PlayStation, BMGPM, Laced Audio and Feel For Music join composers Uèle Lamore and Scott Stallone for a discussion on crafting compelling game music
Just like in film, music plays an integral role when it comes to storytelling and drawing on emotion in gaming. It can create tension, excitement, sadness and fear. It can heighten parts of a story depending on its pace and volume.
As the role of music in gaming becomes ever more important, LBB reaches out to composers Uèle Lamore and Scott Stallone, BMGPM creative licensing managers Thomas Cottrell (UK) and Allen Mattox (US), Laced Audio A&R/community manager Tom Quillfeldt and audio director Justin Andree, Feel For Music consultant Ben Sumner, and Playstation music supervisors Codie Childs and James Marshall to explore how music in gaming is sourced and how it is evolving.
LBB> When it comes to a music brief, how do you come up with the ideas for the style of music you would like to use?
James Marshall, music supervisor, Playstation> We’ll always work closely with the development teams when it comes to finding a particular sound for a game. Sometimes they’ll have a really defined idea of what they’re looking for, similar to writers who include specific songs in their scripts. Alternatively, they may leverage our expertise in honing down the right approach for the project. There are also questions over how much will be composed vs licensed, whether the game has a defined setting or whether we’re looking for contemporary music. We’re there to help provide answers as well as look around at other trends in the industry and see where the title could really stand out.
Ben Sumner, music consultant, Feel For Music> At Feel For Music, we look at numerous aspects and include audience demographic, mood, feel, tempo, lyrical content, budget, differentiation from competitors, how individual tracks sit amongst the campaign, stardust, platform the asset will sit on, etc. There are a large number of factors and on most projects there are key stakeholders which have important criteria that need to be met. We use a different methodology depending on clients and how they like to work but it commonly is a pyramid type system where we start with a range of tracks and narrow down by a process of elimination.
LBB> How do you tend to approach a gaming brief when it comes to music?
Uèle Lamore, composer/producer/arranger/conductor> I think I just try to picture myself playing the game, and then try to think about what I would like to experience musically as a gamer. Some moments need to just accompany the action and be more immersive. With others the music really needs to stand out to reflect high peak action moments, or key moments in the story. It’s all about putting yourself in the game, and also in the player's head.
Scott Stallone, composer> When I’ve been asked to write for a game title it’s because a music supervisor at that company is already aware of my work and, in some cases, has already used some of my compositions pulled from catalogues. In those scenarios, the supe usually wants more of what they’ve already heard from me but with a specific focus so the new piece works for the scene, storyline or promotion. I’ve literally been told: “We want more Scott Stallone but this time, instead of taking the energy to eleven on a scale of 1 to 10, we want you to go to 20!” I love when that happens but of course musical trends are always important to consider.
However, games like Fortnite and Call of Duty have their own kind of gravitational pull in that they’re actually creating the trends, so, often whatever works for the game may be the next “thing”!
Thomas Cottrell, creative licencing manager, BMGPM UK> The music always needs to encapsulate that of the game. I mostly work on game trailers, so if I don’t already know the game, I’ll familiarise myself with it, looking at the style of music for the OST and then previous marketing content. I’ll include these insights with the brief at hand whilst also thinking about key characteristics of the game such as audience and energy of the game.
Allen Mattox, creative licensing manager - gaming & esports, BMGPM US> What’s the sound of the game? What's the tone of the spot (in game or trailer)? And what story does the song need to help tell? Tracks in game for Riders Republic are going to be way different than a trailer for the new Fortnite Battle Pass. Or tracks in the background for the Call Of Duty League are going to be different than a trailer for Fifa.
Justin Andree, audio director, Laced Audio> It often depends on when we come into the conversation. When it’s early on in the project’s life, we work closely with the developers to help shape what their world will sound like, taking everything into consideration (setting, time period, overall content, etc). If the conversation starts later - when ideas are already formed - we focus on the finer details of how the music will be integrated and how that would work with the intended style of the score. For instance, orchestral scores can quite often be trickier to loop than electronic music when it comes to integration, which requires a different approach.
Tom Quillfeldt, A&R/community manager, Laced Audio> Of course there are tropes in video game music - for instance orchestral music for anything historical or electronic music for racing games - and they’re not necessarily to be resisted if they help acclimatise players to a particular game.
