Opinion: 5 Reasons Why I love Making Video Game Music

Planethood

Editor’s note: The following blog was written by a NordicGameBits.com Opinion-blogger. The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the individual writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of NordicGameBits or the other writers and authors of the community. 

Hi, my name is Tom, and I work as a game designer and sound designer for Trollpants Game Studio. At Trollpants, I do many things. These things range from marketing and keyword analysis to user testing to trailer editing. However, the two things I do the most are game design and sound design. After all, those are my two official roles in the company! Today I want to talk about a specific part of my job as sound designer, namely that of music composer! But first, I’d like to tell you a bit about my background.

I have been around music all my life. My childhood was equal parts Batman and Pink Floyd, with a big dash of video games. I held my first guitar at five years old, and when I wasn’t playing Pokemon and DOOM, I was given guitar lessons by my father. When I reached those lovely angsty teen years, music became a very personal way for me to express myself. I had no desire whatsoever to earn money off my music, so when I first registered at NITH to study game design, I had no aspirations to make video game music.

But, necessity called – I found myself on a project that needed music. No one else on the team was able to do this, so the task fell to me. As I started creating the track, I caught myself caring about the product. This track was just supposed to be some throwaway filler that would do the trick, but all sorts of ideas started going off in my head like creative H-Bombs. Making music for video games presented a completely new world and “challenge” to my work, and I couldn’t let all these new ideas go to waste now that I’d gotten a taste for the work. Four years later, and here I am, making songs like hot cakes for Trollpants!

Or maybe I should say I'm making sound bagels?

Or maybe I should say I’m making songs like sound bagels? Getit?

I’m not a master of video game sound design by far, and I can only speak of my experience from NITH and Trollpants, so other composers may have very different takeaways from their work. However, I feel I can confidently present to you five things I love about my job as a video game music composer. So, in true internet fashion, I have put these things into a list. Enjoy!

#1 I get to explore

When you develop games the way we do at Trollpants, you need to work fast. We’ve already released Witch Wing and 52 Swipe Up, and now we have two more games under development. All these games are different, and they all demand something new and unique. Throughout my time developing games, I’ve been given the opportunity to create ambient, horror, metal, electronica, ragtime, and many more types of music. All these different genres have their own conventions, instruments, and quirks, so you need to be very attentive.

Now, this is not automatically better than being able to create 20 songs for a single project. That sort of focus is certainly rewarding, but being able to explore is perfect for me right now. Part of that exploration is realizing the power my music can have over an audience. When I create video game music, I think about every detail of a song and what feelings will emerge in the player. I get to experiment and explore what techniques will bring me closer to getting the desired atmosphere, With every project, I get to add new stuff to my bag of tricks, and I get to perfect the old stuff too.

#2 Lots of liberty

Our music demands are varied, as our games are all different from one another. Being an in-house composer means I have an incredible say over the direction the audio will take in each given project. This doesn’t mean that I am the Dictator of Decibel, as I am always attentive to the opinions of the team. Many of my best ideas (both with audio and with other things) come from a healthy back-and-forth with someone else.

_MG_2428

A healthy back-and-forth with Bendik. Photo by Linda Serigstad Photography

However, because I am the only person in charge of creating the music, I am free in how I wish to take the track forward. Not only do I have a lot of ownership over the product, but I also have ownership over the process as well. This allows me to work in a way that I know fuels my own creativity.

With great freedom comes a lot of responsibility, so I am always trying to make both the process and the end product better by hungrily devouring all the knowledge I come across. I read articles, watch tutorials, listen to the advice of more experienced professionals, and lastly, I listen to a lot of music. On my computer, I keep a folder simply called “inspiration,” and whenever I hear something awesome in a song, I cut that part out and store it there. When it’s time to start working on a project, I will take a quick listen through all these elements and see if there’s anything that gets my attention.

Being the only person in charge of the game’s sound is a big responsibility, and I’m always discovering new and more effective ways to do what I want to do. I think I wouldn’t learn nearly as much about my own production style if I didn’t have so much freedom with the process and the product.

