Composing for video games

We speak to Jeremy Borum about creating music for games, and how composers can draw on other forms of entertainment
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Video game soundtracks have become more and more advanced in the last few years, often requiring hours and hours of music that can be dynamically woven behind the action. But such orchestrations aren't just thrown together by developers – they often require experienced composers, drawing on experience from not only games but other forms of entertainment such as film and TV.

With the barriers between media fading away, producer Jeremy Borum has created both a book and documentary due for release later this month. Entitled Guerrilla Film Scoring, the product explores the evolution of the music and media industries.

In addition to his own experience with scoring video games, he also interviews notable video game composers Austin Wintory, Jack Wall, Stewart Copeland, Bruce Broughton and more.

We caught up with Borum to get his insight into the art of composing for video games.

Tell us about your background. How much work have you done with video game scores?
My most recent game music work was orchestrating for World Of Warcraft scoring sessions, which are massive and really fun. Neal Acree has an amazing team underneath him, and it's a very stimulating and creative environment to work in.

Just prior to that I scored a storybook game for Sony's film The Smurfs 2, which came out simultaneously with the movie. I've only been involved in the game music world for about five years, and I'm fortunate to have started working at a very high level.

What are the biggest challenges unique to games compared to other forms of entertainment and media, and how do composers account for this?
The two largest challenges are the duration of games and the expectations of developers. The music we write is finite, but people may spend enormous amounts of time playing the game and listening to it. The music needs to be so fresh sounding and so dynamically integrated with the game that players don't get sick of it. Connected to that, the game designer's goal every single time is to create an entirely new world that has never been experienced before. Musically that means re-inventing the wheel on every project.

While these obstacles are sometimes enormous problems for composers, they're also the very reason that video games are such an exciting medium to score for. The solution to both of these obstacles is creativity, exploration, and individuality. The more artistic and unique a composer can be, the more fun they will have and the more successful they will be. Games challenge the artistry of composers far more than other types of media, and that is both the best and hardest thing about them.

People may spend enormous amounts of time playing the game and listening to our music, so it needs to be so fresh sounding and so dynamically integrated with the game that they don't get sick of it. 

Are there any areas in which scoring for video games is easier or less restrictive than other forms of entertainment?
One of the joys of writing for games is the wide variety of what can be considered “music". Game music began as an electronic, experimental, fringe genre, and it continues to be very welcoming to experimental or unconventional music. All sound sources, all types of structures, all genres, all kinds of guerrilla tactics are welcome. The stylistic limitations are defined only by individual games and not by the genre at large.

That openness to literally all kinds of sound is not offered by film and television, except in the case of unique projects. In other words, the baseline of other media tends to be convention and the baseline of game music tends to be experimentation. It's very freeing.

How difficult is it to break into composing for video games in today’s market? What advice do you have for new and aspiring composers?
It's not difficult to break in, the door is wide open. USA Today published an article in 2013 about the 10 fastest growing jobs in the US, and Music Directors & Composers was No.3.

There is a ton of new work and new opportunity out there for game composers, primarily because of the massive growth happening in mobile and social gaming. Those types of games are probably the best way to gain experience at the moment, partly because of how many there are and partly because of their budgets. They are often very small projects and accessible to any composer with good ideas no mater what their level of experience.

Unfortunately that massive growth in opportunity doesn't represent a massive growth in income for composers, at least not yet. For the moment the majority of the social and mobile games are low budget Guerrilla Scoring projects, but the industries are growing and the financial opportunities are growing with it.

The chicken and egg scenario is always present: creative people are only hired to do things that they have already done successfully. My recommendation to other composers is simply to stay productive in any way possible. Just go out and do it.

Is it safe to say that games composers have lower profiles than film composers, e.g. John Williams, Hans Zimmer, etc? Is this changing?
No game composer has yet reached the worldwide celebrity status of the top film composers, but the time is close. Jack Wall's epic orchestral show Video Games Live was an enormous success worldwide, proving the public's interest in and their awareness of game music. There are many individual composers who have reached celebrity status, several of whom are in my book and documentary Guerrilla Film Scoring. The last I heard the video game industry was estimated to be worth about $75 billion.

In my estimation games and films have equal importance today, and I suspect the growth happening in all kinds of interactive media will help celebrity game composers to pull ahead of the film & television guys before long. Fixed media will always have a place, but interactive media is the future.

No game composer has yet reached the worldwide celebrity status of the top film composers, but the time is close.

How do you feel about games firms bringing in film-based composers for video games products? Is this a disservice to games composers, or something they can draw inspiration from?
I am one of those composers. Experience always matters, but genre boundaries are disappearing rapidly and it's smart for developers to search first for great composers and second for fellow gamers.

Thankfully the old bias that video games are totally separate from the rest of the music industry is almost dead. Non-game composers used to be bad choices for games because of the technical demands game scoring placed on the composer. Today's composers are not responsible for the implementation of their music, and even if they are, engines like Wwise and FMOD make it fairly easy to do.

The game industry has matured and the results are wonderful for the art form, because it allows a division of labor. A rabid gamer can become a game developer and not be saddled with any responsibility for musical creativity. A passionate musician can become a brilliant composer and score a game without knowing how it works under the hood.

Any composer can score a game today, which suddenly opens the door for all the composers who spent years playing their instruments and composing for other mediums. There is no down side to that. It democratizes opportunity and increases competition, which can only be beneficial to the art form.

How do you expect the world of video game music to change in the coming years? What trends are you seeing as a composer?
I think the major game console companies will be surprised to find their market share destroyed by mobile and social gaming. Right now they are totally different and non-competitive, but the technologies of social media, tablets, and phones are exploding. The iPad is only five years old, and look at the massive impact it has had on gaming and on laptop sales.

Cell phones, social media websites, and tablets are disruptive technologies. Their capabilities are not yet relevant or threatening to companies like Activision and Bungie, who are primarily focused on the high end of the gaming market, but major console developers will soon face fierce competition from technology and platforms that were previously irrelevant.

We will always want to squeeze the most quality from our budget so Guerrilla Film Scoring tactics will always be relevant, but today's startups will be tomorrow's big budget industry leaders.

A passionate musician can become a brilliant composer and score a game without knowing how it works under the hood.

Why did you write your book Guerrilla Film Scoring and why will it be of interest for video game composers and developers?
Although it's called Guerrilla Film Scoring it applies to video games, television, advertising, and any other form of media. The main purpose is to fill the gap between the study of music and a career in music, between the talented hobbyist and the successful professional. My motivation in writing the book was to mentor others, describe the current industry from the inside, and give composers a survival guide for it. For those who don't read much it's also a documentary film.

It's of interest to composers because the celebrity contributors come from all different corners of the music industry and their insight is priceless. It's of interest to game developers because it removes the veil of “inspired composer” and reveals the craft and processes that modern composers use in their work. Guerrilla Film Scoring is a practical guide to how the media music industry works from the inside, filled with the voices of some of Hollywood's top composers for film, games, television, and music libraries.

Jeremy Borum's book Guerrilla Film Scoring: Practical Advice from Hollywood Composers can be ordered anywhere books are sold. The documentary, more Guerrilla Tips, celebrity bios, and more are on his website www.GuerrillaFilmScoring.com

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