Arrangement for Vertical Layers Pt. 2: A Game Composer’s Guide

music-sepiaWelcome back to my three-part blog series on the art of arrangement for dynamic music systems in games! In this series of articles, I’m discussing the techniques of arrangement as they pertain to interactive game music by exploring examples from the music I composed for video games from the LittleBigPlanet franchise.  In part one of this series, we went over the role of the arranger, the importance of an interesting and creative arrangement, and the relationship between arranging for traditional linear and non-linear interactive music. We also reviewed arranging techniques that apply to melody, and how these should (or should not) be applied in an interactive composition.  If you haven’t read part one, please click here to read that entry first, and then return here to continue reading part two. Okay, are you back now? Ready? Here we go!

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Arrangement for Vertical Layers Pt. 1: A Game Composer’s Guide

This week, I’m beginning a three-part blog series on the art of arrangement for dynamic music systems in games.

I’ll be exploring the techniques of arrangement as they relate to interactive game music by discussing examples from the music I composed for video games from the blockbuster LittleBigPlanet franchise.

Arrangement for interactivity is a complex subject, so I thought we should begin by developing a basic understanding of what arrangement is, and then move on to the reasons why it’s especially important in interactive music.

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Simultaneous Genres for the Game Music Composer

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Since the Grammy nominating period is underway, I’ve been thinking a lot about my work on the popular LittleBigPlanet video game franchise.  I recently submitted a couple of tracks from the LittleBigPlanet 3 soundtrack for consideration (LittleBigPlanet 3 The Ziggurat Theme and LittleBigPlanet 3 The Pod), which brought to mind some of the creative processes that went into structuring the interactive music for the LittleBigPlanet games. In my blog today I’d like to share with you a fun technique that’s actually one of my favorite aspects of composing music in this interactive system.  I’ve been a part of the music composition team for six LittleBigPlanet games, and over the course of those six projects, I’ve been asked to execute this particular technique a lot.  It’s a great musical trick that can only be pulled off when you’re composing in a Vertical Layering system.  Since the LittleBigPlanet music system is one of the most complex examples of Vertical Layering, it really makes for ideal conditions in which to execute this technique, which is…

Composing in Two Simultaneous Genres

We’ll recall that Vertical Layering is the process by which a single piece of music is recorded into separate yet simultaneous audio recordings that each embody a percentage of the whole composition.  This allows the music to be disassembled and reassembled into different instrument combinations during gameplay.

Last year I produced an instructional video that goes into the process in more depth:

Vertical Layering gives us the chance to write one track in two simultaneous musical genres. In traditional music composition, if we want to combine two genres of music in one track we can attempt to pull together a creative fusion, in which the styles are mixed together to create a result that isn’t quite one genre, and isn’t quite the other. Fusions can be exciting and original, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. The musical interactivity of Vertical Layering gives us the chance to keep the two genres distinct, and still incorporate them into the same piece of music.  The track can switch up which layers are playing, and it’ll be in one musical genre in one moment, and then become another genre at the drop of a hat. It’s very cool, and a lot of fun for a composer – although it can also be hard for us to wrap our heads around, especially at first.

Let’s take a look at three examples of this technique in action.  We’ll start with a couple of tracks from LittleBigPlanet 2, and then a more recent track from the latest game in the franchise – LittleBigPlanet 3.

LittleBigPlanet 2 Victoria’s Lab

In the “Victoria’s Lab” level from LittleBigPlanet 2, our world-famous hero, Sackboy, must do his best to navigate a perilous steampunk bakery, using cupcakes as weapons against evil robots made of teacups.  All these wacky elements come together to create the typically whimsical awesomeness that makes LittleBigPlanet the lovable franchise it is.  I composed the Victoria’s Lab music for LittleBigPlanet 2. Here’s a music video that includes the complete track, along with action from the Victoria’s Lab level of the game:

Victoria’s lab aptly demonstrates the “two simultaneous musical genres” approach.  For instance, Victoria’s lab can switch from a whimsical lollipop style to a gritty orchestral/rock hybrid at any time. Here’s the whimsical lollipop:

And here’s the orchestral/rock hybrid:

It’s like the music has a case of multiple personality, and the audio team can use this to add distinctive character to locations and situations within the level – some areas benefiting from the cuteness of the whimsical style, others from the toughness of the rock. In order to make this happen, as game composers we have to keep the two styles balanced in our minds – compose them both separately, test how they work together, adjust the instrumental performances and fundamental organization so that the two styles can coexist in a way that makes musical sense, test the layers some more in various configurations, until all the layers seem to work well – both when played together and when played alone.

