By Jorge Jimenez
There they were, these generally unsung heroes of videogames. The Maestros of Video Games Panel at PAX East brought together some truly talented videogame composers. During the course of the panel, they explained the process of music in games along with useful advice for breaking into the scene.
Emily Reese (Level With Emily Reese) hosted the hour long panel featuring award winning game composers Mikolai Stroinski (The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt), Gareth Coker (Ori and the Blind Forest), Tom Salta (Halo 1 & 2 Anniversary), Jason Hayes (World of Warcraft, Starcraft II, Warcraft III) and Daniel James (Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain).
Breaking Into The Industry
Each musician had a different story of climbing up the ranks to the big time. Mikolai Stroinski got his break when he scored the trailer for Dark Souls II during his time at Blur Studios. Using that – along with his other work – landed him the composer role for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt.
Gareth Coker came from the modddb.com community where he was able to work on some small projects like the dinosaur shooter, Primal Carnage, before being offered to do the prototype for Ori and Blind Forest.
Jason Hayes was convinced to check out a job fair at Blizzard Entertainment after attending GDC where he was able to get Blizzard Producer Matt Householder to listen to some of his music. That got his foot in the door and the rest is history.
Tom Salter and Daniel James took rather untraditional paths. Tom already had a successful career as a record producer and Daniel had a popular sound design YouTube channel.
“I walk into E3 with a 100 CDs and tell people I worked on the Cher CD and thought I would be the coolest guy there,“ Salter jokingly said. “I came up with this crazy idea to change my name and make an entire album of electronica that would perfect for licensing in TV, videogames and film.” The plan worked. A couple of his songs ending up in Microsoft’s Rally Sport Challenge, his first videogame credit before working PC game, Still Life.
Daniel James wanted to get into the industry after hearing the music of a certain game trailer. “I remember seeing the trailer for Metal Gear Solid and said to myself I don’t care what I do in life I just want to work on Metal Gear Solid one day,” he said.
James went the programmer route but saw it wasn’t his strength so he went into doing music with sound design. Later, he started a YouTube channel which lead to sound design work for Mass Effect 3, and Killer Instinct. A few years ago, he achieved his life goal of working on Metal Gear Solid V.
The Wide World Of Music
Jason Hayes has spent over 10 years working on music for World of Warcraft and explained his design approach for such a massive undertaking. “My obsession at the time was being concerned that we would have music that would make people just throw computer speakers out of the window.”
Hayes knew that people would spend hours upon hours in these zones. So what he did was design world themes for each area of the game’s map. “The themes were used as a palette for each zone. When I started working on the music for the zones, I would take those thematic ideas — whether it would be a snippet of a melody that would blend right into the world theme. This way, it’s subtle enough where the change is happening but doesn’t hit the player over the head.”
Personal Philosophies: Their Two Cents
Some franchises have been around for so long that there are expectations for the soundtracks. “Call of Duty, you can already hear what that music is going to sound like but your job as a composer is not to just go with what it should be,” said Daniel James discussing how to find the right sound for the game. “You need to figure out what it is about that story that makes it unique. Once you figure that out you need to be able to convert that to music. You have to ignore what should be and make it what it needs to be.”
Tom Salter was in the unique position of trying to recreate an already recognizable music score in the Halo Remastered game. He, too, wanted to add his own stylings. But he still need to keep what he called the music’s sonic signature. “You trying to split music up into its components so you can kind of make your own recipe. Use those same ingredients as that sonic signature but still make it your own.”
“For me where the music plays and how it plays, plays a crucial factor,” explained Blizzards Jason Hayes. “I’ve heard examples of games with really nice music but used in a way that was really awkward.” When this is the case the panel agreed that poorly timed music simply pulls the player out of the experience.
Gareth Croker seconded Hayes point by saying he had to play hundreds of hours of Ori and the Blind Forest to make sure all the musical cues were where he wanted them to be.
“I wanted to see for myself where the music was playing in every single point of the game and Ori was not an easy game to test.” Oftentimes, freelance composers are asked to submit music based on screenshots or concept art. Gareth explained why the best approach is to have a playable build of the game in your hands. “I started working in videogames because I like telling stories but to be able to do it that with music you just have to be able to play it from start to finish.”
Mikolai Stroinski joked about what developers can do to help out the folks creating the music to their games. “As you know some of the games I work on can be really difficult to play,“ Nikolai said alluding to The Witcher and Dark Souls games he’s worked on. “I think each game should have a Composer’s Edition so I can play without the frustration.”
The final takeaway from the panel is that there isn’t one set path to becoming a videogame composer. This became evident during the Q & A session when someone asked if music school was important in working in music in games. The Maestros all agreed that you didn’t need schooling to succeed. But sometimes, it doesn’t hurt. Said Gareth Croker, “I do have a formal music education and it taught me all the rules. Now I know how to break them.”
Jorge Jimenez, formerly of Dual Shockers, is a core member of The New York Videogame Critics Circle.