GDC 2017: How video game composers can use music to build suspense

Winifred Phillips, video game composer, giving a talk as part of the Game Developers Conference 2016 in San Francisco.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

The Game Developers Conference is coming up soon!  Last year I presented a talk on music for mobile games (pictured above), and I’m pleased that this year I’ll be presenting the talk, “Homefront’ to ‘God of War’: Using Music to Build Suspense(Wednesday, March 1st at 11am in room 3006 West Hall, Moscone Center, San Francisco).  In my talk I’ll be focusing on practical applications of techniques for video game composers and game audio folks, using my own experiences as concrete examples for exploration.  Along the way, I’ll be discussing some very compelling scholarly research on the relationship between suspense, gameplay and musical expression.  In preparing my GDC 2017 presentation I did a lot of reading and studying about the nature of suspense in video games, the importance of suspense in gameplay design, and the role that video game music plays in regulating and elevating suspense.  There will be lots of ground to cover in my presentation!  That being said, the targeted focus of my presentation precluded me from incorporating some very interesting extra research into the importance of suspense in a more general sense… why human beings need suspense, and what purpose it serves in our lives.  I also couldn’t find the space to include everything I’d encountered regarding suspense as an element in the gaming experience.  It occurred to me that some of this could be very useful to us in our work as game makers, so I’d like to share some of these extra ideas in this article.

First, let’s start with the basics.

What is suspense?

From the article by game composer Winifred Phillips, an illustration for the hope/fear dichotomy (as related to suspense).If we are to understand what suspense is, we first have to acknowledge the role of two other emotions: hope and fear.  They are diametrically opposed, but essential to the existence of a suspenseful state.  In his final treatise, The Passions of the Soul, French philosopher René Descartes wrote, “the mere fact of thinking that a good may be acquired or an evil avoided is sufficient to produce the desire for this to come to pass. From video game composer Winifred Phillips' article on suspense - an illustration for the hope/fear interdependent relationship.But when, over and above this, we consider whether our desire is likely to be satisfied or not, the idea that it is likely arouses hope in us, and the idea that it is unlikely arouses fear.”

In a paper written for the journal Text Technology, researchers Aaron Smuts and Jonathan Frome connect the emotions of hope and fear to the concept of suspense.  “People feel suspense when they fear a bad outcome, hope for a good outcome, and are uncertain about which outcome will come to pass,” writes Smuts and Frome.  “In real life, we might feel suspense when walking through an unfamiliar, reputedly dangerous neighborhood at night. We fear that we might be mugged, hope that we will be safe, and are uncertain which will occur.”

Things get a bit more interesting as the writers connect these ideas to the structure of video game design.  “We have found that the games most effective at creating suspense often put players in situations where they must wait and see what happens, much like a film spectator,” they write. “This passive position allows the player an opportunity to speculate about possible outcomes and reflect on the consequences of those outcomes.”

Video game music composer Winifred Phillips working in her studio on the music of the Homefront: The Revolution video game.GDC 2017 Presentation Preview:

In my upcoming GDC talk, I’ll be exploring how to create a suspenseful atmosphere in moments of quiet when events are seemingly suspended, yet slowly heading towards a dreadful outcome.  Using examples of my music from Homefront: The Revolution (pictured), I’ll break down the techniques that I used to thicken the tension while players hold their breath and wait for the other shoe to drop.

So, for the moment let’s accept that suspense requires both hope and fear, along with the opportunity to mentally encompass the awesome impact of both emotions and contemplate the possibilities of the situation that inspired them.  Now, armed with this viewpoint of what suspense is, let’s ask ourselves another basic question: why is suspense important?

Suspense and surprise

In the film industry, suspense is a great tool for keeping an audience engaged and emotionally invested in the outcome of a story.  Certainly, video games can also benefit from the motivating power of suspense to keep players riveted to the action.  But the role of suspense can go beyond this.  In a research study published in the Journal of Political Economy, Jeffrey Ely from Northwestern University along with Alexander Frankel and Emir Kamenica of the University of Chicago drew some original and unexpected conclusions about the role of suspense in human society.

For game composer Winifred Phillips' article on suspense - an illustration for the section about the voter's mindset.As an example, the researchers observed that in order for a democratic political system to be effective, voters must be informed of the issues in contention during any popular vote.  However, individual voters may feel conflicted and uninspired because of a sense of their relative unimportance — after all, what kind of change can a single vote bring about?  Yet, despite this danger of voter ambivalence, many citizens still engage in the political process.  “Many voters do in fact follow political news and watch political debates, thus becoming an informed electorate,” writes Ely, Frankel and Kamenica. “A potential explanation is that the political process unfolds in a way that generates enjoyable suspense and surprise.”  The study goes on to advise the use of suspense-style techniques in the dissemination of important information, or to add urgency and motivation to tasks that might otherwise seem bland and un-involving.

Article by video game composer Winifred Phillips - this image illustrates a STEM educator.In that spirit, an educational course of study was prepared by the Belfast Education and Library Board, the National Science Learning Centre, and the Northern Ireland STEM organization Learn Differently Ltd.  Tailored specifically for science, technology, engineering and mathematics teachers, the course showed educators how to “explore a wide range of emotional engagement techniques designed to foster suspense and surprise in the classroom context. Triggering these emotional responses can impact positively on attention, enjoyment, motivation, student-teacher relationship and on cognitive processes such as memory and understanding.”

So, we’ve talked about the powerful and pervasive effects that suspense can exert, both within entertainment media and in society at large. However, as game developers, our ideas about suspense will naturally focus on its functionality within game systems and structures.  With this in mind, let’s now turn our attention to some specific correlations between suspense and video gaming.

Uncertainty in game design

One of the most important concepts in game design is Flow.  It’s a famous idea in the field of psychology, and its influence has extended to many other fields as well.  I discussed the relationship between video games and Flow in chapter 3 of my book (A Composer’s Guide to Game Music).  From game composer Winifred Phillips' article on suspense in game design - photo of the book cover for the national bestseller "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience."Coined by psychology researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, Flow is an altered state of consciousness in which “people become so involved in what they are doing that the activity becomes spontaneous, almost automatic; they stop being aware of themselves as separate from the actions they are performing.” As an expert researcher, Csíkszentmihályi has been studying Flow and its manifestations in various human activities since the 1970s.  He wrote the seminal book on the subject, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (pictured left).

We’re interested in Csíkszentmihályi’s work on Flow because it greatly informs his recent experimental study on the nature of suspense, entitled “Enjoying the possibility of defeat: Outcome uncertainty, suspense, and intrinsic motivation.”  Co-written for the journal Motivation and Emotion with fellow researchers Abuhamdeh and Jalal, the research article describes an experiment that measured the enjoyment level of gamers while playing video games with varying degrees of challenge.  A depiction of a gamer, from the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips.One game was rigged so that players would win easily, while the other had been manipulated so that the challenge was much greater but that study participants would still win (by a much slimmer margin).  After playing the two games, study participants were told that there was a little extra time left, and would they like to play one of the games again?  The answer to this question revealed an apparent contradiction between the results predicted by Flow theory and some of the motivating influences of suspense.  The conundrum plays out like this:

When we reach a state of optimal Flow, we are functioning at a skill level that equals the demands of the task, and as a result we emerge with a sense of self-confidence in our own competency.  This feeling, according to Flow theory, is a potent motivating force, luring us to return to the same activity in order to again experience these emotions.  This sounds great as a reliable inducement for gamers to prefer games that accentuate their feelings of competence, right?  As it turns out, this assumption is wrong.

“The most enjoyable games, and the ones that participants chose to play again, were not those that maximized perceived competence, but those with high outcome uncertainty,” the researchers observe. “Participants chose to play games higher in suspense over games which provided them with higher perceptions of competence, suggesting the motive for competence may be trumped by the enjoyment of suspense in some situations.”

Video game music composer Winifred Phillips working in her studio on the music of the God of War video game.GDC 2017 Presentation Preview:

In my GDC 2017 talk, I’ll be discussing the music I composed for God of War (pictured), with specific attention paid to the techniques I used to foster a sense of dread.  With a pervasive and consistent atmosphere of dread, the player is exposed to an elevated state of tension that enables a stronger subsequent reaction to surprising gameplay moments.  My talk will explore methods to generate such an atmosphere in games, and ways these techniques have been used in other media.

