Music Game Plan: Tactics for the Video Game Composer (Part Two)

Composer Winifred Phillips working on the music of the popular Spore Hero video game from Electronic Arts.

Welcome back to my four-part article series presenting videos and helpful references to aid aspiring game music composers in understanding how interactive music works. In Part One of this series, we took a look at a simple example demonstrating the Horizontal Re-Sequencing model of musical interactivity, as it was used in the music I composed for the Speed Racer Videogame from Warner Bros. Interactive.  Now let’s turn our attention to a more complex example of horizontal re-sequencing as demonstrated by the interactive music of the Spore Hero game from Electronic Arts.

In the video embedded later in this article, you’ll see that I’ve used as an example a gameplay sequence involving multiple music files that react on-the-fly to the state of gameplay. In my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I address several similar scenarios that involve groups of music files designed to be triggered by in-game occurrences.  It’s always an interesting challenge to compose music for such a system. A Composer’s Guide to Game Music describes the process this way:

Cover image of A COMPOSER'S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, written by top game composer Winifred Phillips.“In order for horizontal re-sequencing to be successful, all of the musical segments must flow in and out of each other without giving any indication that the music has ever abruptly changed.  The goal is to create the impression of one seamless musical composition that is somehow executing split-second reactions and adjustments to the state of gameplay.”

In Spore Hero there are quite a few in-game situations calling for such an interactive musical approach.  The ambitious interactive music system for Spore Hero was designed by the audio team at Electronic Arts, led by accomplished sound designer Jean-François Tremblay. Composing music for this complex music system was a great privilege, and I had a lot of fun working with Tremblay and his sound design team. Together, our work was recognized with nominations for Best Original Score from such top awards organizations as the International Film Music Critics Awards, the Hollywood Music in Media Awards, and the Movie Music UK Music Awards.  This recognition is a testament to the innovative, resourceful music system developed by the audio pros on the Spore Hero sound design team. It was such an honor to work with them!

In the video, we get to take a closer look at the functioning of the game’s music system. The interactivity focuses most on the awesome minigames that the Spore Hero team designed for the game. Each minigame is tied closely to the quirky nature of the game’s fictional world (which was first established in the famous Spore video game released in the previous year).  The music of the game is constructed to support a series oddball objectives, including an amusing version of interpersonal conflict – here’s the way it’s described in the video:

“One of the recurring activities in Spore Hero is a dancing mini-game.  Your creature encounters another alien who essentially challenges you to a dance-off.”  The video proceeds to show a series of music tracks while describing how each are categorized:  “Here we have five music files labeled: Intro, Dance, Special Move, Failure, and Success. All of these are music chunks within the horizontal re-sequencing model.  They can be arranged by the game engine according to the state of gameplay.”

Cover of the Spore Hero soundtrack album, composed by Winifred Phillips (video game composer).The video goes on to demonstrate how the music chunks of this Spore Hero track function – using the popular Pro Tools application to display a user-friendly visual representation of the music content.  By observing how the segments interact, we can better understand the way the music integrates with gameplay (as described in the video): “All of these individual segments within the dance minigame allow the music to react to the state of gameplay, creating a more satisfying experience for the player.”

Watching the video helps to make this interactive music system more understandable and less intimidating, so let’s take a look!

I hope the video was helpful in further understanding how horizontal re-sequencing works and supports gameplay!  In case you’d like to learn more about how the music of Spore Hero was made, here’s a short behind-the-scenes documentary about the music of the game:

If you’d like to read a bit more about the inspiration that drove the style and structure of the Spore Hero musical score, you can check out this interview conducted by music journalist Simon Smith of Higher Plain Music.

Finally, if you’d like to hear some of the music of Spore Hero in a very different context, take a look at this official trailer for the smash-hit Jungle Book movie that was released this past April.  The trailer licensed the main theme music from Spore Hero and used it to create a primitive and mysterious atmosphere while the movie’s director Jon Favreau explained how the amazing visual effects were achieved:

In the next article, we’ll be moving on to the vertical layering model for musical interactivity, as it was implemented in The Maw video game from Twisted Pixel games.  In the meantime, please leave any questions or thoughts in the comments section below!


Photo of game composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio.Winifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose most recent project is the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution. Her credits include five of the most famous and popular franchises in video gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims. She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Music Game Plan: Tactics for the Video Game Composer (Part One)

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, working on the music of Speed Racer the Video Game.

Interactive music is always a hot topic in the game audio community, and newcomers to game music composition can easily become confused by the structure and process of creating non-linear music for games.  To address this issue, I produced four videos that introduce aspiring video game composers to some of the most popular tactics and procedures commonly used by game audio experts in the structuring of musical interactivity for games.  Over the next four articles, I’ll be sharing these videos with you, and I’ll also be including some supplemental information and accompanying musical examples for easy reference.  Hopefully these videos can answer some of the top questions about interactive music composition.  Music interactivity can be awesome, but it can also seem very abstract and mysterious when we’re first learning about it. Let’s work together to make the process feel a bit more concrete and understandable!

