No, this isn’t about the book by John Cage (and if you get that reference, nice job!). It’s about the importance of silence in your game. When people think about game music, they usually think back to something along the lines of the Super Mario Bros loop. It’s a great tune, instantly recognizable, and almost never gets old thanks to enough variation.
Music implementation, especially in boxed games, has gotten a lot more sophisticated since then. With CD-ROM and DVD games, you can have a lot more music in your game. So music gets stale at a much slower pace. However, the colossal casual games market is plagued by generally less sophisticated music implementation. It hasn’t really progressed much past the old Super Mario Bros style of loop, loop, loop, win music.
Of course download size is the limiting factor here. As broadband internet spreads and gets faster, this will be less of a hindrance to providing good music in your game, but what to do until then? Well, beef up your music system! Don’t just do loops. With the limited megabytes you have to play with, loops will still be integral. But consider going a little further and adding things like layers and starts/endings.
For an example, here is something we did in Solitaire Pop. Have a basic loop consisting of just drums and harmony. Then have a layer that can fit right on top of that that spices things up. It could add a melody or extra rhythms to make things more interesting. Also, have a short piece ready that can plug right into the end of the loop that can end the music. Then have a similar short piece that can start the loop up again. Then you have many more sonic possibilities without that much more compositional work, though it does create a little more work for the programmers in order to implement such a system. Make the layers and starts and stops all happen randomly. For a casual game, that’s usually good enough. But you can go deeper and incorporate another idea from Solitaire Pop. We also had a “danger” layer that could play over the loop when things started looking bad for the player. The possibilities are endless! You just have to make them happen.
But back to the topic of silence, it’s amazing what a little silence will do for a game. Suddenly you can hear things you may not have noticed before. Maybe you’ll notice your heartbeat. Whenever there is a change, sonically or visually, it’s human nature to take notice. And there’s no bigger change than music becoming silence. The player will take notice. And that’s what we want, the player to be sucked into your game even more.
No matter how brilliant a one or two minute loop is, it will eventually get old. We need to keep things as fresh as possible for as long as possible. Consider different ways to build a music system for your game. It really does bring some more life to the experience. And sometimes the best addition is done by subtraction.
I was prepared to write tonight’s blog about how I think surround sound is overrated. But then I spied Star Wars sitting there all innocently in my DVD collection. And there’s the GTA4 case on the coffee table in front of me. Both of those titles just scream to be listened to with a good surround setup (so to speak). Sometimes it’s fun to be in a bed of sound with the hi-def on-screen action and just lose yourself in another world. Surround sound definitely can help to achieve that, especially in a dark room watching a dark movie or game.
I guess my big problem with surround sound is that it’s not always all that necessary and it can sometimes actually get in the way. So many games just don’t need it. Sure, if it’s a first-person game it is nice to have. But, really, if the screen doesn’t fully envelope you then why should the sound? Without fail, during a gaming or movie session the first time I hear a sound come from a rear speaker I’m actually brought out of the gaming or movie experience. If you turn around you don’t see the person the sound came from. You see the speaker or a wall or the plant your grandma gave you. So you have to remember that the next time you hear a rear channel sound. After a few minutes of playing the game that becomes less of a problem and it can really be helpful to know when a bad guy is shooting at you from behind. But the fakeness is still in the back of your mind and you just know it doesn’t sound quite natural. How did that plant fire that gun?
This may sound strange coming from a game composer and sound designer. Aren’t I supposed to be all revved up about the latest and greatest audio advancements? Well, as someone who works on games I just want the game experience to be the best it can be. And a great gaming experience does not require surround sound. It requires magnificent content and appropriate implementation. I haven’t seen one game that requires surround sound in order to be fully enjoyed. Sometimes in certain games it enhances, but that’s about it.
Interestingly, a recent Nielsen survey of console owners did find that 54% of PS3 owners, 48% of Xbox 360 owners, and 43% of Wii owners own at least 5.1 surround systems. These figures may be inflated because of the group that was surveyed, but I’m sure surround systems will become more and more a common part of most people’s home set-ups. As the Wii has proven for video, however, the latest and greatest technological advancements don’t always bring the most fun game experiences.
It’s still about the content.