So, now that we’ve taken a closer look at the purpose that suspense can serve in game design, how can we deliver a suspenseful experience for gamers?

Mechanics of suspense

“Suspense and tension are hard feelings for games to generate,” writes Chris Pruett, CEO of the Robot Invader game development studio.  In an article for Game Dev Daily, Pruett describes these emotions as “the apex of engagement: the player is so enthralled with the experience that it causes him physical stress.”

Pruett urges designers to “focus the player on narrative context rather than underlying game systems. We want the player to be thinking as if he is his avatar rather than a third party solving a puzzle.”  From the article by Winifred Phillips (video game composer) - an illustration of 'problem solving' in gameplay.In order to accomplish this, Pruett suggests that designers “move the player’s mode of thinking away from “systemic” problem solving (thinking about stats, min/maxing, design patterns, or even tactical strategy) to “contextual” problem solving (“who sent this note?” or “how do I get out of here?”).”

The importance of contextual thinking to suspense in games is echoed by YouTube essayist Mason Miller, creator of the [game array] series of videos on game design.  In his video essay, “Resident Evil and the Art of Suspense,” Miller explores how the design of 2002’s Resident Evil Remake forces players to think less about stats and mechanics, and more about in-character choices and circumstances that promote a greater sense of immersion.

“Uncertainty is at the core of suspense in video games,” Miller observes. “Despite whatever perception we may have in our heads, there is very little certainty in Resident Evil… Areas we thought would remain safe for travel suddenly become dangerous, short cuts become inaccessible, and new monsters spawn in vacant hallways.  These changes prevent any iron-clad one-size-fits-all strategy from taking place, and instead welcomes contextual in-the-moment thinking.  And contextual thinking like that is a necessity for the kind of immersion we require to generate suspense.”

In his video essay, Miller discusses the Mental Model (an important concept in the field of psychology), which Miller applies to the world of gaming and describes as “the process in which players instinctively build up collections of what they believe to be true about a game and its systems in their heads.”  Article by Winifred Phillips (game music composer) - this image depicts a iconic map, illustrating the way in which gamers mentally map out the rules and geography of games as they play. By challenging this collection of perceived truths and this internalized map of the game world that players create for themselves, a game can surprise its players, leading to greater suspense.  “By invalidating the very mental models players depend on, the game creates an incredibly tense experience from beginning to end.”  Miller’s video essay is fascinating – you can see the entire video here:


In this article I’ve shared some of the additional research I’d encountered that didn’t make the cut for my GDC 2017 presentation, ‘Homefront’ to ‘God of War’: Using Music to Build Suspense (Wednesday, March 1st at 11am in room 3006 West Hall, Moscone Center).  The presentation I give at GDC will include lots of practical and concrete techniques and strategies for game music composers and audio folks looking to ratchet up suspense for their players.  That being said, the more general research in this article can also provide helpful insight, and I hope you’ve found it stimulating!  I’ve included all the information about my upcoming talk below.  Please feel free to share your thoughts and insights in the comments section at the end of this article!

The GDC 2017 Logo - from the article by award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips.

‘Homefront’ to ‘God of War’: Using Music to Build Suspense

From the article by Winifred Phillips (game composer) - a depiction of the video games to be included in her 2017 GDC presentation.This talk presents ideas for creating a high-tension game score. Composer Winifred Phillips will share tips from some of her projects (pictured left). Phillips will discuss tension-enhancing audio techniques from the films of Martin Scorsese and David Lynch. Phillips will also discuss techniques that composers can adopt from the world of sound design, from startling bursts of noise to strategic moments of silence. Dissonances, drones and unnerving sonic effects all contribute, and each technique will be examined via aural examples from Phillips’ projects, including ‘Homefront: The Revolution’ and the original ‘God of War’. The discussion will also include an examination of the uses of suspenseful music in virtual reality, and Phillips will share examples of her music from the recently released ‘Dragon Front’ VR game. Phillips’ talk will offer techniques for composers and audio directors looking to enhance player suspense.


