Variation for the video game composer: the music of Little Lords of Twilight

Pictured: video game music composer Winifred Phillips at the BKOM booth during GDC 2017.

Since one of my most recent projects, Little Lords of Twilight, became available worldwide earlier this year and was recently greenlit on the famous Steam platform, I thought I’d write this article to share some of my creative and technical process in composing the music for this game. In particular, this project presents a great opportunity to look at how compositional variation (as we understand it from music theory) can be useful for the structure of interactive music.

Developed by BKOM Studios, Little Lords of Twilight won a Best in Play Award at GDC 2017, a Best Designed Mobile App Platinum Award from the BMA Awards, a Communicator Award for Best Mobile App, and has appeared on numerous “Best of” lists, including those published by PocketGamer, Explore Gadgets, and GameInOnline.  As a player-versus-player turn-based strategy game, Little Lords of Twilight offers a unique gameplay mechanic influenced by the in-game passage of time.  Day and night cycles dramatically alter your character’s appearance and abilities. Depending on whether it is currently day or night in the game, your character will have access to a completely different complement of awesome skills and spells to wield on the battlefield.

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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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Arrangement for Vertical Layers Pt. 1: A Game Composer’s Guide

This week, I’m beginning a three-part blog series on the art of arrangement for dynamic music systems in games.

I’ll be exploring the techniques of arrangement as they relate to interactive game music by discussing examples from the music I composed for video games from the blockbuster LittleBigPlanet franchise.

Arrangement for interactivity is a complex subject, so I thought we should begin by developing a basic understanding of what arrangement is, and then move on to the reasons why it’s especially important in interactive music.

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E3 2015 for the Game Music Composer

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The Electronic Entertainment Expo is upon us once again, so I’ll be spending this blog exploring what we can expect to see and learn that’s most relevant to the field of game audio from this year’s big convention.

Virtual Reality

The impending releases of three virtual reality systems should make things especially interesting on the E3 show floor, and it will be awesome to see and hear what these systems have to offer.  Let’s take a look at what we might expect from the three top VR systems, as well as a possible surprise VR reveal that might happen next week.

Project Morpheus

PlayStation president of worldwide studios Shuhei Yoshida has already announced that several internally developed VR games for the Morpheus headset will be unveiled during E3, and we also learned during the 3D Audio in VR talk at the Shayla Games VR Jam in Denmark that the Morpheus will now incorporate an audio system involving Head-Related Transfer Function (HRTF was discussed in this blog during a previous post about audio in VR).  It should be interesting to see if this HRTF system is implemented into the hardware that will be demonstrating on the E3 show floor.  The latest model of the Morpheus doesn’t include built-in headphones, as you’ll see in this video demo that TechCrunch released last month.  The demo discusses the capabilities of the hardware, including its audio functionality:

Oculus Rift

The newest model of the Oculus Rift, the famous Crescent Bay, offers 3D audio through a set of built-in headphones.  Here’s an interview that Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe gave to Gamecrate during the ever-popular Consumer Electronics Show 2015 about the new VR audio features of the Oculus Rift.

HTC Vive

The HTC Vive doesn’t currently offer built-in headphones, but the developer assures us that the final consumer version will offer integrated 3D audio.  The current model offers the user the option to connect their own high-end headphones to the Vive.  E3 attendees may get to see how aurally immersive that can be by playing Arizona Sunshine, a game designed for the Vive and set in a genre so famous and pervasive that its appearance in the VR world was inevitable: the apocalyptic zombie shooter.  The game was announced on May 21st by its developer, Vertigo Games, and it’s a good bet that the game could be showing on the E3 exhibit floor.  Here’s a look at a trailer for Arizona Sunshine:

Microsoft VR System

Finally, the rumor mill is swirling around speculation that Microsoft may officially reveal its own virtual reality headset system during this year’s E3.

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Audio exhibitors at E3

The Electronic Entertainment Expo is an opportunity for consumer audio hardware manufacturers to show off most of their top products, so let’s take a look at what this year’s exhibitors are offering.

