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Opinion: What's Wrong With Game Music?
Opinion: What's Wrong With Game Music? Exclusive
May 1, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

[Instead of the distinctive themes of the olden days, most of today's popular titles have indistinguishable soundtracks. Game Developer EIC Brandon Sheffield explores the reasons -- and possible solutions.]

Most game music these days is boring. I'm sorry, but it's true.

Music is one of the more pervasive arts. It's integrated into almost all our visual entertainment media, played in stores, supports our advertising, and obnoxiously decorates our social networking pages.

Rare is the person who does not listen to music. So with all this music interaction out there, why is so much video game music so consistently generic?

Music, of course, is very subjective. It may even polarize people’s interests more than other traditional arts do, given that listening to music has far more universal appeal than does going to a museum, leafing through an art book, or for many, even watching movies.

Further, it's easy for people to be opinionated about music because all the artists’ names are very visible, and much easier to recognize than the names of most traditional artists, and sharing an entire song with someone else is often as simple as downloading it or finding it on YouTube. Knowledge about music is easy to come by, and so too are informed opinions.

There are so many hungry musicians out there looking to get into games at cut rates, and yet I keep hearing the same flaccid John Williams-inspired scores, uninspired breakbeats, and generic guitar solos.

The fact is, these days it's quite difficult to identify one game soundtrack from another, and it didn't used to be so. Every video game fan recognizes the Super Mario Bros. tunes, the stage music from Mega Man 2, the main theme of Monkey Island, or the sweeping tones of Road Rash. Why have we moved away from that?

Some Initial Caveats

Of course, it's not as if someone simply stood up and declared, "let's not have interesting music."

One reason people remember the soundtracks of those venerable old titles is because of repetition. As an industry we seem to have moved beyond punishing difficulty as the default level of challenge in order to accept more players, and rightly so, I think.

But part of the reason we remember these songs is because of what Jesse Harlin cautions you to avoid in Aural Fixation in the April issue of Game Developer magazine – user fatigue.

Back then, due to a combination of difficult levels that players are forced to restart, frequent replays, or simply small ROM sizes, we heard these songs over and over, and they burned themselves into our brainstems. And where repetition once carried the responsibility of providing replay value, multiplayer gaming now takes up that mantle.

Another reason may be that there's a lot more going on in games now. When Mario was just jumping on the heads of Goombas and breaking blocks, he could only perform two or three actions at a time, and everything was clearly represented visually. In contemporary games, like an FPS for example, players are required to focus on multiple actions simultaneously—running and aiming in 3D space, while also firing and scanning for cover or reloading.

It stands to reason that you want there to be as few distractions for the FPS player as possible. Music needs to be in the background in this scenario, if it's there at all.

Where's That Melody?

So rare is actual melody in games that when I heard the opening riff for Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, I was shocked – a real tune! It wasn’t just a random guitar solo, someone had written a song for this game. Series like Resistance and Call of Duty are all good fun, but it’s unlikely that you’d hear the music out of context and recognize it -- and to me, that feels like a failing.

A lot of music is licensed now, which could be a contributing factor, but if you consider a game like Fallout 3, which has licensed tracks from the days of yore, when you’re out of range of the in-game radio, an atmospheric and entirely appropriate post-apocalyptic soundtrack kicks in, hammering home the desolate and lonely nature of the harsh environment.

This doesn’t happen in nearly enough games. Music is so powerful and emotive that simply recreating an operatic chorus with the same notes you hear everywhere is a terrible waste of aural space.

I can hardly remember the themes of any American game titles from the last two console generations, even in cases where melody would be warranted. I recently played Peggle DS, which is very good fun, but the music literally sounds as though it came from a vintage porno, complete with fuzzed-out bass synth and the stereotypical wah pedal guitar.

Casual games, with their simple, bright graphics, have the design space to use melody and more dynamic themes, as Mario did, and yet by and large they don't. Try the Ookibloks advanced course video on YouTube as a counter example. The music is distinctive, and perfectly integrated into the casual nature of the gameplay.

Out Of Your Hands?

Games often use temp tracks as they come together, and developers can become quite attached to the sound. This leads to requests for the music to sound, essentially, like every movie trailer and cliche soundtrack everyone's ever heard, because that's what's often in the temp files.

People put those tracks there for a reason, obviously. A lot of people like the stuff everyone's already heard, so maybe what I'm asking is unreasonable.

But if you consider player responses, you'll often hear things about how great the graphics are, or how the environments are destructible -- but you hardly ever hear about how great the music is. That's because it's so often generic that it can't stand out as interesting. Too much “dramatic” music ruins the drama.

It is very telling that Halo and Gears of War sport two of the most iconic soundtracks of the current generation, considering each has only one or two recognizable themes or melodies—the rest of it is filler. These days, all it takes is a little effort to make the music sound like something, and you can stand out from the crowd.

Yes, We Can!

When I asked Game Developer's audio columnist Jesse Harlin about this phenomenon some time ago, he mentioned that distinctive music can be created by playing against convention. Mario's themes are memorable in part because who expects swing music in an action game?

People remember BioShock's licensed music because it was so counter to the norm. So maybe when you're placing those temp tracks into your early builds, try a little Afrobeat, or a Celtic reel, or some Norwegian black metal -- something different. It might yield some interesting results when creating the final tracks.

And isn't standing out what we all want our games to do?

Ultimately, it may simply come down to a lot of folks simply having generic taste, and that’s not something you can change. Players most likely have generic taste as well. But there’s so much opportunity here, that it seems as though whomever is dictating what music is going into the game should be a big music fan, even if that person is not the lead designer or producer.

Often, all it takes to get interesting music in your game is a hint of the unexpected. Many players love and remember the Katamari Damacy soundtrack -- and the reason is that the team trusted the composers to come up with something interesting and engaging, rather than simple filler. It takes a little more foresight, and just maybe a little more trust in your composer.

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Tom Newman
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Great topic!

I strongly feel that while almost all other areas of game development have evolved, music has de-volved to a bunch of canned generic themes and boring liscensed tracks. Of coures there are exceptions, but they are few. Game music was more interesting when composing it was a part of the programming process. I feel everything went wrong when pre-recorded technology allowed developers to outsource much of the audio resources and just stream canned tracks, as oppossed to generating the music and sounds within the game engine itself. Of course the quality went up significantly, but the charachter of the music and sounds got lost. Today, many composers and sound effect designers working in the industry are not gamers. Some great potential for advancement in game music is lost because of this, but it does not seem to be an issue for many developers and publishers.

Joseph Cassano
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In this case, limitation breeds creativity. In the older games, there were immense limits (filesize, number of channels, etc), so whatever music you had had to be good. But nowadays, this freedom when it comes to game music creation allows people to be lazy. Good music, like most arts, needs some form of limitations.

Then again, soundtracks from games such as the Metal Gear Solid series or Chrono Cross can be just as memorable, and neither were as severely limited as the past (though Cross was still MIDI, I think), so maybe my initial argument doesn't hold as well. I suppose, in the end, it's about the love/care for the project. If music is an afterthought or included "just because", then of course the quality will be less.

Fernando Rivera
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There are two modern games that accomplish just what you point out that needs to be in more games. Halo and Metal Gear Solid. People remember those themes and love them and they stand out so much more over genero-rock and genero-epic music. Unfortunately MGS4 lost out after the legal issues came up, and rather than use it as an opportunity to create a new, unique theme, they created a cheap knock off that only served to remind and upset fans of the theme.

Context and distribution play a large role here as well. Game soundtracks don't have an even enough spread, often times finding one sound and sticking to it. Soul Calibur IV comes to mind, as the game had pretty great music, but when every stage sounds like an equally epic battle, it wears thin fairly soon. However, in the final stage of the Tower of Souls mode, something completely different plays, a hard rock song. This song can't be heard in any other stage, and not at all in multiplayer (which is most unfortunate). I'm sure if Soul Calibur was was all hard rock, and one epic symphic song, I'd probably feel the same way.

Steve Mac
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I'll put in a mention for Prince of Persia, since no one else has. Although the score is rather limited and repetitive (there are only 3 different 3-4min tracks that will play when the player is in healed ground I believe), they are wonderful. One in particular is an absolutely beautiful accompaniment to looking out over the transformed landscape and its often wonderful vistas.

As for licensed music, I think it should not be discounted as a respectable avenue, so long as the motivation isn't purely cost cutting. Fallout 3 and Bioshock both use licensed music to add to their atmosphere and it works a treat. Braid also has a fantastic score and care was taken when selecting those tracks.

I'm all for game music breaking out of its box, though. I've been asked to share my mp3 player's playlist at times when tracks from De Blob, Disgaea, Shadow of the Colossus or Unreal are making the rounds, and the reaction makes me wonder if I'd like these songs if I'd never been exposed to them in the game first.

Carlo Delallana
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Sound Designer/Musician and Game Designer should consider collaborating early in the production process. Music is contextual, when we listen to music we picture corresponding images and the reverse is true as well. Who hasn't tried to create a soundtrack for their life? I'm not just talking music but also SFX. Who hasn't tried to hit blocks or land on Goombas in Mario in time to the music? its one of my earliest memories of being an actual "musician" in a game so to speak. Mario allowed me to participate in its music through my actions.

Tom Newman
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This is just a matter of personal taste (which is THE wrench in the music selection process), but I very much disliked the music in Halo. Orchestrated scores do nothing for me, as I see videogames being the pinnicle of creative uses of technology, and orchestrated scores as going back to what music was a very long time ago. There have been outstanding achievements in electronic music that I feel is a much better fit with videogames - again - just personal taste. I do want to give a "hats off" to Rockstar - they liscense most of their music, but do it in the best interest of the game. The soundtracks for Table Tennis and the original Midnight Club are the best examples of liscensed electronic music so far in the industry.