Through examples from several successful game titles, Phillips will provide an analysis of music composition strategies that effectively elevate tension. The talk will include concrete examples and practical advice that audience members can apply to their own games.

Intended Audience

This session will provide composers and audio directors with strategies for designing suspenseful game scores. Includes an overview of the role of music in elevating tension (useful general knowledge for designers). This talk will be approachable for all levels (advanced composers may better appreciate the specific composition techniques discussed).

Speaker Biography
Winifred Phillips is an award-winning game composer. Some of her latest video game credits include the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution and the virtual reality game Dragon Front. Other credits include five of the biggest and best franchises in gaming: Assassin’s Creed, Total War, God of War, LittleBigPlanet, and The Sims. Phillips has received an Interactive Achievement Award / D.I.C.E. Award from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, three Hollywood Music in Media Awards, six Game Audio Network Guild Awards, five Global Music Awards, an IGN Best Score Award, a GameSpot Best Music Award, a GameZone Score of the Year Award, a GameFocus Award, and three Gracie Awards from the Alliance of Women in Media. In addition, Phillips has been recognized as an expert in music for VR by the Women in Virtual Reality organization. She has released fifteen albums. Her soundtrack album for the Legend of the Guardians video game was the first video game soundtrack album released by WaterTower Music, one of the top labels for film music soundtracks. Phillips is the author of the award-winning bestselling book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Video game music composer Winifred Phillips works 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 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 MIT Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Montreal International Game Summit 2014

Just came back from a fantastic experience speaking at the Montreal International Game Summit 2014!

Montreal is a beautiful city, and that’s reflected in the fantastic rainbow-tinted windows of the convention center where the summit was held – the Palais des congrès de Montréal.


The weather was relatively warm while I was there, but I spent most of my time at the summit… although I did enjoy the city views from the enormous walls of windows.


This year’s summit was more vibrant than ever, and the fun began in the wide hallways where attendees could test their video game trivia knowledge by taking part in “The Game Masters” quiz show.  I wasn’t brave enough to compete, but I had to get a picture of the set:

MIGS-Game-Masters The show floor was very exciting this year, with a lot of the activity centering around the two Oculus Rift stations.  My attention, though, was caught by two things.  First — the AudioKinetic booth, where the Wwise middleware was on display:


And second, this big green guy who was hulking inside the Ubisoft booth.  He looks brutish, but don’t let that fool you — he’s a real charmer.


Here’s the big schedule of sessions that was posted at the event.  My speech was towards the end of the second day of the summit, right before the MIGS Brain Dump (which is kind of similar to a GDC rant).


My talk was titled, “Music, the Brain, and the Three Levels of Immersion.”  It was a great audience!


I had a wonderful time sharing some ideas about the role that music can play in helping gamers to achieve immersion. I’d first explored these ideas in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, and it was such a joy to explore these ideas with such an enthusiastic audience!


I’ll be posting a video excerpt from my talk soon.  It was wonderful to speak at MIGS 2014, and thanks to all the creative and inspiring people I met this year in Montreal – it was a tremendous pleasure!

LittleBigPlanet 3 – Hollywood Music in Media Awards


Hey, everyone!  After my blog yesterday about winning the Hollywood Music in Media Award, I’ve received a bunch of questions about LittleBigPlanet 3 and the Hollywood Music in Media Awards program – so I thought I’d post some info that explains everything in a bit more detail.  It’s a little easier to do this in third person, so here goes – I hope this helps!

On November 4th, game composer Winifred Phillips received a 2014 Hollywood Music in Media Award (HMMA) in the category of “Best Song in a Video Game” for music she composed for the LittleBigPlanet 3 video game (developed by Sumo Digital Ltd. and published by Sony Computer Entertainment, LLC).

As one of the composers on the LittleBigPlanet™3 music composer team, Phillips was recognized for her song, “LittleBigPlanet 3 Ziggurat Theme.”  

Info about LittleBigPlanet 3:

Sony Computer Entertainment Europe announced the news about this award on November 6th via their official LittleBigPlanet twitter feed.  

