Jamie Hamshere on the challenges facing games musicians

Musical evolution: Composing the Develop Award-winning Noise Pulse

How do you feel about winning the first Develop Award for Musical Composition?
It’s a privilege to make a bit of history as the first to step up to claim the prize for a new Develop Awards category.

I’ve been into Jeff Minter’s games ever since I played Llamatron on the Atari ST when I was 11, so mounting the stage at such a prestigious event to represent a Llamasoft game was pretty special, too.

Why do you think your track was chosen?
Tempest 2000 – TxK’s ancestor – is legendary for its stomping early ‘90s rave soundtrack, and Llamasoft has a history of having large doses of daft levity in all of its games.

I consolidated both of those concepts by combining uplifting ‘90s euphoria with an enthusiastic vocal sample of unique game designer, artist, and musician Dennis Greenidge, taking his star turn in the middle of the track. When slotted next to the game’s crazy neon vector-style graphics, it backs the action amazingly well.

What do you think the biggest challenge facing games composers is today?
The same challenge that has always needed consideration: make a soundtrack that doesn’t get irritating after the 100th time you’ve died and had to restart a level, or spent numerous hours plugging away at the same puzzle.

It would be easy to cop out and just create a load of background mush to minimise the risk of repetition but that’s appropriate only in a very few cases. Usually it’s the soundtrack that is the thing that has to draw you back in and keep the interest going. So finding out what the game is supposed to be about and making the musical style, sounds, and melodic themes cohesive and relevant is the crucial thing.

How has video game music, and the process behind composing it, changed over the past five years?
The notable difference for me has been in the style of the music itself due to the rise of indie developers and their embracing of retro and the creation of some very offbeat and interesting games. This has given space for the soundtrack to be something more than homogeneous emotion-manipulating swelling orchestral stuff serving as ambience that only works in relation to the game. Instead we’re hearing some quite remarkable chiptune-style music that draws on catchy melody, the sort of thing you find that you’re whistling to yourself after playing the game.

How do you expect it to change in the next five years?
With tools like FMOD Studio, there will probably be more use of adaptable music, which isn’t necessarily a new approach but something that’s now more easily achievable across all platforms. I think that kind of flexibility for audio is vital in assisting to provide the kind of experience that devices like the Oculus Rift and similar are capable of.

Do you think music is overlooked or an afterthought in games development?
Composers are now being brought into a project much earlier in the development stage than they were in the past and do have a lot of input into the way the audio will tie in with the game, so I’d be surprised to learn that a soundtrack these days was just tacked-on at the end. The whole process is a far cry from the 1980s when a game was a week away from being mastered and someone would spend the weekend composing a few tunes and hop on the train back home with a cheque in their hand.

What advice would you offer to new video games composers?
Unless the project specifically calls on it, then don’t permit yourself to get overly worried about whether you’re using the latest or most expensive software or equipment. It’s easy to get swamped by what’s available. More often than not a limited set of parameters that you are comfortable with will get you working more simply and effectively than you would if you were otherwise lost in an ocean of options.

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