Unfortunately (or rather fortunately) that’s not really the case.
Although technically you have handed over the responsibility of music to someone else when you hire a composer, the reality is that unless you put some effort into the following 4 areas, the quality of the result (for your current or future games) will suffer:
I’d like to go into the details of each of these areas here so you can truly benefit from the (ever so wise) decision you have made to hire a music composer for your game.
N.B. The above is assuming you are in fact in the process of hiring a composer. If not, then you are probably reading the wrong article. See this article for some alternatives that might help.
1. Get To Know Your Game Composer.
“Hi, I’m a composer and my name is Chris… do you come here often?”
Ok, the process needn’t be this ridiculous, but to a certain extent you do need to go through a little bit of a dating process with any freelancer you bring on board.
I don’t care whether this is via e-mail, Skype, social media DMs or even face to face in the real world (just imagine!), but like in any relationship, finding out a few details about them, their life, how they see the world etc will help you connect more strongly.
I’ve been in touch with lots of game developers about possibly working with them and after my initial contact expressing an interest in their work, they answer back ‘I need music – send me a demo man’. That’s the extent of our ‘dating’!
To me, this is almost like a slap in the face. It’s literally like them saying they can’t be bothered to engage with me and don’t really care about the quality of my work.
There is no way I can create the best music for their game if I know hardly anything about them or their game.
I don’t blame the game developers for this – I think it comes from a place of just trying to get the job done, but it does come from a perspective that all music the same – just a commodity, and can be created instantly.
Nothing could be further from the truth, and that’s not a perspective I wish to see the world from, and the people I like to work with don’t either.
2. Brief them Correctly (Talk To Your Composer About Your Game!)
This is the most important aspect of working with your composer. The actual brief.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the composer doesn’t have access to all your knowledge about the feel, look, sound and background story you have, so it’s critical you convey as much of this info as you can to your composer.
I can only speak for myself, but when I’m starting to work on a game, I sit down at my keyboard (synth keyboard that is, not qwerty) and try to initiate an emotional reaction about the game I’m working on.
This can be stimulated by the conversation I’ve had with a developer, screenshots, videos, music or any other stimulus, but it is important I get myself into this state before I play a note. If I just coldly sit down and bang out a track, it won’t have the same connection to the game.
Although I am the composer of the game, I still have the same emotional reactions a player will have to the combination of the visuals and music together, so it needs to feel right.
My litmus test is to play the music I’m working on alongside the visuals I’ve been given (on full screen) and see if it feels right. If it does, then it’s in.
My point is this: The more input I receive from the developer the better the results will be.
I want to know all about why you came up with the idea for your game, what the back story is, who the characters are, what journey the player goes on, how you want the player to feel etc, and any number of other points that get me up to speed with the game.
After we’ve had that conversation and I’ve been sent whatever visual or audio examples I can, you can see how much of a better position I’m in to be able to produce a piece of music that my client will LOVE!
Sometimes I get it wrong, but mostly with a few tweaks I’m not a million miles away.
3. Give Honest Feedback.
The job of a composer is an extremely complex process: The developer has to accurately convey his thoughts, emotions and expectations about the game to the composer, and the composer then has to take this information and output it into a musical form. There’s a lot of filters there – It’s no wonder things occasionally don’t hit the mark.
Just remember this: The demo you receive from a composer is the initial starting place for the conversation. Sometimes it’s bang on brief (I like those moments!), but sometimes it may take one or two iterations in order to hit the target. This is expected.
Sometimes I’ve submitted a demo to a developer and I’ve just heard nothing back. I am assuming this is because they just didn’t like my music, which is fine, it would would be weird if everyone thought everything I did was brilliant. But rather than tell me straight so we could work things out, instead I hear nothing.
This is a shame, not only because as the composer I am then stuck in limbo not knowing what’s going on, but also because with a few revisions I could have come up with the perfect track for them.
The point about giving honest feedback was brought to my attention recently in a module of a course I am working through on freelancing by Paul Jarvis. (I highly recommend this course btw if you are a freelance coder, artworker or designer etc and are interested stepping up to the next level).
I won’t try and summarise the course content of that module here regarding feedback (as I wouldn’t do it justice), but essentially giving good feedback to a composer boils down to :
Simply, just explain the honest feelings & reactions you are getting from the music, then let the composer work out the details. N.B. He doesn’t need you to say ‘maybe double up that section with a cello’ or ‘introduce some arpeggiated bass notes here’, That’s their job – let them do it!
4. Develop The Relationship
Once the job is over it’s worth remembering that you’ve started a very important journey with your composer. You might go on to greater things, so might they, but ideally you can do it together.
Next time you are working on a game and you are up against a deadline, that composer you worked with last year might well save your life. The fact that you have worked together before will save hours, and the ‘getting to know each other’ stage will be completely eliminated as you will already be so much better tuned in to the way each other thinks and works.
You’ll find that if you have spent a bit of time cultivating that relationship, the composer will be more willing to shift work around in order to accommodate you. Trying this with a brand new composer will be much harder.
Touch base every so often so you can see what each other is working on or sign up to each others newsletters. And try and make a point of actually catching up in person (if possible) at game shows or other industry events. You never know, you may well be at the same event without knowing it.
Obviously social media can help here, but maybe try and create separate lists for those relationships you wish to nurture so you can always check out updates from your favourite people. A little bit of effort can work wonders.
In the same way that an initial demo might just be a starting place for the music, hopefully the first project you work on together will be the first of many more.
(Photo: Warning Sign)