Game Music Evolution
I’ve been writing game music for about 20 years now, and before that there were people writing it for at least 10 years. So we have a 30 year timespan, roughly the same length of time as a family generation. Now that game music has reached this milestone I wanted to take a look back for those of us who enjoyed games from the beginning and share some information with our new brother and sister composers, as well as the fans. Game music is the reason I got into the industry and has been my love since I first heard those lilting 8 bit chords emerge from the Ricoh 2A07 chip on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The game was Metroid.
When game music started it was not a popular phenomenon. It was akin to something a programmer would be interested in. Only geeks did game music. And I was a bonafide geek. I took a portable recorder to my local arcade to record the music directly from the speakers, much to the annoyance of players. The cool guys worked on films or records (sorry, tapes and CDs… it still sounds cooler to say “record”). We’ve heard the term “beeps and boops” or “bleeps and bloops” more times than we’d like, but people aren’t saying that much anymore. It isn’t about transistors, electrical circuitry and complex algorithms nearly as much as it is about having a near unlimited palette of sound to work with. There was a great deal of limitation in the old days of early consoles, PCs and arcades, and those limitations and restrictions of expensive studios and required musical knowledge and virtuosity are hardly there. In fact, they’re hardly there for the bedroom musician who wants to write film music. 30 years ago the barrier to entry for any creative endeavor was much higher. Many smart pop stars predicted technology would enable to world to write music if it wanted to, and now it can.
Open the floodgates
Now that game music has entered the same world as film, television and popular music as a bonafide media, several things have happened. Everyone wants to do it, thousands if not millions more are trying to do it, and millions of kids really dig listening to it, as well as those of us who grew up enjoying it even if it wasn't hip.
This creates interesting phenomena. First, almost no original game composer is still working as a game composer, at least not in the same capacity. Legendary Nubuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy series), while he continues as a freelancer still writing for Square, has been replaced by Masashi Hamazu (Final Fantasy XIII). Koji Kondo (Super Mario Bros.) largely supervises, with most Super Mario music now being penned by Mahito Yokota. In the latter case I have to admit Yokota-san’s efforts have transcended music in general, somehow giving the player the feel of a Kondo-san project with a live score. It's damned astonishing. The only such soundtrack I feel has successfully modernized an old franchise to such a degree is Michiru Yamane’s score to Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.
Metroid’s Hip Tanaka was superseded by Kenji Yamamoto. Doom’s Bobby Prince gave way to Chris Vrenna and Trent Reznor. And while he wrote a killer score, I could only hold on to my own series (Deus Ex) for two games before Mike McCann was picked to pen Human Revolution (granted, I had a full time job as an Audio Director at the time, so no regrets there, the original score was honored and that in itself is an honor).
I could continue for quite some time, but I guarantee none of the series with which you’re familiar has retained its original composer throughout its lifetime. There are many reasons for this, but one of the most influential is the assumption by many IP creators that vast orchestras and film-like qualities are required to create a truly cutting edge game music experience and the original composers just can’t hack it, even if they do have training in theory and plenty of orchestral writing chops. Some turn to film composers, and at the moment many turn back to more film-like game composers because of the high prices, confusing (to the composer) format requirements and difficult to swallow standard film contracts.
There is still a circle of game composers still finding success such as Jesper Kyd, Jason Graves, Cris Velasco and the redoubtable Inon Zur. And below them, clawing their way up, is a frothing sea of new talent, the bulk of which generates the typical well produced but forgettable orchestral or electronic demo piece. But despite the trite nature of these works as the teeming thousands struggle for a spot in a game project, game companies hire them. Many work for next to nothing for this opportunity. It’s a way to be competitive, a technique to get your foot in the door. And why not? Business is about building relationships, and pricing yourself cheap is a great way to do it, whether it degrades the value of more experienced composers or not. That's life. On the other side of the door, there is just as much exponential growth with small game developers, with their barriers to entry falling away with the ability to create a game and publish it easily online. And they're looking for cheap scores. And cheap scores they shall have.
All this is very daunting to anyone, especially the established pros. You need to fight tooth and nail to get and retain your piece of the pie, where before you had free reign since no one wanted to do what you did. However, where before there was no demand for game music on its own, now popular acts are performing game music. Video Games Live, the premiere video game orchestral concert, has performed well over 200 times. Landmark fan efforts such as Overclocked Remix and live bands like Descendants of Erdrick, Stemage, the 1-ups, and more boggle the mind with their love of game music and desire to see it more prevalent in our culture. And publishing sites like Bandcamp have enabled composers of older games to find new life for soundtracks that they’re lucky enough to be able to distribute again, or find a fanbase for new works of their own (insert blatant plug here: my own music page.)
So where does game music go from here? I’d say indie games are leading the way quite a bit. Why? They have to be more unique than everything else to stand out. And the more games that are released, the more unique you have to be. Music is no different. Journey, Sword and Sworcery, Braid’s disturbingly well placed soundtrack (picked from a music library, hence the disturbing bit for composers), Flower, in fact just about anything you can find on the Indie Game Music Bundle will redefine how you think about game soundtracks. Yet more ego approaching, but I did write about this 8 years ago: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/130511/instrumentation_the_game_.php, and in fact finding that unique quality is more important than ever.
So the message to composers is: make your stuff more unique to be competitive. Find your unique spot and showcase it. The message to fans is, keep buying our stuff, because we love you. And last but not least, the message to game companies is simple: if the first thing you think of for your next score is an orchestra, don’t be afraid of something different. And don’t assume composers from a bygone age can’t nail your perfect sound. They’ll probably surprise you with how far they’ve come.