Video Game Composers and the Importance of Research: The Music of Sports Scramble

Working on the music of the VR game Sports Scramble, Winifred Phillips is here shown in her professional music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey, everybody!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips.  As game composers, it’s inevitable that we’ll eventually be asked to create music in a genre with which we have little or no experience.  Some projects may throw several unfamiliar musical genres our way.  It can be a scary prospect.  I’ve worked on many projects that have required me to quickly learn new musical styles and techniques, so I thought I’d share some thoughts about how research can help us cope with these sorts of unexpected demands.  This article will explore the role of music research, including how it can initiate us into the mysteries of unfamiliar musical styles, and ways in which it can lead us in unanticipated (but not unwelcome) directions.  I’ve had lots of experience delving into diverse musical genres and doing music research for projects both big and small over the course of my career.  For this article, I’ll be describing my recent experience composing the music for the Sports Scramble VR game, developed by Armature Studio and released earlier this year for popular VR platforms such as the Oculus Quest and the Oculus Rift/Rift S.

Sports Scramble

Sports Scramble is a fun and wacky VR party game designed to intentionally challenge expectations by combining oddball items with well-known sports.  Players can knock down bowling pins with a pineapple, or return a tennis volley using a golf club.  The game scrambles the equipment and the playing field suddenly without notice, resulting in fresh challenges and lots of humorous situations.  Players can then challenge each other in multiplayer, where the best players ascend to the top of the leaderboard.  Here’s the trailer for Sports Scramble, featuring the main theme music I composed for the game:

 

Since the gameplay of Sports Scramble was designed to be surprising, the developers at Armature Studio decided that the music should follow suit.  Between tennis serves, players would hear the type of jaunty organ music that usually serenades baseball fans.  The logo of the Sports Scramble VR game - from a section of the article by Winifred Phillips (video game music composer).Likewise, the music heard during a baseball game would feel more appropriate for the NBA than the MLB.  And in the case of the bowling games, hearing any music at all would come as a big surprise, so musical style could go in a hundred different directions.  Whatever those choices might be, the final result had to incorporate unexpected and humorously scrambled music choices that would perfectly echo the central theme in the game.  I was excited to compose music that would be so unexpected.  However, I didn’t consider myself a sports music expert.  For instance, I’d never composed baseball organ music.  I had no idea what music would be suitable for bowling.  Plus, I’d heard a pretty wide variety of sports jams at NBA games, so trying to find an appropriately evocative musical approach seemed like it could be challenging.  So let’s take these issues one at a time – starting with the NBA sports music conundrum.

Space Jam

When I began work on the music inspired by NBA games, I spent a lot of time digging through web sites and playlists, doing music research.  As game composers, when we’re doing this kind of research, we should try to remember that patience can be the key to our success.  We should try to go slowly, and keep an open mind.  In the beginning, I started with the most obvious sports music associated with the NBA – Space Jam, by Quad City DJ’s.  This track was the opening music for the film of the same name, in which NBA star Michael Jordan saves the famous Looney Tunes characters by participating in an awesome interstellar basketball game.  Here’s how that music appeared in the Space Jam movie (track starts at 0:40):

While this music definitely encapsulates the pumping energy and attitude of an NBA sports anthem, I came away with the impression that the overall style wasn’t right for Sports Scramble.  The Quad City DJ’s track relies heavily on rap lyrics, and a rap vocal would have been too intrusive for my work on the Sports Scramble game.  Plus, the overall texture of the Space Jam track felt a little too dark and heavy.  I needed a lighter quality to go with the humor and unpredictability of the Sports Scramble project.  So, that meant that the style of Space Jam was all wrong.  While this conclusion might have been discouraging, it actually opened up another interesting avenue.

C’mon N’ Ride It

In my initial research on Space Jam, I came across a great article in Spin Magazine about the Quad City DJ’s and their work on the Space Jam soundtrack.  The article discussed the history of this successful Southern hip hop act, and cited several of their other hit recordings.  One of these grabbed my attention.  It wasn’t right for the NBA-inspired music that I’d been asked to deliver for the baseball gameplay in Sports Scramble, but there was something in the track that tugged at the corners of my mind.  During my research, I kept coming back to it — Quad City DJ’s C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train).

