Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Interview Questions

"Transcript" of Interview for Unchartered Sounds


Hey Dave,

I wanted to concentrate on article on you on the video gaming industry. I would love for you to enlighten our readers of how the music composition is so big in the video game medium...Can you please answer the following questions for me and then I would like come visit the studios for so I can shoot photos for this article if possible with you working with your equipment. I hoping you are in the GTA. Anyways, the questions goes as follows...

1. In a nutshell, how does composing music for video games differ from composing music for other mediums of media?
I have composed for film, TV and video games - a lot of it is the same - you've got to develop themes for characters/places, adapt music for different moods and situations, lock music to specific on-screen action, and be able to craft your music in a lot of different genres.

There are a couple of key elements that are different:

The first is sequencing and predictability, or rather I should say 'unpredictability'. Video games typically follow scripts in terms of what the player is to experience throughout the game, but it's more of a broad brush stroke script when compared to film/TV. On top of that, the pacing, sequencing and action are all unpredictable. With traditional media, you have frame-accurate, perfectly predictable picture to compose to - everything is locked and you compose a specific piece to fit.

In video games, you have no idea what the player is going to be doing at any specific point in time during the playing of the game. Of course, a lot of games make use of strictly scripted story elements where the player just watches and that's exactly like writing for other media.

What you'll see in video game scores is music that repeats in a loop - typically a long loop (2-5 minutes) so that the soundtrack doesn't get too monotonous for the player. The challenge comes in writing the music so that when a key point is reached that requires a shift in the music, (like when the player just went into the room with the level boss, starts to get attacked, etc...) new music or other elements can be introduced as seamlessly as possible. You don't know when this is going to happen in the piece. It's not like you can ask the player to wait to take that jump across a chasm on the downbeat of the next bar, so you have to make sure that your music can "react" to different unpredictable elements in a game either through cross-fades, inserting "stingers" or other transitional elements that will smooth out the transition from one music pace to another and provide a dynamic underscore to the gameplay.

The second big thing is technical limitations. Depending upon what platform the game is being developed for, you may be restricted to certain sound sets, polyphony and file size. It's not as bad as the early days of the original Nintendo systems, where you had only 3 voices, possibly a noise track for percussion and file sizes measured in kilobytes (100's if you were lucky), but even with more powerful machines, keeping the size of the total package to a manageable and efficient one is always a consideration for performance and memory space reasons.


2. What kind of background or If I can say resume do these types of composers have?

Composers for media come from all walks of life. There are working musicians, songwriters, classical composers, producers, engineers - you name it, there's someone with that background. I, for one, used to manage a team of technical project managers before I got into this full-time. Mind you, I had a long musical background before that, but for 10 years, music was not at all my bread and butter.

There are schools and such that are out there these days that focus on composing for media, but there's no real formal prerequisite course of study to get into this. Like composing for other media, it all comes down to what you've done and how well you've done it - getting into the community, doing a great job and getting experience the "old way" is just as credible as any other path - there's no "preferred" way to get into this industry. A suggestion for up and coming composers is to do your research on the tools and techniques - try things out, get to know how to work efficiently in your studio. Hook up with some young, up and coming producers and cut your teeth on some pro-bono work - get a feel for interacting with the community.

It is possible to specialize in one specific genre of music and be successful, but you're typically going to want to be able to offer the ability to write and produce music in a wide variety of styles. Having a healthy appetite for diverse styles of music definitely helps - understanding and being fluent in those styles will go a long way. One thing I have to say here is that you'll be surprised at what you can compose - never turn down an opportunity to score something that's out of your comfort zone.

Lastly, I find that less than fifty percent of my time is spent actually writing music - I wear a lot of different hats throughout the day. Some of them are music-related: arranger, orchestrator, producer, engineer, etc. and some of them are business related: marketing, technical support, client management, contract negotiation, billing... You've got to be prepared to handle all aspects of your career. As budgets get leaner for the vast majority of music in media, a lot of composers don't really have the luxury of delegating many, if any, tasks that need to be done in a composing career. The more you can handle yourself (arranging, recording, orchestrating, sound engineering, mastering, etc.) the better.

You're running a business and need to remember that although you are an artist, you are first and foremost working for someone else. Pleasing the customer will keep you working. Getting "cred" in this industry doesn't come from formal training, it comes from doing a great job for your customers and building your credit list.

