Video game music composer: Getting your big break

In this article for video game composers, popular game composer Winifred Phillips is depicted in this photo working in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

So happy you’ve joined us!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips (pictured above working on my career breakthrough project, God of War). Today I’ll be discussing a hot topic that we’ve previously explored, but that definitely deserves to be revisited periodically.  This is one of the most popular subjects that I’ve addressed in my previous articles here: How does a newcomer get hired as a game composer?

I’m asked this question frequently, and while I offered quite a lot of advice on this topic in my book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I’m keenly aware of how urgent the need is for updated guidance on this issue for aspiring video game composers.  Game music newcomers often feel adrift and alone in the game industry, and some good advice can be a welcome lifeline.  In my book, I described the career path that led me into the game industry and allowed me to land my first gigs, but I’m well aware that my experience was pretty unique.  With that in mind, I’ve collated some recent research and insights from some top game industry professionals in this article, in the hopes that some of these expert observations might prove helpful.  There are lots of original and provocative viewpoints presented here, so we should feel free to pick and choose the strategies and tips that will work best for us.

Also, later in the article you’ll find my presentation for the Society of Composers and Lyricists seminar, in which I answered the question about how I personally got my start in the games industry (for those who might be curious).  Finally, at the end of the article I have included a full list of links for further reading and reference.

The Demo Reel

An illustration for the popular discussion of music demo preparation, from the article for video game composers by Winifred Phillips (game music composer).Here’s a new topic this year: the music demo reel, otherwise known as a professional portfolio.  To prepare an awesome demo reel, we game composers usually start by collecting our best music pieces and arranging them in a way that we hope will be impressive enough to arrest the attention of a potential client.  If we were in a sentimental frame-of-mind, we might think of our demo reel as a fragile flower in an outstretched palm, offered up in the hopes of finding an appreciative audience.  But there’s nothing about this process that’s sentimental.  The demo reel is a marketing tool, and its crucial that we think of it with a sense of strategic detachment.  We have a product we’re trying to sell, and our demo reel needs to act as our figurative foot in the door.  So, how do we make our reels stand out from the competition so that they attract the interest of clients who might want us for a famous game franchise or an indie masterpiece?

According to sound designer Nathan Madsen, when preparing our demo reel for review, we should put our newest work first.  “Having an up to date portfolio, or even relatively up to date, really helps you be ready for sudden job opportunities,” Madsen observes.  This opinion is echoed by Daniel Spreadbury (product marketing manager at Steinberg Media Technologies), who goes even further to suggest that “if you think that your talent as a composer is best displayed by the piece you’re currently working on, there is no reason that this can’t be submitted as well, as an example of a work-in-progress. While it will be incomplete, it can still be used to illustrate your creative process and your understanding of composition.”  That being said, Spreadbury urges that composers turn a critical eye to their work when selecting musical candidates for their demo reel.  “It’s often tempting to try and include as much of your own material as possible. In fact, it is usually far more useful to submit a carefully curated selection of your composing work, rather than everything that you’ve ever worked on. It is important to strike a delicate balance between submitting enough work that your talent and consistency are clearly demonstrated, but not so much that it overwhelms your intended audience.”

Are there any considerations regarding the format of our demo reel?  According to Matthew Marteinsson (sound designer at Klei Entertainment), a collection of music files may not be enough.  Illustration to support the discussion of video demo reels, from the article for video game composers by Winifred Phillips.“Have a video reel,” Marteinsson urges.  “We are a medium that is the marriage of video and audio.”  Marteinsson observes that when receiving an audio-only reel, he is left uncertain of the capabilities of the composer he’s evaluating.  “I know you can make cool sounds, but I don’t know if you can marry them to the right visuals, so have a video reel.”

How much music should be included in our demo reels?  According to Kevin Regamey (Creative Director of Power Up Audio), less is more.  “What you’re making here is a teaser trailer,” he points out.  For composer demo reels, Regamey suggests that a two minute time limit is a good rule of thumb.  “Most reels are usually too long,” he states.  “Keep in mind that you can always show longer things later on. Get them interested, and if they like your stuff they will listen to your things that are not in your main demo reel.”  Regamey goes on to point out that “you need to tailor your reel to its audience. Make sure you know who is getting this reel and what they want to see.”