Bobby A
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It's interesting and telling that a lot of the "filler" stuff you mention wins awards at the G.A.N.G. ceremony every year whereas a lot of quirky, clever stuff goes unnoticed.

Yasuhiro Noguchi
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I think this is a problem that's pervasive not only in games, but other media like TV and movies. Over the last 20 years, I think there's been a trend to underplay music production, especially in TV where reality based shows have basically abandoned the concept of narrative storytelling.

When you lack emotional anchors like a proper story, it's not really easy (or dare I say necessary?) to associate compelling music to images. I can't remember the last time a TV show theme even cracked the top 10 charts. Can you? Where are the 21st century equivalents to the theme for "Hill Street Blues" or "Miami Vice"?

Hit TV series like CSI: Miami use "Won't Get Fooled Again" from the Who and House M.D. uses a short loop from Massive Attack's "Teardrop." While they're great songs, they're licensed. If you listen to TV theme music from the 60s, 70s, and even the 80s, there are plenty of memorable songs with wonderful melodies.

I can go on and on about boring film music, but I won't bother.

In general, I think game music is a reflection of popular media, and the generic music that you hear these days in games is a product of that. If you don't have great content in traditional media like film and television, the audience won't know any better, and even worse won't care.

There is also the issue of audio production technology leveling the playing field over the last 20 years to enable anyone to become a video game "composer" if they have a modestly powerful PC and a decent audio card. But just because you can muck around with Reason, Cubase, Logic, Pro Tools, etc. or pay top dollar to load up on the Vienna Symphonic Library and the Hollywood Edge sound effects libraries doesn't mean you've got music talent.

It's typical for developers to get bombarded by demo CD's or e-mails from aspiring composers. Sadly, I would say 99.9%+ of what we get is crap. So, combining this factor with the oft repeated scenario of a dev team being under the schedule and budget gun selects a composer who is willing to do a low ball deal to get the gig with predictable results. In the end, you do get what you paid for.

Imagine if Hideo Kojima and his audio director didn't reach out to Hollywood and hire Harry Gregson Williams to compose the Metal Gear Solid 2 theme. MGS2 and the following sequels would have been a completely different experience.

To add insult to injury, audio directors/composers in dev teams are usually the low man/woman on the totem pole. Can you imagine Vangelis composing a videogame soundtrack on par with Blade Runner or Chariots of Fire if he was treated like an afterthought or was given ridiculous production restrictions/schedules? If you're familiar at all with Vangelis' work or his production methods, you will never get anything that approaches that level of musical artistry in videogames under typical dev scenarios.

By the way, the reason Katamari's soundtrack sounds the way it does is because Namco (Japan) has an in-house audio production group filled with talented veteran composers, many of them who have been with the company for years. They're passionate about their work and work very closely with game planners to create awesome and memorable music.

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Very interesting article! I consider myself as one of the unique composer now. but many people in the industry, actually any established industry is very conservative and don't want to risk with new ideas.

but I guess it's also true that people are getting bored with the old ideas and seeking for surprise too. That fact is gradually changing the whole industry.

Like CD is no longer a reliable source for musicians, A game music and its composer is also facing a new era.

Yoshi, a.k.a Pocket Groovy

Austin Ivansmith
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Comparing game music of nowadays to 8-bit days should have given you your reason for music being so different. In addition to the user fatigue, there was also the simple fact that music had so few channels, the songs were incredibly short, and there were only a few songs per game. Zelda had 2 major gameplay songs, and Super Mario only had around 4. That's the same song over and over.

The same reason a lot of 3d art can look uninspired compared to classic pixel art is the amount of freedom given to the artist, is most likely the same reason music seems uninspired. There is so much more sound going on that someone can get lost in the complexity. Compared to music of 20+ years ago where it was a caricature of sound trying to mimic a grandiose song.

I also find it a little presumptuous of the article and a lot of posts so far to say that because the end result isn't something memorable that the creator of the music wasn't trying to make something inspiring, they were being lazy, or that they were held back in their production.

Rob Bridgett
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It could be a little misleading to aim this article at music, as the crux of this piece taps into a much deeper vein affecting game development in general. It is also fair to say that 'most of today's popular titles' have indistinguishable gameplay, art direction, cameras, lighting, characters, writing and so on. The primary reason behind this is the same as Brandon mentions for the music and, unfortunately, it is rarely in the domain of the developer to solve this. Publishers, on the whole, do not operate in a climate that can afford to continually take creative risks. Once in a while yes, mostly they fail (isn't standing out in games what we all want to do?.. well, not always), and more rarely they pay off, perhaps giving birth to a new and lucrative franchise that grabs everyone's attention (great examples already mentioned in many of the previous comments) - but on the whole, the games that keep our business ticking over are exactly the kind of middle-of-the-road, don't upset the apple-cart, slight improvement on one key feature games that Brandon describes. It is this kind of game that publishers, indirectly through economic and business decisions, ask their developers to deliver (in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways). Risk taking is done where mistakes are cheapest, once something proves that it has the recipe for success, publishers would captitalize on it and be crazy to change the formula, unless a franchise needs a reboot.

Also, music that is written and implemented well should not stand out, it is certainly not supposed to distract you from gameplay, but rather immerse you and act as the soul of the game. A main theme or overture in the front end is allowed to do this, but in game-play, you are dealing with a very different set of aesthetic criteria. If you haven't noticed the music, then it is probably because it is doing a great job! Melody can be very poisonous to a video game experience if overused, even slightly. So why have we moved away from the old days? We are typically making much longer and more involved experiences than we were in the monkey island days. Those kinds of scores still exist today of course, you just have to look elsewhere for them (iphone / DS etc)

Tom Newman
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Retro scores are one thing, but there can be innovative scores using modern audio processing technology that would sound far from retro, and also far from orchestrated. Also, music typically won't make or break a game. If Microsoft decided to go with electronic music instead of an orchestra, would it really have had any impact on sales numbers?

Tom Newman
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Correction: If Microsoft decided to go with electronic music on Halo3 instead of an orchestra, would it really have had any impact on sales numbers?

Greg O'Connor-Read
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Props to Brandon for creating this discussion, although our personal tastes may differ. I agree with Steve Mac; the latest Prince of Persia features some beautiful memorable themes composed by Inon Zur. I also recommend you check out Jesper Kyd's scores for Hitman, Freedom Fighters & Assassin's Creed - great mix of truly immersive atmosphere and memorable themes. Headhunter by Richard Jacques still takes my top pick as some of the most memorable thematic music written for a game. Listen to "Jack's Theme" and tell me you can't hum this anthem - great driving music!

Tommy Tallarico
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Quotes from article:

"...most of today's popular titles have indistinguishable soundtracks."

"I can hardly remember the themes of any American game titles from the last two console generations, even in cases where melody would be warranted."

Just off the top of my head.... Halo, BioShock, God of War, Myst, Medal of Honor, Hitman, Oblivion, Fable, LittleBigPlanet, Warcraft, Dreamfall, Destroy All Humans, Tomb Raider: Legends, Golden Compass, Mass Effect, Harry Potter, Prince of Persia, Lair, Advent Rising, Lord of the Rings, Grim Fandango, Civilization IV, Godfather, etc. etc. etc. etc...

Indistinguishable soundtracks? Opinion column indeed!


Seriously though, one of the things to take into account is that films or albums need music for a 1 to 2 hour experience. Games are more like 40 - 50 hours and need to be interactive. So not everything you hear is going to be a Billboard hit. It's easy to say that melodies like Mario, Zelda, Castevania, Sonic, etc. were better. But I can tell you that if the composers of today were given the task to write a 45 second looping piece of music with 4 channels... you would hear just as great music as you did 20 - 25 years ago.

The sheer amount of games being cranked out are also a contributing factor.

btw... the same arguements in the article can be said about the entire music industry in general.

Just my thoughts... but then again... I'm totally biased!


Tommy Tallarico

President, Tommy Tallarico Studios, Inc. (

CEO/Executive Producer/Host, Video Games Live (

Founder/CEO/Chairman, Game Audio Network Guild [G.A.N.G.] (

Will Loconto
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Tommy said: "But I can tell you that if the composers of today were given the task to write a 45 second looping piece of music with 4 channels... you would hear just as great music as you did 20 - 25 years ago."

And the reviews would say the music was annoying and repetitive. :)

There are a lot of recent games with amazing music. You just have to look for it amongst the generic mainstream game titles. Like several of the previous comments, I'd argue that most of the games released now are mainly generic and safe titles that take little risk.

From a composer's point of view, I'd say in a lot of cases, the composer is just doing what is asked of them, whether it be to copy a temp score or write something that is not repetitive, or score an entire game two weeks before the game goes gold. It's rare for a developer to hire a composer very early in the project and then just let them go be creative. When they do, they end up with something incredible like BioShock.

rod abernethy
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Hey Brandon,

I'm so glad you brought up this topic and thanks for referencing my track in Eat Lead. Thanks to Vicious Cycle, I was asked to write strong themes for the game and I'm so glad they did!

Even though I don't agree with you that most game music being boring, I really love the fact that you care enough about music in games to write about it! There are lots of incredibly memorable soundtracks for games including those that Tommy has referenced. But if some game music has gotten generic, it's not the composers who are at fault...they're just trying to do what they're being told by the developer. And in turn the developer thinks they're doing what the gamer wants to hear. It's really hard to know who to lean on with this issue, but I'm really glad you're starting the discussion and I hope more people chime in.

Rod Abernethy

Rednote Audio

Tom Newman
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Persona4 (and the entire Shin Megami series) does have outstanding original music, but that brings up another (semi off-topic) issue - that being repetition. While I love the music, there is not enough of it, and as a result you end up hearing the same exact track for many repeted hours. For a game that takes 60-80 hours to beat, you need more than 2 hours of music. I don't care if you compose the greatest piece of music ever written, if you hear it 30 times in a row (or more), you're going to get tired of it.