LittleBigPlanet 2 Eve’s Asylum

EveNow, while the Victoria’s Lab example presents a fairly extreme contrast in music styles, the music from the Eve’s Asylum level of LittleBigPlanet 2 shows off this technique in an even more dramatic way. The Eve’s Asylum level is set inside a giant tree, where a lady with an apple for a head runs a a highly-spiritual insane asylum. The music for this level is structured around two very distinct musical genres that are assigned to specific tasks.

The sparkling, surreal New Age music style works to enhance gameplay during relaxed exploration, and it also highlights the natural beauty of the giant tree. Here’s a taste of that:

On the flip side of the coin, the Boogie-Woogie style pays tribute to the Andrew Sisters and the age of swing, and the high-energy rhythms provide support for combat and perilous situations. Let’s listen to a little of that:

Okay, now here’s what it sounds like when the Vertical Layering music system transitions from one musical genre to the other in the Eve’s Asylum level of LittleBigPlanet 2:

What’s great about this technique is that it allows the music to morph into something completely different in a perfectly seamless way, without ever making the player overtly conscious of the transition, and without creating any artificial sense of demarcation where one style ends and another begins. The music is simply interacting with the gameplay, changing in a logical way as the player’s circumstances change. Now, let’s look at one more example of this technique, this time from LittleBigPlanet 3.

LittleBigPlanet 3 The Ziggurat Theme

SackBrosIn the Ziggurat level, Sackboy explores a gigantic sanctuary that’s full of both grandly spiritual architecture and playfully eccentric machines. As a setting that already had a built-in duality, it seemed clear that the music should also have a similar sense of division – so I composed this Vertical Layering composition in two musical styles. The first was a traditionally designed Baroque-style fugue – a multi-voiced counterpoint composition built around the repetition and development of a single melodic theme. Here’s a snippet of that Baroque-style fugue:

The second style was a quirky World Fusion in which log drums, upright bass and assorted percussion instruments worked together to have some fun with African, Latin, Polynesian and Jazz rhythms. Here’s an excerpt of those groovy world beats:

So, the music is essentially coming from the opposite ends of the cultural spectrum – a very strict and refined musical form on one side, and a very groovy and uninhibited style on the other. Now, watch how the music system added layers during this gameplay sequence in the Ziggurat level of LittleBigPlanet 3:

Vertical Layering is a tremendously flexible composition technique that allows a game composer to incorporate two simultaneous musical genres into a single track. We can use the two distinctly-different genres separately, and then combine them to create dramatically different musical effects.  It’s a fun technique, and I hope that you’ll give it a try in your own work.  Let me know in the comments if you’ve ever tried to combine two musical genres using Vertical Layering, or if you’re planning to try it in the future!

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Studio1_GreenWinifred 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 video 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 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Power to the Players: Music for User-Created Levels

This week, I’d like to touch upon an aspect of the LittleBigPlanet music system that sets it apart from most other games – and that is the way in which the game gives players the power to directly manipulate the music content.

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Every piece of music in a LittleBigPlanet game is also a collectible prize that players can obtain and then use in levels that they build themselves using the game’s creation tools. For this reason, when composing for a LittleBigPlanet game, the members of the music composition team have to keep in mind that there’s no way to predict how the user community will use the music. Certainly, the players will be sharing their user-created levels across the entire community – there are over 9 million levels so far – and that knowledge tends to puts everything in a whole new light.

As I’ve mentioned in previous blogs, the music of the LittleBigPlanet franchise for consoles is structured using a Vertical Layering system comprised of six layers – six simultaneous audio recordings that play in synch with each other and each represent a percentage of the whole composition. This allows the music to be disassembled and reassembled by the game engine according to what’s happening during the course of play.  That means that each music composition is fragmented into six parts.  So, I have to ask myself – when players are using one of the interactive tracks I’ve composed for a LittleBigPlanet game, will users play only one layer out of the six? That thought tends to make me scrutinize every layer pretty intently.

On the other hand, will players just set every layer as active, at full volume, all the time? Again, that’s a thought that puts me on high alert, leading me to turn a hyper critical eye on each composition before I make that final submission to the developers.

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When we create interactive music for most projects, we can trust that the audio team at the development studio will work to implement the music in the most advantageous way, with the most satisfying musical results – but players tend to make their decisions based on what seems like fun at the time.

Even so, I’m always excited to hear how players have implemented my music into their games.  Here are some of the best examples of ingenuity and artistry from a few of the top LittleBigPlanet level creators:

LittleBigPlanet 3 The Ziggurat Theme

In the Ziggurat level, Sackboy wanders through an impressive sanctuary characterized by imposing architecture and lots of glittering glass, with outdoor sections blanketed by softly falling snow.  I was asked to create music for this area, which was structured as a central hub from which Sackboy could embark on adventures and accept missions.  The music I composed included six layers – Choir, Harp, Bells, Bass, Jazz Drums and Percussion.  Here is a short 12 second excerpt taken from each of the six layers at the exact same moment in the composition:

In the Ziggurat level created by the development team at Sumo Digital, Sackboy repeatedly visits a central hub area, and the layers of the music are triggered in different configurations depending on when Sackboy visits.  The layers don’t change noticeably while Sackboy is exploring the level, but when he returns to the same level later, the music will have changed its layer configuration. Here’s a brief example of how that worked:

In the awesome user-created level Fuga Ad Infinitum (designed by Aratiatia), the Ziggurat Theme music is used with a very different triggering strategy.  The layers are turned on and off depending on the actions of Sackboy as he runs and flies through a mythologically-inspired environment, causing the music to fluidly change its character while Sackboy explores.  Because of this fundamentally different method of music triggering, The Ziggurat Theme has a unique tone and atmosphere in Fuga Ad Infinitum.  Here’s a gameplay video that shows how the music was triggered in the Fuga Ad Infinitum game:

The user Aratiatia created a mesmerizingly beautiful level, lacing the layers of The Ziggurat Theme throughout with thoughtfully designed trigger points that supported the action of the game very well.

LittleBigPlanet 2 Toy Story

Sometimes an interactive track can come across differently with very small changes in implementation.  As an example – the LittleBigPlanet 2 Toy Story game was a self-contained adventure in the world of the famous and popular Toy Story movies.  I wrote an interactive western bluegrass track for gameplay sequences that included cowboy romps with Woody and his pals.  The details regarding the composition of each layer in this bluegrass Vertical Layering composition are explored in one of the tutorial videos I produced to supplement my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music:

During the LittleBigPlanet 2 Toy Story game, the interactive music would be used for both low-energy cinematics and high-energy gameplay.  Here’s a brief video showing how the music was implemented in the LittleBigPlanet 2 Toy Story game:

Now, here’s the same music used in an incredibly clever LittleBigPlanet 2 user-created game called Paper World 2 by Adell22.  In this implementation of the music, Adell22 chose not to use the melody layer, opting instead for the bluegrass rhythm and energy to give the vehicular gameplay its momentum:

The drastically different gameplay circumstances, combined with the different mix of layers in the music, help this track to come across distinctively and support the action of the Paper World 2 user-created game.

LittleBigPlanet 2 Victoria’s Lab

I’ve blogged before about the music I composed for the Victoria’s Lab level of LittleBigPlanet 2 – I mention it here as an illustration of how a Vertical Layering composition can change depending on the implementation.  The music of Victoria’s Lab includes both whimsical and dark layers which can be played together or separately.  Here’s a 15 second excerpt of the full mix of Victoria’s Lab, to remind us of how all six layers sound when played together.

In a user-created level for the LittleBigPlanet 2 game, the user Acanimate chose to implement only the drums, guitars and strings of the Victoria’s Lab music (in other words, the dark and serious layers) in this exciting and perilous level called Sprocketz.

As a contrast, in this section of another user-created level called Sweets Fantasy by the user White Rabbit, only the light and comical layers of the Victoria’s Lab music were used, with the following result:

I’m always inspired by what the LittleBigPlanet user community does with the interactive music written for the franchise.  It’s a privilege to create music that will become part of user-created levels, and fascinating to see how the players choose to implement the interactive components of the LittleBigPlanet music system.  Their choices sometimes reveal hidden utility in the music created for the franchise, and looking at their choices can help us better understand the creative possibilities inherent in Vertical Layering.

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Studio1_GreenWinifred 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 video 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 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

139th AES Convention for the Game Music Composer

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I’m happy to share that I’ll be a speaker again this year at the Audio Engineering Society’s annual convention!  Last year, the convention took place at the Los Angeles Convention Center – a familiar stomping ground from my many visits to the famous Electronic Entertainment Expo over the years.  However, this year will take me somewhere entirely new: the Jacob Javits Center in New York City!

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I imagine that most futuristic metropolitan buildings look best when the sky is purple.  Since it’s impossible to capture natural purple skies in the wild, I assume that someone helpfully photoshopped a purple firmament for this promo picture.  The convention center looks very impressive, and I’m looking forward to seeing it in person!

Attending last year’s AES in Los Angeles was a wonderful experience, and I was truly honored to have been chosen as a speaker for the event!  At last year’s AES, I gave an overview presentation about interactive music in video games – the talk was an expansion of the interactive music sections of my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music.  Here’s a video clip from my speech last year, entitled “Effective Interactive Music Systems: The Nuts and Bolts of Dynamic Musical Content.”  The entire speech is available for download from Mobiltape.com.

At this year’s AES, I’ll be speaking more specifically about my role as a member of the music composition team for the LittleBigPlanet franchise.  It will be fun to share my experiences as part of that wonderful music team at Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, and I’m looking forward to exploring some of the interactive music techniques of the LittleBigPlanet franchise!

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This is a photo from the LittleBigPlanet 3 display in the Sony booth at E3 2014.  My presentation at the Jacob Javits Center will include lots of my music from the LittleBigPlanet franchise, and Sackboy will be making many appearances!

AES-MixBoardI’m also looking forward to seeing what’s new and hot in audio gear on the AES exhibit floor.  Last year’s show floor was crowded with humongous mixing desks like the one above, along with enough glittering gear to make a full-grown audio engineer cry tears of joy.  I’m looking forward to a similar spectacle this year.  In addition to the expo floor, the convention will include a comprehensive program of presentations, panels and workshops, and the popular Live Sound Expo will be returning this year to spread knowledge about audio solutions for live events.

On a more personal note – prior to attending my first AES, I read an article from the ONION (the world’s top news satire publication) which lead me to believe that, as an audio engineer attending such a convention, I would be able to gather with my fellow audio professionals and enjoy an in-depth discussion of our ponytails (warning: adult language).  I can report that this did not happen last year… which was a shame, because I made sure I wore a ponytail for the occasion.  😉

I submit the following photo as proof:

AES-AESDespite this minor disappointment, I had an awesome time at last year’s AES, and I’m very excited about this year’s event!  The convention will take place from Oct. 29th to Nov. 1st at the Jacob Javits Center in New York City.  Hope to see you there!

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Studio1_GreenWinifred 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 video 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 Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality video games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Interactive Game Music of LittleBigPlanet 3 (Concepts from my GDC Talk)

LittleBigPlanet 3 and Beyond: Taking Your Score to Vertical Extremes -- Speaker, Winifred Phillips

LittleBigPlanet 3 and Beyond: Taking Your Score to Vertical Extremes

I was honored to be selected by the Game Developers Conference Advisory Board to present two talks during this year’s GDC in San Francisco earlier this month.  On Friday March 6th I presented a talk on the music system of the LittleBigPlanet franchise.  Entitled LittleBigPlanet 3 and Beyond: Taking Your Score to Vertical Extremes,” the talk explored the Vertical Layering music system that has been employed in all of the LittleBigPlanet games (the soundtrack for that game is available here).  I’ve been on the LittleBigPlanet music composition team for six of their games so far, and my talk used many examples from musical compositions I created for all six of those projects.

After my talk, several audience members let me know that the section of my presentation covering the music system for the Pod menu of LittleBigPlanet 3 was particularly interesting – so I thought I’d share the concepts and examples from that part of my presentation in this blog.

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That’s me, giving my GDC speech on the interactive music system of the LittleBigPlanet franchise.  Here I’m just starting the section about the Pod menu music.

The audio team at Media Molecule conceived the dynamic music system for the LittleBigPlanet franchise.  According to the franchise’s music design brief, all interactive tracks in LittleBigPlanet games must be arranged in a vertical layering system.  I discussed this type of interactive music in a blog I published last year, but I’ll recap the system briefly here as well.  In a vertical layering music system, the music is not captured in a single audio recording.  Instead, several audio recordings play in sync with one other.  Each layer of musical sound features unique content.  Each of the layers represents a certain percentage of the entire musical composition.  Played all together, we hear the full mix embodying the entire musical composition.  Played separately, we hear submixes that are still satisfying and entertaining for their own sake.  The music system can play all the layers either together or separately, or can combine the layers into different sets that represent a portion of the whole mix.

When implemented into gameplay, layers are often activated when the player moves into a new area.  This helps the music to feel responsive to the player’s actions.  The music seems to acknowledge the player’s progress throughout the game.  It’s important to think about the way in which individual layers may be activated, and the functions that the layers may be called upon to serve during the course of the game.

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In LittleBigPlanet 3, the initial menu system for the game is called “The Pod.”  The music for the Pod is arranged in vertical layers that are activated and deactivated according to where the player is in the menu hierarchy.  All the layers can be played simultaneously, and they play in multiple combinations… however, each of the individual layers is also associated with a specific portion of the menu system, and is activated when the player enters that particular part of the menu.