Certainly it’s preferable to know what a prospective client is looking for, but how can we achieve this?  Ariel Gross (Founder of the Audio Mentoring Project), suggests that we decide what games or franchises we’d like to be working on, and then pursue that goal.  “Most of the time you don’t need to be an avid player of the specific game or franchise that you’re trying to work on, though it can be helpful,” Gross observes. “At the very least, you want to be well versed with the products. If you can’t play the game, go consume lots of gameplay videos on YouTube, read articles and reviews about the games, and look for interviews with the people that worked on it.”

Apart from how our music demo is constructed and targeted, timing may also be an essential consideration.  “You absolutely need to have a showreel or a demo. Also, you need to have it ready before you start contacting people,” advises Will Morton (Audio Director at Solid Audioworks).  “You An illustration accompanying the discussion of whether music demos should be offered on the famous CD and DVD formats, from the article for video game composers by Winifred Phillips (game music composer).don’t have to be carrying around a folder of CDs and DVDs with you all the time, you can have a Soundcloud account with MP3s ready to give people links to if you need to,” Morton suggests.  “It is easier than ever to have your work on-line and accessible from anywhere these days.”

Finally, Brian Schmidt (Founder and Executive Director of the GameSoundCon conference), suggests a novel approach.  “If you want to create a demo that will really create an impression, create a ‘MOD’ for a game. A MOD is a game where some component has been altered or changed. Taking a portion of a game and swapping in your own music or sound design is a great demo,” Schmidt observes.  “By creating an interactive demo (instead of just a bunch of mp3 files) you will stand out over 95 out of 100 other composers or sound designers.”

There seem to be numerous theories regarding what makes an effective demo reel, as well as many options for its format and content.  But if we’re unable to get it into the hands of a potential client, it won’t be of much use.  So let’s discuss how to build relationships that can open doors in the game development industry.

Effective Networking

Beyond having a strong music demo, we will also need to be able to make professional connections in the games industry, and that can be a bewildering task.  How to begin?  Perhaps the better question is Illustration depicting a university - accompanying the discussion of networking in the university setting - from the article by Winifred Phillips for video game composersnot how, but when.  “Your time at college is the ideal time to start networking,” advises Will Morton of Solid Audioworks.  “Make friends and work with people who are doing sound design. Make friends and work with people studying composition. Make friends and work with people on game development courses. Make friends and work with people studying TV or film production. Make friends and work with people studying any kind of performing arts. This will again help you build a better body of work to use in your showreel, and arguably more importantly gives you a network of people who may at some point ask you to be involved with a project they are working on.”

This opinion is echoed by Jason W. Bay (Owner and Editor of GameIndustryCareerGuide.com).  “Attending an audio school will also help to kick start your career networking,” Bay says, “because as the people in your classes graduate and then start getting jobs all over the country or even the world, they’ll become your eyes and ears inside of those companies. And they can help you spot job openings and even help you get interviews whenever the opportunities arise.”  The benefits of cultivating a network of college friendships are invaluable, according to Bay.  “It helps you find out about job openings before they’re posted. It increases the chances of getting a job when people inside the company already know you and trust you, so it helps you get hired.”

The GDC logo, accompanying the discussion of networking at such famous game conferences, from the article for video game composers by Winifred Phillips (game music composer).However, not all of us attended colleges ripe with networking opportunities, and some of us began pursuing a game audio career many years after graduating college.  What then?  According to Bobby Prince (Owner of Bobby Prince Music), it’s possible to attain some of the same collegial relationships by attending educational conferences.  “Go to the GDC (Game Developer’s Conference),” Prince suggests. “You can hang out in the public section of the location for the GDC and watch for miracles. They happen every second. Another great place to hang out is the local after/during hours hangouts. Keep your eyes and ears open for an opportunity. You don’t have to force an opportunity — the best ones will come to you without effort from you.”

