Creating Video Game Music

Discussion in 'Composition, Orchestration & Technique' started by Mike Enjo, Mar 12, 2019.

  1. Mike Enjo

    Mike Enjo New Member

    Feb 6, 2019
    Hi folks! This week I decided to get outside of my comfort zone and try writing some video game music. This kind of composition has some very specific requirements, and I really enjoyed having a go.

    If you are thinking about, or already write game music, I'd love to get your feedback, and hear about your music!

    Here's the video:
  2. Hi, I've been making game music professionally, full time, for 19 years. I have held lectures about composing music for video games at the Royal Academy of Music as well as at School of Audio Engineering in Stockholm. I'll just say those things so you can at assume I know what I'm talking about.

    They guy in the video you linked to has essentially made a trailer track that just matches how the video (which consists of cinematics from the game) is edited. There's nothing in what he does that has anything to do with what makes game music unique. He talks about melodies, counterpoint and instrumentation as if he had made certain choices within these areas because the music was supposed to be for a game.

    ^ Frankly, that doesn't make sense to me. The chords and harmonies that evoke certain emotions in, say, a movie score - will evoke the same emotions in a game score. Game music is no different from any other music in that regard.

    What makes game music unique is how it's implemented in their context: Because games are interactive (non-linear), the music can and must adapt to what's happening on screen. In other words, the music must - just like the game - be interactive and change depending on choices made by the player (or outside forces affecting the player's situation) from second to second as they play the game.

    The guy in the video you linked to had just composed and arranged a piece of music in his DAW. That is roughly 1/3 of the work required to make a proper piece of game music. He has done a fraction of the conceptual job (coming up with a style of music) and none of what we in the game development business call "technical composition" (or "music implementation").

    Technical composition is about coming up with the rules that will affect the music during gameplay, and making sure that the music is exported from the DAW and implemented in the game in such a way that the music can change according to those rules during gameplay with desirable speed while still retaining musicality.

    Here's a rough explanation of the work process:

    1. The concept stage: You consider the game - its style, setting, era, story, mood, general tempo, etc, and come up with a style of music and instrumentation that fits (just as you would if you scored a movie or TV show.) Then you decide what parameters in the game should affect the music, since this will affect how you approach the production in your DAW. Examples of parameters and how they can affect the music in a game would be: The amount of enemies currently targeting the player affects the music's intensity. The player's health level affects the sense of desperation in the music. How close the player is to being discovered when they're sneaking affects the level of suspense in the music, so on and so forth, you get the gist of it. Lastly, you decide what method you will use to allow the music to be adaptive. Basically there are two approaches: Horizontal and vertical. In the horizontal approach you have different full mixes of music representing different moods, and you switch between them (preferably when the one you're playing hits a downbeat) to adapt to what's happening on screen. In the vertical approach you have exported the music in arbitrary stems/submixes and play those stems simultaneously during gameplay, and this allows you to fade out/in different layers in the music depending on what happens in the game. There are more methods, combinations of these methods and even the ability to utilize MIDI and quite nice-sounding MIDI instruments during gameplay, but the horizontal and vertical methods are the basics. This entire "concept stage" is then written down in what's called a music design document. This document should explain the method(s) used to make the music adaptive, stingers used for different recurring game events (the player being discovered by enemies, the player being killed, the player reaching the end of a level, etc.) and also list how many tracks are in the game (one for each level maybe, or one for each geographical area in an open world game.)
    2. The production stage: You compose/produce the music and export the loops (different loops if you're going with the horizontal approach, in stems/submixes if you're going with the vertical approach.) It's very important to have a good naming convention for the files, because in a larger game project you will end up with hundreds of - maybe close to a thousand - different files. Stems, stingers, transition segments... It gets complex. The file names in a project utilizing the horizontal approach should indicate what a game scenario the loop is meant for, and perhaps the key and tempo of the music. For the vertical approach the file names should indicate what song they're part of (so that all stems for a particular song are easily located), what instrument group the submix contains, and perhaps key and tempo as well.
    3. The implementation stage: You take all these loops/stems and put them in the game engine, or even better: In a 3rd party game engine extension that is designed specifically for music implementation (Wwise, Elias and Fmod come to mind.) You set the rules of the "adaptiveness" of the music by, for example, creating a parameter for the game's "suspense level" and making so that when the value increases, the stem with the suspenseful strings increases in volume. You can also decide transitions rules such as "transitions can only happen at the end of each bar" (this would sound more musical but be less agile, i.e. react slower to what happens in the game) or "transitions can happen on every beat" (more agile but can come across as too abrupt and "unmusical".) THen you can also have the engine trigger stingers/fills and/or entire transition segments when it changes between loops (or when a layer in the vertical method is coming in or out of the mix) to make things sound smoother and more musical. Finally, you collaborate with the gameplay programmers who can connect your music parameters with the actual game functions (enemy numbers, player health, number of goals scored against the opposing team, what have you) - so that, to use that previous example; when the player is close to being discovered, that "suspense level" parameter actually increases and subsequently those suspenseful strings creep into the mix.
    So there's a lot more to it than to just look at game footage and writing some music in your DAW that matches that footage. On top of the creative challenge of producing the music itself, making music for games is a technical challenge - and that's a big part of the appeal! It's very rewarding to play the game with the music you've created - properly implemented - and experience how it successfully adapts to whatever happens on screen.

