More Business Advice for the Game Music Composer

Winifred Phillips (video game composer) working in her music studio.Every so often, I like to grab some time between music composition gigs to gather together the current general wisdom regarding career strategies for game music composers (since so many of my readers are new to the industry and looking for guidance).  In this article, I’ve included some of the stand-out ideas garnered from three online resources – a Gamasutra article by a former audio designer for Rockstar North, an awesome discussion thread on Reddit about effective communication strategies (found in the GameAudio subreddit), and a roundtable discussion at GameSoundCon about best business practices for game audio pros.

Make some noise! Getting a job creating sound and music for videogames

Audio Director Will Morton of Solid Audioworks (formerly a senior audio designer and dialogue supervisor at the famous Rockstar North development studio), has written a comprehensive article for the game industry site Gamasutra about getting jobs in the game audio field.  The article, entitled “Make Some Noise! Getting a Job Creating Sound and Music for Videogames,” focuses on the importance of experience, networking and a polished presentation in order to sufficiently impress a potential employer/client.  While much of the article is solid advice that might apply to a job seeker in any industry, a few areas impressed me as particularly interesting for game composers to bear in mind.

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A Composer’s Guide to Game Music in 2015

A Composer's Guide to Game Music, photo from the article by game music composer Winifred PhillipsHappy Holidays, everyone!  2015 has been a really memorable year for me, and a successful one for my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music.  Writing this book not only allowed me to express my excitement about game music, but also opened up my world to a huge community of game music enthusiasts that I’m now proud to call friends.

I’ve been delighted to meet so many people who have read my book – from aspiring composers, to scholars and educators, to game audio pros.  It’s been tremendously gratifying!

I’d like to spend this blog recapping the events of 2015 as they related to my book, and I’ll also be sharing some book-related resources and tutorials that I created in 2015 (in case you missed them).  Happy Holidays, everyone, and thank you so much for your tremendous support this year!

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Photos from the North American Conference on Video Game Music

I just returned from a fantastic experience as the keynote speaker for the North American Conference on Video Game Music.  The conference was beautifully organized by Professor William Gibbons of TCU.  Here are some photos from the event:

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My conference badge for the North American Conference on Video Game Music.  This was my first time as a keynote speaker, and I couldn’t have hoped for a more positive experience.

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J.M. Moudy Hall on the beautiful campus of TCU served as the site of the North American Conference on Video Game Music, and as you can see, we were enjoying ideal weather throughout the conference weekend!

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Here’s a portion of the audience for my keynote address.

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My keynote address was titled, “The Role of Music in Video Game Immersion.”  I explored some topics related to the effects of music on the brain, and how these can facilitate more intense and involving gameplay.  These ideas are also found in chapter three of my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music.

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After my keynote address, the conference organizer Will Gibbons graciously arranged for me to sign copies of my book for the conference attendees.  The signing took place in the beautiful TCU Barnes & Noble bookstore.

The bookstore was festooned with purple everywhere, and all the TCU merchandize featured the celebrated TCU mascot – the horned frog. Fun fact: the horned frog is also the official reptile of Texas.

In this photo, I’d just arrived at the bookstore, and you can see that one of the conference presenters, Enoch Jacobus, jumped in for an excellent photobomb!  🙂  Keep an eye out for Enoch later on.

Here are some more photos from the book signing:

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There was a really nice display of my book at the book signing table.

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Here’s conference attendee Daniel Braunstein, a student at the University of Michigan.

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It was great meeting Michael Austin, an assistant professor of Media, Journalism & Film at Howard University.  At the conference, he presented the talk, “Old Categories for New Media: Rethinking Music Videogame Organology.”

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This is Cameron Jordan, a music student at TCU.

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Elizabeth Kirkendoll is a musicology graduate student at TCU.

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Kathleen Kuo is a doctoral candidate studying ethnomusicology and Central Eurasian Studies at Indiana University Bloomington. She presented the talk, “Hitting Reset: Reception, Replay Value, and the Creative Process of Video Game Cover Music.”