Astro Gaming

Game Audio Products:

  • A50 XBox One Edition Headset, 2nd Generation
  • A50 Astro Edition Headset & TX, 2nd Generation
  • A40 Xbox One Edition Headset + MixAmp M80
  • A40 Astro Edition Headset + Mixamp, 2nd Generation
  • A40 Astro Edition Headset + Mixamp, 2nd Generation
  • A40 PC Edition Headset, 2nd Generation
  • A38 Astro Bluetooth Wireless Headset
  • MixAmp Pro, 2nd Generation

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dreamGEAR

Game Audio Products:

  • Prime Wired Headset for PS4
  • Universal Elite Wired Headset

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Performance Designed Products

Game Audio Products:

  • Afterglow Karga Headset for Xbox One
  • Afterglow Fener Premium Wireless Headset for PS4
  • Afterglow Kral Wireless Headset for PS4
  • Afterglow Nur Headset
  • Afterglow PS4 Bluetooth Communicator

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Plantronics

Game Audio Products:

  • RIG Gaming Audio System
  • RIG Surround Sound Gaming System
  • RIG Flex
  • GameCom 788 Gaming Headset
  • GameCom 388 Gaming Headset

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Polk Audio

Game Audio Products:

  • Striker Zx Xbox One Gaming Headset
  • Striker P1 Multiplatform Gaming Headset
  • N1 Gaming Sound Bar
  • 4 Shot Xbox One Gaming Headset

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Turtle Beach

Game Audio Products:

  • Turtle Beach Elite 800X Gaming Headset for Xbox One
  • Turtle Beach Stealth 500X headset for Xbox One
  • Turtle Beach XO Seven Pro
  • Turtle Beach XO Four Stealth
  • Turtle Beach Call of Duty Online PC Gaming Headset

 

Interview about Game Music on The Note Show!

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I’m excited to share that I’ve been interviewed about my career as a game music composer and my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, for the newest episode of The Note Show!

The Note Show is a terrific podcast that focuses on interviews with professionals in creative fields.  I’m very proud to have been included! Famous guests on The Note Show have included Hugo and Nebula award-winning sci-fi author David Brin, actress Kristina Anapau of the HBO series True Blood, video game designer Al Lowe (Leisure Suit Larry), actress Lisa Jakub (Mrs. Doubtfire, Independence Day), and Steven Long Mitchell and Craig Van Sickle, creators of the NBC series The Pretender.

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This is my second time being interviewed on The Note Show, and I’m so glad to have been invited back!

In this interview, I talk about my work on the LittleBigPlanet and Assassin’s Creed franchises, my latest project (Total War Battles: Kingdom), how composing music for a mobile game differs from composing for consoles or PC, and how my life has changed with the publication of my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music.

In the podcast, we also talk about the National Indie Excellence Book Award that my book recently won, as well as the importance of optimism for an aspiring game composer.

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You can listen to the entire interview here:

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Here’s some official info from the creators of The Note Show:

The Creative Professional Podcast – Music & Arts Interviews

The Note Show is a creative journey where host Joshua Note returns to chat life and art with creative people across the world. We interview musicians, artists, comic book creators, novelists, directors, actors and anyone creative and bring you new people and experiences every week!  The Note Show is a Podcast for and featuring Creative Professionals from all walks of life. As long as it’s creative, it’s here on The Note Show.

The show’s host, Joshua Note, is a terrific interviewer who is also the author of a children’s book due for release in 2015.  In addition, Joshua studied classical composition and orchestration at Leeds College of Music and Leeds University, and in 2012 he produced a for-television animated series and worked on several projects for television and cinema.

Joshua Note, host of The Note Show

Joshua Note, host of The Note Show

In his role as the host of The Note Show, Joshua asks intelligent questions about what it means to be a creative person in modern times, and his interviews are always fascinating!  My thanks to Joshua and the staff of The Note Show – I had a great time!

Nov. 4, 2014: My Music for the LittleBigPlanet 3 Game Won a Hollywood Music in Media Award!

2014HMMA_Billboard2This has been an exciting week!  I have a bunch of news to announce all at once, so here goes…

My latest project is music for the game LittleBigPlanet 3.  I was a member of the composer team for that project, and I composed many tracks for the game.  One of those tracks is entitled “LittleBigPlanet 3 Ziggurat Theme.”  It’s a classically-inspired vocal fugue written for a women’s choir, and I’m thrilled to say that on November 4th, my track won a Hollywood Music in Media Award in the category of Best Song for a Video Game!

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Here I am, holding the Hollywood Music in Media Award I won for

In this photo, I’m holding the Hollywood Music in Media Award I won for LittleBigPlanet 3 Ziggurat Theme.

Since Sony Computer Entertainment Europe announced the award today, I can now share it with all of you.  I’ve been bursting with excitement over my involvement in LittleBigPlanet 3 — it’s going to be the best LittleBigPlanet game ever, and I’m so honored to have been a part of it!  I’ve been keeping the secret for a while.