Chris Kline
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Great article! This makes me want to get on a soap box and express my views on why music isn't getting the attention it deserves. There are hundreds if not thousands of incredibly talented musicians and composers out there in need of work.

1. In my experiences thus far, music now a days is almost always an afterthought in the game industry. It's either rushed to hit some meaningless deadline early on, before the game is even far enough along to inspire the composer, or it's done very last minute.

2. The budget allocated for music at your average developer is less than you'd pay a junior level tester for a year. Most developers that I've seen of 25-100 people don't even have internal audio departments. If they do, it's typically only for sound FX. If the studio ever has financial difficulties, the audio guy is one of the first to go.

3. Far too many developers opt to shop online for the cheapest generic music bundle CD they can find and call it good. Add in a canned sound FX CD to seal the deal.

4. I blame both the publishers and developers for inadequate budgeting and using audio as a means to cut corners and save a dime.

5. The fact that there are lots of great musicians out there willing to do work at cut rate deals isn't a good thing. That's a sign of how bad things are. That opens the doors for abuse by continuing to underpay those few lucky musicians who manage to get a gig. If the trend continues, newer generations of composers will dwindle.

6. The average medium budget game has an art team of 20 or so people. Using the latest salary pole average from GDM, let's say they're average pay is 45k per artist (erroring on the low side). That's almost 1 million dollars spent on art (900k) alone for a year to develop a game. It's sickening that publishers / developers are not even willing to spend 1/10th of that on audio development. Programming to audio would of course be an even crazier comparison.

7. Just imagine watching Star Wars or Indiana Jones with absolutely NO music. The movies would not be nearly as memorable. Music is the one art form that sticks with you through out the day. You could be walking down the street hours after seeing the movie, and you probably won't be picturing X-Wings flying around in your head, but you might spontaneously start humming the star wars theme. That's the power of a good MELODY BASED soundtrack.

I completely disagree with the author stating that music these days sounds like another John Williams immitation. It would be memorable if it were done by Mr. Williams.

8. Resorting to licensed music is a very bad idea. Most of the time it doesn't fit appropriately and you could have gotten a way better original soundtrack for less. Vocal tracks rarely fit well for a game soundtrack. It's more of a huge distraction. Soundtracks work best as instrumentals. I think it's a bad idea to put in placeholder music during development that's not original. Good or bad, developers and publishers will soon associate the music with the game, and miss it when it's replaced. Just like art, it should be a work in progress of the real soundtrack that evolves with the production of the game.

9. It's not coincidence that the most memorable games of all time also have very memorable soundtracks. Repetition of small tracks only plays a small role. If the melody isn't good, repetition will just make it annoying. There was simply a lot of very talented people working back then with more emphasis on the importance of music. You avoid ear fatigue with good composition and having more tracks for a variety of good melodies.

10. If publishers / developers would wake up and take music seriously, they'd begin to realize the positive impact it can have for them. They would sell more games with a good soundtrack. I've personally bought games just because I liked the music. When I think of Final Fantasy, I don't remember much of the story line, but I remember all of the music. Publishers need to open the avenue of selling game soundtracks in the US and putting some advertising muscle behind it. This is done with decent success over seas. There's no good reason it can't be the same in America. If anything, money earned from additional sountrack sales help to offset the intial cost of producing it.

I guess all we can do is hope....maybe one day...


Chris Kline

Mickey Mullasan
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Most things these days are boring. It's called gettin old. Which many of us are.

Jeff Wesevich
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Off the top of my head? Prince of Persia and Dead Space seem neither flaccid, nor John Williamsish...

Sure, I put a couple hundred dollars worth of quarters into the Galaga machine where I worked, and it was great, but I'd prefer to be playing Fallout 3 at this point...less repetition. :-)


Tommy Tallarico
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@ Stephen Keating. Quote: "I suppose I should point out that about half of those games you mentioned Tommy are PC games."

Only 5 on that list (Warcraft, Dreamfall, Myst, Grim Fandango & Civ IV) were PC only titles. In my opinion, I don't believe consoles vs. PC really have anything to do in relation to this particular discussion. My point was to show/mention that American composers have in fact created just as many distinguishable soundtracks as others around the world.


bob rice
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To get compelling melodies and themes, composers should be hired early enough so that they have plenty of time for the creative process. This process would include discussions with the game developer about what the developer wants the music to compel the gamer to feel. The composer would then submit themes for the developer to evaluate. This back-and-forth process will normally lead to compelling melodies and themes.

If I needed music for my game, in addition to doing the above, I would hire a composer who:

1. Has the same passion and commitment for games that I do.

2. Plays games and understands the nuances of what a gamer wants in the game playing experience.

3. Understands the vernacular of gamers and game producers.

4. Has many games under their belt.

5. Focuses on games first and films second. Not the opposite.

Bob Rice

FBI four bars intertainment

Mark Kilborn
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I have to agree on the subject of music being boring. Of the titles Tommy listed (I own all but two of them), only two had music memorable and powerful enough that I can still recall specific melodies. They are the theme from Mass Effect and "Baba Yetu" from Civ IV. Not to say that all of those scores are bad, just that none of them truly stood out to me. Some of them might not have been meant to, though. Bioshock's score certainly achieved its goal: although I can't remember the music specifically, I do remember that it added to the tension felt when exploring areas of Rapture.

But people are right to call out generic direction in this issue. Even from a sound design perspective I've found myself having to do things I feel are foolish or unimaginative in the name of pleasing a producer or creative director who thinks he/she understands what makes a great sounding game. Everything from "make it sound like COD4" (despite the project being a completely different genre) to "make those cricket chirps louder! I can't hear them when fifteen enemy units are unloading on me!" Some of the poorest work I've ever done has been a reaction to poor direction and, in a market where it's all about cranking out Gears/Halo clones, this happens constantly.

Nathan Madsen
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I think the author's comments are off on several counts.

1) "...considering each has only one or two recognizable themes or melodies—the rest of it is filler."

Not every musical cue should be the iconic melody the author seems to be looking for. In film scores there is plenty of "filler" music that just supports the mood and events in the scene. If every music cue in film or game was as iconic as Brandon seems to feel is needed, then we'd have an imbalance between the music and other parts of the game. Just as with other parts of a video game, some parts of the music need to stand out while other parts of the music should step back.

2) "I can hardly remember the themes of any American game titles from the last two console generations, even in cases where melody would be warranted."

Really? I can hum the God of War main theme right now. I can also sing the Metal Gear Solid theme. The Ratchet and Clank music is very effective and something I can remember off hand. Silent Hill: Amazing. I think that game sells largely in part because of Akira's awesome soundtracks. I also really enjoyed the Klonoa 1 & 2 soundtracks. The Sly Cooper series was also very strong. I don't know why you can hardly remember the last two generation of game titles, but I can.

3) "But if you consider player responses, you'll often hear things about how great the graphics are, or how the environments are destructible -- but you hardly ever hear about how great the music is."

I've done a good deal of play testing with regards to music and video games in general. What I've noticed is many folks are generally "bad" at talking about music. People that are musically trained do better but those untrained find it hard to put into words what they like or why they like a track of music. You cannot please everyone when having them listen to music. So in our play tests we shoot for two kinds of responses:

A) Somewhat indifferent. They don't mind it.

B) They LOVE it!

Of course B is the preferred option. We actively change the music when we get a negative reaction to the music: "I hate this" or "this is annoying."

4) "When I asked Game Developer's audio columnist Jesse Harlin about this phenomenon some time ago, he mentioned that distinctive music can be created by playing against convention. Mario's themes are memorable in part because who expects swing music in an action game?"

This is a known approach but there are traps here too. If composer A does something contrary to what you, the player, were expecting then it could either work or not work. It could annoying you. "Why on Earth did they use country-swing for a zombie killer!?!?!?!" Or it could create a cool dichotomy that you really dig. Yes, let.s explore and try new things. Yes, let's push the limits of music in games. But we also have to realize that we cannot please everyone. Your entire article seems to be saying that much of the music for the last few generations has been forgettable, uninspired and crappy. I completely disagree. Attend a Video Games Live concert and hear what's been going on. Sure there have been some crappy soundtracks, but there have been some amazing ones as well.


Nathan Madsen

Composer-Sound Designer

Chris Kline
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I should probably note that I too disagree with the author’s statement of there being little to no memorable modern game music coming from America. I think it's easy to make that assumption because of the mass quantity of mediocre games coming out every year. The same could be said of Hollywood movie productions though. Gems easily get lost in the crowd, and as a whole, the bad easily out numbers the good. I think in general I can remember more modern video game themes than modern Hollywood soundtracks. This is no different in other countries though. There's plenty of bad that masks the good.


Chris Kline

Mark Morgan
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Hey Brandon,

This is a great topic and like Rod I'm glad this is being discussed.

I agree with Rod and Will in the sense that in most cases as composers we are doing what the developers asked for, and the developers should be open to different types of scores but as of late that's seems to be pretty rare. I know were talking about video game music but this permeates in film and TV music as well. Whatever the reasons I do believe that a lot of game music has become more and more generic. The big orchestral thing is cool but enough is enough. I know I will get flack for this but in my opinion in most cases they are not the most memorable scores.

We cant just blame the developers, but I also believe that composers should take some responsibility. In a lot of cases we have fallen into this safe place using the same samples and same loops which in turn process the same sound. In defense this is usually dictated by the genre were writing for but I think we have a responsibility as artist to stretch and push it more musically and sonically [even without them knowing] and maybe the powers at be will follow.

Maybe I'm being optimistic but I feel maybe in the near future there should and will and shift in game scores. I believe that gamers are looking for something different and game music unlike film and television

because of the subject matter and visuals should be wide open to progress to a very modern place. To me that is a exciting prospect..

Brian Schmidt
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First, I'm thrilled that an article is being written about game music aesthetics! Thank you Brandon.

A whole counter-article could be written on the changing role of music in games from the 8/16 bit days to now talking about emotion, technology, limitations, orchestras and so on..

