Writing music for games on demand is a hard thing.
Rather than taking pen to paper (or hands to piano keyboard) when the inspiration strikes, I have to kind of summon up the inspiration at a moments notice and create magic.
As you can imagine, this doesn’t always happen. But over the years I’ve discovered a few methods that help me stay on track and deliver my best work for clients (and myself).
1. I Only Write When My Energy Is Right
This doesn’t mean I align my chakras and light incense, but it does mean I don’t even try to sit down and compose when I’m tired or just feeling lazy. Other tasks can be done then (if any), including some musical ones, but I certainly don’t start a new project if I’m feeling low.
At the start of a new project I have to feel at my best – and for me this is generally early in the morning.
I’m more awake, more optimistic and after a good coffee… I’m on fire.
2. I Go With My Gut – ALWAYS
Now, I should start by saying I never went to music college. I had some piano lessons when I was a kid, but anything else I’ve learned myself, either by self study, experimentation or just plain old experience.
I say that because I would never sit down with a piece of music manuscript and a pencil and start writing notes on a page. Sometimes I wish I could, and it certainly has it’s uses. What I do, which is as if not more important is sit down at a piano and let the EMOTION guide what I play.
Now that sounds a bit wishy washy and new age as well, but what I really mean is I cut out the middleman. I don’t let my musical theory knowledge get in the way of what I actually want to write.
If my ‘ear’ feels like it wants to go in a certain direction I let it.
Very often I’m playing catch-up with what I hear in my head and what comes out in the notes – but often that’s a good thing – a very good thing.
I also make it a rule, that if something sounds good, I record it and move on. Sure some themes and ideas need refining, but very often the more you tweak and mess around with things the worse they become.
3. I Have To Get To Know The Game Developer Before I Start (Beers Can help)
Whilst I can normally sit down and write a piece with the very roughest of outlines eg “I’m making a Space RPG”. I find by far the best results come from spending the time getting to know the developer/team and the game.
You might think getting to know a developer is a waste of time or not needed, but I don’t. I consider it just as important as receiving an accurate Game Design Document or specific music brief etc.
Reading an outline of a game in a document or e-mail is fine, but it’s often not until you’ve spoken to a developer and heard the words come out of their mouth, that the project truly makes sense and I can appreciate the full depth of the game and all the nuances involved.
Have you ever dealt with someone via e-mail or on the phone and the interaction was err… not all it should have been? Me too. Very often when you actually meet that person (even on a Skype call) things actually start to make sense.
Similarly for the actual game – reading a description or even seeing early artwork is fantastic, but hearing a developer describe their game to me allows me to really grasp what they are trying to achieve.
And often it could just be a slight reference to something, which on the surface might seem unimportant, that can make all the difference.
4. I Have To Be Prepared To Iterate (But I Also Aim To Get It Right First Time)
This one’s a biggie – and it’s often the hardest!
Sure, I’m the music guy and a developer has come to me to develop the music or sound for their game. But if I’m just not hitting the mark, I need to adapt or change completely until it’s right.
Now the reason I mention this now, is that I make it a point not to start a demo until I have had an initial conversation with a developer.
Some devs just want me to get going and supply music after the briefest of descriptions (I think they think I just hit a button or something). But I won’t do it. Not only because the music won’t be the best for the game that way, but also because it is much more likely to be off target and will need numerous revisions anyway. So it’s an extremely inefficient use of everyone’s time and their money).
It’s much better to do the work up front to make sure we’re all on the same page, then start to produce the music I know the game (and the developer) needs.
5. I Try Not To Take Projects On That Don’t Suit Me
This is a tricky one as sometimes I might be tempted to take on a project which isn’t my natural style. Yes I can write Chip Tune tracks, yes I’ll do a pretty good job – but it’s not where my strengths lie.
And the thing is, the developer will benefit more from having a composer work on your game that gets the feel and sound you want, than a composer who is the cheapest or quickest who doesn’t really get the sound the game needs.
When I am working in my sweet spot (generally cinematic based, melodic & emotional music) not only is it easier for me to write that kind of music but also the quality will be right up where it should be.
It’s something to do with all the miles I’ve clocked up writing, producing and listening to music like this which means my antenna are extremely well tuned in.
Often I’ll be working on a section of music which just won’t feel right. Something in the production doesn’t gel. To anyone else or an inexperienced composer it might seem fine. But to me it’s not quite there.
I ALWAYS pay heed to that feeling, and having experience in a particular style means I’m much more likely to be able to spot what’s at fault.
Often it’s something very subtle – a small shaker is needed or just some mid frequency piano or synth to fill the track out. Once that’s in – the track comes alive. And knowing what has worked in the past really helps.
6. I’m Not Afraid To Try Something New
And in direct opposition to the last point, breaking boundaries, writing outside my comfort zone and researching new genres is exactly what keeps things fresh and interesting!
This could be a completely new style I’ve never written in before or just a new and adventurous aspect in an existing genre I’m comfortable with. Either way, often, just switching things up a bit can be all it takes to re-invigorate a track.
For your game’s soundtrack, this is important. It kind of defeats the purpose of having a bespoke soundtrack if the music sounds like every other action music out there. Having an original sound or unique aspect to the soundtrack, which augments the visual experience, make ALL the difference.
At the end of the day, these things are often very subtle. It takes great care and experience to make these decisions on a day to day basis, and each composer works differently – the above is just my take on things.
Writing this article has actually helped me identify what often guides the way I work, and the decisions I go through in order to produce the best music I can for a game.
I’m sure for any creative aspect of game design everyone has their own Guiding Principles and I would love to hear yours. Whether it’s coding, artwork or story, I’d love to know when your best work is more likely to come out of you.
If you’d like to leave a comment or e-mail me. That would be great.