Author Topic: GDC 2011 Talks #1: Tips for Prospective Video Game Composers  (Read 3715 times)

supershigi

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GDC 2011 Talks #1: Tips for Prospective Video Game Composers
« on: March 15, 2011, 04:11:10 PM »
Hi everyone!  As promised, here is a write-up of my talk from GDC.  I've heard that my panel was filmed and will be online at some point, but I'm not sure when this is (or if the general public can access it).  But once I find out, I'll let you know!  My panel consisted of 4 composers including myself.  We were each asked 3 questions and given about 4 minutes to answer each one.  Although the talk was supposed to be focused on casual games, my answers were more geared towards indie composers who were trying to break into the industry:

Question #1: What are some tips for finding work as a video game composer?

One thing I always try to tell folks is not to treat your job search as if you were looking for a record contract.  I say this because I have a number of friends who spend 100% of their efforts sending demo CDs to large game companies in hopes of getting noticed by the audio directors there.  While it's good to send out your demos to these companies, it shouldn't be the only thing you do. These jobs make up only a small fraction of the available jobs out there.  The majority of work for game composers is actually found in casual, mobile, social, and indie games, so you should make sure to look for work there, too.

In terms of finding work, one of your best tools is online game development communities.  These days a lot of developers are posting their games online at various forums.  A lot of the time they're looking for feedback as well as searching for people to collaborate with (artists, musicians, etc.).  Indie game development communities like tigsource.com, indiegamer.com, and gamedev.net all have sections where you can post your portfolio and look for work.  One caveat: You'll have much more success is you make an effort to become a part of the community first before advertising yourself.  Game developers really appreciate when folks take the time to play their games, so if you visit their thread and leave them some positive encouragement or feedback on their game they'll be much more inclined to check out your music and want to work with you in the future (or tell their friends about you if they know someone is looking for a musician). 

If you're able to go to events like GDC, PAX, or other game-centric events make sure you take the time to talk to developers rather than only hanging out in audio circles.  Even though there are rare cases where audio directors are looking for new talent, most of the time they want to work with people who they've worked with in the past.  Directors at AAA companies have deadlines and people they need to answer to, so it's far less risky to work with in-house composers, contract musicians that they've established relationships with on past projects, and even folks from the film and tv industry.  Casual, mobile, and indie developers on the other hand don't already have a huge audio network or in-house audio team, so they will actually be out there looking for composers. 

Make sure your website is up-to-date and easy to navigate.  It's really important that your music is easily accessible to anyone who visits your site.  If you don't yet have a website, but don't have the time or resources to build one from the ground up, I strongly recommend places like Wordpress -- it's free, you can get a site going almost immediately, and it's very easy to use.  Put your best foot forward and don't be afraid to put an unconventional track at the forefront of your promotional efforts.  Even though the musical climate nowadays includes a lot of orchestral music, it doesn't mean that the tracks you show other people have to mirror that if it's not your true style.  A lot of times developers will notice someone because of something they've done that is rather unconventional (a really catchy song, a beautiful violin solo, a solid hip hop track, etc.)... so even if you end up getting hired to make orchestral music, there's a chance someone spotted you because your music stood out from the crowd somehow.   You'll also want to make sure to carry around business cards that you can get for free or really cheap from sites like overnightprints.com or vistaprint.com

Question #2: What are some things to keep in mind for your first few jobs?

Never underestimate the importance of getting your foot in the door!  Don't get taken advantage of, but don't be afraid to do your first job for free.  There are very few jobs out there for video game composers (so few in fact, that if this isn't your passion I really wouldn't recommend pursuing it -- For some reason a lot of composers think that the video game industry is easier to break into than film and tv, but it really isn't).  To give you an idea: Audio Director was the #1 most applied for position in the video game industry in 2009 because there are so many people who want to get into game composing, but virtually no jobs available.  This is especially true relative to other disciplines in the game industry like programming.  Projects often require several programmers or artists, but they really only need one musician.  Developers can also use licensed tracks if they want to save money and turnover time.  So... if you have the chance to make music on a game that's going to get published, or an opportunity to make an internship for yourself, go for it!

  • Good example of working for free: One of my friends worked as a game tester at Sony, but her real passion is sound design.  So she went to the sound department and offered to make SFX for them.  She wasn't paid for this, but her effort resulted in people taking note of her work.  She was eventually promoted and became a sound designer at the company. 
  • Bad example of working for free: When your developer is equally inexperienced and can't pay you because there is no budget, but still plans on selling the game once it's finished.  At this point, you aren't getting anything out of the job that you couldn't get elsewhere (making music for a free game, mod, or even just recreating an existing game soundtrack for practice).  It's completely understandable that an indie developer would have no budget, but if they're planning on selling the game you should be getting compensated for your work.  Some composers negotiate back-end royalties (a typical rate for doing an entire soundtrack and SFX is around 5-10%), or do some sort of trade (a soundtrack in exchange for some background art or spritework for example). 