But I think maybe its much simpler than that.

You have a history of thousands of 'old school' games to look at. Of those a relatively small handful have memorable music on the scale you're describing such as Mario, Zelda, Sonic, etc.. A pre-rec's for those are a killer game, itself memorable. Part of the fun of remembering music is it takes you back to the enjoyable gameplay experience. While there were no doubt some awful games with great, memorable, catchy-tune filled music, those don't get rembered becuase they become lost with the game...

So out of those thousands of games, a handful really stick out. I dont' see that too different from today. While there an unprecedented number of talented composers working on games, I have no doubt that 20 years from now, only a handful of today's games' scores will stick out in the same way. This is how art is-- a lot of music/art is good, only a small percentage is truly great, truly special; and we aren't always that good at making that distinction until some time after the fact.

So don't lament. No doubt 20 years from now, there will be a column waxing nostalgic for the "Great orchestral themes of the 2000's", selectively remembering those select few products where a great game, matched with a great score created something truly special and memorable.


Brian Schmidt

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Brandon Sheffield
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Tommy (and others): I did begin the piece with the caveat that yes, music is subjective, and everyone has their own taste. A lot of the titles you mentioned seem, to me (just me! Thus the opinion at the front) to be your average symphonic “epic,” which is not really distinctive. It may be pleasant, or innocuous, but it is generally not something that stands out to my ear as memorable or melodious. Choral and symphonic pieces in many of the games you’ve mentioned do not seem distinct enough to recall to mind immediately.

And I should note that I said “most of,” not all music. I’m going to dissect your list a bit, without trying to hate on everyone:

Halo, BioShock, I already mentioned these as positives.

Golden Compass, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Godfather, these are all based on existing properties with a standard to follow, so while their soundtracks are appropriate, I would be hard-pressed to say that they distinguish themselves particularly – I mean they’re meant to complement the scores of their cinematic parents.

BioShock and LittleBigPlanet are good, as I mentioned, but both use licensed music extensively, and I’m talking about original compositions.

As for the rest, well, those are all matters of subjective opinion there! Some I agree with, some I don’t, but I’m not going to be a jerk and call all of them out.

Also of course, do realize I’m not so much saying American composers are bad – not by a long shot. I’m saying that conditions are currently not such that they are able to extend their abilities beyond those of Hollywood supplemental composers, whereas they could be leading them, in this interactive medium that has so much potential. My aim is not to criticize composers, but rather to hopefully get everyone to talk about how games could be structured so that engaging and dynamic music can be given more importance in the schedule than it currently is. Certainly some composers are better or more inventive than others though, and I think a dialog between both parties will help everyone, most of all the player.

Nathan Madsen – I was largely talking about American soundtracks here – over half the titles you mentioned were from Japan. Yamaoka is awesome every time!

Brandon Sheffield
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Brian - I'm kinda not so sure I agree that I'll ever be reminiscing about the symphonic game days of yore, but you never know!

also I feel I should maybe highlight some of the games which I do think have unique and interesting scores from the West, so people know when I say 'most,' I'm aware there are some diamonds in there -

for my personal taste (keeping within Western-composed games of the last two concert generations) I like and can remember the music of:

Castle Crashers, Portal, Dead Space, Flower, Sega Superstars Tennis, Fallout 3, Henry Hatsworth and the Puzzling Adventure, the Soul Reaver series, some of the Spyro games, and then loads of indie games, but I was pretty much talking about large-scale releases here. Just to supplement - Braid (licensed), BioShock (licensed) GTA series (licensed).

If we extend it to Japan, there's everything from akira yamaoka, loco roco, patapon, katamari series, a host of shooters, prinny: can I really be the hero, valkyria chronicles, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII, nearly everything from masafumi takada, and the list goes on.

Just so people don't think I hate everything here!

Matt Ponton
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I haven't read all of the above comments, but I think you have a really nice opinion piece here.

To go along with your repetition comment, being a fighting game genre enthusiast I often find myself humming tunes from my favorite fighting games. In these games the background music is supposed to be aiding the idea or feeling of the character it's representing. That, along with the repetition of constantly playing more and more fights over and over again leads to memorable tunes. Just take a look at Street Fighter II's Ryu, Ken, or Guile themes. Personally, I've also enjoyed the Dead or Alive series' music including DOA1, DOA2 (and it's remixes in Ultimate), and DOA3. All are a great listen to. Then you have fans who enjoy the metal stylings of Guilty Gear, or King of Fighters' memorable tunes. The fighting genre is certainly a genre still rooted in many of the old styles (repetition and learning the game) - which I personally am a fan of.

Mark Morgan
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Brandon is totally correct which I was eluding to in my earlier comments. The game shit should be leading the way but instead it's following this so called Hollywood sound and I'm sorry but most of that stuff is lame and it's losing the battle in the hipness war. Do you really want to hear another Hans score from one of his little keepers.. As far as film goes I would rather listen to a Clint Mansell score which is usually more appropriate and way more emotional and to the point. I think we are missing the point that it's maybe up to us to change it if you agree with Brandon.. hopefully the developers will be also in on it. And he's right that ultimately it will help the player...

Kevin Chow
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I've skimmed through the comments, but this is a topic that I've seen come up a few times in various places.

My personal hunch is that it depends a lot on how music is used in a particular game. When you have a very tight integration of music into the atmosphere, there is less opportunity to have some kind of rousing score, and in some genres it may not be possible to do so. One of the nice things about the "old days" is that this level of integration was far less, simply because in many cases it was hard to do, so the composer had more free reign in doing their own thing. A lot of tracks these days are in support of the game atmosphere, rather than striking out on their own. Of course, there are examples on both sides of the fence, and it is very genre dependant, but my opinion is that in order for a game to create a more immersive atmosphere, it becomes less musical, closer to SFX. I'm not saying that that's the only route, but it may be an easier route to take, which is why it's seems quite common.

Derek Lebrun
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As an amateur musician myself, one who has remixed quite a few classic NES game songs, I can plainly tell you that most game soundtracks these days just aren't putting in the same kind of effort. From technical complexity in song writing, to simply making a catchy melody, game music today drops this sort of thing in favor of generic and forgettable action movie soundtracks.

Perhaps it was something more common in the 80's-90's to include fancy musical flourishes or solos that you don't find in modern game music, but I'm willing to bet that focus has been taken away from music as an aspect of game design. I have found nothing in the last 2 console generations made in an American studio that had anything remotely close to memorable.

The problem lies in creating music solely to set the mood of the game without taking into consideration whether or not the song itself is good. If your music isn't good enough that people would want to listen to it outside of the game, what business does it have even existing, let alone being a memorable and purposeful addition to a video game.

Maybe we should stop employing American musicians who only write video game music, and hand off the next fantasy video game soundtrack job to Blind Guardian or Dragon Force. It sure as hell wouldn't be boring.

Nathan Madsen
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"As an amateur musician myself, one who has remixed quite a few classic NES game songs, I can plainly tell you that most game soundtracks these days just aren't putting in the same kind of effort."

@Derek: How can you possibly know how much effort goes into writing a piece of music? Furthermore, how can you compare the amount of effort it takes to write a piece from composer to composer.

I think some people are falling in the trap of thinking: "This is more complex, so it MUST be better."

This is flat out wrong. In many cases it can be much more difficult to create a very simplistic piece that captures people's attention, makes them listen and lasts for decades. Take a listen to the Gymnopedies by Satie for piano. These pieces are very simple, at yet there they've been recorded and adapted time and time again. After hearing this piece, would you think it took less or more effort than a more complicated sounding piece.

I also think many folks are remembering songs from video games they played as children. I was growing up with the Nintendo mainly. So I never played the Atari. My face doesn't light up when I see an Atari game, or hear the bleeps and bloops. But my friends, who are a bit older, do. So I think some context is required when listing off games (and it's music) that are felt to be better than today's content. I'm not saying I disagree 100% nor that I agree 100%. Just that some context here is needed.

Derek Lebrun
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When you transpose a song you gain intimate knowledge of it's composition. Any musician worth his salt can identify how different songs are composed and make comparisons as to how they were written and how well they were written.

Nathan Madsen
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Sorry, I forgot to add this in as well:

From Derek: "The problem lies in creating music solely to set the mood of the game without taking into consideration whether or not the song itself is good. If your music isn't good enough that people would want to listen to it outside of the game, what business does it have even existing, let alone being a memorable and purposeful addition to a video game."

You should refer to my earlier discussion about balance needed in a musical score. Not every piece should be in the foreground of an experience, be that a film, stage production or video game. Some music is meant to be solely in the background... hence the term "background music." The composer, and the game's design crew, need to question the role of each part of the game. Let's step away from music for a second and examine graphics. Does every single graphical asset in the game need to be jaw-droppingly amazing? Nope. Not only would this probably kill the performance of the game, but it would be visual overload. This is why certain aspects of the graphics in a game are pretty plain. Does this destroy the game's experience. Not to me. A great example of this is UI. Take the UI in GTA 4. It's very simple. There's solid colors, not even shading. Now let's go back to music. Not every piece needs to be that opening cinematic, OMG! this is freakin' amazing piece. If so, I would be willing to bet that some would find the music too overbearing. Too much in the foreground.

You mentioned people wanting to listen to music outside of the game. Yes, this is a great when it happens. As composers we all want our soundtracks to be listened to and enjoyed outside of the game, but that isn't the main reason why we write the music. The music has a function. A role. And if we're only concerned with making a number 1 hit and not serving the video game's actions, scene or vibe then we might be missing the mark. Much of the music written for video games is meant to be a collaborative experience between game play, visuals, sound design and the music.

Very interesting discussion!




Nathan Madsen

Composer-Sound Designer

Nathan Madsen
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"When you transpose a song you gain intimate knowledge of it's composition. Any musician worth his salt can identify how different songs are composed and make comparisons as to how they were written and how well they were written."