The critically acclaimed and best-selling PlayStation® franchise  LittleBigPlanet™ makes its debut on PlayStation®4  with  LittleBigPlanet™3. Sackboy™ is back, this time with playable new friends – Toggle, OddSock and Swoop – each with their own unique abilities and personalities.  This handcrafted adventure is set to revolutionize the way gamers Play, Create and Share in the world of LittleBigPlanet.

Sumo Digital Ltd, the developer of LittleBigPlanet 3, has forged a reputation as a World Class multiple award-winning independent game development studio. The company has grown exponentially over 11-years from 15, to 270 people spread across the Head Office in Sheffield, UK and a dedicated Art Studio in Pune, India.  Sumo Digital is one of the UK’s leading game development studios.

Info about the Hollywood Music in Media Awards:

The Hollywood Music in Media Award ceremony was held on November 4th 2014 at 7pm at the Fonda Theater (6126 Hollywood Boulevard, Hollywood).  The Hollywood Music in Media Awards recognizes and honors the creation of music for film, TV, and videogames, the talented individuals responsible for licensing it and musicians both mainstream and independent, from around the globe. The HMMAs is co-branded with Billboard/Hollywood Reporter Film & TV Music Conference. HMMA advisory board, selections committee and voters include National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, Oscar, Emmy, Society of Composers and Lyricists and Guild of Music Supervisors members.

Additional info about Winifred Phillips (the LittleBigPlanet franchise and the HMMAs):

Phillips’ award-winning track, “LittleBigPlanet 3 Ziggurat Theme,” from LittleBigPlanet™3, is a highly interactive musical work, written as a complex classical fugue, and incorporating an organic, world-music influenced instrumental arrangement in support of a women’s choir.  Phillips has received two previous Hollywood Music in Media Awards – in 2012 for Assassin’s Creed Liberation (Ubisoft®) and in 2010 for the Legend of the Guardians (Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment).  Phillips is one of the composers on the LittleBigPlanet music composer team, and has created tracks for six games in the series, including LittleBigPlanet 2, LittleBigPlanet 2 Toy Story, LittleBigPlanet Cross Controller, LittleBigPlanet PS Vita, LittleBigPlanet Karting, and now LittleBigPlanet 3.  

Phillips’ work as a composer for the LittleBigPlanet game series has earned her previous awards nominations from the Game Audio Network Guild Awards, the Hollywood Music in Media Awards, the NAViGaTR Awards and the D.I.C.E. Interactive Achievement Awards.  Phillips works with award-winning music producer Winnie Waldron for all her projects, including those in the LittleBigPlanet franchise.  Phillips is also the author of the book A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published in 2014 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.  

Hey, Big Spender! (Games Versus Movies)


Since GameSoundCon is starting up tomorrow, I thought I’d direct your attention to an article written by GameSoundCon founder Brian Schmidt about the difference between the money raked in by the video game industry and the motion picture industry.  While it has been reported that games bring in more money than films, according to Brian Schmidt’s article, the figures for the game industry are distorted by the inclusion of hardware sales.  In fact, because film tickets are generally much cheaper than game sales, a blockbuster film must sell tickets to many more people in order to take in the same amount of money that a console game could earn through far fewer sales.

Reading this article on the GameSoundCon site, I found myself thinking about the idea of premium purchases.  What kind of psychological conditions need to exist in order for a customer to become a big spender — i.e. to opt to spend more money?  With a console video game, we are clearly looking at a premium purchase — these games can be up to 50 dollars or more.  Does the willingness to spend reflect on the depth and diversity of the experience?  Games typically outlast films in terms of their long-term entertainment value. Is this the reason why the top-tier console games are able to sustain their premium pricing?

The motion picture industry has made attempts to introduce premium pricing into its business model.  From luxurious theaters with reclining seats, to motion simulators with weather effects and smell-o-vision, to 3D formats, motion picture companies have been repeatedly urging movie-goers to part with larger sums in exchange for enhanced experiences, but success rates have been very limited or are rapidly on the decline.  Console video games, however, have been successfully charging premium prices for many years.

