll pick a few and pay me the remainder to finish the ideas. Then when the game goes live, there’s also a revenue share agreement.
“It’s the fact that we are all following a creative path and therefore are focused on the quality of the output as a team though,” he concludes. “It’s a team effort and very fair.”
Michael agrees. “It’s super important to work with other people so that you can see things from an ‘artist’ perspective or understand why the music needs to be structured in a particular way. The music can of course shape the game - but only alongside the plot, characters and visuals. Collaboration is key.”
For those wanting to get into music in game design or music, here are just a few courses that might be of interest: