Video Game Music Composer: The Interactive Music of SPYDER (Part 2)

Photograph of video game music composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio. Phillips is the video game composer for the Spyder game, developed by Sumo Digital for Apple Arcade. Her credits include games in five of the biggest franchises in gaming, and she is considered an authority on video game music who has given lectures at such venues as the Game Developers Conference (GDC), the Society of Composers and Lyricists, and the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Welcome!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m glad you’ve joined us for this continuation of our discussion of the dynamic music system in the video game Spyder!  As you may recall from our previous discussion, Spyder is a spy thriller set in a retro world that’s vibrant with the famously over-the-top music and aesthetic of the late 1960s to early 1970s.  The game was developed by Sumo Digital for the popular Apple Arcade gaming platform.  The protagonist is an intelligent gadget resembling a tiny robotic spider.  This device, named “Agent 8,” was created by an elite British spy organization.  As the hero of the game, Agent 8 undertakes high-stakes espionage in order to defeat a sprawling evil organization known as S.I.N.!  Sumo Digital recently released a developer diary video about the making of the music of SPYDER, so let’s check that out:

As you could see from the video, the Spyder video game features a dynamic music system designed to convey the iconic 1960s style of a classic spy thriller.  In this two-part article series, we’ve been exploring how that system was created.

A screen capture of the main character of the Spyder video game examining some secret plans - from a section of the article by Winifred Phillips (video game music composer).During the previous article, we explored how the dynamic music system of Spyder deploys a large assortment of discrete atmospheric compositions in a semi-random triggering scheme and with scalable emotional intensity during exploration gameplay.  If you haven’t had a chance to read that article, you can check it out here.  In this article, we’ll be moving on to a discussion of the interactive system for action music in the Spyder game.  Agent 8 divides his time between stealthy intelligence gathering and frantic missions to thwart the dastardly schemes of the top agents of S.I.N.  When clandestine operations must be set aside in favor of bold plans, Spyder swings into action, and the music ramps up to increase the sense of epic stakes.  So let’s take a look at how the action music of Spyder makes Agent 8 feel like an awesome hero!

Sky High Spy

In Spyder, action music is structured in vertical layers, with the instrumental texture building into more complex and propulsive mixes that flow seamlessly into each other as events proceed.  The way in which the layers are combined will vary depending on the layout of the game level and the tasks that Agent 8 is asked to perform.  The result is a dynamic musical system that reacts quickly and smoothly to the actions of the player.  For instance, during one of Agent 8’s perilous missions, he is smuggled on board an enemy bomber plane that’s about to attack a cargo ship carrying humanitarian aid.  Agent 8’s goal throughout this mission is to An illustration accompanying the discussion of the Sky High Spy level from the Spyder video game - article by game music composer Winifred Phillips.disable the bomber plane as best he can, and prevent it from reaching its objective.  Early gameplay onboard the bomber consists of careful navigation through the bowels of the plane, accompanied by stealthy ambient music. However, once our multi-legged hero reaches the plane’s engine, things begin to heat up.  

Because of the nature of this level, action-oriented gameplay tends to occur in fits and starts, rather than in continuous sequences.  Each action sequence is accompanied by the same interactive music composition, but each time that the action music is triggered, the number of layers changes.  In order to make this possible, I composed the music so that every single instrument could be isolated into its own recording, making sure to create the most instrumental layers possible.  I then submitted these recordings to the audio team at Sumo Digital as a large collection of instrumental music files that could be mixed and matched.  All the recordings were labeled according to an emotional intensity scale, so that they could be incorporated appropriately as the action ramped up, and removed from the mix whenever it made sense to do so.  Let’s take a look at an example.

Early in the Sky High Spy level, Agent 8 works to drain the plane’s engine of its oil supply.  During this, the action music begins as a relatively low-keyed jazz groove featuring keyboards, vibraphone and some light synth.  Let’s check out how that sounds in-game:

Later, Agent 8 works to flood the engine of the plane with coolant.  The action music is triggered again, except now it also includes drums and bass support for added momentum:

Finally, while attempting to defuse a bomb, Agent 8 is dropped along with the bomb out of the belly of the plane.  At this point, Agent 8 must attempt to explode the bomb in mid-air so that it doesn’t reach its target.  While this is going on, the action music appears in its full-mix version, complete with a robust saxophone choir and orchestral string section.

In the case of the Sky High Spy level, the action music is triggered in separate instances with custom mixes that scale in intensity.  However, the actual mixing changes are happening off-stage, so to speak.  The player doesn’t get to experience these changes in real time.  In other levels of the Spyder video game, the action music makes these dynamic changes on the fly while the track is playing.  Let’s check out how that worked.

Space Invaded

An illustration accompanying a discussion of the Space Invaded level from the Spyder video game -- article written by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.At one point during the game, Agent 8 gets shot into space on board an out-of-control space capsule that has been sabotaged by the evil agents of S.I.N.  In our last article we examined how the ambient music system worked aboard that damaged space ship.  Now, let’s check out how the action music functions during more exciting gameplay situations.

Crawling along the outside of a damaged ship that’s being pummeled by debris, Agent 8 makes his way to an electrical subsystem that he must rewire in order to repair the life support system for the struggling astronauts.  As our little hero maneuvers his way across an electrical circuitboard, the action music begins in its simplest form.  At this point, it’s only a light synth melody and a few synthetic chords and effects.  After completing the task of rewiring that board in expert fashion, Agent 8 makes his way to a second electrical system, and the music explodes into full-scale space disco complete with a funk guitar, high disco violins and lots of spacey musical synth effects.  Let’s see how that worked.  Notice the layer activations taking place as the music plays:

This is a fuller realization of a vertical layering music system for the action sequences of the Spyder video game.  To get a better understanding of how the system works, let’s take a look at another example.

The War Room

An image depicting video game character Agent 8 navigating the War Room in the Apple Arcade game Spyder, as discussed in the article written by Winifred Phillips (video game composer).In our previous article, we discussed the atmospheric music from The War Room level, so now let’s see how action music proceeds.  The structure of the action music system in The War Room is a great example of this vertical layering system, because it consists of a long sequence of events in which the layers are gradually added into the mix as Agent 8 progresses through the level.  Because of the nature of gameplay and the implementation of a single dynamic vertical layering track that accentuates level progression, the War Room action music really exemplifies the vertical layering system in the Spyder game.  The music begins when our hero crawls into the War Room mainframe computer in order to find a S.I.N. sabotage device and disable it.  When you first hear the War Room action music, it consists of just three instruments: a piano, an electric piano, and a bass.  By the time Agent 8 begins navigating a hazardous spinning deathtrap of computer reels, the music mix has been joined by some driving drums, vibes and marimba.  Once our hero has disabled the sabotage device, the music breaks out into its full mix with full jazz brass, saxophone choir, and lots of quirky synths.  Here’s how that worked:

So in this vertical layering implementation, the action music started with fairly sparse instrumentation and gradually built into a full mix by virtue of the addition of layers.  If you’d like to hear the entire music composition for The War Room, you can check out this video posted by the developer Sumo Digital that features the full-length track:

Now let’s take a look at an action music implementation scheme that proceeds in the opposite direction.

Bugged Out

An image illustrating the Bugged Out! level of the Spyder video game, as explored in the article written by award-winning game composer Winifred Phillips.In one of the more dramatic levels of the game, Agent 8 is charged with sabotaging a spy satellite.  To complete this mission, our little hero must navigate across the satellite’s wings: an array of solar panels.  Once Agent 8 completes this journey, the action music triggers into a full mix complete with orchestral strings, full jazz band and rhythm section.  But then the satellite’s fiery booster rockets are engaged, introducing a new threat to Agent 8’s mission.  As soon as this happens, the music system deactivates the larger instrumental sections of the full mix, leaving only the core jazz rhythm section and a lead guitar.  As the camera perspective pans across these fiery plumes of death, the music system triggers a new vertical layer in the form of ominous orchestral swells.  Let’s check that out:

 

Conclusion

The interactive music system of the Spyder video game is more complex and multifaceted than can be  feasibly included in these two articles.  By applying a narrow focus to specific ambient and action music systems within the Spyder game, we’ve taken abstract concepts and rendered them more concrete and applicable to our ongoing work as game music composers.  I’m very proud to have composed music for the Spyder video game, and it was amazing to work with the outstanding audio team at Sumo Digital.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration of some of the dynamic systems in the Spyder video game score!

