Video game music systems at GDC 2017: tools and tips for composers

Photo of video game composer Winifred Phillips, working in her music production studio on the music of the SimAnimals video game.

By video game composer Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to this three article series that’s bringing together the ideas that were discussed in five different GDC 2017 audio talks about interactive music!  These five speakers explored discoveries they’d made while creating interactivity in the music of their own game projects.  We’re looking at these ideas side-by-side to broaden our viewpoint and gain a sense of the “bigger picture” when it comes to the leading-edge thinking for music interactivity in games. We’ve been looking at five interactive music systems discussed in these five GDC 2017 presentations:

In the first article, we examined the basic nature of these interactive systems. In the second article, we contemplated why those systems were used, with some of the inherent pros and cons of each system discussed in turn.  So now, let’s get into the nitty gritty of tools and tips for working with such interactive music systems.  If you haven’t read parts one and two of this series, please go do so now and then come back:

  1. Video game music systems at GDC 2017: what are composers using?
  2. Video game music systems at GDC 2017: pros and cons for composers

Ready?  Great!  Here we go!

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Video game music systems at GDC 2017: pros and cons for composers

Video game composer Winifred Phillips, pictured in her music production studio working on the music of LittleBigPlanet 2 Cross Controller

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome back to our three article series dedicated to collecting and exploring the ideas that were discussed in five different GDC 2017 audio talks about interactive music!  These five speakers shared ideas they’d developed in the process of creating interactivity in the music of their own game projects.  We’re looking at these ideas side-by-side to cultivate a sense of the “bigger picture” when it comes to the leading-edge thinking for music interactivity in games. In the first article, we looked at the basic nature of five interactive music systems discussed in these five GDC 2017 presentations:

If you haven’t read part one of this article series, please go do that now and come back.

Okay, so let’s now contemplate some simple but important questions: why were those systems used?  What was attractive about each interactive music strategy, and what were the challenges inherent in using those systems?

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Video Game Music Production Tips from GDC 2016

Game Composer Winifred Phillips during her game music presentation at the Game Developers Conference 2016I was pleased to give a talk about composing music for games at the 2016 Game Developers Conference (pictured left).  GDC took place this past March in San Francisco – it was an honor to be a part of the audio track again this year, which offered a wealth of awesome educational sessions for game audio practitioners.  So much fun to see the other talks and learn about what’s new and exciting in the field of game audio!  In this blog, I want to share some info that I thought was really interesting from two talks that pertained to the audio production side of game development: composer Laura Karpman’s talk about “Composing Virtually, Sounding Real” and audio director Garry Taylor’s talk on “Audio Mastering for Interactive Entertainment.”  Both sessions had some very good info for video game composers who may be looking to improve the quality of their recordings.  Along the way, I’ll also be sharing a few of my own personal viewpoints on these music production topics, and I’ll include some examples from one of my own projects, the Ultimate Trailers album for West One Music, to illustrate ideas that we’ll be discussing.  So let’s get started!

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Interactive Music for the Video Game Composer

Game Composer Winifred Phillips works in her studio on the music of the popular Spore Hero video game As a speaker in the audio track of the Game Developers Conference this year, I enjoyed taking in a number of GDC audio sessions — including a couple of presentations that focused on the future of interactive music in games.  I’ve explored this topic before at length in my book (A Composer’s Guide to Game Music), and it was great to see that the game audio community continues to push the boundaries and innovate in this area! Interactive music is a worthwhile subject for discussion, and will undoubtedly be increasingly important in the future as dynamic music systems become more prevalent in game projects.  With that in mind, in this blog I’d like to share my personal takeaway from two sessions that described very different approaches to musical interactivity. After that, we’ll discuss one of my experiences with interactive music for the video game Spore Hero from Electronic Arts (pictured above).

Musical Intelligence

Baldur BaldurssonPhoto of Baldur Baldursson, the audio director for Icelandic game development studio CCP Games (part of the article by game composer Winifred Phillips) (pictured left) is the audio director for Icelandic game development studio CCP Games, responsible for the EVE Online MMORPG.  Together with Professor Kjartan Olafsson of the Iceland Academy of Arts, Baldursson presented a talk at GDC 2016 on a new system to provide “Intelligent Music For Games.”

Baldursson began the presentation by explaining why an intelligent music system for games can be a necessity.  “We basically want an intelligent music system because we can’t (or maybe shouldn’t really) precompose all of the elements,” Baldursson explains. He describes the conundrum of creating a musical score for a game whose story is still fluid and changeable, and then asserts,  “I think we should find ways of making this better.”

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Music in the Manual: FMOD Studio Vs. Wwise

Wwise-FMOD

A few days ago, I downloaded and installed the latest version of a software package entitled FMOD Studio and was pleasantly surprised to discover that an oversight had been corrected. It’s not unusual for software updates to correct problems or provide additional functionality, but this update was especially satisfying for me. The makers of FMOD Studio had added the “Music” section to the software manual.

A brief explanation: FMOD Studio is a software application designed by Firelight Technologies to enable game audio professionals to incorporate sound into video games. The application focuses solely on audio, and is used in conjunction with game software. In essence, FMOD Studio is folded into the larger construct of a game’s operational code, giving the overall game the ability to do more sophisticated things with the audio side of its presentation.

When FMOD Studio was initially released in August of 2012, the manual did not include information about the music capabilities of the software. Admittedly, the majority of FMOD Studio users are sound designers whose interests tend to focus on the tools for triggering sound effects and creating environmental atmospheres. That being said, many composers also use the portions of the FMOD Studio application that are specifically designed to enable the assignment of interactive behaviors to music tracks. It was a bit puzzling that the manual didn’t describe those music tools.

One of the biggest competitors to FMOD Studio is the Wwise software from Audiokinetic. Wwise offers much of the same functionality as FMOD, and in working with the software one of the things I really like about it is its documentation. Audiokinetic put a lot of thought and energy into the Wwise Fundamentals Approach document and the expansive tutorial handbook, Project Adventure. Both of these documents discuss the music features of the Wwise software, offering step-by-step guidance for the creation of interactive music systems within the Wwise application. This is why the omission of any discussion of the music tools from the FMOD manual was so perplexing.

It’s true that many of the music features of the FMOD Studio software are also useful in sound design applications, and some are similar in their function to tools described in the sound design portions of the manual. Firelight Technologies may have assumed that those portions of the manual would be sufficient for all users, including composers. However, composers are specialists, and their priorities do not match those of their sound design colleagues. In using the FMOD Studio tools, the needs of composers would be sharply different from those driving the rest of the audio development community. Wwise understood this from the start, but FMOD seemed to be following a philosophy that hearkened back to the early days of the game industry.

In those days, the audio side of a game was often created and implemented by a single person. This jack-of-all-trades would create all the sound effects, voice-overs and music. Nowadays, the audio field is populated by scores of specialists. It makes sense for FMOD Studio to acknowledge specialists such as composers in their software documentation, and I’m very glad to see that they’ve just done so. If you’d like to learn more about FMOD Studio, you can see a general overview of the application in this YouTube video: