A couple of months ago I wrote some tips about for game developers on how to talk to their composers. I thought it was about time to give some tips to the composers out there on how to talk to your designers and producers. These tips come from observations I’ve made over the course of my career as I’ve communicated with many different developers.
First, before getting into the important discussions about the music direction, get as much info as you can about the game. Read any design documents, look at any art assets, or play the game or prototype if it’s that far along. Then take a step back and think about what you think would be the best kind of music for the game. And then also consider a couple alternatives to that. Don’t get too excited about your music direction, though, as the developers may have something else entirely in mind. Then file that away for the time being.
When you finally sit down to talk with the producer or designer who’s making the calls on the music, just listen and carefully consider their vision for the music. You already have your direction in mind, but the developers will probably have insights into the game that you were not able to consider. Even if their direction sounds really bad at the outset, just take a little bit of time and give them a fair hearing. They have the best interests of the game in mind, as well as a good overall vision of the game, so their idea is probably going to be alright, if not absolutely suitable.
They will probably ask for your thoughts on the music direction at some point. That’s when you can compare your vision to theirs. Chances are some concepts will line up. Concentrate on those. If there are significant differences between your visions, go ahead and lay out your best argument for your approach to the music. They may have considered your approach already and decided to abandon it. Hearing those reasons will probably enlighten you to aspects of the game you hadn’t seen or been privy to.
A good developer will seriously consider your approach if it is new to them. You do, after all, make your living doing music for games and have significant experience in the industry that is of value to them. As long as your vision for the music is well thought out, well explained, and appropriate for the game, they will give you a fair hearing. When explaining your vision, keep in mind that developers have widely varying experience with music. I’ve dealt with anyone from tone-deaf musical illiterates to accomplished instrumentalists. Generally, the more experience a developer has with music the more they will be willing to listen to you. And that’s fairly counter-intuitive. I think the reason for this is because musicians get used to working with other people. An orchestra or band is composed of different people all working toward the same goal of making the best music possible. Musicians understand teamwork whether making music, making games, or making music for games.
So keep their musical experience in mind when discussing the music direction. You won’t always approach the music direction the same way when the discussion first starts, but it’s important to fully understand each other’s approach. If you don’t understand where the developer is coming from, be sure and ask questions. Trust that they’ve put some thought into it. Get as detailed a description as you can. To come to a music direction you can both be excited about, it’s important to communicate clearly. Get as technical as you can, depending on how much detail they are able to provide.
The best way to describe your visions to each other is to use examples. Look at other games, movies, and pieces of music and say what aspects apply to your vision. A developer of any musical skill level will be able to understand you better when you pick appropriate examples. If they have no examples to provide to you, then provide some for them and ask if those examples are what they were thinking. They can then confirm or look to give you other examples. Examples are very important for successful communication between composer and developer.
So, all of this advice is assuming your producer or developer is willing to listen to you and use your experience to help make a great soundtrack. What if they are stubborn and refuse to budge from their vision of a Britney Spears-inspired soundtrack for their giant monster turn-based strategy game? Well, you’ll sometimes just have to shut your mouth and do what they want, nonsensical as it may sound. The reality is that they’ve decided to hire you because they think you can do what they want. And, of course you can, even if what they want is truly awful. So at that point, just do the work and await your paycheck. Be prepared for some bad sound/music reviews because of poor music direction, but take heart knowing you were under orders.
But those kinds of developers are fairly rare. If you go in with a willingness to cooperate, chances are you will all come up with a music direction that will best fit the game and make you all proud to have been a part of it.
This post is dedicated to the many fine game developers out there who may not be sure whether or not they’ve been communicating “correctly” with composers in order to achieve the best soundtrack possible. It was inspired somewhat by my own dealings in the industry (which have almost all been great) and also inspired by watching our dog and cat try to figure out each other’s weird forms of communication. Cats are not receptive to play bows.
If the sum total of your musical experience are those miserable 3 months of piano lessons your parents forced you to take when you were 7 years old, you may be hesitant to talk to a composer about the soundtrack of your game. You may have a good idea about what you want, but you could be unsure about discussing music with someone who makes their living doing music. You’re sure to look like a fool talking with someone who possesses so much more musical knowledge than you, right?
Well, here’s a little secret about most composers. They BS like crazy. You see, there are no absolutes in music. Music can’t say “tree” or “scarf” or “flaming tarantula”. It’s an incredibly abstract art. It’s a great way to communicate feelings or moods but a horrible way to communicate information. So when someone claims to know exactly what a composer is saying with a text-less piece of music, you can be sure they are practicing the timeless art of BS. Sure, it’s fun to talk about music and attribute all sorts of deeply meaningful high-falutin’ concepts to it, but in the end all the discussion can not possibly mean squat. The only thing that means squat is what the music says to an individual.
Now with that mind, you should feel easier talking to a composer about your soundtrack. Takes the pressure off knowing that there is in fact no right and wrong in music, eh? Tell them what feeling you want the music to evoke. Tell them how fast or slow you’d like it. Describe anything you feel will help bring the musical vision in your head into light. Talking to the composer is important, but there’s another thing you should do to really help communicate your needs for the soundtrack:
Show the composer pieces of music that you think are appropriate for the game, or pieces that at least have some aspect that you would like to hear in your game. Don’t worry about plagiarism. Any composer worth his or her salt will give you something fresh and new that uses the aspects you like from the other pieces, but in no way steals those specific aspects. Browse Amazon and send links to their demos. Upload an MP3 of a piece that you think captures your needs. Pictures are worth 1000 words. Music is the same way.
Let me go back a second to clarify my “there is no right and wrong in music” statement from above. That statement only applies to the overall conceptual ideas contained in the music. One person’s reminiscent feeling may be another’s foreboding feeling. Neither is right, neither is wrong. However, when discussing music theory and using musical terminology, there is indeed a right and wrong. You can’t say something is in a major key when it is in a minor key, for instance. And that bring me to my next point:
A little musical knowledge can be dangerous. If you tell the composer you want the tempo to be “andante” but you actually want “presto”, you may be sabotaging the soundtrack from the beginning. You would never tell a visual artist that you want an “azul” color when what you actually want is brown, right? If you’re not sure about your musical terminology, just use plain old simple English. We understand that just as well, if not better than, the silly (mostly Italian) words we’ve come up with to describe the various parts of music making.
And finally, part of talking to anyone is listening to them as well. Do go into the soundtrack discussion with an open mind. Composers have made it their life’s work to create and listen to soundtracks. We may have an idea or two that is worth considering. Before giving them your ideas about the soundtrack, give them all the information you can about the game (art, story, maybe a prototype) and ask them to come up with their own vision for the game. We enjoy that sort of thing. And we may come at the soundtrack from a different angle than you do, which you may actually find very appealing.
Or not. Keep in mind, the composer is there to make the soundtrack you want. It’s got to be true to the overall vision for the game. If they come up with something wonderful, by all means use it. But you, having lived with the game for far longer than they have, should be quite secure letting them know what you want. Don’t worry about being looked down upon. If that happens, you can be sure that composer is probably very insecure and they’re artificially inflating their security by belittling you. Music isn’t about security. The good ones know that and are happy to take each game’s unique musical journey with you.