It's a good idea to establish a protocol for your contracts early on.  A few important questions to ask yourself: Do you want to retain the rights to your work (i.e. granting the developer a license to use the work in their game: You'll make less money, but you'll be free to use the music or license it to other people), or do you want to sell the music to the company (typically if you work with an established company, they will want to own the music)... How are you charging?  Is it per minute of in-game music, a flat-rate for the entire project, or in the form of a royalty?  Rates vary incredibly... If you're just starting out and working on a small indie project you might make $25-$50 per minute of in-game music... whereas if you are a fairly established composer working on a large AAA game you might make $1200-$1500 per minute of in-game music.  Casual games might be more in the range of $250-$700 per minute of in-game music.  It is a good idea to do some research beforehand so you know what to ask for.

Educate yourself.  There are plenty of materials online that can help you better understand the contract process.  If you are planning on selling your music to the company, try to make sure there is a clause in the contract about ancillary rights and soundtrack sales.  If you're in the film or music industry, this is probably obvious... but you'd be surprised to know that concept is still relatively new to the video game industry.  For those who don't know, ancillary rights refer to profit made off of materials not related to the game.  So for example, if you make a track for a casual game and the company goes and sells that music to a car company for use in a television commercial, you should be able to participate in the money the company makes off of that deal.  The typical split is 50-50 between you and the company. 

If you can't find work right off the bat, do whatever you can to fill out your portfolio.  A great exercise is to create a soundtrack (or a few pieces of music) for an existing game.  Even if you don't have any paid work on your resume, this practice is a great way to show developers that you understand game audio specifically, which is really important.  There is a huge difference between creating music for games and creating music for film or tv, and developers like to know that the composer understands this.  Besides that, you can work on community projects or contests at online communities, free games, mods, or if you're also a developer yourself, create music for your own game :P

Obvious stuff: Submit your deliverables (music, SFX) on time and let your work ethic and passion for the job shine through.  Don't be afraid to inquire about the developer's future projects, because if they liked you they'll probably want to work with you in the future if you express interest.  Don't be a diva: Be the type of person who can take constructive criticism well, and be a nice person.

Question #3: How would you go about creating a memorable soundtrack using limited resources?

If we're talking about music (as opposed to ambience or sound effect based tracks), composition is key!  I don't actually even look at limited resources as being a bad thing because it forces us to focus on the composition.  Some of my favorite game soundtracks came from the NES and SNES era, and those composers barely had anything to work with in terms of space and samples!  They had to create music that was heard over and over again, yet couldn't annoy the player... music that was catchy and memorable, yet didn't add to the frustration of difficult levels... and even though they had barely any space, they created some of the most well-structured, melodic, and memorable tracks that are still being remixed today on sites like ocremix.org

  • The MIDI test: In order to make sure my compositions can stand on their own, with a lot of my work I actually don't even plug in high quality samples until after I've finished the composition.  I'll use the Cakewalk 128 MIDI soundbank to fill in the instruments... in doing so I can test whether or not the composition itself is solid.  This is especially effective when trying to create music that is melodic and catchy, because you can see whether or not it has those qualities even when the samples are super low-fi.
  • Learning through replication: One exercise I always advocate, is seeing how closely you can replicate music that you enjoy.  Pick a song that you like, or a piece of music from your favorite video game soundtrack and see if you can reproduce it.  In doing so, you will learn so many subtle things about melodic structure, chord progressions, and emotional response that you won't really pick up elsewhere.  You'll start to notice things like how certain chord progressions consistently evoke particular emotions: for example, C major to F minor (or a relative chord progression in another key) will produce a feeling of sadness or longing, which explains why it's used in soundtracks for movies like The Notebook (you can also hear it in Traces).
  • Learn from old games: As silly as it sounds, if you think about it, old game soundtracks are the perfect example of creating memorable soundtracks using limited resources!  Even today people still remember music from games like Super Mario Bros., Megaman, Castlevania, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy because the composition was so well-structured, melodic, and catchy.

Have fun with sound effects!  Come up with ways to integrate SFX so that they add to the experience rather than annoying the player.  For example, it's a great idea to pitch-shift SFX that are heard frequently (eating noises, picking up coins -- anything that the player will hear every other second).  Ask the programmer if they can do something so that these SFX are pitch-shifted, and if they can't, give them amultiple files of the same SFX (each one being at a slightly different pitch) and ask that they be played randomly.  This is very helpful in creating good sound in a game.

