There is a growing opportunity to expand your services as a composer for games. Music design and implementation doesn’t have to be something someone else does way over there that you’re not involved with. It can be a way to offer more value to your clients, and differentiate your music team from the competition, all while gaining greater influence over how your music sounds and is heard in the final product: the soundtrack the game!
Since going freelance a short time ago, my clients have taken a keen interest in my experience as a designer of music systems. Granted, this is an area of specialty I’ve developed over the past two decades, but my sense is that many developers would welcome composition teams that handle more than asset creation. I now include separate line items on bids for music design and music integration. I encourage other composition teams to begin offering these services as well (a rising tide floats all boats, after all). This will add new opportunities for music professionals, and—perhaps more importantly—it will improve the gaming experiences we write music for.
Part 1: Some Definitions
Dynamic Storytelling and Dynamic Media
Dynamic storytelling and the more generic term Dynamic Media are terms used in this article to encompass emerging digital entertainment experiences that defy the ‘game’ moniker. The game industry and Hollywood have both taken a keen interest in virtual and mixed reality, combining game design methods with narrative mechanics, experimenting and vying to create the next entertainment breakthroughs. Markets and demographics are expanding in several directions at once, and these new mediums (VR/MR) along with their experiences will include deeper levels of immersion and elicit a larger range and greater subtlety of emotion.
All this begs the question: What does the ongoing evolution of digital entertainment mean for the evolution of composing music for these experiences? I will go out on a limb and say this: traditional linear music scoring techniques alone will not cut it in a future where story experiences are also dynamic; include multiple perspectives, varying story threads, indeterminate timelines, and choice and participation of the player.
Music Design: The Where, When, and How
The creative act of deciding where, when, and how music should play in a game is so overlooked, there’s not even a formal industry title for it. We sometimes refer to the awkward title music implementation, but that usually implies the technical work of setting up music in a game audio engine, and assumes all the creative decisions regarding the where, when, and how are already complete, leaving only mechanical production work to be done.
For this article, and for my business as a freelance composer, I’m using the term music design to describe this process, and the title music designer to describe the person who, in collaboration with the game design/development team, decides where, when, and how music will be set up and played back during gameplay. The outcome is a music design plan outlining the creative and technical roadmap for the music production team.
A Spotting Session for Dynamic Storytelling and Games
Spotting session is a term used in film/television whereby music cues and their entries, durations, and transitions/exits are determined. The where, when, and how for linear media. This term is directly applicable to dynamic storytelling, although the process differs to account for variable gameplay, branching storylines, and indeterminate timings.
For dynamic media, a spotting session begins by familiarizing yourself with the game experience at hand, playing early builds, attending brainstorming sessions with the director/game designer and audio director, and reading design docs (if they exist), just as a film composer may collaborate with the director and look at early edits. This is the first step of the music design process.
All Game Music is Adaptive Music
Adaptive music doesn’t necessarily imply complex music systems. Most of my favorite game scores feature elegant yet remarkably simple music designs. It’s a spectrum, a matter of degree, rather than an either-or. Even a series of long crossfading music loops are adapting to game calls. I bring this up due to a common misunderstanding that the term adaptive music is reserved for special case complex interactive music systems. So, it’s important to point out that game mechanics and player actions significantly influence the playback of your music within any game. All game music is adaptive music.
Part 2: Where Are We Today?
Who Are Today’s Music Designers?
In the most successful cases, music design tends to be done by in-house composers or music supervisors at major publishing studios, and on occasion freelance composers with a long term close relationship with a development studio. A few game studios now have in-house music implementers. But for most games, these crucial musical decisions are made by people with little or no professional music experience, such as game designers, producers, or programmers. Audio directors often have a hand in this too, but given the breadth of their responsibility (management, sound design, dialogue, music, audio testing, outsourcing…), music design often gets minimal mind-share.
This has led to what I see as a rut in scoring music for games and perpetuates a great divide between game composers and the media their music is trying to support. By the time most freelance composers are brought onto a project, the music design is complete and the composer fulfills a predetermined list of music cues, often with only screenshots and video captures as reference, never experiencing the game itself.
The Elephant in the Room
The truth of the matter is, many working game composers are OK with this arrangement, leaving the music design and integration elements to others. And in today’s industry this often makes sense in terms of production efficiency and professional advancement. Composers can stay focused on developing the skills they’ve already acquired from linear media, creating a set of musical cues for the game without the bounds of scoring to picture, and in the process come away with a beautiful soundtrack. And this, in turn, acts as a great demo for more game work or potential film/tv work. Understandably, professional composers are looking for work across all media, linear or non-linear, and acquiring skills specific to dynamic storytelling may seem like a distraction from their overarching career goals.
