This Developer's Life: Music

This week's revolved around music. I'll be discussing the evolution in game themes and the connection between live music and game design. Oh, and I went to see Rise Against, Rancid and Nobuo Uematsu all in the same week, so there'll be some of that to

This Developer’s Life: Music

Dear Reader:

This has been a week of music.  It began with Rise Against and Rancid and ended with meeting Nobuo Uematsu and hearing the Seattle Symphony Orchestra play music from Final Fantasy. 

I’ve always had a lot to say about music in games (though I have a lot to say about a lot of things, one might just say I have a big mouth…) but this week has caused me to reflect further on the subject.  It’s not just that I think that music is often one of the best places, dollar for dollar, to spend your development budget; this week again demonstrated how, as a multi-disciplinary art, we can reach beyond just the world of gaming.  Oh, and it totally showed me we’re leaving money on the table with the way we do music these days.

Rancid/Rise Against:

GO SEE THIS TOUR.  I don’t know if you’ll ever get to see another event quite like it.  If you like punk rock at all, and want to see the only two punk bands in the last twenty years to make it into the mainstream without compromising any of what they stand for, this is probably your only chance. 

Ok, now that I’m done shilling, I have something more general to say:

Concerts are always interesting to me simply in terms of being entertainment events.  Like going to sports game or wandering through the casinos in Vegas, there’s a lot you can learn as a designer from seeing live music.  Juxtaposing this show with the symphony was fascinating for me.  But for the moment let’s just look at this event. 

A lot of the basic rules of entertainment carry over: the bands knew their audience, understood pacing (how to manage the interest curve, when to give people a break by cracking out a slow tune), and got a message across without moralizing (something we tend to be less good at), but that’s only the tip of the iceberg.  Two things really stood out for me: goldfarming and griefing…

“WHAT!11!” I hear you say.  Let me explain:

1.        At most larger concerts I end up getting my tickets from scalpers, but I wait until after the opener starts to play.  By this point they’re desperate to get rid of whatever stock they have remaining rather than take a loss on it, so I end up getting pit tickets substantially below retail.

Scalpers are an artificial annoyance and do inflate the price of tickets, but the perishable nature of their goods limits just how much of an annoyance they can actually be.  I am at this point convinced that this fact, rather than the statutes prohibiting them, is what keeps scalping from being an unmanageable problem.

Gold farmers and scalpers do almost the exact same thing, they tie up resources that were intended for an even distribution and redistribute them in a way that is perceived as unsporting.  Clearly we can’t make gold perishable but it’s led me to believe that there are design side solutions to the problem of gold farmering.

2.       During the first part of the Rancid show there was an enormous, corpulent whale of a man, reeking of the cloying stench of alcohol and sweat who would alternate between beating on people and falling on them.  Now, of course people get hurt at these shows but it’s because it’s part of a distillation of anarchic chaos, it’s unintentional. Stepping into the hurricane is part of the ethos.  It adds to the experience.

(Perhaps equally importantly I’ve never seen someone go down in the pit without being lifted back up a fraction of a second later by the people around them)

This man on the other hand was simply griefing.  He was there for no other reason than to express his compensation issues in a consequence free environment (much like the anonymity of online play).  Eventually he was simply hurled bodily out of the pit and back towards the exit.  It’s unfortunate that there’s no good system for implementing this level of community policing in MMOs.


The second musical event I attended this week was Distant Worlds, a concert of Final Fantasy music put on by the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.  It was an incredible event, with Nobuo Uematsu in attendance…the man’s joy at music is infectious.

I could go on and on about the show, but I’d rather cut to the chase and talk about what it taught me about game music today.  But, before I do: for those of you considering going to Video Games Live or Distant Worlds, Video Games Live has higher production values (the visuals and the “show” are much better) but the actual orchestra for Distant Worlds, at least in this case, was superior.

The concert, especially the main Final Fantasy theme, made me think about how music in games has evolved over the last twenty years.  What’s interesting to me is that today we create much larger, more symphonic pieces, but we don’t produce as many iconic tunes.  In many ways I consider this to be a function of the technology.  Back when people were pumping out midi tracks which could only handle three simultaneous tones composers were forced to create hummable melodies (or simply fail to create anything compelling at all). 

These days it’s much easier to write nuanced and rich musical tracks, but we seem to have a tendency to lose that pop sense that made chiptunes so infectious.  Even if we look at the iconic tracks of today – take the Halo theme for example – they tend to shy away from multilayered complexity and instead leave us with an easy melody for the mind to hold on to.

Which is better?  I don’t know.  I don’t think there is a “better” in this case.  What I do know is that iconic music is part of a brand.  What would James Bond be without the Bond Theme?  What would Star Wars be without the Imperial March?  

If we take these songs away we take hurt the associated brand.  If we are really looking to create new franchises and introduce new “brands” into the gamespace it’s probably worth aiming towards the simple and the hummable from a business perspective rather than trying to craft the perfect “background” music.  That’s my two cents.   

Oh, and the few bars of music in those tunes (Bond/Star Wars) are probably worth more than the entire production budget of most games… 

I’m Out

Talk to you all next week.  If you want to reach me, email me at [email protected] or bother me on twitter JamesPortnow. 


Explore the
Advertise with
Follow us

Game Developer Job Board

Game Developer


Explore the

Game Developer Job Board

Browse open positions across the game industry or recruit new talent for your studio

Advertise with

Game Developer

Engage game professionals and drive sales using an array of Game Developer media solutions to meet your objectives.

Learn More
Follow us


Follow us @gamedevdotcom to stay up-to-date with the latest news & insider information about events & more