Sure. But that doesn't necessarily translate as effort, does it? I'm sure there are guys that pour hours and hours into their pieces, but if they lack the needed talent and skill.... it could still sound like crap. Likewise an amazing genius like Mozart could whip out an incredible piece in a day. That's my point.

Steve Watkins
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It's a good topic for discussion, but I thought the arguments made in the main piece were too generalized and weak (not much for supporting theories with specifics?). And, yes, music is entirely subjective.

I think I've read this same article a couple dozen times over the last few years about all components of games - generic designs, generic graphics, generic sound, etc.

Just follow the money. All trails lead to the checkbook. And don't take risks - please the shareholders (esp. the stock-optioned-to-the-hilt CEOs of the big publishers whose tombstones will read "He maximized his revenue streams" or "I sure hope there's a sequel").

Tommy Tallarico
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Yo Brandon,

I think Brian Schmidt totally hit it on the head but I believe you dismissed him a bit and your response was that you probably won't remember any of the modern symphonic scores. For every beloved Mario, Zelda & Tetris score from 25 years ago we could all point to 1,000 games back then where the music was horrible. In fact, truth be told... in regards to the "mainstream general public" (not hardcore fans such as all of us here) most people believe that the "old school" music is totally annoying and repetitive.

Any game composer whose been around more than 10 - 15 years will tell you how the average person on the street would laugh and make fun of us when we told them what we did. But that sentiment has rapidly been changing over the past 4 or 5 years BECAUSE of the amazing quality and awesome production that is coming from the video game industry NOW. We see it every night we perform Video Games Live around the world. The "average non-hardcore gamer" is blown away when they hear the music to games like God of War, Civilization IV, Myst, Halo, Medal of Honor, etc. They totally appreciate how far game music has come and how powerful and emotional game music can get with the use of modern tools and technology.

I personally feel that your article and opinion is that of a hardcore gamer... and I don't disagree with it... and that is totally fine and I would never take away from that. As many of my other colleagues here have stated... it's awesome that you're talking about it at all and definitely opens a wider discussion about the history of game music and how it has evolved. And as you have commendingly stated both in the article and your responses... this is your opinion and your personal take on the situation.

But my personal opinion is that in regards to a mainstream average non-hardcore gaming audience... you may not be seeing the bigger picture. Through Video Games Live we have been turning 100,000's of new people on to video game music and we literally speak to hundreds and hundreds of people after each performance during our meet & greets... and I can tell you that although the non-gamers may look upon Mario, Zelda & Sonic with a nostalgic... "aaawww" (while bringing back amazing memories of their childhood) it's the modern scores such as Halo, Warcraft, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear Solid, God of War, Medal of Honor, Civilization IV, Advent Rising & Myst that are the ones that really blow them away where they tell us... "Wow! I am so surprised at how incredible game music has become! This stuff is better than any film score over the past 20 years!"

The classically trained symphonic musicians will also commend the melodies, arrangements & orchestrations of the new music as being brilliant and on-par with a lot of esteemed classical music and composers.

And just for the record, I love BOTH and for different reasons. I also believe your article to be true to a certain audience... especially the Gamasutra crowd. But I also know from first hand experience that the mainstream would argue that your article is exactly opposite to what you wrote.

No worries... it's all good. I don't think any of us are here to fight or argue, I just wanted to give a more widespread and worldwide view of modern symphonic game music and why it continues to become more and more popular each day!


Tommy Tallarico
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Yo Stephen,

I respectively disagree with your disagreement. :)

I'm still not sure I really understand your PC arguement from a creative standpoint and why modern PC symphonic game music should or shouldn't be considered when discussing a topic about creative compositions in the 21st century?

As composers in the 21st century we're not limiting our creative approach depending on what platform the music is going to end up on. Is the creative composition and music in Myst, Civilization IV and Warcraft less or more significant because they are only on a PC? I would say it doesn't really matter at all. High quality composition is high quality composition no matter what the end user is listening or experiencing it on.

I would also disagree with your comment that the PC has never "evolved" to the general public when games like Warcraft, Lineage II, The Sims, Myst series, etc. have generated more money and user bases around the world than mostly any other games in the history of our industry. Also keep in mind that PC's are officially the most played game systems IN THE WORLD! Even grandma's are logging into game portals such as to play. There is some great data and industry facts regarding this on the ESA website:

But all that being said, I believe this particular thread and discussion are pertaining to the "creative" side of scoring for games in the 21st century and in the hundreds of games I've worked on I've never really had to creatively approach a PC game any different than a console game. Technically maybe... but not creatively. Not since the mid 90's anyway.

Some may also argue that PC's have it much better than consoles because of the multi-disc, hard-drive downloading, CPU power & live streaming capabilities that PC's have these days. Sure, there are certain games and music out there that rely on the hardware and interactive audio systems in order to function... but from a creative standpoint... music is music and it's up to the individual composer to figure out the best method to deliver his or her masterpiece to the game experience.


Derek Lebrun
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@ Nathan

The comparison you are referring to in art is having blank or restful areas to relax the eye after looking at detail or complex color. The same thing exists in music with softer passages or silence in between crescendos. I don't however think that video game music as a whole should in any way take a 2nd stage to the video game itself, even as background music.

By obscuring the music, you only serve to remove it's meaning to the player. Every video game component needs an equal amount of attention and care to make something truly great. You might as well be telling Wagner to lay off the catchy music so the audience can concentrate more on the stage show.

I haven't had very much classical music training, but I can identify a lazy effort when I see one in music. I'm not asking for a Genesis or Philip Glass in video game music, I just want thoughtful, memorable, good music that doesn't only serve as an afterthought or filler.

I can remember what countless video game characters look like, but I have a much harder time trying to remember what their theme song sounds like. Why is this the case, and what possible justification could anyone have for enabling that sort of response in players? Good music is one more reason for people to buy your game and remember it.

An Dang
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That's a lot of discussion.

This is just my opinion, but I think it's mostly big budget Western games that have generic, blockbuster movie-esque soundtracks. I think it's because they stick to what's tried and true.

Personally, I am a bigger fan of Japanese video game music. To me, Squaresoft's line of games haven't disappointed me in the music department. And, yes, I mean Squaresoft. Enix titles like Dragon Quest and Star Ocean have tracks I tend not to remember. The Final Fantasy titles, Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, Xenogears--these tend to have a few amazing tracks that stuck in my head and are easily recognizable even out of context.

Brandon Sheffield
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Tommy (and by extension Brian Schmidt) - I'll certainly concede that it's true there are thousands of older games from which I can draw the best of the best to mind, there's no question of that - but the human mind tends to recall melody more than ambiance, and I would pose the idea that there is a dearth of melody these days, aside from perhaps one iconic track per soundtrack, which I think is a missed opportunity.

Halo for instance, does have two recognizable themes or so - but the rest of the music is (perhaps necessarily) much more supplemental to the experience rather than driving it melodically. Again, there's a big taste issue here, wherein I find the music of John Williams to be quite generic, and others find it amazing and memorable.

I am probably speaking to the hardcore or developer audience as you state, but of course, this editorial originally appeared (in abridged form) in Game Developer magazine, so that kinda makes sense! I would counter with the idea that pretty much *only* the hardcore will remember video game elements of any kind. Mainstream folks are the type that don't even know there are developers and publishers, or individual actual people that make these games. I would be surprised if they really remembered scores on their own. I'm sure they would through video games live, but that's quite a large show, with impressive production quality and visuals and all that - they remember the experience, I'm sure. I might pose the possibility that mainstream folks might remember the song more from VGL, and then go back to a game and be like 'wow, I heard this at video games live' rather than carrying their memory of it from the game to VGL.

But well, we're arguing a more minor point here ultimately. I'm guessing you would agree that it would be nice for composers to have more space to experiment, and to drive music forward, rather than emulating techniques that already exist, which was the main drive of this article!

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Well genericity doesn't mean no quality or no compelling production, genericty deals with "comfort" read "beaten to death". But generic songs goes on with generic story, character, gameplay, thematic, mood...

Halo theme is really good but Portal's "still alive" is a breakthrough!

Nathan Madsen
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Derek: I guess we'll have to agree to disagree. :) I certainly am not saying that music isn't important, but rather that a balance is needed. I also still think you're equating a "lazy effort" solely from the song's structure when you're analyzing music. I don't think that is a totally reliable gauge. Have you spoken to the composer? Do you know how much time was available for composing? Do you know what kind(s) of direction he was given? I think, and this may just be me, that looking at only the notes of a piece doesn't give a full impression of effort- which seems to be one of your main critiques of American game music.

Simple music doesn't mean less effective. Complex music doesn't mean less effective. There needs to be balance. And no, my comparison to art doesn't only mean a rest or quiet part between crescendi in a piece. It can also mean a track that has a thinner texture or more simplified structure. This happens all of the time. Film score legends do this. It's even evident in many concert set lists. Many concerts strive to balance the type of intensity and "flavor" of the music performed.

If you feel that simple music equates laziness, then I guess that's your choice and opinion. But complexity just for complexity sales doesn't always inspire and affect people as well. Sometimes but not always. Just go buy some CDs of either serialism music or free jazz. So great tracks here and there but overall both concepts never took off at a massive level.




Nathan Madsen

Composer-Sound Designer

Nathan Madsen
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Ugh.... Stupid typos!! I hate doing this on my phone! ;)

Richard Cody
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Games have a much wider spectrum of genres they need to explore in greater detail than in movies. As people have mentioned 40-80 hour games can be grating to play through with only 2 hours of music (if it's not implemented extremely well). But games, more so then films, are an adventure. That ride is much crazier and more visceral and fully fleshed out. Instead of a short few minutes of exposition and "downtime" you get in films you might have hours of it in games.