But this disconnect between composers and the mediums they’re composing for does have consequences. With many notable exceptions notwithstanding, game music often ends up poorly integrated, leading players to tire of the score and turn it off entirely (even when the music itself is exceptional!). Meanwhile, the craft of scoring music to picture in games has progressed at a snail’s pace when compared to staggering improvements in real-time graphics fidelity, detailed game design systems, and greater emotional nuance in dynamic storytelling.
Ask yourself this: when the director of that VR project you landed has ideas about how the music should move from cue to cue, will you be able to have a knowledgeable discussion with her? Will you need to pass that aspect of the work to another music production house? As a game composer vying for your next game gig, what tangible edge do you have over an established film composer? If you’re fulfilling music asset lists, then not much, other than the client relationships you’ve already cultivated.
Part 3: Music Design as Integral to the Compositional Process
The Music Production Team
We all have specialties, and no one can do it all, thus we may hire an orchestrator, lyricist, conductor, mixer, etc. to fill out our music production team. We choose our collaborators carefully, cultivating long term relationships, so that each step of our music’s journey is handled with care and sounds its best in the final product.
So why do we, as composers, give such short shrift to music design and integration? Would you hand your music to a client to be orchestrated by a programmer you never met and who had no professional music experience? Blindly accepting your client’s integration strategy not only does your music a disservice, it robs that client of your ear for musical context. Even if your technical understanding of music integration is limited, having your ear on the game would be welcomed enthusiastically by most clients.
There are two approaches you can use to add these abilities to your arsenal. Learn and develop some of these creative and technical skills yourself and/or seek out talented collaborators to team up with. Multiple roles can be taken on by one or more people, just as your orchestrator may also be your conductor.
A Breakdown of Music Design and Implementation Roles
- Creative consulting: creating a detailed design describing the where, when, and how of the music playback as described above. This is about applying your ear and your imagination. Don’t be limited or intimidated by existing ‘adaptive music techniques’ or textbook definitions.
Collaboration with the design director and audio team
- Technical consulting: establishing a practical production plan based on the creative design. This includes determining what music assets are needed and how they will be implemented. Also, deciding what tools will best suit the design, as well as estimating the technical specifications of the music system, such as memory footprint, loading strategy, RAM use, CPU use, etc.
Collaboration with the technical director, programmers, and audio team
- Music assets are imported into the audio engine and setup/arranged for playback in this non-linear DAW environment, as described in the music design.
- Collaboration with game designers and programmers to setup ‘game hooks’ (connections between the audio/music engine and game engine)
- Commercial audio/music engines for games include Wwise by Audiokinetic, Elias by Elias Software, and FMOD by Firelight Technologies, plus the built-in audio functionality of the Unity and Unreal game engines.
Your music’s journey doesn’t end with music implementation. It needs to be connected to specific game elements and mechanics. But this can be done effectively via good communication with those doing the work described here.
- Game Editor Work: Creating ties between the game engine, i.e. Unity or Unreal, and the audio engine.
- Music Scripting: Adding logic processes to the music, if needed, without needing to ‘hard-code’ them.
- Audio Programming: In modern game production using a commercial game engine such as Unity or Unreal, audio programming can ideally be kept to a minimum, but is still very necessary.
You don’t have to offer the entire menu, of course. Even collaborating on the music design is a huge step. The key is to approach these offerings in a way that makes life easier for your client and the development team. Take production work off their plate. Make less work for them, not more, all while making the game better.
Part 4: Getting the Work and Making the Money
Getting the Work
Starting with established clients may be a good way to begin offering these new services. If you already have the composing gig, inquire about their music integration plan and if they’d like some help. Start small and work from there.
For new/potential clients, offer music design and/or implementation as options, as line-items in a bid. They may not go for it the first time, but seeing these items on a bid sheet helps to instill these roles as industry norms. They may take you up on it a few bids down the line.
If you’re a young composer new to the business, bringing these skills to an established composer may help you both land game gigs. Likewise, established composers can look for these skills in their composer assistant and intern applications.
All this does take selling, however; and having effective demos, such as past game work or Wwise proof of concepts, is the best method of convincing clients. Hearing is believing.
How and What to Charge
There is no precedent for what to charge for music design or implementation. And it scales based on your experience, plus the scope and budget of the project at hand. Thus far, I’m finding that a week-rate or day-rate listed as separate line-items is a good method. A flat music design fee could also work well to keep costs predictable for the client. Another approach would be to have one fee that includes music design and composition. But in that case, I’d be sure to list both roles, so the client is aware that you’re doing more.
To be sure, this new area of opportunity won’t be automatic or easy. Bags of gold aren’t just sitting out for the taking; we’re still prospecting here. It’s not a smooth open roadway. It’s more like a narrow path through the woods; inroads need to be made, and norms need to be set. Frankly, it’s still a time for early adopters, the innovators and adventurers. The business risk is real. But the risk of sticking with the status quo may be riskier in the long run.