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.

Getting the Gig

The session Why I Rejected You: Observations from a Hiring Manager focused on best practices for game audio job applicants.  In this audio track presentation, Telltale Games Audio Director Michael Kamper teamed up with fellow presenter Jesse Harlin (former LucasArts music supervisor). Together, they explored what qualities could help game audio job seekers to stand out.

Pictured: Michael Kamper (audio director), from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.According to Kamper (pictured right), good communication needs to begin from the very first moments that an audio pro or video game composer contacts a company about an open position on their team. “Everyone around you is trying to get the same kind of jobs that you’re trying to get,” Kamper says, “and while I love the game audio community, and it’s by far (at least in my opinion) the most interactive with each other and tight knit in any of the disciplines in games… we’re also all competing at some level for a lot of the same gigs.” Kamper warns, “You also have to know how to market yourself in order to get jobs.”

Pictured: Jesse Harlin (former LucasArts music supervisor), from the article by Winifred Phillips (game music composer).Jesse Harlin (pictured left) adds that as job seekers, we need to show prospective clients that we’re enthusiastic and curious.  This is especially important in an interview, whether that takes place face-to-face, on the phone, or via online video conferencing.  “Always ask one smart question in your interviews,” Harlin advises, and then describes a hypothetical job interview in which the prospective employee shows no interest in asking questions, even when the hiring manager solicits them.  What does that say to the hiring manager? According to Harlin, that lack of curiosity makes the prospective employee seem thoroughly uninterested in the job. “There’s gotta be something that you could ask me!” Harlin declares in exasperation.

The entire GDC talk “Why I Rejected You: Observations from a Hiring Manager” is available for viewing by subscribers to the GDC Vault.

You hear that?

Photo of audio director Bradley D. Meyer, from the article by Winifred Phillips (composer of music for video games).In the GDC talk, You Hear That? Team Engagement for Audio,” audio director Bradley D. Meyer (pictured right) of Sucker Punch Productions explores the importance of improving communication skills for audio folks within development teams.  “We need to communicate better,” Meyer observes. “We need to communicate better with ourselves, we need to communicate better with our teams, and if we’re not communicating better, we need to be at least communicating with everybody that we can.”

Taking things a step further, Meyer describes a way for us as audio professionals to communicate our creative vision for a project in its early development.  “What’s a sound concept?  Hey, it’s like concept art for sound!” Meyer says, drawing the comparison between early concept imagery generated by visual artists and early aural sketches recorded by audio artists. Meyer suggests that the pairing of these two early assets could be highly beneficial.  “You know, the misconception that audio begins at the end of a project is something that we have been actively rebutting and continue to be rebutting by getting involved in the earliest possible moments to experiment with how sound can develop for early concepts,” Meyer remarks. “So concept art coupled with concept sound makes the end product way more impactful, gives us a proving sound to start playing with our sound palettes, and also has an additional benefit of getting people really excited about audio early.”

The entire GDC talk “You Hear That? Team Engagement for Audio” is available for viewing by subscribers to the GDC Vault.

Music to Their Ears

Pictured: Dave Bisceglia (CEO of The Tap Lab), from the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips.The GDC talk Music To Their Ears: Best Practices for Developer Relations approached the issue of effective communication from the perspectives of both an independent audio contractor and the CEO of a small indie development studio. The two speakers included freelance video game music composer Richard Gould, and Dave Bisceglia (pictured left), CEO of the mobile game studio The Tap Lab.  Both emphasized the vital importance of effective communication.

Pictured: freelance composer Richard Gould. From the article by Winifred Phillips, composer of video game music.“Talk saves time!” Gould (pictured right) points out.  “Try to discuss things as much as possible, whether its verbally or by email, before starting work. Or at least that’s my experience.  And then once you’ve got some kind of a sense of the direction you take, I like to start by sending and soliciting examples of other music and other sounds that might work in their world, so I can even start to think about instrumentation, or the texture of the sounds we’re going for. And when you’re doing that, it’s really important to be very specific about what they like and what they don’t like.”

Gould also urges us to submit our own audio sketches throughout development, in the effort to be incorporated into the creative process of the team.  “Don’t be afraid to express your own opinion and your own thoughts as to what may (or may not) work,” Gould asserts. “Sending your own ideas, sending your own examples. It doesn’t have to be a one-way street. They brought you on not necessarily just to create assets all the time.  Possibly (and hopefully) they are looking for some kind of a creative input as well.”

The entire GDC talk “Music To Their Ears: Best Practices for Developer Relations” is available for viewing by subscribers to the GDC Vault.

An Example: SimAnimals

Concept sketches can be a very useful tool for communicating with the developers, especially at the beginning of a project.  To discuss this idea from a less abstract vantage point, let’s explore an example from one of my own projects.

Pictured: The SimAnimals logo (from the article by video game composer WInifred Phillips).After Electronic Arts hired me to create the music for the SimAnimals video game (another installment in the famous Sims franchise), I composed and recorded several short tracks that were essentially concept sketches for the main theme of the game.  The style and tone of the sketches rose from conversations I’d had with the developers, wherein they’d told me about what had inspired them to create the world of SimAnimals, and how they imagined the music of their game would sound.  Working from these conversations, I created several music sketches, but none of them seemed quite right.  We went back and forth for awhile, without hitting the musical target.  While we hadn’t found a successful solution, this iterative process proved extremely useful in ruling out ineffective approaches.

The album cover of the official SimAnimals video game soundtrack by game music composer WInifred Phillips.We continued in this way for a short while, and then I decided to be a bit more bold in my musical choices for the project.  I took a chance, composed a musical sketch in a style very different from anything we’d discussed, and submitted it.  It was a risky move, but well worth it — that sketch hit the bulls-eye for the development team.  They loved it, and asked me to enlarge upon it to create the SimAnimals musical theme for the game.  While the iterative process of sketches had led us down quite a few dead ends, it had also revealed what musical choices weren’t working, and that made it possible to hone in on a compositional approach that actually would work. In fact, the musical style from that initial sketch became the template for the instrumentation and style of music for the entire musical score for the game (soundtrack album release available here), and the whole team was very happy with the result. Here’s the final full-length version of the musical theme I composed for SimAnimals:

What I learned from my experience on the SimAnimals project was two-fold:

  • Musical sketches can be a powerful communications tool.
  • Don’t be afraid to speak up and express your ideas for a project.

Speak Up!

All three of the GDC talks that we’ve discussed in this article urged attendees to not be afraid to speak up and express themselves, while championing the interests of game music and sound throughout the development process.  I hope you’ve found some useful guidance from this article, and please feel free to share your own experiences 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.


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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VR Game Composer: Music Inside the Machine

Illustration for an article in the VR Game Composer series, written by video game composer Winifred PhillipsWelcome to part two of our ongoing exploration of some interesting possibilities created by the motion tracking capabilities of VR, and how this might alter our creative process as video game composers.

In part one we discussed how motion tracking lets us be awesome air guitarists and drummers inside the virtual space.  In this article, we’ll be taking a look at how the same technology will allow us to make interesting music using more serious tools that are incorporated directly inside the VR environment – musical instruments that exist entirely within the VR ‘machine.’

Our discussion to follow will concentrate on three software applications: Soundscape, Carillon, and Lyra.  Later, in the third article of this ongoing series, we’ll take a look at applications that allow our VR user interfaces to harness the power of MIDI to control some of the top music devices and software that we use in our external production studios. But first, let’s look at the ways that VR apps can function as fully-featured musical instruments, all on their own!


Let’s start with something simple – a step sequencer with a sound bank and signal processing tools, built for the mobile virtual reality experience of the Samsung Gear VR.

Video game composer Winifred Phillips demonstrating the Samsung Gear VR headset during the AES convention in NYC.I got a chance to demo the Samsung Gear VR during the Audio Engineering Society Convention in NYC last year, and while it doesn’t offer the best or most mind-blowing experience in VR (such as what we can experience from products like the famous Oculus Rift), it does achieve a satisfying level of immersion. Plus, it’s great fun!  The Soundscape VR app was built for Samsung Gear VR by developer Sander Sneek of the Netherlands.  It’s a simple app designed to enable users to create dance loops using three instruments from a built-in electro sound library, a pentatonic step sequencer that enables the user to create rhythm and tone patterns within the loops, and a collection of audio signal processing effects that let the user warp and mold the sounds as the loops progress, adding variety to the performance.

