As promised, here is some advice on how to break into the game industry as a composer. I decided to just post an interview I did a few years ago with Paul Taylor for the January 2006 issue of Computer Music magazine’s feature story “How to be a games musician”. It is a good overview on how at least one composer got his start (me) and has advice for others looking to get their start.
And now, the interview (questions by Paul Taylor, answers by yours truly):
1.) How did you get into composing music for indie games?
After graduating from grad school in 2000 I started looking around for permanent employment in game companies around the country. During my search I came across the GarageGames website and I recognized it as a place with great potential to help indie developers create some innovative and fun games. I visited the site regularly and noticed that one of the “GarageGames community” companies, 21-6 Productions, seemed to really have its act together so I contacted them. They enjoyed my demo CD and I started doing the music for their cooperative sci-fi FPS, Myrmidon. Since then, I’ve helped 21-6 with a number of games while continuing to peruse the GarageGames website looking for similarly dedicated and talented indie companies. GarageGames actually helped me make the decision to freelance rather than find a permanent job. I could do contract work for the commercial companies but I felt there would also be a booming indie scene, spurred on by GG support. And there has been, though a little slower than anticipated.
2.) What do you feel are the advantages of this kind of work?
There are two big advantages in doing indie game music. First, you may be given more leeway in your musical choices. As long as you create something good and something that you think should fit into the game and conduct yourself professionally, the developers will often at least give it a chance. Big budget games are nice in one way, in that you’ll get a paycheck, but can often have a constricting effect on your creativity. The corporate number crunchers often want everything to appeal to the broadest audience, including the music. I think some of the best soundtracks, like Grim Fandango, have been created when the producers have trusted the composer enough to do what he or she thinks is best. That trust comes from having familiarity with the composer, but can also come from the fact that an indie composer is willing to do some work for royalties or just for recognition or portfolio-building.
The second advantage is that you can have an influence on the game outside the music. As indies, the developers are very passionate about making their game fun. They’ll be willing to listen, especially if you’re an avid gamer. This creates a sense of camaraderie that really can’t be beat. Everyone’s in the same boat, trying to get the game done and fun.
3.) The disadvantages?
99% of the games being developed by indies will never be completed. You really have to look out for the indies that are in over their heads. That strategy/FPS Civilization/Doom 3 hybrid will probably never make it out of Billy’s parents’ basement (lovingly decorated with X-Files and Captain Janeway posters). Indies shouldn’t be trying to compete with the big boys. They can’t. But there are plenty of niches out there for indies to fill. Look for those innovative, simpler projects.
Also, the infectious indie enthusiasm that permeates the beginning of a project probably won’t last through the entire development cycle. As unexpected problems arise and the weeks pass by, the project can seem more like a chore, especially if you’re not getting paid for it up front. As much as you’d like to deny it, money is a powerfully motivating factor. The lack of it is noticeable. But the rewards of contributing to a fresh indie project are worth it.
4.) Are you receiving any payment for your work, and if not, would you consider doing it for nothing?
Most indie projects are going to be for royalties, which is ok. Again, you just have to pick the projects that have a good chance of being completed. When first starting out, though, look for projects that may not pay but that may get your name out there. Produce Panic was a free game but it had permission to use the Penny Arcade universe. I felt it had a good chance of getting me some exposure so I provided some tracks. At this point in my career, I can’t consider doing a game for nothing, however. My family and I have invested too much into my studio and myself to take less than what I deserve. I’m a modest guy so it’s hard to say something like that, but it’s the absolute truth.
5.) What do you feel that you can offer game music which somebody working for a commercial development team might not be able to provide?
There are some very talented composers working at commercial development teams full-time. But there are also many “buddies” of developers who have no business being full-time composers. That’s part of the reason game music has traditionally been laughed at. Thankfully, as we move away from MIDI and techno soundtracks, there is a growing demand for composers who can create memorable, original soundtracks that have some depth to them.
6.) Do you enjoy your indie status?
I love working with indies.You never know what kinds of games you’re going to find. And when there’s an original game, there’s going to have to be an original soundtrack. Look at Katamari Damacy. There’s some good stuff going on in that soundtrack. Originality breeds originality. I think indies appeal to me because I have a quirky style to my music which fits in with indie games.
7.) Would you consider moving to a higher-paid, more mainstream game composing job, or are you happy where you are?
I would consider it if I could continue to freelance. I like composing in many different genres and would like to keep creatively fresh by having many different projects available to work on. The stability of a permanent job with benefits is certainly alluring, however.
8.) What kind of kit and software do you use?
I use Nuendo and love it. I also use GigaStudio as my main sampler. Everything runs on my trusty old Pentium 4 1.5 GHz computer running Windows XP. Some of my favorite sample libraries are Project SAM brass, Dan Dean Woodwinds, the new RA and Colossus from East West/Quantum Leap, and of course my own Front Porch Banjo and Tuba. I am able to record in my studio and I prefer to record live instruments when possible, especially brass. There are subtle things that sample libraries just can’t do yet. I play tuba in a couple local orchestras, have played trombone since grade school, horn in college, and just started trumpet so I can record almost all the brass myself which lends a certain uniqueness to my orchestral sound.
9.) Has this kit helped/hindered you in the past?
Nuendo and GigaStudio are generally pretty stable. I’ve used ProTools a lot but I prefer Nuendo now. Nuendo is very friendly to use and very powerful. It certainly does everything I need it to do, though its MIDI could be better. I’ve been recording less live brass lately because the time involved doesn’t warrant its use. As a bit of a perfectionist, I’ll record maybe dozens of takes for each brass part. It can be tiring.
10.) What are your opinions about game music as a whole – what set of beliefs do you apply when you’re working on something?
Game music is starting to get good. The days of creating a quick techno loop are just about over. As production values increase, the quality of music must also rise. I love that budgets are now including money for live orchestras and that more care is being taken when selecting composers.
My main concern when composing is to keep my music original. If I think I’ve heard something before, then I want to redo it. If something is too simple, then I want to throw some “spice” into it, as one of my profs liked to say. I want there to be more than one layer to my music so you can hear something new when the piece inevitably loops. A common comment I get is that, “I liked it at first, but then I looped it and started to like it more and more.” That’s the key to good game music. No matter how good the music is, the player will eventually get tired of it. The goal is to make sure that happens after the level has ended.
11.) How do you feel game music should differ from film music?
Game music should have more kazoos and hemiolas than film music. Seriously, game music should be just as thematically coherent as film music, if not more so. You might not know when a piece is going to be played, but having a theme come back in a different mode or rhythm can have a huge emotional impact. As a player plays a game, he or she is really telling the story to him- or herself. The music must enrich that story. Keeping the music coherent is vitally important. There’s a lot to learn about that from film, and a lot to explore about that in games. Is the little snippet of theme you just heard a seed for or an echo from a fuller exploration of the theme? It’s got to function as both and you have to plan for both. I studied musical structure a lot in school so figuring these things out for games is great fun.