This lets the player understand the world they're in. It makes a much deeper connection than movies can afford to make. This is an example of a place where you don't just follow the game's themes and style to write the music. Often times you're in a city, you need to give it life, open it up, expand the palette monstrously. This should be where a composer should totally go free, because in any city you're bound to hear tons of music; bizarre, normal, whatever.

The "filler" can be approached differently but I don't believe you should be writing typical hook-based songs for a dark alley shooting scene. There's always room for ideas but listen to SimCity 3000, really fitting soundtrack for the game. Mario games work with hooks, Katamari works with hooks, I personally felt Mirror's Edge did a pretty great job keeping you in the game, Halo has done a good job..

The ONE thing I don't like, and this contributes to many generic scores, is the incessant "epicness" of scores. I'm really tired of it. There's little room for intricacy and personality and distinctiveness when you open up a score like that. It makes WoW become grating (when I get near cities), it makes so many games lose that personal feel. There's a place for it, but saving everything at once gets old after 500 games are competing in that same space.

Lose the epicness to gain personality. Again make big cities feel intricate.

Will Loconto
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Richard Cody: "As people have mentioned 40-80 hour games can be grating to play through with only 2 hours of music (if it's not implemented extremely well)."

Unfortunately, a lot of games don't budget enough for even 60 minutes of music. I agree on opening up the style palette and getting more creative. Not every game needs an 80 piece orchestra and 50 person choir. I'd personally love to be able to take more creative risks.

Nathan Madsen: "Simple music doesn't mean less effective. Complex music doesn't mean less effective."

I agree with you. I think effective music can have different roles in games. Sometimes a solo piano melody can accomplish far more on an emotional level than a full orchestra layering complex harmonies and multiple counterpoints in 12/8 time. It all depends on the situation. The music should be there to serve the game. That's the bottom line anyway, right?

Nathan Madsen
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Brandon: "Halo for instance, does have two recognizable themes or so - but the rest of the music is (perhaps necessarily) much more supplemental to the experience rather than driving it melodically."

I think one point to bring up is how often composers use the same melodic content but hide it "inside" the texture of the piece. I've heard this many times before. The Ratchet and Clank OST do a nice job of this, where fragments of the main theme (or level's theme) can be heard. To a non-musician or someone not paying close attention, this could be easily missed. Does this happen in every game? Nah, of course not. But when it does happen, it can be really cool! Perhaps some of the games that you're citing as having "does have two recognizable themes or so" or tracks that are mostly "filler" are a bit more melodic than you think. Perhaps a closer listen would show this.

Not to get too much into musical nerdness but there are other techniques that can, in a way, disguise a melody. The composer can change the order of the notes and play the melody in the reverse order. For example instead of going "A-B-C" it goes "C-B-A." He can also invert the direction of the melody. Instead of it arcing upwards, it flows downwards while keeping all of the relationships note to note basically the same. The melody could transposed to a different key or mode (minor, major, etc) which would change the basic vibe. The speed of the melody can be increased or decreased while the rest of the music's speed (or tempo) remains intact. The melody could be broken up into smaller fragments that only hint here and there but never state the full theme. It could be any combination of these. This can help create continuity in the soundtrack as well as help hint at things to come. Like hinting at the evil theme when the bad guy in disguise appears in a scene.... or so on. Often composers strive to look for clever ways to change how the melody is delivered to the listener.

To the casual listener these methods may or may not be identified. To others it allows for another layer of musical maturity of the theme and how it's delivered. I don't know anything about your musical background or knowledge level but I'd be willing to bet these smaller melodic ideas (called a motif) are found in these "filler" tracks more than some realize.



Tommy Tallarico
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@ Brandon:

Quote "...I find the music of John Williams to be quite generic..."

I respect your opinion (don't have to agree with it... but I respect it), and if that's the case then I completely understand now why you don't prefer or can't appreciate modern symphonic game music. I would just ask you to consider that I believe in terms of taste, you are very much in the minority in regards to the melodic and composing achievements of Mr. Williams.

Jaws?, Schindler's List?, Gilligan's Island?, Fiddler on the Roof?, Empire of the Sun?, E.T.?, Amistad?, A.I.?, Memoirs of a Geisha?

Generic?? Hmm...

I personally think you're statement may be selling Meastro Williams a little short (and I didn't even bother to reference Star Wars, Indy, Superman, Harry Potter or Jurassic Park), but as we've all already stated... music is subjective.

I mean, clearly it is! Keep in mind that in your original article you stated "Every video game fan recognizes the sweeping tones of Road Rash."

Really? Do you really believe that? Maybe you personally loved Road Rash... but do you honestly think every video game fan recognizes it? Not to take anything away from Road Rash of course... I personally love it as well, but to use that as a basis that modern game music isn't as good, recognizable and revered as Road Rash is a pretty weak arguement in my opinion. You also stated that you felt Gears of Wars is one of the most iconic soundtracks of modern games. That's cool. I'm just not sure most gamers would agree and have the same opinion.

I also respectfully disagree with your comment that some modern games are okay because it has one or two good songs but you feel the rest of the soundtrack is a "missed opportunity" because the music isn't as strong as your two favorites. It would take me awhile to explain the issues or questions I have with that statement, so I won't go into it... but I would like add that I'm guessing you probably may not be able to remember and hum every level from every Zelda or Castlevania game you've ever played.

I personally think it all boils down to this...

You're always going to love the music you grew up with and nothing that comes after it will ever live up to what you cherished when you were growing up.

Keeping that in consideration, I think it insults and hurts a lot of people (and is a little unfair) to make statements like "these days it's quite difficult to identify one game soundtrack from another", modern game music is "uninspired", "Most game music these days is boring.", "actual melody in games is rare."

Thanks for you time in reading and responding. No ill feelings I hope. None here. Thanks for the discussion.


Mark Morgan
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This has become kind of an odd discussion but it's still fun.

This is more of a devil advocates point of view and maybe a little off message...

I will be the first to admit John W. is the real deal, Personally I love his more emotional stuff, Schindlers and Giesha and some of his smaller lesser known scores. I know the project dictates the sound and style but why does orchestral game music have to rehash the epic stuff and frankly not do it as well as John W. Whats the point? Why not try to move it to a more modern place. John W. has already done it and will all do respect probably a lot better than most game composers or any composers for that matter. I probably should not say this but it's tough to take an orchestral score now days and make it sound really unique.. Unless you really understand the process and the language of written music for an orchestra the pallette can sound generic [we wont even get into the choir thing]. In a lot of cases especially in recent game scores in some cases you have to almost take them out of their context and analyze different scores to really hear the difference, especially the more epic scores. So basically their just doing their job which I guess is the point but it still nothing new sonically. Also it can be said that their has been an influx in the game industry in particular with so many orchestral scores and frankly with some of them not so great it has hurt the really good ones and leaves the perception that there is just to many of those kind of scores.


Jack Wall
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Brandon! Wow, looks like you stirred something up here! :)

Well, I really didn't think I had anything of any substance to add to this discussion other than the fact that with VGL, we've performed for over 250,000 people (maybe more) over 100 shows (no kidding - we just did our 100th show in Richmond - wow...).

Now, I can tell you first hand, while respectful of the fact that music is quite subject, as you've said - people are spending good money to hear this music played live. They love the themes to the songs in the show. Of course, our show is a greatest hits of sorts, but I can tell you that as time marches on, Tommy and I struggle to add as many new segments to the show as we can. The reason is that music seems to be MORE memorable to more people. And contrary to what Chris Kline has observed, I have noticed that game designers, producers, directors and audio leads ALL feel very strongly about the importance of music in their game.

Thanks for the nice mention of the main theme that Sam Hulick and I co-wrote for Mass Effect. That was cool to hear in the context of this discussion. However, as music is indeed subjective, I think the industry really is doing better than we all might think. 250,000 singing along to everything from God of War, to Civ IV, to MGS and Mario.

And at the risk of stirring up even more - I have to say this - Japanese music is not better than western music. Sorry. Is it different? yes! Is it unique? yes! Better? Not better in general - just different. The cultural differences are there and there is something for everyone to enjoy.


Duncan Bohannon
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There's a ton of comments here, and I'm sorry if someone already mentioned this. This problem -- and I do think it is a problem -- is exactly what is happening with film and television, and as a film composer (would love to work on some games, too!), I'm right in the middle of it. And while it appears Brandon and I may have a difference in musical taste -- I, for one, LOVE the fact that more and more games are finally using the orchestra, if by "John Williams-inspired" he means "orchestral" -- I wholeheartedly agree that games and their music (as well and films and their music) are losing the art of having a unique musical thumbprint. Unfortunately, many modern film directors and game developers see music that offers uniqueness (having a great original theme, for example) as a "distraction." Because God forbid anyone *notice* the music apart from the game/film. That would be horrible!!

Brandon also wisely addresses the "temp track" problem, and I'm very glad he did. The use of temp tracks, I have come to realize, is not necessarily a bad thing. But when they start to become anything more than simply a placeholder, and begin to serve as the basis for artistic direction, getting "stuck" in the mind of the director/developer, then the situation gets dangerous (for me, anyways). When used in such a manner, temp scores can suck the originality out of a project completely. Yes, I have my influences, but when asked if I can "make it sound just like this" or "copy without copying," my answer is "no" every time. I will not contribute to the ongoing unoriginality in music for visual media.

Personally, I can only hope we get more people that the game industry is so lucky to have such as Michael Giacchino and Chris Tilton who, at least from my point of view, continue to provide great music and memorable themes to even the smaller of games.

Tim W
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As a classical musician, the problem I see with game music is that it hasn't advanced since its early days. Of course the technology has changed, but the underlying music is still essentially the same stuff that we've heard before. I like John Williams as a composer and I think his music is great, but the reason I don't listen to his music on a regular basis is because it doesn't have a "blow your mind" factor, and it's for this same reason I don't listen to video game soundtracks by themselves.