LBB> Does it differ in any way to other projects you may work on?
Uèle Lamore, composer> It is very different because you do not have the ‘passive’ aspect that you have in film music for example. Here your music is almost alive and depends on the player in a sense. You have to think about what the mood is going to be in a particular level, or boss. Is he going to spend a lot of time here? How frustrating is it going to be? Should I give clues that something he is about to encounter is stalking him in the shadows?
Allen Mattox, BMGPM US> Yes and no. Music helps tell the story in film projects, promos, movie trailers just like in games. I think there is usually more of a hype factor in most video game spots that I’ve worked on though. And there seems to be less of a creative box I have to work within. Games seem to be open to more out of the box options.
LBB> What elements are important when looking for a track?
James Marshall, music supervisor, Playstation> Knowing the game and audience you’re trying to attract is very important. Lyrics and tone can really support a particular moment, or perhaps you’re after something to get the adrenaline going, in which case that’s aiming for a more holistic vibe than punctuation on a scene. There’s also the technical side - if the implementation is planned to be very interactive, perhaps you’ll need the song available in multi-track format. Beyond the game there’re also potential PR opportunities with the right artists - all of these are considered but really the question that drives everything is “How does this song support the creative vision?”
Tom Quillfeldt, Laced Audio> You’ve got to consider not just the setting and aesthetics of the game but also the gameplay loop, how reaction-based or slow and strategic it is. Those factors will help you zero in on a musical palette in terms of instrumentation and tempos, e.g. how minimalist or maximalist the sound needs to be, how much music is actually needed, will there be moments or sections with no music?
Justin Andree, Laced Audio> The context is also very important, especially if looking at lyrical content during key narrative scenes.
Ben Sumner, Feel For Music> It is entirely dependent on the brief; key factors vary from project to project. Working on trailers is very different to working on in-game music placements for example. Trailers tend to need to be very instant and attention grabbing; traditionally this means epic and intense but many of the best trailers are much more stylised, dramatic and sparse. If I had to say one thing that a track has to have, it is identity - very rarely are we looking for stuff that is bland; more often than not we are looking for songs that make a string statement, whatever that statement is. If we want a track that is feel good, then ideally everything about that track is in that direction - lyrics, melody, arrangement, instrumentation, artist vibe, vocal delivery, mood, feel, even the track title!
LBB> What role does music play with storytelling in-game?
Codie Childs, music supervisor, Playstation> As with film and TV, music helps to support the emotion and action of a game. It can enhance the intensity of a battle, create unease, make you cry…! It can also serve functional purposes, by hinting at upcoming action (e.g. nearby enemies) or be linked to puzzles, spellcasting etc. Music can be the game too! SingStar, Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution…the list goes on.
Scott Stallone, composer> From my perspective as a composer it’s the story that’s critical to writing the right piece of music. It can start with a creative Zoom meeting and/or an expertly written brief with crucial details but then it’s up to the composer to translate the action, pace and feel into a piece of music.
I’m always writing “in-service” of the story and the visuals. That, in a nutshell, is the job description. Occasionally, like on a piece I did for Fortnite and their “Fortnitemare” promo, a bridge section or a lyric I wrote inspired the supervisor to push the animators and coders to add details inspired by my custom piece of music! That’s what happens when everyone is firing on all cylinders. Everybody is on point and 100% committed and locked in. The story inspires the music and in turn the music adds dimension to the story.
Ben Sumner, Feel For Music> The best games are deeply immersive and emotive; nothing evokes strength of feeling more than music. A song can take you to a place, a time or an emotion probably more than any other medium. That is a very powerful tool when storytelling.
Tom Quillfeldt, Laced Audio> It can play a huge role. Emotive music can gently complement a story moment. Music can provide vital context to a scene if other elements are more ambiguous (e.g. if players should be fearful of a looming off-screen threat). And music can aid in player expression and player-driven storytelling, for instance players picking a Grand Theft Auto radio station featuring pumping techno and then attempting audacious mid-air motorbike tricks.