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And here again is the charismatic Enoch Jacobus, a musicologist who holds a Ph.D. in Music Theory from the University of Kentucky and was just named the new associate editor of Analytical Approaches to World Music. At this year’s conference, Enoch gave a talk about the music of Bioshock Infinite entitled, “Lighter Than Air: A Return to Columbia.”

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Will Ayers teaches at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music. At the conference he presented the talk, “Analyzing Narrative in Video Game Music: Topic Theory and Modular Design.”

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Great to meet Neil Lerner, a professor at Davidson College and one of the conference chairs. He also presented a talk at the conference entitled, “Teaching the Soundtrack in a Video Game Music Class.”

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What a pleasure to meet David Abad, a student at TCU who wasn’t attending the conference but came over to get a signed copy of my book. Thanks for your support, David!

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Dominic Arsenault is an assistant professor of video game design and history at the University of Montreal, Canada.  His talk at the conference was “From Atunement to Interference: A Typology of Musical Intertextuality in Video Games.” Also – check out the great Pac-Man tote! 🙂

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The next day, I was the subject of a Q&A session moderated by Professor Martin Blessinger and sponsored by the TCU Society of Composers.

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Martin Blessinger is an accomplished composer and teaches music theory and composition at TCU.  It was great talking with Martin and the great Q&A audience about such topics as game music production, career building, live performance and issues related to game music study.  Fascinating questions from both Martin and lots of audience members!

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Well, that wraps up this photo blog of my adventure as a keynote speaker at the North American Conference on Video Game Music.  It was a thoroughly fulfilling, rewarding journey, and I learned a ton!  Plus, I met a lot of fascinating people, and I hope these newfound friendships will continue forward into the future.

If you’d like a taste of what it was like to attend, you can read the messages that were live-tweeted during the event at #VGMconference.  Also, a partial transcript of my TCU Society of Composers Q&A is available on Gamasutra.com.  Thanks to Will Gibbons, Martin Blessinger and everyone who made this event a fantastic success.  It was a great conference!

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!

Musical Feel Versus Mechanical Integrity

In a blog article for Gamasutra, game designer Rodain Joubert explores the role of music in games, particularly those in which the music is a central part of a puzzle-solving mechanic (such as the gameplay in Auditorium, FRACT OSC, and Circuits).  He also brings up an idea which arrested my attention, and which will be the subject of this blog:

What is the relationship between Musical Feel and Mechanical Integrity?

Joubert defines Musical Feel as the emotional payoff that is delivered by the game’s score, which depends on the quality of the compositions and their ability to deliver a good experience to the player.  Mechanical Integrity, on the other hand, is the ability of the gameplay to exist apart from the music and still be enjoyable — the implication being that music can either provide a crutch for weak gameplay or interfere and distract from strong game mechanics.  While Joubert concentrates on music games, I found myself thinking about the broader implications of such a tug-of-war scenario as the one he’d described.

As composers, we typically strive to create a score that has a very strong musical feel. Elements such as melodic composition, complex harmonic progression, thematic development and sophisticated instrumental arrangement can all combine to give our tracks that strong musical feel.  But what if the development team would rather we strip away these elements?

Sometimes, a development team may choose to assign the musical score a set of very simple tasks, such as setting the pace with the use of a basic rhythmic momentum, or establishing an atmosphere by using synthetic pads and ambient textures.  These choices may serve the mechanical integrity of the game, by creating a musical undercurrent that supports the gameplay without interfering with it.  But such tactics can also go too far, when the music becomes so simplified that it is perceived as uninteresting by players.  The score loses its musical feel.

Personally, I think that these two objectives would need to be well balanced.  As long as both musical feel and mechanical integrity are given appropriate weight and consequence, we can be confident that our game music will be both entertaining for players and supportive to the mechanics of the game.