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Here I am at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles this past June, looking at the wonderful booth for LittleBigPlanet 3.

2-LBP3-E3LittleBigPlanet 3 features all new companions for Sackboy — you can see OddSock and Toggle pictured here.  Look at how huge Toggle is!

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Of course, my favorite will always be Sackboy.  Just look at that face!  What’s not to love?

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Doesn’t OddSock look like he’s whispering a secret in my ear?  I suppose we really were keeping a big secret then, and I’m so glad I can share it now with you all.

Well, that’s my big announcement.  I’ve been keeping this secret for almost two years.  Working with the wonderful creative team at Sumo Digital and Sony Computer Entertainment Europe on music for LittleBigPlanet 3 has been a wonderful adventure, and I’m so excited that the game will be released on November 18th!

E3 2014: What’s New in Audio Gear

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Next week, the game industry will gather together for their annual trade fair extravaganza. I’m curious about the anticipated game announcements and press conferences, but as a game audio professional, I’ll be very interested in the consumer products and services that will be demonstrated on the E3 show floor next week.  Here are some of the E3 exhibitors and products that may be of interest to game audio folks:

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ASTRO Gaming / Skullcandy

ASTRO Gaming hasn’t given any indication of what they’ll be showing at E3 this year, but it’s a good bet that their “Watch_Dogs” A40 & A30 headsets with included speaker tags will be on display there.  “Watch_Dogs” is an action-adventure game from Ubisoft that just came out last month, and Ubisoft will be showing the game in its booth on the show floor.  The PC headphones come with branded “Watch_Dogs” speaker tags, which are decorative magnets that affix to headphones in order to make them more stylish.  E3 Booth Location:  Concourse Hall, Meeting Room 513.

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dreamGear

This company isn’t an audio specialist – instead, it offers a range of game accessories including controllers, headsets and power solutions.  In the audio category, they’ll be featuring their Universal Elite gaming headset at their booth.  E3 Booth Location: West Hall, Booth 5422.

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Exeo Entertainment

The product of interest to us here – the Psyko surround-sound headphones – claim to deliver  “the highest level of audio directionality and natural sound reproduction over any other 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound gaming headset.”  The headphones have five distinct speakers and a subwoofer embedded in each earcup, according to Exeo. The resulting effect is purported to emulate true surround sound more faithfully in the headphone monitoring environment. E3 Booth Location: West Hall, Booth 5336.

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GamesterGear

The headset manufacturer GamesterGear will be debuting a new line of headsets in its booth at E3.  The Falcon console and PC gaming headset series will be put through its paces during the booth’s daily “Beat a Pro” Tournaments, which offer booth visitors an opportunity to compete against the professional gamers of TeamGamesterGear.  The Falcon headsets feature “the industry’s largest 57mm and 30mm drivers” and a force-feedback technology that the company has dubbed “BASS QUAKE.”  E3 Booth Location: South Hall, Booth 3047.

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Immerz

Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Immerz, Inc. is the developer of the KOR-FX game peripheral that will be officially announced at this upcoming E3.  The KOR-FX device is a peripheral that resembles a hi-tech vest that you wear while gaming.  The vest converts audio content into vibrations that are delivered to specific areas of the chest via transducers.  This is meant to render the audio content of a game more impactful and immersive throughout the course of play.  It should be interesting to see this device demonstrated on the show floor.  E3 Booth Location: South Hall, Booth 2855.

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Plantronics

Plantronics is an audio communications equipment manufacturer known for supplying the headsets worn by astronauts during the first moon landing.  Their computer and gaming headsets line will be on display on the E3 show floor.  This will likely include their relatively new Plantronics Rig headset with swappable mics and EQ control.  Also, this will be an opportuntity to see and hear the newest RPG created by Richard Garriott (creator of the renowned Ultima series). Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues will be on display here, and will give booth visitors an opportunity to test out the newest Plantronics headphones while listening to the soundscape of Garriott’s newest creation.  E3 Booth Location: South Hall, Booth 515.

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Polk Audio

This audio technology manufacturer specializing in speakers and headphones for audiophiles will be showing a new soundbar and two new headphone models specifically created for the Xbox One.  Polk describes the N1 Soundbar as having “four immersion modes for a tailored and immersive listening experience.”  It’s 4Shot for Xbox One and 133t for Xbox 360 are a pair of headphones that will “deliver individualized audio unparalleled in the category.”  All three products will not be available for purchase until this fall.  E3 Booth Location: West Hall, Booth 4012.