3. Why is it difficult to be composing music for this type of medium or why is it a hard field to break into?

It's definitely a sexy industry to break into, but the difficulty comes down to one thing: competition. Compared to the number of titles coming out of film-makers and videographers out there, you've got a hand-full of potential video game titles being developed all being sought after by virtually the same pool of composers.

Yes, there are composers who specialize in video-game music and ones that specialize in film/TV, but there are so many similarities between the composing methods, that you've got a significant overlap in the two "camps".

There's no one place to go and drop off your resume, it's all a relationship-based industry. You've got to be able to get out and meet people in the industry, make those contacts and develop them. The reality is that there are a few number of video game developers probably getting a pile of demo-discs each day. It's not impossible to break into, but it takes a lot of time and effort.

Music is a commodity in all these industries. For all the work you put into a piece, there are probably dozens of other composers out there who could mimic your work and undercut your price at the same time. Unless you make those person-to-person contacts and develop those relationships, you're not going to be differentiated from the rest of the "pack".


4. Are composers getting a lot more attention in this industry?

They definitely are! Composing music for video games has come a long way since Koji Kondo wrote the Mario themes for the original Nintendo systems. Composers for games aren't getting the same attention as film/TV composers, but they're definitely coming into the spotlight - look at "Video Games Live" (http://www.videogameslive.com/): a live orchestral multi-media tour headlining music for video games.

Music is definitely getting bigger and bigger slices of the budget on video games. Since the days of Hitman, live orchestra recordings are becoming more and more common. They're not as popular as they are in Japan, but stand-alone video game soundtracks are now starting to be in demand in North America. The music is not just an afterthought to video games these days - as the games' stories are becoming more involved and immersive, they're requiring a vehicle in which to better communicate and suggest emotion like TV and film - that's where music becomes integral to the gameplay.


5. Can you explain the process of how a composer makes music for a video game?

It's very similar to film and TV. However, with video game development, the composer usually comes into play earlier on in the process. For film and TV, composing music is one of the last creative steps in the process. In video game production, the composer is usually brought in somewhere between the end of the design and middle of development process.

There's coding and development work that has to be incorporated in the game to handle music, so unlike film and TV, you won't get a "locked edit" to work with - you're expected to be able to go with the flow of inevitable changes that are all part of the software development cycle.

The process is much more iterative than other media. You're brought in with the producer to "spot" the game - either to storyboards, demo proofs of concept, or partially developed segments of the game. You're given a copy of the storyboard or script and you work with the producer to determine where and what kind of music happens where and when in the game. You then develop themes, place them to different emotional settings, genres, tempos, etc. and review with the producer. Upon acceptance of basic themes and directions, you then go through the software testing, development and acceptance process. The producer of the video game may have qualitative or quantitative/technical direction for each iteration. Depending on the complexity of the game development this may take a few or a lot of iterations. In the end, you're a part of the development team and need to pull your weight to meet schedule dependencies.


6. How long can it take to make a score for one video game?

It can take a matter of weeks to months. A few big variables come into play: the amount of music required (some video games like Elder Scrolls have over 1.5 hours of music), the complexity of the music / video game interaction, the experience of the producer / development team and the overall development schedule.


7. What are some of the best compositions you have heard for a video game?

Oh wow, I think the first one that blew me away was the original Myst - the gameplay itself was unique in its' time, but there was also an obvious focus on music and sound in the game that enhanced the play. Some of the other titles I've played and have noticed the music have been Hitman, Medal of Honor, StarCraft, Half Life, oh, the list can go on...

It's funny that now recently, music has come to be the central part of games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band. Although the experience of playing the controllers that come with those games is not like the real thing, they're a heck of a lot of fun to play and do promote a few musical skills such as active listening and rhythm.


8. Is it necessary to have an expensive studio to compose music for the video game genre or is there a quota that is to be achieved to do this.

No, not at all! The technical barriers to starting to produce music have come WAY down in the past years. There's still a gap in quality with what you can produce in your bedroom versus in a professional setup, but that's getting smaller every day.

You can do some really decent stuff with just a laptop, a two octave keyboard and some headphones these days. There are a number of bundled or even free/open-source tools out there that can be used to get started and/or even produce great finished results! If you've got a new Mac, you've got GarageBand with a whole slew of loops and instruments to use. On the PC, you've got apps like Reaper and the like that are VERY cheap and packed with a lot of functionality. These'll definitely get you off the ground and running with a basic setup.

Of course, having the tools and knowing how to use them are two different things, but again, there are a TON of free and inexpensive resources (Podcasts, Forums, User Groups, tutorials, books, etc.) out there to help you get acquainted with and get around the ropes.

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