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VR Game Composer: Music in the Air

Illustration for the article by game music composer Winifred Phillips, entitled "VR Game Composer: Music in the Air"Since I’ve been working recently on music for a Virtual Reality project (more info in the coming months), I’ve been thinking a lot about VR technology and its effect on the creative process.  Certainly, VR is going to be a great environment in which to be creative and perform tasks and skills with enhanced focus, according to this article from the VR site SingularityHub.  I’ve written in this blog before about the role that music and sound will play in the Virtual Reality gaming experience.  It’s clear that music will have an impact on the way in which we experience VR, not only during gaming experiences, but also when using the tools of VR to create and be productive.  With that in mind, let’s consider if the opposite statement may also be true – will VR impact the way in which we experience music, not only as listeners, but also as video game composers?

Game composer Winifred Phillips tries out the VR experience of Google Cardboard (pictured here in her music production studio).Simple VR technologies like the popular Google Cardboard headset can be a lot of fun – as I personally experienced recently (photo to the left).  However, they offer only the rudimentary visual aspects, which omits some of the most compelling aspects of the VR experience.  When motion tracking (beyond simple head movement) is added to the mix, the potential of VR explodes.  Over the next three articles, we’ll be exploring some interesting possibilities created by the motion tracking capabilities of VR, and how this might alter our creative process.  In the first article, we’ll have some fun exploring new ways to play air guitars and air drums in the VR environment. In the second article, we’ll take a look at ways to control virtual instruments and sound modules that are folded into the VR software.  And finally, in the third article we’ll explore the ways in which VR motion tracking is allowing us to immersively control our existing real-world instruments using MIDI. But first, let’s take a look at the early days of VR musical technology!

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How Music Can Intensify Video Games, Part Two

Welcome back to our two-part exploration of the role of tension and intensity in a musical score, and the techniques that can best and most effectively accentuate our audience’s nervous excitement.  If you haven’t read Part One yet, please read that article first, and then come back for the continuation of our discussion.

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, composing music for the triple-A first person shooter HOMEFRONT: THE REVOLUTION in her music studio.In Part One we explored how popular narrative genres such as horror benefit from a tense musical score, and we studied effective techniques for horror music composition as a model for musical tension-building in any narrative genre. We learned about some techniques from the world of sound design that can add intensity and emotional pressure to our music. We listened to a couple of musical examples that I composed as a member of the music team for Homefront: The Revolution (pictured right).  We also consulted the opinions of some top experts in the field to better understand how amplifying tension can make any story feel like a more awesome, satisfying experience.  Now, let’s move on to the more musical meat-and-bones of the topic: the actual harmonic textures and chord structures of our compositions.

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How Music Can Intensify Video Games: Part One

Tension has always served a crucial role in music composition and performance.  My next two blog articles will focus on how music works to shape tension and intensity in a dramatic presentation such as a video game.

Composer Winifred Phillips, working on music for Homefront: The Revolution in her music studio.During these blogs, we’ll be consulting with lots of top experts on the subject, and I’ll be sharing my experiences in regards to the tension-filled music that I composed as a member of the music team of Homefront: The Revolution – an open world, triple-A first person shooter game that was just released by Deep Silver/Dambuster Studios.  Along the way we’ll check out some excerpts from music tracks I composed (in my music production studio, pictured right) for Homefront: The Revolution, and we’ll talk about multiple techniques to build tension in a piece of music, with the goal of inciting the most emotional intensity possible in our audience. With that in mind, let’s start things off with a great quote from philosopher Henry David Thoreau:

“The fibers of all things have their tension and are strained like the strings of an instrument.”

Image illustrating anxiety (from the article by award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips)Thoreau not only saw the connection between music and tension, but also made a good point about the stresses and strains in our lives – we all possess our own inner emotional pressure. The more fervently we pursue our goals and struggles, the higher the tension grows. Taken to the extreme, it can feel as though our insides are wound up as taut as clockworks. As game composers, our job has always been to induce players to care about what’s happening in the game, and that includes inciting and escalating the nervous anxiety associated with an awesome investment of emotion and empathy.  So let’s explore the best ways we can make players feel the tension!

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