Equally, no music in certain situations (e.g. normal gameplay areas in a Dark Souls title, driven by sound design) can serve to emphasise heightened music moments (e.g. Dark Souls’ sturm and drang boss fights).
LBB> When it comes to commercial music vs production or composed music, what do you tend to see more of in-game/games trailers and why do you think this is?
Tom Quillfeldt, Laced Audio> Highly dramatic songs with punchy percussion and lots of ‘drop’ moments are exciting to cut visuals to in terms of cutscenes and trailers. High, airy female vocals are used often because of their mysterious quality, and they also contrast well with often dark, violent visuals and themes.
Thanks to the humorous tone of titles like Borderlands and the Guardians of the Galaxy films, there’s now a place for ironic ‘needle drops’ of tracks previously dismissed as cheesy. Something like a ‘70s or ‘80s AOR or upbeat, radio-friendly track can help to emphasise zany on-screen action, and make violent scenes seem more cartoony and entertaining.
Justin Andree, Laced Audio> The mechanics and climate of copyright online can often play a part in nudging things one way or another. Composed music is the commonplace champion for in-game, with commercial music’s use growing steadily as developers look to build more immersive worlds.
Codie Childs, Playstation> It comes down to the budget, the creative direction of the game and purpose of the cue. You’ll often see music composed for games and there’s several reasons for this: you have full control over the style, you can score the music closely to the action, and for some longer games a huge amount of music is needed. The benefit of having a composer (or team of composers) in this case is consistency of sound across a whole score and flexibility during the development process.
Commercial music can be used in a number of ways. Tracks may feature sparingly throughout a game, during cinematic sequences or particularly important story moments. They can also be effective as in-game “radio” music (e.g., GTA, Mafia series). Recognisable tracks bring with them a lot of real-life references and can help with place / time setting, too. And on the other side of the coin, we may engage commercial artists to create new music for a game soundtrack that is then released alongside the game.
Production music is a great solution, too. It can be effective for in-game uses, and marketing and promotional purposes (e.g., trailers, behind-the-scenes videos and other additional content created for the game’s community and players).
Scott Stallone, composer> Commercial and production music both have a set of rules. What works for commercial music often doesn’t cut it for custom game music. A commercial song can be a hit and work as a licensed piece of music in a game setting because it’s recognisable. But often, that same piece of music, if it were written for a game, might only be a starting point for a custom composition.
Composers borrow aesthetics and sonic cues from commercial music all day long but in the production world you’d probably need to develop the piece so it had a beginning, middle and an end. The piece has to go through levels of energy and development and hit a crescendo that commercial music often doesn’t need.
LBB> What are the benefits of using original music composition or production music with gaming compared to commercial music, and what are the challenges?
Uèle Lamore, composer> I think that it all depends on the style of game. Some genres don’t really depend on any original composition because it is out of context in the game’s universe. Others 100% depend on their original soundtrack to make the experience work - everything scifi, fantasy, RPG, and pretty much all the games that take you into a world that doesn’t exist. The challenge as a composer is to walk the line between having a great original score with good themes, but also making it fit to work in the context of a game where time stretches continuously.
Thomas Cottrell, BMGPM UK> I think original music composition is key for a game’s sonic identity. It needs to be original and tie everything together. Production music can be used within games to great effect, but I’d say that by and large, production music is more effective within the marketing process for games trailers and online content. Commercial music has its place for the right games - FIFA & GTA will always be known for their fantastic selection of commercial music, and I think as games develop further into the metaverse, commercial music will look to play a bigger role.
I think for smaller independent games, there’s a place for production music as it’s more affordable and you have the ability to work with teams of music specialists who can curate the right music to create a strong sonic identity for the game.
Allen Mattox, BMGPM US> Biggest challenge is the budget. Production music is a great one stop shop. You don’t have to worry about clearing the master and the publishing side like with commercial music. Having a commercial song that’s recognisable in a game or trailer is great and has it’s own benefits.
One of my favourite games “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1” was filled with commercial music and I think it added so much to the game. A custom score is always the best way to get the exact tone and emotion you want. The cool thing at BMG is that we’re able to custom score and have trailerised covers of commercial songs.
LBB> How has the role of music developed in-game and/or game trailers over recent years?