I have to question the link between the "iconic" music, themes that people automatically relate to the game it's from, and the quality of the music. For me, iconic music becomes iconic because so many people play the game for so long and they hear the music over and over again. For movies, it's a less so because people don't watch one movie for the same amount of time they would play a game, but it also seems that the popularity of a movie has at least something to do with the iconic status of the music. I think it's the same with classical music. Everyone knows Beethoven's fifth and ninth symphonies because it's all over the place, but I think Brahms' fourth symphony or Shostakovich's fifth symphony are just as awesome, yet very few in the general public will know them, just because it isn't as well represented in media and other sources.

In my opinion, what video game music needs is to diversify more. My favorite modern composer is Arvo Part, whose music is almost retro in terms of harmonic and structural complexity (compared to other modern composers) but still has this sort of relevance to the individual. I'd like to see more diversity in instrumentation (the Lord of the Rings soundtrack would be an excellent example to draw upon) and genres (I would like to see more electronic music in soundtracks in general).

I understand budget constrictions really are the big hindrance behind my vision, but I really don't see how video game music will achieve the next step unless it is diversified. To this argument, one might argue that music should be in the background, not the foreground and shouldn't be that complex. One example I might point out is Erik Satie, whose music was groundbreaking and avant-garde for its time but now his music is sort of living room or fancy dinner background music.

John Paul Zahary
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I myself am a musician, so I do know that opinions run rampant in these types of discussions. So much has been put on the table with so many detailed I will offer some comments.

I agree with Tommy (earlier above) that there are some great themes out there. I believe that it comes down to the game experience that is being sought after, time/budget constraints and personal taste.

Take what Tim W said above, Shore's Lord of the Rings soundtrack was epic, spectacular and diversified - of course, we are dealing in a fantasy universe with many themes ranging from peaceful Shirelings to disfigured Orcs and Goblins...sacrifice and redemption...etc. - not to mention 3 movies with multi-faceted environments. However, how would something like this measure up in say in a covert FPS Modern Warefare?

I agree with the author's remarks on Resistance Fall of Men...I do not remember a single theme off hand from the might say this has to do with FPS, however, I can not say the same for Halo or Call of Duty (3). I disagree that Halo only had 2 distinctive themes coupled with "filler" music. I personally own the soundtrack (a decision I made after finishing the first 2 games and playing through the 3rd) because of the many effective themes during the game-play experience. It is true, there were times that music was void...mostly for effect...but a memorable theme would fade in at an opporutune moment of a fire fight, cut scene or dialogue - allowing the story to unfold. To me, it just flowed correctly even though it was not a John William's continuous music-filled experience. As for Call of Duty 3, I thought the soundtrack was wonderful - in particular, the main theme. - to me, Patton-like war score was memorable.

Brandon, you are correct when you ask where is Mega Man2??? A game that I sometimes played just to hear the soundtrack. It was a game unlike any other for its time - there were multple bosses and environments - creating a need for multiple themes. - in addition, looped music had to drive the 8-bit side-scrolling action while today it seems that cinematography, realistic-lighting, action and physics are given attention.

A few side notes:

I am surprised that no one mentioned Yu Suzuki's masterpiece Shenmue or Super Mario Galaxy.

Shenmue is an epic series with an epic soundtrack - Awesome Asian inspired themes - I do hope a sequel will emerge again. As for SMG, the fact that the soundtrack changed from its normal "swing" latin music to orchestral and otherworldly, spacious themes really impressed me and touched me in a profound way.

I personlly love John William's scores and do not write them off as "generic" incarnations. Granted, I can recognize his themes, however in my opinion, the movies become twice as good with his presence. Pull them from Star Wars, Indiana Jones or Jaws and tell me that the movies will be as memorable as they are now.

In conclusion, I think that we all are looking for something that inspires or has never been done before; we just need to find the right game, with a decent amount of score time, and make sure it fits the story.

John Paul Zahary
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One more game of interest concerning FPS - I was extremely impressed with Gamecube's Metroid Prime. I felt, that as Mega Man 2, each environment provided an exceptional theme as well as the infectious main title. (Tallon Overworld Theme 2, Phendrana Drifts were memorable favorites).

Harold Pichol
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First of all, thanks for this article.

Random thoughts about the discussion:

-Portal's song was done BEFORE Valve knew how to end the game ie Jonathan itw:

"That whole sequence that happens right before the song, and the thing with the scrolling text and credits was done after the song was written, and I think it really adds a great deal."

The audio controlled the visuals. It adds to the game, to the music and makes it all very powerful. Thinking in "atmosphere terms" instead of thinking about what we so want to see in the game is a shift that the industry should take. Feeling > Watching.

-Katamari visuals were all done by 10 people. The credits give 8 sound designers! If you add musicians and all it's like three times or four times the visual team!

-It's way easier for a producer to pitch his game with huge artworks than with music. We're always amazed by artworks when music is something to think about, something to feel, it's just not as snappy as the visual part (which is quite fake, artworks aren't as ingame as music is) of games. And we sadly live in a fast world.

-A game is a lot of risks and considering music, western producers often want that part to be as "politically correct" as possible, when Japan is always creative on this side (as you all know music is integrated very early in the dev process). It's a culture thing too (Samuraï Champloo wouldn't have been produced anywhere except in Japan!).

-Music in western games is very, very narrow minded and the comments show me that too. What's great in those 8/16bits tunes is that they move from very different music mood to others, Mario is fantastic for that: all the american music history -jazz, waltz, bossa, tribal, funk, rock- in one game (MarioWorld). It's no surprise if this appeal to a large population: you can sing it, when you can't with big strings music (if you're a composer or a musician or a sound designer so you can hum everything because it's part of your work, you don't count!). It's all about appropriation.

Raphael de Almeida Müller
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Great article, but I'm can't quite agree with the statement. Of course there's lots of generic music out there today, but the truth is, there also was a lot generic stuff going on in the 8bit era. Mario and Megaman were great, but whoever remembers the other thousands of tunes? Many of them sounded pretty much the same, the same way many modern game soundtracks sound the same.

Same thing regarding tv and movies, of course. There'll never be a way of having only great, authentic music, we'll always have plenty of generico stuff. Btw, imo we have to get other the whole Media Ventures-Hans Zimmer thing, I'm pretty sick and tired of that. Yeah, taikos, marcato strings, all really powerful, but come on, there's more to music than that.

You should listen to the great tunes of some of the other posters here, like Jack Wall's Myst scores and Tommy's Advent Rising. And yeah, Katamari is awesome! :D (except Beautiful Katamari, the third installment, that soundtrack was really a letdown)

Raphael de Almeida Müller
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sry, I meant, "we have to get OVER the whole..."

And I agree with Duncan, I love Michael Giacchino's music, and there's a perfect example to how music in FPSs can perfectly be complex and interesting without distracting the gamer too much, just play Black (PS2) and you'll know what I mean.

Tommy Tallarico
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@ Harold Pichol: Quote - "-Music in western games is very, very narrow minded and the comments show me that too. What's great in those 8/16bits tunes is that they move from very different music mood to others, Mario is fantastic for that: all the american music history -jazz, waltz, bossa, tribal, funk, rock- in one game (MarioWorld). It's no surprise if this appeal to a large population: you can sing it, when you can't with big strings music (if you're a composer or a musician or a sound designer so you can hum everything because it's part of your work, you don't count!).

Yo Harold.... Quite honestly, I would say that it's your above comment that was a little "narrow minded".


Let me explain... I'm getting the impression from some folks that they believe most western composers are only using big orchestral sounds in order to create game music these days. That isn't the case at all. I think some people need to start playing more western video games before making those statements. There is a LOT of rock, pop, techno/industrial, funk, punk, big band/swing, blues, cajun, new age/etheral, jazz and a bunch of other great styles that are constantly being written (and not licensed) for western games. I think one of the issues is that most "epic" and popular games (i.e. the ones that get the most attention) are the FPS's, action/adventure types which of course are going to warrant "epic" and for the most part, symphonic scores. The other scores never get the attention.

Saying that western game music is "narrow minded" is not an accurate statement at all. And yes... certain platform games (you specifically refer to Super Mario World) are more likely to be able to use a bunch of different styles just as I did for the Earthworm Jim franchise (westernly composed).


But it's the STYLES of games that dictacts the music and for some strange reason, a lot of people on this thread seem to think that all the FPS's & Action/Adventure games are the only ones being cranked out of the U.S. Again, they are the most popular and highest profile so I can understand the thinking. But don't think for a second that western composers are putting big epic orchestral scores into a THQ fishing game. You're just not aware of it becasue you probably don't know or play those types of games. I worked for almost a year on the Scooby Doo music and did a TON of live jazz type of stuff... but aside from a few positive reviews when the game came out, no one's going to remember or care. Same thing occurred on all of the Pac-Man games I've been involved with. All different styles of music... but it's the Triple A titles that get all the attention.

Here's a link to my website that features some of the music I've done over the years for video games. Yes, there's an orchestral section... but it's only one of many.

The reason I post this link is not to promote, brag or market myself, it's to show that most every professional game composer I know (western or not) have websites, links & pages just like this. Lots of diversified music that they've written for games. That is one of the fun challenges of being a game composer. The ability to switch genre & style gears from project to project if you'd like. I recently finished doing 3 rock tunes for the new Sonic game for example.

But to say that music is western games is narrow minded is (in my opinion) a completely unfair statement. You're just not hearing the diversity cause it's the big budget triple A epic games (and scores) that everyone hears the most.



Tommy Tallarico
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@ Key Rob: quote - "If this industry really cared we'd see it donating to music programs in elementary schools where it all begins."

Great point. I feel the same way. In fact, Video Games Live donates a lot of our arrangements to Alfred Publishing which is the biggest sheet music provider in North America. Over 75,000+ schools and universities now have the ability to play scores like Halo, Civilization IV, Kingdom Hearts, etc. (do a search for marching band & Halo on YouTube and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised!) The VGL scores are arranged for school orchestras, marching bands, drum core, piano, etc. We also work heavily with the Boy & Cub Scouts whereever we do shows and guest speak at many local schools & universities. We're also involved with the Grammy in the Schools program as well as Grammy Camp.

