Video game music composer: Getting your big break

In this article for video game composers, popular game composer Winifred Phillips is depicted in this photo working in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

So happy you’ve joined us!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips (pictured above working on my career breakthrough project, God of War). Today I’ll be discussing a hot topic that we’ve previously explored, but that definitely deserves to be revisited periodically.  This is one of the most popular subjects that I’ve addressed in my previous articles here: How does a newcomer get hired as a game composer?

I’m asked this question frequently, and while I offered quite a lot of advice on this topic in my book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I’m keenly aware of how urgent the need is for updated guidance on this issue for aspiring video game composers.  Game music newcomers often feel adrift and alone in the game industry, and some good advice can be a welcome lifeline.  In my book, I described the career path that led me into the game industry and allowed me to land my first gigs, but I’m well aware that my experience was pretty unique.  With that in mind, I’ve collated some recent research and insights from some top game industry professionals in this article, in the hopes that some of these expert observations might prove helpful.  There are lots of original and provocative viewpoints presented here, so we should feel free to pick and choose the strategies and tips that will work best for us.

Also, later in the article you’ll find my presentation for the Society of Composers and Lyricists seminar, in which I answered the question about how I personally got my start in the games industry (for those who might be curious).  Finally, at the end of the article I have included a full list of links for further reading and reference.

The Demo Reel

An illustration for the popular discussion of music demo preparation, from the article for video game composers by Winifred Phillips (game music composer).Here’s a new topic this year: the music demo reel, otherwise known as a professional portfolio.  To prepare an awesome demo reel, we game composers usually start by collecting our best music pieces and arranging them in a way that we hope will be impressive enough to arrest the attention of a potential client.  If we were in a sentimental frame-of-mind, we might think of our demo reel as a fragile flower in an outstretched palm, offered up in the hopes of finding an appreciative audience.  But there’s nothing about this process that’s sentimental.  The demo reel is a marketing tool, and its crucial that we think of it with a sense of strategic detachment.  We have a product we’re trying to sell, and our demo reel needs to act as our figurative foot in the door.  So, how do we make our reels stand out from the competition so that they attract the interest of clients who might want us for a famous game franchise or an indie masterpiece?

According to sound designer Nathan Madsen, when preparing our demo reel for review, we should put our newest work first.  “Having an up to date portfolio, or even relatively up to date, really helps you be ready for sudden job opportunities,” Madsen observes.  This opinion is echoed by Daniel Spreadbury (product marketing manager at Steinberg Media Technologies), who goes even further to suggest that “if you think that your talent as a composer is best displayed by the piece you’re currently working on, there is no reason that this can’t be submitted as well, as an example of a work-in-progress. While it will be incomplete, it can still be used to illustrate your creative process and your understanding of composition.”  That being said, Spreadbury urges that composers turn a critical eye to their work when selecting musical candidates for their demo reel.  “It’s often tempting to try and include as much of your own material as possible. In fact, it is usually far more useful to submit a carefully curated selection of your composing work, rather than everything that you’ve ever worked on. It is important to strike a delicate balance between submitting enough work that your talent and consistency are clearly demonstrated, but not so much that it overwhelms your intended audience.”

Are there any considerations regarding the format of our demo reel?  According to Matthew Marteinsson (sound designer at Klei Entertainment), a collection of music files may not be enough.  Illustration to support the discussion of video demo reels, from the article for video game composers by Winifred Phillips.“Have a video reel,” Marteinsson urges.  “We are a medium that is the marriage of video and audio.”  Marteinsson observes that when receiving an audio-only reel, he is left uncertain of the capabilities of the composer he’s evaluating.  “I know you can make cool sounds, but I don’t know if you can marry them to the right visuals, so have a video reel.”

How much music should be included in our demo reels?  According to Kevin Regamey (Creative Director of Power Up Audio), less is more.  “What you’re making here is a teaser trailer,” he points out.  For composer demo reels, Regamey suggests that a two minute time limit is a good rule of thumb.  “Most reels are usually too long,” he states.  “Keep in mind that you can always show longer things later on. Get them interested, and if they like your stuff they will listen to your things that are not in your main demo reel.”  Regamey goes on to point out that “you need to tailor your reel to its audience. Make sure you know who is getting this reel and what they want to see.”