An illustration accompanying the discussion of music research into the disco genre - from a section of the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.As we heard, disco heritage permeates C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train).  The track has been associated with diverse sports such as basketball, football, and ice hockey, so it seemed to me that the disco feel could work for a sports video game.  I’d composed disco-inspired tracks for previous projects, including the Speed Racer video game for Warner Bros.  Working with disco flavor and instrumentation was always pretty inspiring for me.  While disco didn’t feel right for the NBA-inspired portions of Sports Scramble… it might work for the bowling gameplay.

There really isn’t any music used in professional competitive bowling, so there was no musical baseline from which to draw a contrast.  I couldn’t defy musical expectations in the usual scrambled way that typifies music elsewhere in the game, since no one expects music in a bowling match.  As a result, I had pretty wide latitude to make artistic decisions.  Initially, I’d been thinking that maybe I would try to whip up something lounge-inspired, to evoke the lounge-like atmosphere in a bowling alley.  But now, I had this fun disco vibe stuck in my head.  It fit with the retro flavor I’d already been contemplating, but with a higher energy than what the retro-lounge style would have delivered.  Plus, it had the chance to be humorous, which fit the tone of the game.  Disco bowling?  Why not!  Here’s how my disco-inspired bowling music sounds in the Sports Scramble game:

An illustration of a baseball accompanying a discussion of music research for a baseball gameplay sequence, from the article written by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.As we can see, my research had rendered some fruitful results so far, though not in the direction I’d initially pursued.  I still had to figure out the NBA-inspired music that would be implemented in the baseball gameplay.  Because of the nature of gameplay, the music would consist of short tracks that would trigger frequently over the course of the game.  I knew I needed a lot of variety, but also a distinctive vibe, and I’d been directed to pursue NBA-inspired sports music as the overall style for baseball gameplay.  I focused my attention again on the Quad City DJ’s release, C’Mon N’ Ride It (The Train).  As an iconic track from the mid 90s, C’Mon N’ Ride It was released as a single from the 1996 album Get On Up and Dance.  With that as a starting point, I began widening my research to incorporate dance music from the 90s in a more general sense.  This turned out to be a jackpot.

Everybody Dance Now

So now I traveled into a world of thumping beats, swirling synths and flashing lights.  2 Unlimited, MC Hammer, C+C Music Factory, Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock, Black Box, Snap!, Technotronic, Reel 2 Real… it was an embarrassment of riches in terms of inspiration and ideas.  Plus, lots of this same music had taken up permanent positions in the timeless playlist of beloved sports anthems.  I soaked myself in 90s EDM, and then started composing my own tracks that would exude a 90s dance flavor, but with enough exaggeration to emphasize the humor of the Sports Scramble game.  Here’s how some of that music worked during baseball gameplay in the Sports Scramble game:

So now that the music for baseball had been nailed down, time to move on to another challenge.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

One of my other tasks in conducting research for Sports Scramble was to familiarize myself with the iconic sound of the baseball organ, along with the types of music a baseball organist would play.  As a part of my work on Sports Scramble, I would be creating an assortment of short organ tracks that were highly reminiscent of baseball, but would be used during tennis gameplay (in keeping with the scrambled nature of this sports VR game).  In order to compose this music, I had to accomplish two important goals.  The first was to understand the basic style and energy of a performance by a baseball organist.  The second was to emulate the incredibly distinctive sound of the organ itself.  For the first task, I studied recordings and videos of baseball organists such as Gary Pressy of the Chicago Cubs.  Here’s a short video about Gary Pressy’s work as a baseball organist:

