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Communicating With Game Composers

The Challenge

There’s already enough challenges in your day.  Meeting deadlines, monitoring budgets, and dealing with the countless emergencies that arrive during development all are challenging in their own right.  However, another fundamental challenge in development is communicating.  Communicating with someone that has the same role as you or background is is one thing, but communicating with someone from a totally different discipline, each with its own vernacular (Programming, Art, Marketing), is another challenge in itself.  We’re going to discuss probably one of the most challenging conversations that a game producer/developer will have, and that’s with a composer. We’ll address the inherent difficulty in the dialogue between a game development team and a composer, but more importantly, we’ll also talk about how to overcome this gap.  By the end of the article, you’ll be well on your way to getting the best fitting music from your game when working with your composer.

Why Talking To A Composer Can Be Difficult

Music, much like programming, is a language in itself with its own notation and vernacular.  Although the notation of music may only be known by those with musical training, music itself is a universal language that conveys emotion.  Regardless of background or musical training, a melancholy piece composed in Berlin will be perceived as a melancholy piece by an African audience.  Despite this universality however, there exists a large amount of subjectivity with music that doesn’t exist in programming.  Whether a song is good or bad is subjective.  Even the attributes used to describe a song can be quite broad.  Take “reggae” for example.  It may sound simple to request a “reggae” song for your track, but do you mean Bob Marley? Sublime?  Shabba Ranks?  Technically, using reggae to describe all these genres is correct in a sense, but where does that get us in terms of actual sound since each of these artists sounds unique in their own right.  However, there is hope…

Purpose

Before even thinking about music for your game, throw out any of your music-genre centric language such as orchestral or rock and challenge yourself to describe music in terms that we’ll mention below.  In fact, before thinking about music, first consider the purpose of music in your game.  Why do you want or need music in your game?  What is the function of the musical piece?  This is not a philosophical question, but rather a very practical one.  In fact, you should be asking this for every instance that you plan to have music:  the menu screen, the various levels, cutscenes, and stingers.  Asking these questions forces you to think of music as another gameplay element in your game, which it is.  A few examples are the following:

Narrative Support:  Your game is plot driven and your game needs music to emotionally tie your gamer to the events occurring in the game (the plot).

Thematic:  You want music to represent certain heroes, villains, or side characters in your game.

Mood Setting:  Your game needs something to help induce a mental state or mood.  Perhaps it’s a puzzle game where you want the music to help the player to concentrate.  Perhaps it’s a fighting game where you want the player to be amped up. Perhaps you are just setting the tone for the game at the menu screen.

Game State:  Your game switches between game modes such as exploration and action and you need the music to communicate this switch to the player.

Reward/Punishment:  Something good has happened to the player (such as victory music), or something bad has happened (they lost).  This is typically done via use of short musical compositions known as stingers.

One of our demo games on this site, Breakout, is a rendition of the classic block smashing arcade game of the same name.  Before we opened up our musical tools to develop music for this fairly simple game, we asked ourselves, what is the purpose of music for this game. We decided music would serve two roles.  First, it was to set the mood throughout gameplay.  Secondly, it was to reward/punish play depending on whether they won or lost the game.

Stay tuned next week as we talk about the remaining pieces of the puzzle: emotion and aesthetics.