Web Exclusive: Composing for Videogames
Christine Morente
Issue: June 1, 2012

Web Exclusive: Composing for Videogames

When Microsoft Studios asked composer Gordy Haab (below, right) what he thought was the best way for Kinect Star Wars to meet the production value of the original film scores, Haab jokingly said, “The London Symphony.” To his surprise, the studio and LucasArts agreed, and Haab, along with composer Kyle Newmaster, found themselves in London recording original music at the famed Abbey Road Studios with the London Symphony and London Voices Choir. 

The decision to make the game’s score as cinematic as John Williams’ compositions for the popular franchise was one recent example of Hollywood’s steady influence in the video game industry. Large budgets and high production value have replaced cheesy synthesized scores with orchestral masterpieces. Keeping up with quality of work has spurred on unique musical collaborations, and the hiring of prolific composers as well as actors and voice actors. 

“In order to really capture an audience, you have to create somewhat of an epic experience for the player,” says Haab, who also composed music for LucasArts and BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic and LucasArts’ Indiana Jones and the Staff of Kings. “Treat the score in the same fashion as a blockbuster movie and it of course adds to that larger-than-life experience in game. And hiring a full orchestra is a thing that really heightens that epic sense that the games have these days.”

Newmaster (below), who is also a film and television composer, agreed.

“They’re taking it as far as they can take it,” he notes. “I hope that continues, especially when some videogame scores are even outselling records online. The quality is there.”

The bigger the score, the better

For the last few years, videogame production budgets have increased — some developers have produced games with a $100 million price tag. According to DigitalBattle, budgets in the early 90s were around $100,000. In today’s standards, that amount wouldn’t cover a month of production. 

Even then, it was rare for games to have an original live orchestral score, notes Emmy-nominated composer David Ari Leon. He worked with a live orchestra 12 years ago when he scored the music for Interplay Entertainment’s Star Trek: Starfleet Command and Fallout Tactics.

“It felt pretty special at the time,” Leon recalls.

Currently, he is scoring music for ABC’s Sea Rescue, and composed music for Universal’s Woody Woodpecker, an iPhone Game of the Week, and Electronic Arts’ Contre Jour. Contre Jour (below, right) is the No. 1 selling game app in iTunes, and “iPad Game of the Year” in more than 10 countries by Apple. Leon said he just finished a score for a freemium app. The game is free to download, but players can buy advanced features. This is another successful trend in the videogame industry, Leon says.

While the size of the speakers for cell phones and tablets limit what a composer can do for a mobile game, Leon believes that mobile game scores will inevitably improve as technology advances.

“It’s always my preference to use a live orchestra when I can versus me sitting in a room emulating all the orchestral instruments,” he explains. “Music is meant to be a team experience and a group process. Having live musicians playing and interacting together, at some point, can’t be faked. Having the budget for that is a wonderful thing when it’s available.”

Meanwhile, Haab is also recognizing that game developers are hiring actors and voice actors during the production of a game. 

“Actor and voice actors have gotten a piece of this pretty amazing pie that has been the gaming industry lately,” he notes. “It’s sort of becoming this interactive film industry in a sense. Technology will make things more realistic in games, and the ability to incorporate a lot of 3D elements also looks to be the trend. Hopefully the high production value from a visual and audio standpoint will remain the same.”

Like Haab, Newmaster and Leon, Jim Dooley has been scoring original music for videogames for years. The Emmy-winning composer/songwriter recently completed Disney's highly-anticipated game Epic Mickey 2: The Power of Two, available September 2012. Dooley also scored for these best-selling titles, Epic Mickey, and Sony’s InFAMOUS, InFAMOUS 2, Jak and Daxter: The Lost Frontier, SOCOM 3: U.S. Navy Seals, and U.S. Navy Seals: Combined Assault.

For the InFAMOUS series, Dooley collaborated with funk-fusion band, Galactic to create the score. 

“That was probably the best example of forward-thinking in video game music and I loved [doing] it,” he says. “To have them bring in cool beats and electronica to tell the story and get the setting of the place was fun.”

Dooley (left) said collaborations would be the next big trend.

“I love musicians and the traditional composer thing usually puts you in a box; usually meaning it’s a lot of time spent alone,” he explains. “But by getting to work with other people and getting their point of view, it’s a trade-off. They give me an idea and I finish it, or I start something and they finish it. It’s really eye opening.”

Composers compete for jobs

Leon (below) remembers a time when composers didn’t admit to scoring videogames, nor did he find it an appealing job because of the technological limitations years ago. Now that video games have surpassed film and TV in terms of sales, revenue and profile, it is no longer taboo for A-list film composer such as Hans Zimmer to score a game.

Having a composer of that caliber score a game adds attention and respect to the industry, says Newmaster.

“I’m glad that I’m in that circle of people who are [composing] for games,” he notes. “People are looking at those game scores as a soundtrack and listening to it with the same reasons as they would listen to a film soundtrack.”

Leon adds, “The sky’s the limit in terms of what the music for games is. Anything that anyone’s doing in film and TV, they’re doing with videogames.”