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.

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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.

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Montreal International Game Summit 2014

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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.

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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.


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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:

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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.

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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).

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

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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!

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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

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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)

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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?

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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

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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 Amazon.com.  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 Amazon.com 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!

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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:

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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.

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The MIGS art gallery was beautiful and inspired.

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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.

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