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Turtle Beach

This headphone manufacturer has joined forces with Lucasfilm to create a line of headphones decorated with characters and artwork from the Star Wars sci-fi series.  The designs will be unveiled at E3, allowing booth visitors to get a look at the assortment of swappable speaker plates that will allow the owner to customize the look of these headsets.  E3 Booth Location: South Hall, Booth 1447.

Fascinating Games of E3

ImageEvery year, I head to the Electronic Entertainment Expo with the hope that my creative energies will be stimulated by some incredibly unique game that I’ll see on the show floor. While my primary mission at E3 is to meet with other developers and talk about future projects, I’m always keeping an eye out for what’s happening in the two major expo halls.  Because of that, I tend to view my E3 experience as a series of hunting trips. Each time, I hope that my expo floor excursion will be interrupted by a moment of surprise and inspiration, as I discover a game I hadn’t seen before. In previous years I’ve had my attention arrested by the fantastical world of El Shaddai: Ascension of the Metatron, the visual artistry of Trine, the hypnotically unique game-play of From Dust, and many others.

Last year, I couldn’t attend E3 because I was working on the music of Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. Because of that, I was doubly eager to see what games would be on display this year, and what would capture my attention. There’s something about the way in which games are gathered together at E3… wandering through this collection of game exhibits never fails to fills me with creative fuel, helping me to stay energized throughout the year.

At this E3, the two games I remember most are Rain and Dragon’s Prophet.

Rain is a poetic game in which you play as an invisible little boy, searching for a mysterious girl through a dilapidated and inexplicably empty city soaked by an eternal rainfall. The boy is only visible in the rain, which reveals him to the creatures that hunt him. The visual presentation of the game blends realism with a stark stylized lighting and texture. The game makes use of licensed music well, particularly Debussy’s Clair de Lune. I must admit that, since Debussy is one of my favorite composers, my immediate affection for this game might have been influenced by its musical accompaniment.

Dragon’s Prophet, on the other hand, is a free-to-play MMORPG that focuses on obtaining, training and riding dragons. The appeal of the game, for me, rested almost completely in the lush details in the landscape and the opportunities for exploration. Flying on the back of a dragon over a glittering waterfall is a deeply enjoyable experience in Dragon’s Prophet, enhanced by a very effective orchestral score written by Alexander Roeder, Mindy Lo and Rmoney Chen. The soundtrack is not available for sale, but it can be heard in a playlist on the developer’s YouTube Channel. The track I remember hearing during my playtime at E3 was “Auratia” – a grandly thematic musical backdrop for gliding on the back of a dragon.

Hearing is Believing: E3 2013

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I attended my first E3 in 2004. It was the last hurrah for the PlayStation 2 and the Xbox, with next-gen consoles set to make their debut the following year. I was a newcomer to the video game industry, and I’d never been to a large tech-industry convention before. My memories of that E3 are two-fold:

First, I remember taking meetings to discuss the music needs of two projects that would become my first two gigs in the video game industry – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2K Games) and God of War (Sony Computer Entertainment America). These meetings would mark the beginning of my full-fledged career in game development.

Second, I remember not being able to hear any of the playable games in any of the kiosks on the show floor at E3. Developer representatives at the show would admit this pretty quickly when I asked them about it. “No, you can’t really hear the games here,” they’d say with a shrug and a smile. “There are speakers, but we turned those off. The noise level is too much, nobody can hear anything.” At the time, that really surprised me, but after several years of seeing that same E3 phenomenon repeated over and over, the surprise wore off.

Traditionally, the E3 show has relied heavily on visuals to propel excitement. In the past, seeing was believing, and audio couldn’t be experienced except in the big video trailers for the most important games being presented that year. These trailers were typically shown on towering screens on the show floor, where they dwarfed the demo kiosks and emitted thunderously epic music in a cyclical pattern, all day long. This often meant that the trailer music for the company’s tent-pole game accompanied the playing experience for every game in that booth. It could be a weird experience, particularly if you were playing a snowboarding title or a brightly colored platformer while listening to angry apocalyptic choirs and orchestral explosions of mayhem and despair.

The audio and music components of video games don’t tend to be acknowledged in early press coverage for an upcoming game title. Graphics, physics, story, design, controls… all these are discussed, sometimes at length, but audio and music tend to be missing from the discussion. At an event where the audio and music of a game are missing, this phenomenon is perhaps unintentionally reinforced.