The non-profit organization G.A.N.G. (Game Audio Network Guild) has a $20,000 a year annual scholarship fund and we also have a Educational Committee that helps create and build curriculums based around game music & audio which we have implemented into many programs and schools including Berklee School of Music, USC, UCLA, Yale, Full Sail, Expressions, Vancouver Film School, Flashpoint Academy and others.

EA has always been a great supporter of these types of programs and I only wish that more game publishers would follow the lead of EA which would make the job of all of the "western" game composers and game audio professionals (carrying most of the weight on an individual basis) a lot easier.

p.s. Behind John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith was my favorite modern composer. Planet of the Apes, Omen, Aliens... all genius!

Nathan Madsen
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@ Key Rob: quote - "If this industry really cared we'd see it donating to music programs in elementary schools where it all begins."

I totally agree with Tommy and with Key Rob on this! I used to teach elementary school music (K-6) and I did a whole section on video game music with the kids. They LOVED it! I taught them how each new generation game more colors to the system which is why the games looked better and better. I also taught them about how the sounds got better and better. Then we spent time with my laptop making songs and then putting them to home made commercials that we made. They were extremely creative and really enjoyed seeing music as something they could create, capture and share. Suddenly music wasn't the boring subject of half notes vs. quarter notes. It served as a bouncing board that got them very excited about music over all.

The challenge to this is I don't know of many elementary school teachers that are familiar with music production on a lap top. I also don't know of many schools that have a half way decent set up. The great thing is the tools are becoming cheaper and cheaper and with the efforts of VGL, GANG and others, we can start showing young students how cool (and fun!) audio production really is!

Yannick Boucher
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So many comments here, I hope I don't repeat too much of what has already been said! Firstly: to John Paul Zahary: THANK YOU for mentioning Shenmue ! Once again, this game goes under the radar undeservedly, whereas it should be the exact contrary: Shenmue has some of the absolute best music in any game of the past decade, and the title theme is definitely memorable. Not only that, but the shear amount of quality music that was composed for this game is just amazing. Add to that the fact that Yu Suzuki said he actually designed the game by drawing his inspiration from the soundtrack, and you've got a very interesting case study right there.

Oh, and i'm forgetting that most of the beautiful orchestral/asian pieces and piano solos in that game were made by Yuzo Koshiro, who ALSO happened to make some of the best 16-bit-era music: Streets of Rage, Super Adventure Island, and ActRaiser, to name but those.

Kudos to Norihiko Hibino as well, who's the real guy behind Metal Gear Solid's signature, in the shadow of Gregson-Williams' name. Also Richard Jacques, whom nobody has mentioned either (some did mention Mass Effect, though), who's an extremely versatile and talented composer, who has also gone from the early days of the Saturn all the way to Metropolis Street Racer and Headhunter (highly underapreciated, due to the limited success of the game).

On my side we just wrapped up the music production on a major license-based project, so there was not much leeway for us on the creative side - it was all about following the original material's direction, but we did a superb job on the execution, if I dare say so.

Otherwise, I do agree that this is a general issue with all media; the music industry and film and TV as well, not just games.

And while I also agree with Brandon that some of the older tunes are more memorable, the reasons for that are definitely debatable. And I also have to end on a question (the million dollar one, which I'm asking myself as well) : does music have to be memorable to be good? When is a soundtrack doing it's job best? When it's memorable on it's own, or when it's such an intricate part of the whole and flows so well, that you barely notice it (until it's gone) ? I'm gonna take an example that is dear to Brandon: Flower... ;) I think the music in Flower was just incredible, and the _musical experience_ of the game as a whole, is absolutely memorable. But if you ask me to hum a tune from Flower, I can't. So, is that a good thing? A bad thing? Neither?

(oh crap, i hope i'm not adding fuel to the flames now! :P )

Ben Garcia
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A bit dated (1995) as far as "American" original game soundtracks go, but Gregory Alper & Jeehun Hwang's work on Mechwarrior 2—along with the Ghost Clan expansion and Mercenaries—to this day remain as one of my all-time favorites. To me, they remain fairly distinct as superb examples of an ambient compliment to the overall theme of the game. Of course it also helped that one could pop the game disc into any CD player and listen to the soundtrack.

king flux
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i don't think there is merit in diversity just for the sake of being diverse...

i remember seeing Planet of the Apes when i was a kid and the music was just as striking as the imagery... why fault the "big budget triple A epic games" for wanting to create the same impact? and if one pays attention, there are other layers to be found... GOW2 immediately felt familiar and bombastic when the disk fired up, yet choosing a Gary Jules song for the advertising campaign forced one to feel a more tender side...

of course, everyone has their own sense of taste... i remember a certain battle in Halo 2 where this guitar rock kicks in (perhaps Steve Vai?) that completely threw me out of the experience... someone's judgement call... miss to my ears, perhaps a hit to others...

of the last 8 games i have played, more than half of them forced me to battle tentacled creatures...

you want narrow minded... think tentacles.

Harold Pichol
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@Tommy Tallarico

"Yo Harold.... Quite honestly, I would say that it's your above comment that was a little "narrow minded"."

Hey Tommy, just trying to get some discussion on this point so I may have pushed a bit too far :)

I totally understand what you're saying about diversity, but at least for me, it's more about "audio rendering" diversity than real diversity, let me explain: Ok this tune for this casual high colored game is not big strings SW-ish music but it feels like it's been composed by someone mainly doing -and loving- that kind of orchestral stuffs. You can't fake that and people can feel it. I can feel that that funk track has all the instruments and sounds of funk, yet the groove is just not there. So it won't really work and I won't remember it.

Big strings music is impressive by itself when more instruments-light styles can't rely on heavy audio layering to success. This is what I feel is wrong in game music today. Diversity is quite there, but it lacks skills or soul or both. By saying that I don't want to dissrespect anyone but it often feels like this.

"That is one of the fun challenges of being a game composer. The ability to switch genre & style gears from project to project if you'd like."

And maybe this is the main problem: as a game composer too I tend to admit I can't do all music genres even if I try to (here's my audio works feed: just for the purpose of not being a coward, not for promotion).

Some will be better at some styles, nobody can do them all with greatness because life is too short. It's the same in all arts. Why would it be different in games?

"certain platform games (you specifically refer to Super Mario World) are more likely to be able to use a bunch of different styles"

But every kind of game can use every kind of music, it's just a matter of what the game looks like but apart from that, we can do everything; heavy contrast (like ethereal music with fast paced action) is often dismissed yet the well known GoW trailer was a complete success. I think game music is too conservative on this point. We need more AudioVisual dynamics or dare I say, AudioVisual dance :)

I'm not into AAA music, I listen to game music coming from a wide variety of games, especially indie games these days. What strikes me again is that when music is in the developement of the game experience from the early beginning -à la Japanese- as it's often the case in the indie world, it works so, so much better than with licensed or original music coming 6 months later. I think it feeds coders and designers so it leads to make a unique overall experience. Once again, this is something people can definitely feel even if they can't put a word on this look&feel stuff.

That's what game music is all about: feeling.

@Yannick Boucher

"does music have to be memorable to be good?"

Blindtest it, if people have sparkles in the eyes but yet can't name the game, it's a good score nonetheless ;)

Wylie Garvin
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I agree with Nathan, Chris and others who think there is plenty of memorable, awesome music in games of the last decade, but there are so many average or below-average games out each year that you might not notice the gems unless you look for them. And also that our fond memories of the 8-bit era (and of specific games) may be coloring the comparison a bit.

Anyway... here's a few great games from the last 10 or so years, whose music I know well enough to hum right now:

(1) David Bergeaud - Ratchet and Clank series (especially the sountrack of the 2nd and 3rd games, were awesome)

(2) Shawn Lee - Bully

(3) Hiroshi Yamaguchi and Masami Ueda - Okami

(4) Koh Ohtani - Shadow of the Colossus

(5) Troels B. Folmann - Tomb Raider: Legend

(6) Matt Uelmen - Diablo 2

(7) Jesper Kyd - Hitman series, Assassin's Creed

(8) Kenji Yamamoto and Kouichi Kyuma - Metroid Prime

(I suppose it is a bit interesting that most of my favorite composers are not from North America.. hmm!)

About the lack of strong melodies in modern game music: Composers are very aware that their music will be heard over and over by the players during gameplay, so I think they deliberately avoid having long melodies out of fear that they will become annoying. If you play a game like Bethesda's TES3: Morrowind, you'll get several minutes of wonderful music, with wonderful melodies--that have nothing to do with what is currently going on in the game!

I would rather have a well-developed procedural music system where the music gets more exciting when the gameplay is exciting, and tapers off when things calm down. My favorite example of this is Rainbow Six: Vegas, a game with wicked awesome procedural music, which I probably played for at least 6 hours before I stopped and listened to the music carefully enough to realize how the procedural blocks of it are chained together. However, developers were doing this even in the days of Jedi Knight II (and with licensed themes, too!). So its definitely doable.

Back in the 8-bit era, the players were mostly 8 to 15-year-old kids, who didn't mind the repetitiveness of the music at all. Now that generation has grown up and the average age of gamers is over 30. The mainstream gaming audience is now a lot less tolerant of repetitiveness in their gameplay, and (presumably) also in the game music. I've had lots of people tell me that they turn off the music in games that they play a lot of hours of, even games with wonderful music like WoW or Diablo 2. So in order for the music to be repeated over and over without aggravating the players, it has to be made pretty bland, hence the situation today. Anyway, all of the soundtracks I mentioned above are full of awesome tracks that really contribute to the mood and the whole game experience. I can't imagine playing any of those games with the music turned off (although I know some people who would, which is very hard for me to understand).