#3 It’s a challenge

In the very beginning of 2014, I participated in a game jam with two other people, who would later be a part of the team that founded Trollpants Game Studio. The theme for this game jam was temperature, and our idea was a game where you controlled the heat of the sun in order to grow life on planets. Early on, we decided to leverage my audio skills to give the game something extra.

We decided that for each civilization that “grew” on the planet, there would be a soundtrack that reflected it. With only six days to create three tracks with a total of nine variations, I had no time to record the instruments I wanted to use. Therefore, I composed the track digitally and merely replaced the instruments on each channel. Same melody, different instruments. Now I would need a way to fade between the different tracks while you played the game.

Screenshot from Planethood, our NM i Gameplay 2014 submission.

Screenshot from Planethood, our NM i Gameplay 2014 submission.

I needed to make sure that when I faded between tracks that they would line up perfectly. Therefore, I placed all the tracks in Unity, and I set them to play at the same time. Then I wrote a script in Unity that would, at certain times in the game, fade out the currently playing track and fade in the next one. This resulted in a seamless audio experience where the player’s progress could clearly be heard.

Creating music for games is different from creating music for movies and other productions. These productions have a script and only one set outcome, so with that comes predictability. These productions are complex and beautiful in their own right, but making music for games has all the right challenges that drive me forward and keep my passions high. The dynamic potential and the ability to include interactivity in a person’s audio experience is what I love about it. My solution for the game jam wasn’t some impressive technical display, but it is an example of thinking outside the box and one of the unique challenges I’ve experienced.

#4 Implementation is fun

Speaking of technical displays, one of the more surprising elements of joy in my work is the actual implementation process. My job doesn’t end just because a track is done, I also need to put that track into the game and make sure it acts in the way we want it to. I won’t go to into all the details, because I’m selfishly saving that for another blog post!

The reason I enjoy the implementation process is because I feel more “involved” with the project we’re working on. Without the implementation, the audio work I do can feel a bit solitary and disconnected from the project, so I’m more than happy to oversee the process of including my beautiful little sound babies in the game. Learning how to implement your music also makes you a lot less dependent on other team members when it’s time to plug everything together. You can contribute outside of just producing the assets. Learning different software, plugins and methods of implementation is also very fun, because there are some really great tools out there. It’s not directly related to composing, but it does make me a more well rounded video game music composer, and I feel good knowing I can pull my own weight in the implementation process!

Quick! How many times did I write "implement" in the last paragraph?

Quick! How many times did I write “implement” in the last paragraph?

#5 Just a part of something bigger

This part is probably my favorite part of composing music for games. For many years, music was my primary creative outlet, and it allowed me to put things not only into words, but into chords and arrangements. Most of the music I created was too personal for me to share – it was music I created for myself, not for others. I still feel that way about many of the music tracks I develop outside of Trollpants.

But when I make music for a game, it is no longer about my corny ass feelings, but about giving the audience an experience that supports and enhances the game they’re playing. I feel less like some stand-alone entertainer and more like I’m a part of a great team, where my contributions can find their home alongside art, design and code. My sound babies have friends!

The harmony between audio, art and design is a really exciting part of my job. In fact, it’s the most exciting part of it. When a playtester comments positively on the game’s music, it makes me feel great – not even because he enjoyed my music, but because that music helped make our game more enjoyable to that one person.

So what’s the takeaway?

So we’ve reached the end of this blog post, and I want you keep these things in mind after you close this page. If you’re a musician, try making music for different projects! Games, film shorts, whatever you can! Even if your ultimate goal is to become a musician whose only project is your next album, creating music for other types of media will help you develop a stronger understanding of the versatility your music can have. You’ll also have a lot of fun doing it!

If you’re not a musician, then I want you to leave this blog knowing that people like me really enjoy our work, and that if you enjoy what we bring to game development, that’s all we need. So go fire up your favorite video game soundtrack and listen to a labor of love. Thank you.

If you’re interested in more Trollpants news, check out our website, Facebook and Twitter! Also, keep your eye out our latest game, Planet Run, which will be out soon!

Authors

Karstein is the only game designer in the world from Rånåsfoss. He is the CEO at Trollpants and a Secretary/Board Member for Spillmakerlauget Øst. He can easily be seduced with a strong cup of coffee and a bad horror movie.

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