Certainly it’s preferable to know what a prospective client is looking for, but how can we achieve this?  Ariel Gross (Founder of the Audio Mentoring Project), suggests that we decide what games or franchises we’d like to be working on, and then pursue that goal.  “Most of the time you don’t need to be an avid player of the specific game or franchise that you’re trying to work on, though it can be helpful,” Gross observes. “At the very least, you want to be well versed with the products. If you can’t play the game, go consume lots of gameplay videos on YouTube, read articles and reviews about the games, and look for interviews with the people that worked on it.”

Apart from how our music demo is constructed and targeted, timing may also be an essential consideration.  “You absolutely need to have a showreel or a demo. Also, you need to have it ready before you start contacting people,” advises Will Morton (Audio Director at Solid Audioworks).  “You An illustration accompanying the discussion of whether music demos should be offered on the famous CD and DVD formats, from the article for video game composers by Winifred Phillips (game music composer).don’t have to be carrying around a folder of CDs and DVDs with you all the time, you can have a Soundcloud account with MP3s ready to give people links to if you need to,” Morton suggests.  “It is easier than ever to have your work on-line and accessible from anywhere these days.”

Finally, Brian Schmidt (Founder and Executive Director of the GameSoundCon conference), suggests a novel approach.  “If you want to create a demo that will really create an impression, create a ‘MOD’ for a game. A MOD is a game where some component has been altered or changed. Taking a portion of a game and swapping in your own music or sound design is a great demo,” Schmidt observes.  “By creating an interactive demo (instead of just a bunch of mp3 files) you will stand out over 95 out of 100 other composers or sound designers.”

There seem to be numerous theories regarding what makes an effective demo reel, as well as many options for its format and content.  But if we’re unable to get it into the hands of a potential client, it won’t be of much use.  So let’s discuss how to build relationships that can open doors in the game development industry.

Effective Networking

Beyond having a strong music demo, we will also need to be able to make professional connections in the games industry, and that can be a bewildering task.  How to begin?  Perhaps the better question is Illustration depicting a university - accompanying the discussion of networking in the university setting - from the article by Winifred Phillips for video game composersnot how, but when.  “Your time at college is the ideal time to start networking,” advises Will Morton of Solid Audioworks.  “Make friends and work with people who are doing sound design. Make friends and work with people studying composition. Make friends and work with people on game development courses. Make friends and work with people studying TV or film production. Make friends and work with people studying any kind of performing arts. This will again help you build a better body of work to use in your showreel, and arguably more importantly gives you a network of people who may at some point ask you to be involved with a project they are working on.”

This opinion is echoed by Jason W. Bay (Owner and Editor of  “Attending an audio school will also help to kick start your career networking,” Bay says, “because as the people in your classes graduate and then start getting jobs all over the country or even the world, they’ll become your eyes and ears inside of those companies. And they can help you spot job openings and even help you get interviews whenever the opportunities arise.”  The benefits of cultivating a network of college friendships are invaluable, according to Bay.  “It helps you find out about job openings before they’re posted. It increases the chances of getting a job when people inside the company already know you and trust you, so it helps you get hired.”

The GDC logo, accompanying the discussion of networking at such famous game conferences, from the article for video game composers by Winifred Phillips (game music composer).However, not all of us attended colleges ripe with networking opportunities, and some of us began pursuing a game audio career many years after graduating college.  What then?  According to Bobby Prince (Owner of Bobby Prince Music), it’s possible to attain some of the same collegial relationships by attending educational conferences.  “Go to the GDC (Game Developer’s Conference),” Prince suggests. “You can hang out in the public section of the location for the GDC and watch for miracles. They happen every second. Another great place to hang out is the local after/during hours hangouts. Keep your eyes and ears open for an opportunity. You don’t have to force an opportunity — the best ones will come to you without effort from you.”

While such efforts may yield results, the chances are far better if we’re emotionally ready to sell ourselves to our fullest potential.  Confidence is key, according to Rocky Kev of Black Shell Media.  “Great game developers know they’re talented, and that confidence enhances their work. You can do the same with networking. Block out all the self doubt and act like you know what you’re doing. Fake it. You’ll be surprised how much it works.” Kev goes on to add that “powerful networkers approach conversations with curiosity, treating the speaker like they’re the most important person in the world.”

Our ability to connect with people and convey our confidence and enthusiasm can be an invaluable asset.  In my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, I discussed how our excitement for our work can intersect with the need to exude self-discipline and restraint when developing our professional network.