After having gotten comfortable with the overall vibe of this type of organ music, I turned to the daunting task of emulating the organ sound itself.  This took several attempts before it could be successfully accomplished.  Since I didn’t have access to a vintage 1950s organ such as the one Gary Pressy uses, I had to experiment and combine similar-sounding organs until I’d reached the desired effect.  In the end, I used three separate virtual organ instruments – one for the right hand, one for the left hand, and a third for the pedals.  I also applied quite a lot of sound shaping and processing in order to achieve this end result:

Conclusion

As we’ve discussed, research can play a vital role in our work as video game composers.  It can be especially helpful for us to dive enthusiastically into research when we’re asked to compose in unusual musical genres, or styles with which we may be unfamiliar.  The process of conducting this research can be unpredictable and slow, but it almost always yields inspiring results.  Thanks for reading!

 
 

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 is currently being performed live by a top 80-piece orchestra and choir as part of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which kicked off in 2019 with its Paris premiere. 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 or visit her website at winifredphillips.com.

Video game music composer: Getting your big break (2020 edition)

This photo shows video game composer Winifred Phillips working in her music production studio on music for the God of War video game. Phillips has composed music for titles in five of the most popular franchises in gaming (Assassin's Creed, God of War, Total War, LittleBigPlanet, The Sims).

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey everyone!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  In the photo above I’m working on the project that launched my career as a game composer – God of War.  Starting a viable career in the game development industry as a composer can be an awesome task, and I’m often asked for advice about how to break into this business.  So each year I revisit the subject in an article that allows us to consider current ideas and strategies.  Along the way, we contemplate multiple viewpoints, both from expert music and game audio practitioners and by anonymous game audio folks in community forums.  An image depicting the cover of the bestselling book A Composer's Guide to Game Music, written by award-winning game composer Winifred Phillips.This can be helpful, because the common wisdom on this subject changes in subtle but appreciable ways with each passing year.  By revisiting the topic periodically, I hope that we’ll be able to obtain a deeper understanding of what it takes to land the coveted first gig as a composer of music for games.

Part of the reason I write this article each year is personal.  My own “big break” story is so extraordinarily unusual that it can’t provide much useful guidance for newcomers.  Being fortunate enough to have a famous game like God of War as your first game credit isn’t the typical entry path for a budding video game composer.  Yet, because I’m a fairly visible member of the game audio community who has written a book called A Composer’s Guide to Game Music (pictured), I’m constantly asked for advice by aspiring composers who want to start their professional careers and are having trouble getting out of the gate.  Since my own story is such a ‘bolt-of-lightning’ case study, I think it’s useful for us to study the more traditional entry paths when we’re trying to understand how aspiring game composers can get their start.  By the way, in case you’re wondering, here’s the story of how I landed my first gig – I told the story during a Society of Composers and Lyricists event in NYC, and it’s captured in this video:

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Composing Iconic Theme Music for The Dark Eye video game

This photo shows video game composer Winifred Phillips working in her music production studio on music for the latest game in The Dark Eye franchise. Phillips has composed music for titles in five of the most popular franchises in gaming (Assassin's Creed, God of War, Total War, LittleBigPlanet, The Sims).

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Glad you’re here!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips.  Today I’d like to share some news about one of my latest projects as a video game composer: the newest installment in an internationally-acclaimed fantasy RPG franchise known as The Dark Eye.  During our discussion, we’ll break down the structure of one of the most important pieces of music I composed for that game.

The latest entry in the award-winning Dark Eye video game franchise will be released this coming Spring 2020 under the title The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes.  Before we begin discussing this project and one of the pieces of music I composed for it, let’s take a look at the announcement trailer that was recently released by the publisher Ulisses Games.  The trailer prominently features a sizable portion of the main theme I composed for the game:

As you can see from the gameplay captured in the trailer, The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes is an isometric real-time roleplaying game.  The developers have compared the gameplay of Book of Heroes to top RPG games from the classic era like Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights.  The game offers both solo missions and cooperative adventures designed for up to four players.  Most importantly, the developers stress in an interview that their game will be faithful to the awesome fantasy world of the renowned RPG franchise – it will be “the most Dark Eye game ever.”  Composing a main theme is a heavy responsibility, since main theme tracks tend to be regarded as especially important in a composer’s body of work.  Just this week (Nov. 9th) I was interviewed on the Sound Of Gaming radio show on BBC Radio 3, and the main theme for The Dark Eye: Book of Heroes premiered on this broadcast, spotlighting my work as a game composer.  The entire show is available to listen at this link from now until Dec. 8th.  A main theme is not only a prominent showcase of a composer’s abilities, but also serves a crucial function within the main score of the game. So let’s explore that idea further.