 

Photograph of video game music composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio. Phillips is the video game composer for the Spyder game, developed by Sumo Digital for Apple Arcade. Her credits include games in five of the biggest franchises in gaming, and she is considered an authority on video game music who has given lectures at such venues as the Game Developers Conference (GDC), the Society of Composers and Lyricists, and the Library of Congress in Washington DC.Popular music from composer Winifred Phillips’ award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score is currently featured as a part of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which kicked off in 2019 in Paris with performances by a top 80-piece orchestra and choir. 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, God of War, Total War, The Sims, and LittleBigPlanet.  Phillips’ other notable projects include music for the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution (Deep Silver), and numerous virtual reality games from such accomplished developers as Supermassive Games, High Voltage Software, and Armature Studio.   She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the MIT Press. As the foremost authority on music for interactive entertainment, Winifred Phillips has given lectures at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, the Game Developers Conference, the Audio Engineering Society, and many more. Phillips’ enthusiastic fans showered her with questions during a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything session that went viral, hit the Reddit front page, received 14.9 thousand upvotes, and became one of the most popular gaming AMAs ever hosted on Reddit. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

 

 

Video Game Music Composer: The Interactive Music of SPYDER

Award-winning game music composer Winifred Phillips working in her music production studio on the musical score of the Spyder video game for Apple Arcade. Her credits include games in five of the biggest franchises in gaming, and she is considered an authority on video game music who has given lectures at such venues as the Game Developers Conference (GDC), the Society of Composers and Lyricists, and the Library of Congress in Washington DC.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hello there!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m excited to announce the release of my most recent video game project – Spyder, developed by Sumo Digital for the popular Apple Arcade gaming platform.  I loved working with the amazing audio team at Sumo Digital, and composing the music of Spyder was an absolute blast!  As a retro spy thriller with a really iconic visual aesthetic, Spyder gave me the chance to delve into the Promotional poster for the video game Spyder, from the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.musical styles of the late sixties and early seventies.  Big band jazz of the 50s had evolved over time into a groovy psychedelic circus of 1960s musical fun.  Mix this with the beginnings of 70s funk – and early synthetic sounds such as the famous Minimoog – and you end up with a potent cocktail of musical influences and attitudes.  All of this retro goodness is reflected in the old-school movie-style poster created by the Sumo Digital team to announce the Spyder video game (pictured right).

The historical research into style, technique and instrumentation posed a significant challenge for me as a game music composer.  In the course of preparing to compose the music for Spyder, I sank an enormous amount of time into this research, listening to what felt like every single spy movie soundtrack from the late sixties and early seventies.  I also listened to tons of straight action movie soundtracks from the same era, as well as a great assortment of comedies, all while taking copious notes.  Lending a strong sense of authenticity to the era was a crucial responsibility of the game music that would give Spyder its evocative character.

Continue reading

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.

community

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.

scrutiny

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.

border-159926_640_white

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.

LittleBigPlanet 3 – Hollywood Music in Media Awards

hmma2014

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.  

Nov. 4, 2014: My Music for the LittleBigPlanet 3 Game Won a Hollywood Music in Media Award!

2014HMMA_Billboard2This has been an exciting week!  I have a bunch of news to announce all at once, so here goes…

My latest project is music for the game LittleBigPlanet 3.  I was a member of the composer team for that project, and I composed many tracks for the game.  One of those tracks is entitled “LittleBigPlanet 3 Ziggurat Theme.”  It’s a classically-inspired vocal fugue written for a women’s choir, and I’m thrilled to say that on November 4th, my track won a Hollywood Music in Media Award in the category of Best Song for a Video Game!

2014HMMA_v5_591x270

 

Here I am, holding the Hollywood Music in Media Award I won for

In this photo, I’m holding the Hollywood Music in Media Award I won for LittleBigPlanet 3 Ziggurat Theme.

Since Sony Computer Entertainment Europe announced the award today, I can now share it with all of you.  I’ve been bursting with excitement over my involvement in LittleBigPlanet 3 — it’s going to be the best LittleBigPlanet game ever, and I’m so honored to have been a part of it!  I’ve been keeping the secret for a while.

1-LBP3-E3

Here I am at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles this past June, looking at the wonderful booth for LittleBigPlanet 3.

2-LBP3-E3LittleBigPlanet 3 features all new companions for Sackboy — you can see OddSock and Toggle pictured here.  Look at how huge Toggle is!

3-LBP3-E3

Of course, my favorite will always be Sackboy.  Just look at that face!  What’s not to love?

4-LBP3-E3

Doesn’t OddSock look like he’s whispering a secret in my ear?  I suppose we really were keeping a big secret then, and I’m so glad I can share it now with you all.

Well, that’s my big announcement.  I’ve been keeping this secret for almost two years.  Working with the wonderful creative team at Sumo Digital and Sony Computer Entertainment Europe on music for LittleBigPlanet 3 has been a wonderful adventure, and I’m so excited that the game will be released on November 18th!