    If you want to learn how to make game music, maybe there is some good online courses at Udemy or something. I can't recommend any of them because I haven't taken part in them, but I assume you can trust the reviews/ratings.

    You could also download Wwise and play around with it (the free version has some limitations but you'll be able to learn how it works.) Wwise has a YouTube channel where they explain how the music implementation part of Wwise works (Wwise is used to implement sound effects, dialog and controller rumble (force feedback) as well.)

    Wwise lesson 201-01 Preparing and Importing Music Segments
    Wwise lesson 201-02 Resequencing with Music Playlist Containers
    Wwise lesson 201-03 Using a Layered Approach with Sub tracks
    Wwise lesson 201-04 Using Switch Sub tracks
    Wwise lesson 201-05 Editing Music Segments
    Wwise lesson 201-06 Using the Music Switch Container Association Editor
    Wwise lesson 201-07 Using Music Transitions Part 1
    Wwise lesson 201-08 Using Music Transitions Part 2
    Wwise lesson 201-09 Implementing Stingers

    As an elternative to Wwise, I recommend Elias which you can also download and play around with (with some limitations). Elias is dedicated to music implementation and won't distract you with any sound effect or dialog functions.

    Elias Tutorials

    If you got any questions, feel free to ask them here in this thread, I'd be happy to answer them.

    Ps. Game development also has that boring technical side to it where you have to mind harddrive access speed (streaming bandwidth), RAM memory of the end user, different compressions for different platforms, etc. You can't store all data in the RAM of the user, so you stream many assets from the harddrive (such as music, long sound effects like ambient loops, graphic textures and so on) and if too many things try to stream at once you get into trouble like stream starvation/chugging. Things you never have to care aobut when you make music for movies/TV.

    Last edited: Mar 16, 2019 at 2:14 AM
  3. Brueland

    Brueland New Member

    Jul 14, 2018
    Oslo, Norway
    Thank you Simon! I am just getting into game scoring and implementation after attending Global Game Jam in Oslo earlier this winter. This detailed overview you just wrote is now saved for future reference.
    SimonViklund likes this.
  4. Are you from Norway? I'll actually be holding lectures about game music in Steinkjer in about three weeks. I know Oslo and Steinkjer are far apart, but it's still Norway so it felt like the world - as so many times before - proved just how small it is.
  5. Brueland

    Brueland New Member

    Jul 14, 2018
    Oslo, Norway
    Jepp, jeg er norsk! Var nylig i Stockholm i forbindelse med jobben faktisk.

    That's pretty cool, and I did not know about &Action. It's only an hour flight, but unfortunately it crashes with events from my current day day job.

    Do you know if the lectures will be recorded? I could easily come to Stockholm or elsewhere for something similar in the future if the dates align.

    Currently I'm working on an electronic artist project, multiple orchestral "mockup" scores for showcasing, and the iOS game that we started at the Global Game Jam. I see how valuable networking and human interactions are too, instead of just staying comfortable behind your e-mail address - I would never as a child believe I'd meet and have conversations with people from Funcom and DICE who worked on the games I loved.
  6. The lectures I'll be holding at &Action are aimed towards game designers (since that university have game design students and no game composers.) It will be about how composers like their collaborations with game developers to work, so that teh game designers can learn to "handle" composers. So I don't think you'll be missing anything.

    Yeah networking is important, but to paraphrase Daniel James; it's more about actually befriending people than to just have a stack of business cards and email addresses. I'd add that it's more important to connect with people who would need your services (game producers/designers/development decision makers) than your competitors (i.e. other comosers). Of course, other composers can be a valuable asset too as they can teach you things, and maybe once in a blue moon recommend you for a job they have been offered but can't take - but you know what I mean.

    I'll keep an eye out for lectures on game music that you could attend and try to remember to ping you about it if I find anything! Good luck with all your ongoing projects!
    Brueland likes this.
  7. Yeah, this is a really strange video. 'Video game music' is music written for videogames. From what I can see, this guy is not writing music for videogames. He's found a cutscene/trailer and is writing some music with that in the background.
    There's very little time spent on stems, modularity, randomisation or synchronisation, any middleware like wwise or fmod, or implementation like Unreal or Unity. Nothing in this video tells us about writing music for videogames.

    (also a videogame composer here)
    MartinH., Brueland and SimonViklund like this.
  8. Brueland

    Brueland New Member

    Jul 14, 2018
    Oslo, Norway
    This chat is a little off-topic, but thank you very much!

    Yeah, that's what I see too regarding the befriending. At the Global Game Jam us composers were in a minority to the devs and designers, which led to us being asked to help with both sound design and music - which was great. However, in the real world - being competent in implementing would probably benefit a lot more.

    I would also be interested in assisting other composers, maybe for free just to get experience and wisdom in the field or to reduce some of their load. It could be as small as a footstep sound. That could potentially be where opportunities arise. Feel free to holla at me if any fellow Scandinavians need assistance, as I'm in need of a mentor.

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