Video game composer Winifred Phillips' popular book, A Composer's Guide to Game Music (The MIT Press).“As composers, we feel passionately about our jobs.  This passion drives our daily workflow and inspires the creative decisions we make. Emotions such as this can be helpful to us when we’re meeting with possible clients, but only when well controlled through a disciplined and organized presentation.  Some of our prospective employers may appreciate raw enthusiasm, but this sort of eagerness also has the potential to scare some people off.  What we need is the ability to gracefully articulate our enthusiasm while at the same time impressing developers and publishers with our thorough professionalism.

“Unfortunately, this is a skill attained only through practice.  Those of us who are uncomfortable or fearful in such situations can look for opportunities to practice in a safe, consequence-free environment.  For instance, helpful friends may volunteer to be an audience for us, applauding our strengths and drawing our attention to areas needing improvement.”  A Composer’s Guide to Game Music, page 242.


Getting the first gig

Everyone’s ‘big break’ story is unique.  I’m frequently asked about my own entry into the video game development industry, and there has been particular curiosity about how I landed my first game composer job.  Since we’ve included the advice and insights of many other game audio professionals in the article, it seems right that I should also include my own “first job” story.  It’s a pretty unusual tale, and certainly isn’t the normal way that aspiring composers break into the business.  Nevertheless, it can be useful to consider how demo music preparation and networking skills helped me to get my start as a game composer.  With that in mind, I’ve included a video of a Society of Composers and Lyricists seminar, in which I tell my story of how I got my start as a game composer:


The List

Finally, here’s the full list of links to resources that may help a newcomer trying to break into the business.  Some of these links were the source of the quotes we discussed earlier in this article.  Please let me know what you think in the comments!

GDC 2018: Audio Bootcamp XVII: Reel Talk
by Matthew Marteinsson and Kevin Regamey,
(Subscription required for access)
Yet Another Game Audio Hiring Article
by Ariel Gross,
Preparing a Professional-Looking Portfolio – A Composer’s Guide
by Daniel Spreadbury,
The Game Audio Career
by Nathan Madsen,
How can I start my career in video game audio?
by Jason W. Bray,
Networking at a Game Convention Part 1: The Calm Before the Social Storm
by Rocky Kev, Black Shell Media
Make Some Noise! Getting a Job Creating Sound and Music for Videogames
by Will Morton,
How did you get your first job?
GameAudio Reddit Community Discussion
Finding a game industry job – networking and adding value
by Akash Thakkar, YouTube
Getting Started as a Video Game Composer
by Bobby Prince,
Where does an amateur composer find job, or is he heard?
Northern Sounds community discussion
How to Wrangle a Job Writing Music for Computer Games
by Lance Hayes, Andertons Music Co.
GDC 2011 Talks #1: Tips for Prospective Video Game Composers
by Laura Shigihara,
How to get a gig as a Game Music composer
by Brian Schmidt, Sound On Sound
How to be a video game music composer – Tips from the pros
by Sophia Tong,
Music in the Gaming Industry – Getting a Job as a Game Composer
by Nelson Everhart, Kingsisle Blog
I want to be a game composer community discussion
Game Developers and Music Composers – How do you network?
TIGForums community discussion

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 will be performed live by a top 80-piece orchestra and choir as part of the Assassin’s Creed Symphony World Tour, which kicks off in 2019 with its Los Angeles premiere at the famous Dolby Theatre. 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, LittleBigPlanet, Total War, God of War, and The Sims.  Phillips’ other notable projects include the triple-A first person shooter Homefront: The Revolution, and numerous virtual reality games, including Scraper: First Strike, Dragon Front, and many more.   She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the MIT Press. As a VR game music expert, she writes frequently on the future of music in virtual reality games. Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

Resources for Video Game Music Composers: The Big List

Video game music composer Winifred Phillips creating music in her video game music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey everybody!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips.  Every year, between working in my studio creating music for some awesome games, I like to take a little time to gather together some of the top online resources and guidance available for newbies in the field of video game music.  What follows in this article is an updated and expanded collection of links on a variety of topics pertinent to our profession.  We begin with the concert tours and events where we can get inspired by seeing game music performed live.  Then we’ll move on to a discussion of online communities that can help us out when we’re trying to solve a problem.  Next, we’ll see a collection of software tools that are commonplace in our field.  Finally, we’ll check out some conferences and academic organizations where we can absorb new ideas and skills.