While such efforts may yield results, the chances are far better if we’re emotionally ready to sell ourselves to our fullest potential.  Confidence is key, according to Rocky Kev of Black Shell Media.  “Great game developers know they’re talented, and that confidence enhances their work. You can do the same with networking. Block out all the self doubt and act like you know what you’re doing. Fake it. You’ll be surprised how much it works.” Kev goes on to add that “powerful networkers approach conversations with curiosity, treating the speaker like they’re the most important person in the world.”

Our ability to connect with people and convey our confidence and enthusiasm can be an invaluable asset.  In my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I discussed how our excitement for our work can intersect with the need to exude self-discipline and restraint when developing our professional network.

Video game composer Winifred Phillips' popular book, A Composer's Guide to Game Music (The MIT Press).“As composers, we feel passionately about our jobs.  This passion drives our daily workflow and inspires the creative decisions we make. Emotions such as this can be helpful to us when we’re meeting with possible clients, but only when well controlled through a disciplined and organized presentation.  Some of our prospective employers may appreciate raw enthusiasm, but this sort of eagerness also has the potential to scare some people off.  What we need is the ability to gracefully articulate our enthusiasm while at the same time impressing developers and publishers with our thorough professionalism.

“Unfortunately, this is a skill attained only through practice.  Those of us who are uncomfortable or fearful in such situations can look for opportunities to practice in a safe, consequence-free environment.  For instance, helpful friends may volunteer to be an audience for us, applauding our strengths and drawing our attention to areas needing improvement.”  A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, page 242.

 

Getting the first gig

Everyone’s ‘big break’ story is unique.  I’m frequently asked about my own entry into the video game development industry, and there has been particular curiosity about how I landed my first game composer job.  Since we’ve included the advice and insights of many other game audio professionals in the article, it seems right that I should also include my own “first job” story.  It’s a pretty unusual tale, and certainly isn’t the normal way that aspiring composers break into the business.  Nevertheless, it can be useful to consider how demo music preparation and networking skills helped me to get my start as a game composer.  With that in mind, I’ve included a video of a Society of Composers and Lyricists seminar, in which I tell my story of how I got my start as a game composer:

 

The List

Finally, here’s the full list of links to resources that may help a newcomer trying to break into the business.  Some of these links were the source of the quotes we discussed earlier in this article.  Please let me know what you think in the comments!

GDC 2018: Audio Bootcamp XVII: Reel Talk
by Matthew Marteinsson and Kevin Regamey, GDCVault.com
(Subscription required for access)
 
Yet Another Game Audio Hiring Article
by Ariel Gross, Gamasutra.com
 
Preparing a Professional-Looking Portfolio – A Composer’s Guide
by Daniel Spreadbury, Blog.Dorico.com
 
The Game Audio Career
by Nathan Madsen, GameAudio101.com
 
How can I start my career in video game audio?
by Jason W. Bray, GameIndustryCareerGuide.com
 
Networking at a Game Convention Part 1: The Calm Before the Social Storm
by Rocky Kev, Black Shell Media
 
Make Some Noise! Getting a Job Creating Sound and Music for Videogames
by Will Morton, Gamasutra.com
 
How did you get your first job?
GameAudio Reddit Community Discussion
 
Finding a game industry job – networking and adding value
by Akash Thakkar, YouTube
  
Getting Started as a Video Game Composer
by Bobby Prince, BPmusic.com
 
Where does an amateur composer find job, or is he heard?
Northern Sounds community discussion
 
How to Wrangle a Job Writing Music for Computer Games
by Lance Hayes, Andertons Music Co.
 
GDC 2011 Talks #1: Tips for Prospective Video Game Composers
by Laura Shigihara, SuperShigi.com
 
How to get a gig as a Game Music composer
by Brian Schmidt, Sound On Sound
 
How to be a video game music composer – Tips from the pros
by Sophia Tong, GamesRadar.com
 
Music in the Gaming Industry – Getting a Job as a Game Composer
by Nelson Everhart, Kingsisle Blog
 
I want to be a game composer
GameDev.net community discussion
 
Game Developers and Music Composers – How do you network?
TIGForums community discussion
 

Photo of video game composer Winifred Phillips in her game composers production studio.Popular music from composer Winifred Phillips’ award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score will be performed live by a top 80-piece orchestra and choir as part of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which kicks off in 2019 with its Los Angeles premiere at the famous Dolby Theatre. As an accomplished video game composer, Phillips is best known for composing music for games in five of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: Assassin’s Creed, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims.  Phillips’ other notable projects include the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution, and numerous virtual reality games, including Scraper: First Strike, Dragon Front, and many more.   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.

