I’ve always loved video games. Ever since childhood, I’ve been fascinated, and hypnotized by games like, Quake, Hexen, and Heroes of Might Magic.
How to produce music for a video game
At some point in my musical career, I realized composing, and producing music for visual media was my dream. After working to make this happen, I eventually got to where I am now, producing scores for films and video games. But the job, like any other, is full of pros and cons.
In this article, I’m going to highlight the fundamentals of working with a video game developer, and how you should approach producing music for a game.
Connecting and communicating
For a constructive and efficient working relationship, the composer and developer need to come to a mutual understanding as early as possible. That’s the necessary foundation for this collaboration to be successful.
The reason behind this is simple – everyone hears and interprets music and sound effects a little differently. Someone may hear “power” in heavy metal riffs, but not in distorted digital synths, for example. Therefore, it’s important to develop your own understanding of which instruments and sounds express certain moods, and make those decisions with the developer for the particular game you’re working on.
There are a few simple ways to achieve this mutual understanding:
- Reference tracks: Tracks by a particular artist or band the developer would have chosen if they hadn’t hired you to compose.
- Sound effects for a particular game scenario: Experimenting with sounds until you both agree on which sounds express certain feelings within the world of the game.
- Getting familiar with game lore: The more you know about the game and its story, the better you can represent the main idea of the game with music and sounds.
In order to make this score fit the project as best as it can, you need to thoroughly examine all components of game lore, story, and gameplay itself. If possible, ask for a demo version. If not, watch any gameplay videos you can get your hands on, and take the gaming control in your hands to imagine you’re playing it.
When I was working on Quake 4: False Down, an unofficial addon by Little Gears, it was important for me to bring something fresh, and new to its legacy. To do this, however, there were points where I had to ignore the “Quake” title completely, and try to think about it as if it weren’t part of the series at all; just another first person shooter.
When I did this, I was able to drill things down to the fundamentals of what I wanted to create. Taking the game’s legacy, and its future into account, I came up with the concept that it was focused on futurism, dark sci-fi, aggressive alien cyborgs, and yes, the fate of humanity in the hands of the player. So, as a result, in the main menu, we had a massive industrial track, dark ambient drones in the exploration parts, and a hybrid of orchestral, rock, and electronic elements in the battle parts, plus, some sound design at scenario transitions.
It doesn’t matter what type of game you’re working on, you’re going to need to take time to understand the game, its story, and its world. The game makes the score, so let the knowledge about the lore, and the director/developer’s guidance be your starting point.
Organization and production
Working on video game soundtracks, I’ve often needed to compose tracks for particular locations or game events that have partial melodic elements from other levels and scenes. Usually, that’s how the developer or audio director wants to set the atmosphere, by using a particularly unique sound that will be associated with the whole game. Therefore, it’s important to have an organizing system to make the producing process more efficient and effective. This system, in fact, already exists. I call it: “Building Blocks.”
Let’s take a look at them:
- Main blocks: The foundation. Main Blocks have to contain musical instruments, and sounds that will recur through the entire game. The easiest parallel to make here is to lego blocks. These elements are the lego blocks you build the rest of the design out of.
- Exploration/Adventure blocks: These are ambient background music pieces, or sound design elements where the player focuses on the study and exploration of the world of the game. Depending on the scenario, they may consist of vague, repeated elements made up of main blocks – sound effects or melodies – but they shouldn’t be too distracting.
- Action blocks: This is where the fun starts. As in the cases of main and exploration blocks, action blocks can mix other elements, as well as add on top of them to create particular moods. Usually, I use the combination of heavy electric guitars and synths, subconsciously encouraging the player to move and fight in unison with the music. Here, you see music work at its fullest.
Here’s a screenshot that represents the stems of a track made for a battle scene in an upcoming sci-fi first person shooter.
The Megahorns (green) are the main blocks, Arp Synth, Lead Synth, and Texture (all in blue,) are exploration blocks, and Bassline, Crash, etc (in red,) are action blocks.
As you can see, I have combined the components which make the core of this track.
Tracks of the exploration blocks have already been used for the ambient track on the same level. But, in a calm part of the game, where the player has to find keycards, stems from the exploration blocks were used to create an ambient track.
Electronic drums, and an aggressive bass line, are added to set a forceful pace, to accompany the movement and shooting, heightening the intense atmosphere of this particular level.
Here’s an example of a track I made, using a block system.
Hybrid Cinematic Dubstep Trailer by TitanSlayer
It’s made up of each of the blocks mentioned above: main, exploration, and action.
So, how does it work?
Dubstep wobble bass, orchestral strings, and intense percussions set the courageous, and emotional mood, perfect for action sequences, from battles to chase scenes.
To create an ambient version, I removed the elements mentioned above, leaving just the sub drops, piano, and synths. With just those elements remaining, the track becomes mysterious and dark. You now have a track most suited to an exploration level.
Here’s an example of that.
Epic Rock Trailer 4 by TitanSlayer
The plan is the same again. Use the full, original track for the action sequences, and the underscore for the exploration ones, and you’ve got yourself a video game score!
Remember, you don’t have to use the repetition of individual elements, you just need to organize the blocks correctly. You’re the Lego constructor in this scenario. The blocks are a smart, efficient solution that works for me, and may help you organize your workflow, and improve your video game scoring skills.
The process of composing and producing a soundtrack is going to be different for everyone, as every developer, and producer, will have different requirements. But, good communication, immersion in the game lore, understanding the gameplay, and efficient workflow organization is vital. By following these simple recommendations, you can achieve fantastic interaction of gameplay and music, and send players on an unforgettable journey, into the world of the video game.
Find out more about the author of this article, СodeHolder community member, TitanSlayer