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Game Music and Mood Attenuation: How Game Composers Can Enhance Virtual Presence (Pt. 4)

Working on the music of the Scraper: First Strike VR game, Winifred Phillips is here shown in her professional music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Delighted you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m happy to welcome you back to the last of my four-part article series exploring how game music can best enhance the sensation of presence in Virtual Reality! These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, entitled How Music Enhances Virtual Presence (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:

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Game Music and Empathy: How Game Composers Can Enhance Virtual Presence (Pt. 3)

This photo shows video game composer Winifred Phillips working in her music production studio. Phillips has composed music for titles in five of the most popular franchises in gaming (Assassin's Creed, God of War, Total War, LittleBigPlanet, The Sims).

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Delighted you’re here!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips.  Welcome back to our four part discussion of how game music can enhance presence in awesome 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 How Music Enhances Virtual Presence (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:

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Game Music and Psychological Attachment: How Game Composers Can Enhance Virtual Presence (Pt. 2)

Photo of video game music composer Winifred Phillips working in her music production studio on the musical score of the Shattered State VR game from Supermassive Games.

By Winifred Phillips | ContactFollow

So happy you’ve joined us!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and this is the continuation of our four-part discussion of how music can enhance presence in virtual reality.  These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, entitled How Music Enhances Virtual Presence (I’ve included the official description of my talk at this end of this article). In my GDC talk, I discussed Virtual Presence in connection with seven of the virtual reality games and experiences that I’ve scored, which have either released within the past year or will be released within the coming months.  These include Audioshield (Audiosurf LLC), Bebylon Battle Royale (Kite & Lightning), Fail Factory (Armature Studio), The Haunted Graveyard (Holospark), Life Hutch VR (Next Stop Willoughby), Scraper: First Strike (Labrodex Inc), and Shattered State (Supermassive Games).  If you missed the first article exploring how Flow can support Virtual Presence in VR gaming, please go check that article out first.

Are you back?  Great!  Let’s continue!

Now that we’ve taken a look at how Flow can best enable Virtual Presence in VR, let’s look at the second mechanism by which music enables Virtual Presence:

Psychological Attachment

Image illustrating the three states contributing to the attainment of Virtual Presence (Engagement, Engrossment, and Empathy) -- from the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips.In a paper presented at the Computer-Human Interaction conference, a research team from Carnegie-Mellon defined Virtual Presence as “the extent to which a person’s Cognitive and perceptual systems are tricked into believing they are somewhere other than their physical location.” This assertion formed the jumping-off point for two researchers from University College London, who set out to define what specific circumstances could lead to Virtual Presence in gaming. They developed a model for how gamers developed the psychological attachment necessary to achieve Virtual Presence.  Their model consists of three stages:

  • Engagement
  • Engrossment
  • Empathy

So let’s start with the first stage.

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Game Music and The Theory of Flow: How Game Composers Can Enhance Virtual Presence (Pt. 1)

Video game music composer Winifred Phillips in her video game music production studio working on the music of "The Haunted Graveyard" VR game.

By Winifred Phillips | ContactFollow

Hello there!  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 How Music Enhances Virtual Presence (I’ve included the official description of my talk at the end of this article). The talk I delivered at GDC gave me the opportunity to pull a lot of ideas about virtual reality together and present a concentrated exploration of how music can increase a sensation of presence for VR gamers.  It occurred to me that such a 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 2019 presentation!

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