As I write this, I’m about to embark on my second day wandering the E3 2013 show floor at the LA Convention Center. This year, I have been pleasantly surprised to see that some changes have been made. Headphones are all over the convention floor, waiting invitingly at nearly every game demo kiosk I’ve seen. While some of these headphones are clearly present to enable chat during multiplayer matches, others are there simply to afford retailers, press and industry reps the chance to hear the games they are playing. It’s a subtle but powerful change in the way games are promoted in the industry, and one that makes me hopeful that the music and sound of games will be more recognized moving forward.

E3 is an event primarily geared towards presenting a strong marketing pitch to retailers and journalists, and it’s well known that the world of marketing depends on the importance of music in reinforcing its messages. “The association of music with the identity of a certain product may substantially aid product recall,” writes professor David Huron, head of the Cognitive and Systematic Musicology Laboratory of Ohio State University. “Despite the largely visual orientation of human beings, photographs and visual images do not infect human consciousness to the same extent that some melodies do.”

Seeing pairs of headphones hanging next to displays at so many demo kiosks at E3 has been a great surprise, and I think it’s a very hopeful sign. I’ll be reading the E3 hands-on articles with great interest this year, looking for signs that journalists are getting an earful as well as an eyeful. Hearing is believing.

Subtle Weapons in the Loudness War

Over at the Designing Sound website, there’s an interesting article about loudness metering in video game middleware. While reading the article, I paused on a particular phrase: loudness war. The music industry is painfully familiar with this form of sonic warfare. It’s been an ongoing conflict for years, based on a pretty vicious cycle of reasoning that goes like this:

  • We want our music to be exciting.
  • Listeners get most excited when the music gets loud.
  • Therefore, we want our music mixes to feel loud.
  • Other people are mixing their music to be more exciting by being louder than ours.
  • To counteract this, we have to make our music as loud as theirs, or better yet, louder.

Like an audio arms race, each side piles on the volume until everything overloads, then squashes their mixes with massive compression in order to avoid clipping. This leads to painfully flattened music that explodes from the speakers like a tsunami of sound, always pouring forth, never ebbing. It’s the ultimate apocalypse of the loudness war.

But does it actually feel loud?

At the Electronic Entertainment Expo, there’s another kind of loudness war about to break out once again in a couple of weeks. The big game publishers mount some of the showiest booths each year, complete with enormous video screens, stacks of speakers and rumbling subwoofers installed under the floor. The result can feel pretty thunderous. The noise levels were so migrane-inducing that in 2006 the Electronic Software Association began enforcing a cap on the loudness levels, with fines levied against the transgressors. Nevertheless, from my perspective as an annual attendee, the war seems to rage on. Entering one of the big E3 booths sometimes makes me feel like the “Maxell Man” from the classic commercial in which the power of sound is portrayed like the driving force of a wind tunnel. It hits me with a solid whomp, and I can almost imagine it whipping my hair back. Whoosh.

Despite this, I find that after only a little while wandering the expo floor, none of the sounds feel particularly powerful or impressive anymore. Sure, it’s all still quite loud, but it’s also all the same kind of loud. Likewise with the sonic arms race in the music industry – when every song strives to push itself into listener’s faces with aggressive sonic intensity throughout, it becomes numbing. Our senses deaden, and the music blends into a loud but featureless white noise.

How does this relate to our work as game composers, sound designers and audio engineers? The article at Designing Sound briefly discussed the lack of clear standards for levels of loudness in video games, and the loudness war that has resulted as game developers attempt to outdo each other in making their games sonically exciting. Like the big booths at E3, we’re all trying to shout each other down. As a game composer, I’m always aware of the place my music occupies in the sonic landscape of the game. If the game is loud, should my music be loud too? And will this turn into a mush of sonic white noise? How can I prevent this, and still create that level of excitement that is the holy grail of the loudness war?

My brilliant music producer Winnie Waldron has a saying when it comes to this subject. Since we tend to communicate in our own shorthand, I’ll need to translate it for you. When talking about loudness, she says, “Contast, contrast, contrast! Yin and yang, yin and yang!!” What does this mean? We only know a thing if we also know its opposite. Therefore, we only recognize something as loud when we have experienced something soft in close proximity to it. This is also true for all manner of musical effects, from tempos and pitch elevation to texture and rhythmic devices, but for loudness its particularly meaningful. In order to create an epically loud moment, we have to preface it with something hushed. Really effective popular music uses this phenomenon by incorporating unexpected pauses, stutters and breakdowns that challenge expectations and create those hushed moments. In game audio, moments of stillness can be our subtle weapons in the loudness war.