What I find interesting, though, is what happens when these two entertainment juggernauts start reducing their prices.  While movie theaters had dug in their heels for many years and refused to offer discounts, there is currently an initiative underway by the National Association of Theatre Owners for discount tickets to be offered in selected locations on off-nights.  While experimental and limited in scope, the trial period should be revealing in terms of whether discounts will lure movie-goers back to the theaters with more frequency.  In the world of video games, however, the discount experiment is fully underway in the form of the iTunes App Store, XBox Live Indie Store, the PlayStation Network Minis Store, Google Play, the Facebook App Center, and many other online retailers that offer games for drastically reduced prices.  If the movie industry hopes that discounted tickets will lure more people into theaters, then I wonder — have discounted games captured more casual gamers and turned them into frequent players/purchasers?


In 2010, Reuters reported that free games had lured players successfully into gaming, converting them into paying customers.  However, in 2014 the optimism had waned as an industry analyst at the NPD Group warned that PC gamers, accustomed to receiving discounts, were now expecting all games to be very inexpensive.  Currently, XBox Live Gold members enjoy steep discounts with the “Deals With Gold” program, and PlayStation Network Plus members get their games at up to 75% off.

In contrast, however, the Gartner’s forecast for worldwide gaming revenues in the coming two years has estimated that mobile, console and PC games will see dramatic increases in their earnings. This seems to be good news for gaming — discounts for some game products may not have taken the luster away from the big-ticket games.  Our industry currently enjoys the benefits of a wider array of offerings that can be priced accordingly, whereas the motion picture industry continues to be saddled with a fairly uniform pricing structure that has been difficult for them to challenge and adjust.

GameSoundCon Industry Survey Results


As the GameSoundCon conference draws closer, I thought I’d talk a little bit about the Game Audio Industry Survey that was designed by GameSoundCon Executive Producer Brian Schmidt.  The survey was prepared in response to the broader “Annual Game Developer Salary Survey” offered by industry site Gamasutra.  Since the Gamasutra survey suffered from skewed results for game audio compared to other game industry sectors (owing to lower participation from the game audio community), Schmidt set out to obtain more reliable results by adopting a different approach.

Instead of focusing on the yearly salaries/earnings of audio professionals, the survey concentrated on the money generated by the music/sound of individual projects. Each respondent could fill out the survey repeatedly, entering data for each game project that the respondent had completed during the previous year.  The final results of the survey are meant to reflect how game audio is treated within different types of projects, and the results are quite enlightening, and at times surprising.

GSC-SurveyThe financial results include both small-budget indie games from tiny teams and huge-budget games from behemoth publishers, so there is a broad range in those results.  Since this is the first year that the GameSoundCon Game Audio Industry Survey has been conducted, we don’t yet have data from a previous year with which to compare these results, and it might be very exciting to see how the data shifts if the survey is conducted again in 2015.

Some very intriguing data comes from the section of the survey that provides a picture of who game composers are and how they work.  According to the survey, the majority of game composers are freelancers, and 70% of game music is performed by the freelance composer alone.  56% of composers are also acting as one-stop-shops for music and sound effects, likely providing a good audio solution for indie teams with little or no audio personnel of their own.

A surprising and valuable aspect of the survey is to be found in the audio middleware results, which show that the majority of games use either no audio middleware at all, or opt for custom audio tools designed by the game developer.  This information is quite new, and could be tremendously useful to composers working in the field.  While we should all make efforts to gain experience with audio middleware such as FMOD and Wwise, we might keep in mind that there may not be as many opportunities to practice those skills as had been previously anticipated.  Again, this data might be rendered even more meaningful by the results of the survey next year (if it is repeated), to see if commercial middleware is making inroads and becoming more popular over time.

Expanding upon this subject, the survey reveals that only 22% of composers are ever asked to do any kind of music integration (in which the composer assists the team in implementing music files into their game). It seems that for the time being, this task is still falling firmly within the domain of the programmers on most game development teams.

The survey was quite expansive and fascinating, and I’m very pleased that it included questions about both middleware and integration.  If GameSoundCon runs the survey again next year, I’d love to see the addition of some questions about what type of interactivity composers may be asked to introduce into their musical scores, how much of their music is composed in a traditionally linear fashion, and what the ratio of interactive/adaptive to linear music might be per project.  I wrote rather extensively on this subject in my book, and since I’ll also be giving my talk at GameSoundCon this year about composing music for adaptive systems, I’d be very interested in such survey results!