Codie Childs, Playstation> The late 90s-2000s was a huge time for game soundtracks as the limitations of earlier consoles and computers were overcome by new technology: you could suddenly have commercial tracks and high-quality orchestral scores in games. In more recent years music has become much more interactive and impacted in real-time by the player’s actions and environment. We’ve also seen a lot of engagement from artists with in-game concerts and events, and artistic projects like Radiohead’s KID A MNESIA interactive exhibition, which uses Unreal Engine.
Tom Quillfeldt, Laced Audio> Because of the freeing up of memory limitations with newer hardware, and also the spread of audio middleware tools like Wwise and FMOD, composers have a lot more possibilities in all areas of game music. Interactive or adaptive music has been around for ages, but it’s easier to implement than ever before for any size team. Also, the number of case studies and knowledge sharing through things like GDC talks increases all the time.
There hasn’t necessarily been a revolution in terms of the role of music in-game or in game trailers - although one interesting area has been with VR games, where composers and audio teams have continued to experiment with diegetic and non-diegetic music, blending traditional stereo background music with foregrounded, in-world musical elements positioned in 3D space.
LBB> How do you predict music in the gaming space to evolve this year and beyond?
Uèle Lamore, composer> In my opinion, music will evolve more drastically as the games become more and more immersive. With virtual reality there are so many possibilities to make really crazy scores. We’ll just have to see which way technology goes!
Codie Childs, Playstation> As game engines and hardware continue to evolve, I can imagine real-time effects and generative tools becoming more widely available / used. I don’t see pure AI / generative music being an immediate threat for composed music, but it may become more of a tool for composers to extrapolate or generate unique music based on themes they’ve created. This could help keep the player’s experience feeling fresh.
Ben Sumner, Feel For Music> I think it will be another huge year of evolution and innovation in the relationship between music and games; the game industry has an enormous captive audience and how music is delivered to that audience is very much in the spotlight. The music industry is very much awake to the power of gaming as a place where young people especially spend a lot of time socialising. There is a lot of talk about the metaverse and what role that will play in the future, but the reality is the gaming sector has a huge head start on many other media in this space. I can see the music industry partnering up with game brands and publishers in many exciting ways to deliver more music engagement through games in a number of ways. I’m sure we will see more live performance, gaming as a music promotional channel and likely as a distribution platform also.
Thomas Cottrell, BMGPM UK> I think with the introduction of the metaverse and VR, there’s going to be loads of interesting possibilities for music in games when new ways of generating performance income start to materialise and licensing processes for these new ‘worlds’ generate opportunities. What type of music (commercial/bespoke/production music) it’s good for - I’m not sure, but I imagine it will start to be more reflective of other sectors where performance royalties are key, and will no doubt then create a lot more opportunities for production music.
Allen Mattox, BMGPM US> I’m interested to see how music is used in the metaverse and what that means for artists and composers. Things like blockchain based royalties and music NFTs. I’d also love to see more games collaborate with artists, writers/composers. Games like Fortnite and Roblox have done a great job with this but I think it’s only beginning.
Tom Quillfeldt, Laced Audio> Soundtrack release as marketing beat seems to be happening more with games across the board, whether that’s smaller teams working with composers that have their own communities based around Bandcamp, Spotify or physical releases; or AAA publishers releasing some music in advance of a game’s release to drum up excitement (e.g. Halo Infinite, Horizon Forbidden West.).
It's possible that there might be some innovation in the intersection between player expression, user-generated content and adaptive music. For instance a truly interactive soundtrack where the player can influence instrumentation and mood both by explicit and implicit choices. This would require an AI-driven music system that can compose, orchestrate and mix on the fly, but seems within the realms of possibility.
Scott Stallone, composer> I think game music will probably go the way the greater production music scene is going. That is to say, better quality, real production chops, great songs written by real song writers, ever blurring the lines between music that sounds like it was written in a factory versus real, credible, bullet proof hits!
Justin Andree, Laced Audio> Fictional in-world artists are becoming a great way to harness aspects of the composed and licensed side of things. What CDPR have done with Cyberpunk 2077 (real-world band Refused became Samurai), and Eidos-Montreal with Guardians of The Galaxy (Star-Lord) are a fantastic couple of examples.