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Video Game Music Composer: Music and Sound in VR Headphones (Part Two)

Photo of game composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio, from the article "Video Game Music Composer: Music and Sound in VR Headphones (Part Two)"My work as a video game composer has lately included some projects for virtual reality games (more info on that in the coming months), and as a result I’ve been thinking a lot about the awesome potential of VR, and have also been writing lots of articles on the subject.  Earlier this month I began a two-part article that focuses on the experience of the end user, and the gear with which they’ll be enjoying our video game music and audio content (you can read part one here). So, let’s now continue our discussion about the new generation of headphones designed specifically for VR!

In this article, we’ll be discussing two headphone models:

  • Entrim 4D
  • Plantronics RIG 4VR

So let’s get underway!

Entrim 4D headphones

Photo of the Entrim 4D, from the VR headphones article by Winifred Phillips (award-winning game music composer)This March at the famous SXSW convention in Austin, Samsung showed off a piece of experimental technology promising to bring a new dimension of immersion to virtual reality.  It’s designed specifically to complement their popular Samsung Gear VR device, and it works by virtue of electrodes that send electrical signals right into the wearer’s head!  As if virtual reality itself weren’t futuristic enough, now we’re talking about a device that zaps us to make the VR feel more real!  It’s called Entrim 4D (pictured right).  We’re talking about it here because (among other things) Entrim 4D is a pair of audio headphones built specifically for VR.

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Communication Tips for the Video Game Composer

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, working in her music studio.A successful career as a video game composer involves much more than our day-to-day challenges in our music studios. In addition to our role as music experts, we need to be well-rounded business people and great members of a creative team.  As a speaker in the audio track of the Game Developers Conference this year, I had a chance to take in a wide variety of GDC sessions, and I noticed how often teamwork was discussed.  Along the way, a common idea emerged from many of these talks — good communication is key. This is a concept that I explored in my book (A Composer’s Guide to Game Music), so I was delighted to see a further discussion of the issue at GDC this year.  Far from just a valuable personality asset, the ability to communicate well must be considered a top priority: as intrinsically valuable as rock-solid competency, awesome artistry or compelling vision. Good communication amongst team members can make or break the development of a game. As game audio pros, we share this in common with our coworkers in other segments of the game development community. However, it becomes especially important for us to focus and emphasize good communication when we’re working remotely as independent contractors. With that in mind, I thought I’d use this article to briefly highlight some GDC 2016 sessions in the game audio track that discussed this popular topic, so we can think about more ways to enhance and improve our communication skills.  And later we’ll discuss a practical example from my work on the music of the SimAnimals game from Electronic Arts.

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Video Game Music Composer: How To Break Into the Business

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, working on the music of Homefront: The Revolution in her production studio.As a video game composer and author of the book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I’m frequently asked for advice on how a young composer can gain entry into this business.  I dedicated a chapter of my book to this topic (Chapter 14: Acting Like a Business and Finding Work), so I’ve certainly thought a great deal about the issue.  From my very first project (God of War) all the way to my most recent game (Homefront The Revolution, pictured right), one thing has always been abundantly clear: landing gigs can be a complex journey.  That’s especially true for newcomers, and there are no easy signposts pointing the way. While I tried to use my own experiences and insights to provide useful guidance in my book, I know that everyone’s experience is different, and multiple points of view can be very helpful.  So in this article, I’ll be offering resources from articles and community discussions on how to face down the awesome challenges of breaking into the industry as a composer of music for games.

First, I’ll be sharing a video from my presentation at the Society of Composers and Lyricists seminar, in which I answered the question about how I got my start in the games industry.  Then, we’ll be exploring highlights from a collection of online articles that offer helpful tips for how to break in and establish a career as a game composer.  Finally, at the end of this article I’ll be including a full list of links for further reading and reference.

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VR Game Composer: Music Beyond the Virtual

Photo of video game music composer Winifred Phillips, from the article entitled "VR Game Composer: Music Beyond the Virtual."Welcome to the third installment in our series on the fascinating possibilities created by virtual reality motion tracking, and how the immersive nature of VR may serve to inspire us as video game composers and afford us new and innovative tools for music creation.  As modern composers, we work with a lot of technological tools, as I can attest from the studio equipment that I rely on daily (pictured left). Many of these tools communicate with each other by virtue of the Musical Instrument Digital Interface protocol, commonly known as MIDI – a technical standard that allows music devices and software to interact.

Image depicting VR apps from the article by Winifred Phillips, Game Music Composer.In order for a VR music application to control and manipulate external devices, the software must be able to communicate by way of the MIDI protocol – and that’s an exciting development in the field of music creation in VR!

This series of articles focuses on what VR means for music composers and performers. In previous installments, we’ve had some fun exploring new ways to play air guitar and air drums, and we’ve looked at top VR applications that provide standalone virtual instruments and music creation tools.  Now we’ll be talking about the most potentially useful application of VR for video game music composers – the ability to control our existing music production tools from within a VR environment.

We’ll explore three applications that employ MIDI to connect music creation in VR to our existing music production tools. But first, let’s take a look at another, much older gesture-controlled instrument that in ways is quite reminiscent of these motion-tracking music applications for VR:

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