Composing video game music for Virtual Reality: Comfort versus performance

In this article series for video game composers, Winifred Phillips is depicted in this photo working in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Delighted you’re here!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m happy to welcome you back to this four-part article series exploring the role of music in VR games! These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, entitled Music in Virtual Reality (I’ve included the official description of my talk at this end of this article). If you haven’t read the previous three articles, you’ll find them here:

During my GDC presentation, I focused on three important questions for VR game music composers:

  • Do we compose our music in 3D or 2D?
  • Do we structure our music to be Diegetic or Non-Diegetic?
  • Do we focus our music on enhancing player Comfort or Performance?

In the course of exploring these questions during my GDC presentation, I discussed my work on four of my own VR game projects –the Bebylon: Battle Royale arena combat game from Kite & Lightning, the Dragon Front strategy game from High Voltage Software, the Fail Factory comedy game from Armature Studio, and the Scraper: First Strike shooter/RPG from Labrodex Inc.

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Composing video game music for Virtual Reality: Diegetic versus Non-diegetic

In this article for and about the craft of video game composers, Winifred Phillips is pictured in this photo working in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

So happy you’ve joined us!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips.  Welcome back to our four part discussion of the role that music plays in Virtual Reality video games! These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s gathering of the famous Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco.  My talk was entitled Music in Virtual Reality (I’ve included the official description of my talk at this end of this article). If you haven’t read the previous two articles, you’ll find them here:

During my GDC presentation, I focused on three important questions for VR video game composers:

  • Do we compose our music in 3D or 2D?
  • Do we structure our music to be Diegetic or Non-Diegetic?
  • Do we focus our music on enhancing player Comfort or Performance?

While attempting to answer these questions during my GDC talk, I discussed my work on four of my own VR game projects – the Bebylon: Battle Royale arena combat game from Kite & Lightning, the Dragon Front strategy game from High Voltage Software, the Fail Factory comedy game from Armature Studio, and the Scraper: First Strike shooter/RPG from Labrodex Inc.

In these articles, I’ve been sharing the discussions and conclusions that formed the basis of my GDC talk, including numerous examples from these four VR game projects.  So now let’s look at the second of our three questions:

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Composing video game music for Virtual Reality: 3D versus 2D

In this article written for video game composers, Winifred Phillips is here pictured working in her music production studio.

Welcome!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips, and this is the continuation of our four-part discussion of the role that music can play in Virtual Reality video games.  These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, entitled Music in Virtual Reality (I’ve included the official description of my talk at this end of this article).  If you missed the first article exploring the history and significance of positional audio, please go check that article out first.

Are you back?  Great!  Let’s continue!

During my GDC talk, I addressed three questions which are important to video game music composers working in VR:

  • Do we compose our music in 3D or 2D?
  • Do we structure our music to be Diegetic or Non-Diegetic?
  • Do we focus our music on enhancing player Comfort or Performance?

Continue reading

Composing video game music for Virtual Reality: The role of music in VR

In this article for video game composers, Winifred Phillips is pictured working in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey everybody!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  At this year’s Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, I was pleased to give a presentation entitled Music in Virtual Reality (I’ve included the official description of my talk at the end of this article). While I’ve enjoyed discussing the role of music in virtual reality in previous articles that I’ve posted here, the talk I gave at GDC gave me the opportunity to pull a lot of those ideas together and present a more concentrated exploration of the practice of music composition for VR games.  It occurred to me that such a focused discussion might be interesting to share in this forum as well. So, with that in mind, I’m excited to begin a four-part article series based on my GDC 2018 presentation!