Since SFX are so small, they can compressed at a higher rate which means you can use live recordings if you like.  In Plants vs. Zombies for example, there is plant that occasionally lobs a pat of butter at the incoming zombies.  When the butter hits the zombie's head, I wanted the sound to be very authentic and pleasing to the ear, so I decided to experiment with food.  Initially I recorded myself gently dropping a stick of butter into a bowl of oatmeal, but I wasn't pleased with the results.  So George was kind enough to lend me his head (literally), and I recorded myself smacking the softened stick of butter on his head and it produced a really awesome sound which is what you hear in the game! 

Anyways, I hope this was helpful.  It's amazing how it took 12 minutes to say all this, but about 2 hours for me to type up, haha  :flower:  Please feel free to ask questions if you have any and good luck to everyone out there! 

Also, feel free to share examples of old video game music that you think are good examples of memorable soundtracks created using limited resources :)

Link Recap:

Indie Game Development Sites:
tigsource.com
indiegamer.com
gamedev.net

Website Development Tool:
Wordpress

Free Businesscards:
overnightprints.com
vistaprint.com
« Last Edit: March 15, 2011, 04:30:41 PM by supershigi »

Replex

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Re: GDC 2011 Talks #1: Tips for Prospective Video Game Composers
« Reply #1 on: March 15, 2011, 04:31:40 PM »
Wow! It's really informative stuff! Really great job, Hope your fingers are ok :) But anyways... reading about all of this composing. it made me wonder... When you made the PvZ soundtrack.. or any of your other music for that matter... did you only use "virtual instruments" Or did you use real instruments as well ?

Pat

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Re: GDC 2011 Talks #1: Tips for Prospective Video Game Composers
« Reply #2 on: March 16, 2011, 09:09:18 AM »
That's a great bunch of information. Thanks. x3
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Lunarea

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Re: GDC 2011 Talks #1: Tips for Prospective Video Game Composers
« Reply #3 on: March 16, 2011, 10:12:24 AM »
Thank you so much for sharing this, Laura. A lot of the advice can also be applied to other forms of art (like drawing, painting or even writing).

Reives

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Re: GDC 2011 Talks #1: Tips for Prospective Video Game Composers
« Reply #4 on: March 16, 2011, 10:44:54 AM »
Aye, very helpful post. :) I especially like the suggestion of learning through recreating existing tracks; I learn by examples the best, and it will surely yield some great insights. Glad your talk went well! Looking forward to the video if it's ever going to be available somewhere.

supershigi

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Re: GDC 2011 Talks #1: Tips for Prospective Video Game Composers
« Reply #5 on: March 22, 2011, 04:13:13 PM »
You can now watch several of the GDC talks on their website.  Unfortunately, most of the talks (including mine and George's) are available to members only, but the good thing is that some of the most interesting ones are still available to the general community: The Classic Postmortems: (Doom, Maniac Mansion, Bejeweled, etc.), The keynote (president of Nintendo - Satoru Iwata), and many others.  Here's the link for anyone interested:

http://www.gdcvault.com/free

I listened to my panel earlier today and I noticed that my microphone was kind of messed up in the recording.  All of my S's are distorted so it sounds like I'm wearing a mouth guard or something, haha... "make shhure you can take conssshhhtructive critissshhhisshhm well" haha... I just hope I didn't sound like that to the folks in the audience!  I'm guessing I didn't because someone probably would have mentioned it afterwards :P
« Last Edit: March 22, 2011, 04:15:22 PM by supershigi »

Pat

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Re: GDC 2011 Talks #1: Tips for Prospective Video Game Composers
« Reply #6 on: March 23, 2011, 09:57:16 AM »
Shame, I would've liked to hear your talks. :P
I heard that Notch, owner of Minecraft, also attended the GDC. He said so on his blog.  :D
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Re: GDC 2011 Talks #1: Tips for Prospective Video Game Composers
« Reply #7 on: March 24, 2011, 01:02:14 AM »
Learn from old games: As silly as it sounds, if you think about it, old game soundtracks are the perfect example of creating memorable soundtracks using limited resources!  Even today people still remember music from games like Super Mario Bros., Megaman, Castlevania, Chrono Trigger, and Final Fantasy because the composition was so well-structured, melodic, and catchy.

I and several others were talking about this the past week; the above is so true. We had previewed an indie action game, and one of them noted that the soundtrack was too similar to an ambient movie score to be a good fit. My observations were that making the music more complex and adding in more production value, as they did with said game, tends to overpower the melody, and that comparatively the early games had more memorable melodies because of the limitations they had in the day.

Your advice on the MIDI test is spot-on. Lately I've learned to just play my music with as few instruments as possible at the beginning so I can take stock of the melody, and especially give priority to setting the beat (thank you, Koji Kondo :) ).
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