The GameSoundCon Game Audio Industry Survey is an invaluable resource, and is well worth reading in its entirety.  You’ll find it here.  I’ll be giving my talk on “Advanced Composition Techniques for Adaptive Systems” at GameSoundCon at the Millennium Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles on Wednesday, October 8th.

Many thanks to Brian Schmidt / GameSoundCon for preparing this excellent survey!

A Composer’s Guide to Game Music

Today, my book, A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, was released by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.  It’s a huge day for me.

In December of 2011, I was finishing up work on my music contribution to LittleBigPlanet PS Vita when my music producer, Winnie Waldron, turned to me and said, “You should write a book about game music.”  Before that moment, it had never occurred to me that I might have something to share about my experiences as a game composer, so I initially laughed off her suggestion.  She paused, and then casually remarked that I should go and look over all those game audio books I owned (I have a pretty large collection) and then maybe ask myself if I had anything to say that hadn’t already been said.

A few days passed, and eventually I did look those books over. I took along a pad of multicolored sticky notes. Every time I felt like I could add something to what I was reading, I stuck a different colored note on the page, letting the edge hang out.  When I was done, I had a pile of books that looked like a rainbow had exploded inside them. Staring at all those little slips of paper convinced me to write the book.

I’ve been creating video game music for over 10 years, ever since my first project, God of War.  With every game score I composed, I learned so much… not only about the art and craft of game composition, but also about myself as an artist.  Game music composition is a thoroughly unique art form, imposing both technical and creative challenges that aren’t found in any other discipline. When I started in this profession, I didn’t really understand how complex everything would be… how much I didn’t know… how much I would need to learn.

A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC is a guidebook, from my perspective as a game composer with experiences to share.  It’s been over two years since I first started writing it, and I’m very proud to say that my book has just hit retail. It’s out of my hands now, and I’m excited that see what readers think of it.  I hope it proves to be a helpful resource.  If you’re curious about my book, you can watch this video trailer.  I’m interviewed in the trailer, and I got the chance to talk a little bit about my reasons for writing the book, and what I hoped to share with readers.  Here’s that video:

My book is available for sale on  If you choose to buy it, you’ll have my heartfelt gratitude!  And if you enjoy it, I’d be grateful if you share your thoughts about my book on its page. The launch of my book is a tremendously special day for me, and I’m happy to share it with you!

Montreal International Game Summit

Welcome-Sign-MIGSI’ve just returned from the Montreal International Game Summit, at the Palais des congrès de Montréal.

It’s an enormous building, with a streetfacing wall of rainbow-tinted glass that casts striking patterns of light on the floors when the sun is shining. Also, a small forest of hot pink tree trunks decorates the ground level.

For a convention center, there’s no shortage of color and whimsy at the Palais des congrès de Montréal.

It was a pleasure to be able to speak at this summit for the first time. I’ve composed music for a number of games that were either developed or published by Canadian companies. These include Assassin’s Creed Liberation, Fighter Within, and Spore Hero. This made it especially exciting for me to address such a creative and inspirational gathering as the game development community in Montreal!


My session was entitled Assassin’s Creed Liberation: The Power of Musical Themes. A video of my talk has been posted to YouTube:

It was exciting to address an audience that included some of my peers from the Ubisoft development studios in Montreal. Ubisoft had a very strong presence at MIGS. Here’s a photo of one of their displays in the convention center:


My talk about the music of Assassin’s Creed Liberation went very well, and I thoroughly enjoyed meeting people after the session and further discussing some of the ideas I’d shared in my session talk.

The view from the convention center was very impressive. This is a photo I took quickly as I ascended the escalators.


The MIGS art gallery was beautiful and inspired.


I enjoyed the MIGS VIP cocktail reception. Below is a photo of the sea of cupcakes that greeted attendees at the reception. The cupcakes offer helpful hints regarding the direction in which game development will go in the coming years.


I had a fantastic time speaking at MIGS. Thanks to everyone I met this week in Montreal – it was a pleasure!