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VR for the Game Music Composer: Audio for VR Platforms

In this article written for video game composers, Winifred Phillips (video game composer) is here pictured working in her music production studio on the music for the Scraper: First Strike game, developed for popular VR gaming platforms (PSVR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive).

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hello there!  I’m video game music composer Winifred Phillips.  Lately, I’ve been very busy in my production studio composing music for a lot of awesome virtual reality games, including the upcoming Scraper: First Strike first person VR shooter (pictured above) that’s coming out next Wednesday (November 21st) for the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and Windows Mixed Reality Devices, and will be released on December 18th for the Playstation VR.  My work on this project has definitely stoked my interest in everything VR!  Since the game will be released very soon, here’s a trailer video released by the developers Labrodex Studios, featuring some of the music I composed for the game:

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Video Game Music Composers: New VR Headphone Tech (2018)

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

In this article for and about the craft of video game composers, Winifred Phillips is pictured in this photo from her lecture on Virtual Reality given at the popular Game Developers Conference in 2018.Hey, everyone!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips, and my work has included the musical scores for top games on all sorts of popular gaming platforms, from handhelds and mobile, all the way up to the latest consoles and PCs.  Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of video game music composition for virtual reality.  I had the pleasure of presenting a lecture on Music in Virtual Reality (pictured left) at the most recent Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

My experience as a composer for VR includes many VR games, including the Scraper: First Strike shooter (set to be released for the PSVR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive in December 2018), and the recently released VR experience The Haunted Graveyard, which is now available on Steam and in VR Arcades around the world.  Since we’re in the Halloween season, and this VR experience is designed specifically for your Halloween pleasure, here’s a trailer that features my music from The Haunted Graveyard:

By virtue of all the experiences I’ve had recently creating music for VR, I’ve become keenly aware of the importance of sound fidelity in VR.  If the experience doesn’t sound real, it loses the chance to actually feel like a fully-convincing, thoroughly awesome virtual reality experience.  With that in mind, I’ve been writing periodic articles about new technologies in connection with headphones for VR.

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VR Headphones Update 2018: Video Game Music Composers

In this article written for video game composers, Winifred Phillips (composer of music for God of War) is here pictured working in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Glad you’re here!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips.  My work as a game music composer has included music for projects released on nearly all of the gaming platforms, from one of my most recent projects (a Homefront game released on all the latest consoles and PCs) to one of my earliest projects (a God of War game released on PlayStation 2, PlayStation 3, and PlayStation Vita, pictured above).  An image of the September 2018 cover of Music Connection Magazine featuring the article "Video Game Composers Speak!" - features interviews of famous game music composers, including popular game music composer Winifred Phillips.You can read about my work as a video game composer in an interview I gave to Music Connection Magazine for this month’s issue (pictured right).

Lately, I’ve also been creating lots of video game music for awesome virtual reality games developed for the Oculus Rift, Oculus Go, HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR, PlayStation VR, and lots of other top VR platforms.  One of the things I’ve noticed while working in VR is the immense importance of the audio delivery mechanism.

When audio is painstakingly spatialized, it becomes crucial to convey that carefully-crafted spatialization to the player with as little fidelity loss as possible.  With the importance of this issue in mind, for the past few years I’ve been periodically writing about headphones in relation to their use in virtual reality.

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Composing video game music for Virtual Reality: Comfort versus performance

In this article series for video game composers, Winifred Phillips is depicted in this photo working in her music production studio.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Delighted you’re here!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m happy to welcome you back to this four-part article series exploring the role of music in VR games! These articles are based on the presentation I gave at this year’s game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, entitled Music in Virtual Reality (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:

During my GDC presentation, I focused on three important questions for VR game music composers:

  • Do we compose our music in 3D or 2D?
  • Do we structure our music to be Diegetic or Non-Diegetic?
  • Do we focus our music on enhancing player Comfort or Performance?

In the course of exploring these questions during my GDC presentation, I discussed my work on four of my own VR game projects –the Bebylon: Battle Royale arena combat game from Kite & Lightning, the Dragon Front strategy game from High Voltage Software, the Fail Factory comedy game from Armature Studio, and the Scraper: First Strike shooter/RPG from Labrodex Inc.

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