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Video Game Composers: The Tech of Music in Virtual Reality (GDC 2018)

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, pictured in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

The Game Developers Conference is almost here! I’m looking forward to giving my presentation soon on “Music in Virtual Reality” (Thursday, March 22nd at 3pm in room 3002 West Hall, Moscone Center, San Francisco).  Over the course of the last two years, I’ve composed a lot of music for virtual reality projects, some of which have already hit retail, and some of which will be getting released very soon!  As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what role music should play in a virtual reality game. During my GDC talk in March, I’ll be taking my audience through my experiences composing music for four very different VR games –the Bebylon: Battle Royale game from Kite & Lightning, the Dragon Front strategy game from High Voltage Software, the Fail Factory comedy game from Armature Studio, and the Scraper: First Strike RPG-Shooter hybrid from Labrodex Inc.  In preparing my GDC presentation, I made sure my talk addressed some of the most important creative and technical hurdles facing video game composers working in VR.  However, time constraints ensured that some interesting info ended up ‘on the cutting room floor,’ so to speak.  So, I’ve written two articles that explore some of the best topics that didn’t make it into my GDC presentation.

My previous article focused on some abstract, creative concerns facing video game music composers and audio folks working in VR.  In this article, we’ll be turning our attention to more concrete technical issues.  Ready?  Let’s go.

New Binaural Developments

Illustration of popular binaural developments in VR audio, from the article by composer Winifred Phillips for video game composers.VR games currently focus on binaural audio to immerse players in the awesome soundscapes of their virtual worlds.  As we know, binaural recording techniques use two microphones, often embedded in the artificial ears of a dummy head (pictured right).  By virtual of the popular binaural recording technique and/or binaural encoding technologies, game audio teams can plunge VR players into convincing aural worlds where sounds are spatially localized in a way that conforms with real world expectations.  The technology of binaural sound continually improves, and recently the expert developers of the Oculus Rift VR headset have refined the quality of their VR sound with two significant upgrades.

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Video Game Composers: The Art of Music in Virtual Reality (GDC 2018)

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, pictured in her music production studio.

 

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Once again, the Game Developers Conference is almost upon us!  GDC 2018 promises to be an awesome event, chock full of great opportunities for us to learn and grow as video game music composers.  I always look forward to the comprehensive sessions on offer in the popular GDC audio track, and for the past few years I’ve been honored to be selected as a GDC speaker.  Last year I presented a talk that explored how I built suspense and tension through music I composed for such games as God of War and Homefront: The Revolution.  This year, I’m tremendously excited that I’ll be presenting the talk, “Music in Virtual Reality.” The subject matter is very close to my heart!  Throughout 2016 and 2017, I’ve composed music for many virtual reality projects, some of which have hit retail over the past year, and some of which will be released very soon.  I’ve learned a lot about the process of composing music for a VR experience, and I’ve given a lot of thought to what makes music for VR unique.  During my GDC talk in March, I’ll be taking my audience through my experiences composing music for four very different VR games –the Bebylon: Battle Royale arena combat game from Kite & Lightning, the Dragon Front strategy game from High Voltage Software, the Fail Factory comedy game from Armature Studio, and the Scraper: First Strike Shooter/RPG from Labrodex Inc.  I’ll talk about some of the top problems that came up, the solutions that were tried, and the lessons that were learned.  Virtual Reality is a brave new world for game music composers, and there will be a lot of ground for me to cover in my presentation!

In preparing my talk for GDC, I kept my focus squarely on composition techniques for VR music creation, while making sure to supply an overview of the technologies that would help place these techniques in context.  With these considerations in mind, I had to prioritize the information I intended to offer, and some interesting topics simply wouldn’t fit within the time constraints of my GDC presentation.  With that in mind, I thought it would be worthwhile to include some of these extra materials in a couple of articles that would precede my talk in March.  In this article, I’ll explore some theoretical ideas from experts in the field of VR, and I’ll include some of my own musings about creative directions we might pursue with VR music composition.  In the next article, I’ll talk about some practical considerations relating to the technology of VR music.

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