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Artist Advice Column: How To Write Music For Video Games

Video games is a booming space for music with more games, more platforms and more systems. Don't skip out on this opportunity to expand your musical repertoire.
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Super Mario

Making music for commercials, television and film is most obvious avenue for getting syncs and placing your music in the visual realm. However gaming is growing medium for you to get your music placed. Gaming has risen to new heights with eSports, live streams, apps and more that has brought it out of just an activity for a few kids in their living room to something that millions of people can watch simultaneously around the world, or tens of thousands can attend at an event. Placing your music in an atmosphere like this can be huge and put you in front of some rabid fans. Writing for it is not an easy place to get your start, different from other mediums and can be a crowded space, but can be a good additional avenue for your career.

Unlike film, TV and commercials, it is much more difficult to write a song in the hope that it gets placed within a game. More often, they will ask someone to score the gameplay. A producer or composer will come in and work with the studio to create a soundtrack that will work with the game. That doesn’t mean there aren’t opportunities to get your individual songs in games. Look at sports games for example, which can be huge for artists. Getting your track on a Madden, NBA or FIFA soundtrack can be massive for an artist’s career. Look at the YouTube comments for a song on any of those soundtracks and the impact is obvious.

We don’t want to sound like a broken record, but when writing music for games it has to be good music first and foremost. That sounds obvious every time it is written, but writing somewhat mediocre music that you think fits the medium really well won’t fly. If you are trying to become a composer, find your own voice.

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According to Winifred Philips, who wrote the Composer’s Guide to Game Music, the most important quality someone can have when deciding to take the plunge into video game is actual love for gaming. You have to really be into the culture and play a wide breadth of video games. How video games sound differ from each studio and each system. Nintendo games sound much different from your first person shooters on PS4 or Xbox. The gameplay has also sounded different over the decades so keep up with trends and try and stay ahead of them.

Music for games is critical to the mood and feel for that game. Like in film or television it can be vital for the scene or the battle. The moments when a character creeps around a corner either passively watching a film or playing a video game, suspenseful music can draw you in even further. Knowing video games, your music has to be adaptable. You can’t write music for thousands of hours of unique gameplay. It would be impossible and unnecessary. Imagine the various about battle scenes or the many hours players may need to spend exploring vast and beautiful areas on land, sea, space or elsewhere. If you are only given the opportunity to write a few hours of music, make sure that you create enough that can fit into those many different scenarios for the gamer. This is when being a player yourself is key. Knowing what goes through the mind of a gamer and how music impacts gameplay is crucial to your own writing.

If you are a musician just starting out, you likely won’t be working with orchestras or lots of session musicians to build out your score, so know how to use computer software and mixing tools to create your own soundtrack. You may not be writing for EA, Blizzard or Ubisoft right away. Those companies generally have their composers picked out from the top-level guys. Start by trying to fit in with more indie outfits. This may mean you write music for a small app that isn’t a massive hit, but can help build a resume of work that you can shop to other studios. The work is generally paid for upfront, so look for a higher fee and you may not get royalties after the fact.

Another benefit for this is if you are in a band, you have to split all of your proceeds between your fellow bandmates and then your team, label, distributor, publisher etc. If you are doing this on your own in between cycles, that money goes just to you and can help put some extra cash in your pocket. 

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