Let’s take a quick tour through the layers of the Pod menu music.  I’ve embedded some short musical excerpts of each layer.  You’ll find the SoundCloud players for each layer embedded below – just click the Play buttons to listen to each excerpt.  The first layer of the Pod menu music is associated with the Main Menu, and it features some floaty, science-fiction-inspired textures and effects:

The next layer is associated with a menu labeled “My Levels,” and the music for that layer is very different.  Now, woodwinds are accompanied by a gentle harp, combining to create a homey and down-to-earth mood:

Moving on to the music layer for the “Play” menu, we find that the instrumentation now features an ethereal choir and shimmering bells, expressing a much more celestial atmosphere:

Now let’s listen to the “Adventure” menu layer, in which plucked strings and bells combine to deliver a prominent melody line:

Finally, in the music layer associated with the “Community” and “Popit” menus, we hear a quirky mix of synths and effects that hearken back to menu music from previous games in the LittleBigPlanet franchise:

As the player navigates the Pod menu system, these various music layers are activated to correspond with the player’s location within the menu hierarchy.  This sort of dynamic music triggering lies at the very heart of the Vertical Layering interactive music mechanism.

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Every layer in a Vertical Layering composition can have a very distinct musical identity.  When that layer is turned off, the entire mix changes in a noticeable way.  The mix can be changed subtly…

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… or it can be altered radically, with large scale activations or deactivations of layers.  Even with these kinds of dramatic changes, the musical composition retains its identity.  The same piece of music continues to play, and the player is conscious of continuing to hear the same musical composition, even though it has just altered in reaction to the circumstances of gameplay and the player’s progress.

In the Pod menu music system, the layers would change in reaction to the player’s menu navigation, which could be either slow and leisurely or brisk and purposeful.  Layer activations and deactivations would occur with smooth crossfade transitions as the player moved from one menu to another.  Now let’s take a look at a video showing some navigation through the Pod menu system, so we can hear how these musical layers behaved during actual gameplay:

 As you can see, triggering unique musical layers for different portions of the menu system helps serve to define them.  I hope you found this explanation of the Pod music to be interesting!  If you attended GDC but missed my talk on the interactive music of LittleBigPlanet, you’ll be able to find the entire presentation posted as a video in the GDC Vault in just a few weeks.  In the meantime, please feel free to add any comments or questions below!

LittleBigPlanet 3 and Beyond: Taking Your Score to Vertical Extremes

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Yesterday I shared some info about my upcoming Audio Bootcamp presentation on Tuesday March 3rd at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco — and today I’d like to share some information about the second presentation I’ll be giving during the main conference. On Friday, March 6th at 10am, I’ll be giving an Audio Track presentation at the Game Developers Conference – I’ll have the pleasure of talking about the interactive music system of the LittleBigPlanet franchise.  Here is the official description of my conference session from the GDC 2015 Schedule:

SackNotes

“LittleBigPlanet 3 and Beyond: Taking Your Score to Vertical Extremes” presents down-to-earth strategies for the design and utilization of a vertical layering music system. Composer Winifred Phillips’ credits include six LittleBigPlanet games (LittleBigPlanet 3, LittleBigPlanet 2, LittleBigPlanet Vita, LittleBigPlanet Cross Controller, LittleBigPlanet Karting, LittleBigPlanet Toy Story). Phillips will discuss her music from the LittleBigPlanet franchise — a series that features one of the most complex vertical layering systems in the field of game audio. Intense challenges often lead to inventive solutions. By virtue of the extreme example embodied by the LittleBigPlanet system, Phillips will share the simple approaches that solved some of the common problems associated with vertical construction. This discussion will be augmented by musical examples from a dozen interactive compositions that Phillips created for LittleBigPlanet games. Attendees will learn techniques to avoid problems in any vertical layering system, regardless of whether that system is simple or extreme.

Takeaway

Through detailed examples from the LittleBigPlanet franchise, Phillips will provide a step-by-step analysis of the process that resulted in a tightly-constructed, six-layer interactive music system. This discussion will provide attendees with practical knowledge that can be applied to their own projects.

Intended Audience

This session is for anyone interested in game scoring, interactive music systems and game music implementation strategies. Simple approaches to vertical layering will be accessible to attendees at all levels, while more advanced attendees will appreciate the innovative solutions applied to the complex vertical music system of the LittleBigPlanet franchise.

So, if you’ll be attending GDC in San Francisco on March the 6th, I hope you’ll come to my session!

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