Anarchy Online is a science fiction MMOG that takes place thirty thousand years in the future. The player can move around freely in a futuristic and fantastic environment, fight monsters and take on quests to improve the abilities of the character and to acquire new and better equipment. One of the important goals of the game is to live in it and take part in the society inside AO.
Initially, the composers (there were three of us working on the music for AO; Morten Sørlie, Tor Linløkken and myself) thought that writing music for this game was going to be like our previous game, The Longest Journey (TLJ). TLJ was a single player adventure game, and fairly linear in form, and with pre-defined situations and animated sequences. In other words, the music for TLJ was composed to fit very specific situations in the game. We soon realized that we were going to have a different approach to the music in AO.
This article sets out to share our experiences with creating music for an MMOG, and to describe our solutions to some of the problems we encountered.
There were several things we wanted to achieve when we set out to create the music for AO. We wanted a musical tapestry to compliment the beautiful graphics, and we wanted music that would last beyond the first few hours of playing. We wanted the music to change according to the location and actions of the player, and we wanted CD-quality music.
The most obvious challenge was to create music that wouldn't get repetitive or irritating to the player. AO has potentially thousands of hours of playing time, and this meant that we had to come up with a method of both presenting the music and composing the music that would be suitable for many hours of exposure.
It was quite clear that we had to create non-linear music, both for the sake of interactivity and variation. DirectMusic was being introduced around that time, but for different reasons we decided to design our own system using full CD-quality audio. This system will be explained in more detail later in the article.
Before detailing how we handled the challenges presented to us in AO, I would like to talk a little bit about musical focus in an MMOG.
In any game, it is important to know what the goal of the music is, and how it should interact with the player. In an online game, you can rarely control the timing of things, but you can map out all the possible situations and use that as a good starting point for the music production.
Any element that interacts with the player, be it the environment, monsters, players, items or even the game interface, should be considered for music and musical effect.
Compared to a single player game there is little or no room for creating linear musical emotional development and drama in the MMOG, and for that specific reason we choose to focus on the external elements around the player character.
Having music playing endlessly at one location was a bad idea, and so we found that having the music fade out and then in again at regular intervals was a good solution. It gave the player time to absorb the emotional effect of the music, and then subsided to let the player experience the environmental sounds on their own. After a while, the music would come back, play for a while and then fade away again. Finding a good balance between how long the music would play and how long it would stay silent was the key. Short pauses would make the music annoying and too long pauses would make the music ineffective in maintaining the feel.
We were not content with having two-minute loops of music playing over and over again. The music became too predictable, and with a potential playing time of thousands of hours, each piece of music, no matter how long, would become predictable and boring.
The human mind is designed to recognize recurring patterns. This is how we learn to identify things in the world -- through our senses in an organised pattern: Recurring sounds, visuals, smells etc. Unfortunately, recurring musical patterns - otherwise known as loops - start to get annoying after a while, especially if they go on and on and on. Even though the music doesn't draw any attention to itself, the pattern that it is repeating will.
Our solution to this problem was to create a tool that allowed us to combine many small samples of music into a continuous track (this tool will be described in more detail below). It allowed us to create a single track built up of many smaller pieces which were combined on the fly to create an ever-changing soundtrack.
Most music has certain characteristics that draw the listener's attention. This is most commonly achieved by having instruments with high activity (including vocals), sharp dynamic changes or pronounced harmonic changes. To create music that is unassuming to the player, we had to make sure we limited the use of those characteristics. A lot of the work here lies in the composing of the music, and the threshold between music that draws attention to itself and music that remains unassuming largely depends on how a piece is composed.