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  • Writer's pictureBrian Schmidt

6 Surprising Facts About Composing Music for Video Games

Updated: Aug 5, 2023

It’s no secret that a lot of composers from more traditional media such as TV, film, commercials are getting interested in doing games. Go to a GameSoundCon or GDC, and many of the composers there have done the bulk of their work composing for film, TV and other more traditional media. Oftentimes, these composers are struck by how different composing for games can be from composing for other media. Here are 8 things (ok, I've added a couple since the original post!) that typically surprise those getting into games for the first time:

Writing game music presents a whole new set of creative challenges in addition to those required to create great music.

As a composer, you know how to set the tone, evoke emotions in your audience and write to support story as well as how to orchestrate, record, mix and master. A game composer needs to do all of that, plus master techniques for non-linear composing and production.

Because you don’t know when various story elements will actually happen (it depends on the player's actions from moment to moment), when composing for video games you have to write your music to be flexible, and know how to quickly change from “wandering around” music to” battling for your life,” while not sounding obvious or abrupt. Game composers also need to be able to write music that can be arranged and pieced together so as to not sound repetitive—even when the player plays the game multiple times-- and to know the specific game music tools that enable that flexibility.

Adding music to the game itself is not as straightforward as it is for linear media.

When composing music for a video game, composing the music is only half the challenge. The second part is trying to determine just under what circumstances it should play, and then how to tell the game that it's time to start/stop/change or otherwise alter the music. In film/tv, you just lay the music onto the linear video, but in games, at some point, computer code has to be written or created to control when and how the music gets played back. This extra step is often called "integration."

When you write music for a game, you will have technical limitations placed on you that affect how you need to compose your music.

Because of the technology used to deliver games, you will have restrictions placed on what you can do. These restrictions may be frustrating! You may be told that all your music needs to fit within a certain amount of computer memory. You may be told to learn and use a specific music tool that the game developer has created or licensed. You may be asked to break your music into layers which can be mixed on the fly in reaction to game actions. In the course of getting into composing for games, you may have very creative ideas you would like to see implemented, but may not be possible due to technical or other handcuffs.

With a few exceptions, there are no PRO (ASCAP/BMI/SESAC) royalties for video game music.

Once you are paid for the music for the game from the developer, that will likely be the last money you make off the music. In the US, you will almost certainly not receive any performance payments from ASCAP or other PROs. It’s not that game developers are trying to be sneaky, underhanded or dishonest. Rather, it’s because the purchase or playing of a game in the U.S. is not considered a “performance” in the legal sense of the word. So unlike a film which might be broadcast on TV or other media (which generate Performance Royalties), since there are usually no “performances” of games, there are no performance royalties due to the composer.

The above notwithstanding, it is always a good idea to try to get your music registered with a PRO anyway. There are few cases where game music can generate performance royalties. It’s relatively infrequent, but it does occur from time to time. Some of those cases include:

  • The game’s music appears in traditional media (movie, TV, etc.). For example, a character playing a video game in a movie or TV show would generate PRO payments the same as any other piece of music in the film/show.

  • The game itself is broadcast. "e-sports", where people playing video games are broadcast live.

  • Game soundtracks (including covers of game music) played on services like Spotify or Pandora

In addition, in some countries outside of the US, a portion of a video game download is actually considered a “performance,” so the above item is mainly applicable to US companies and composers. If you compose music for games in Europe please contact your PRO.

[Edit: this is such a big topic, I wrote an entire post on PRO payments and game music ]

Video game music is almost always done as a “Work for Hire” arrangement.

With very rare exceptions, a composer contracted to write music for a video game will sign away all rights, including publishing, to the game developer or publisher. Although licensees do occur (especially for smaller, indie games), the bulk of game music is done under Work for Hire. The bright side of this is that for a professionally developed game you won’t be told “well, we can’t pay you much up front, but you’ll get your ASCAP/PRO when they show it on the Discovery Channel.” Game music commands pretty good up-front compensation. So never low-ball a game quote thinking “well, I’ll take low payment from the game creator, but will make it up in PRO royalties.” You will be sadly surprised when there are none.

The team making the game works more like a software company, than a movie/media production company.

When a company is making a video game, they are largely in the software-writing business. Their work processes follow much more those of Microsoft than of Amblin. “Agile” development, “Stand-up status” meetings are common, as are the use of software development tools like “version control software” such as Perforce or SVN. (Hint: know how to work those on a basic level, and you’ve got a leg up on your competitors).Terms like “release candidate,” and “Check-in” are important to understand and will help you fit in with the rest of the team.

A surprising number of jobs composing video game music are full-time, ‘in-house’ employee positions.

While TV, Film and other traditional composing jobs are overwhelming freelance, many video game companies hire full-time employees to compose their video game music. Companies like Blizzard (World of Warcraft), Bungie (Halo, Destiny), Electronic Arts (Madden, Peggle) and even Microsoft get a good percentage of their composition work from their employees and provide typical perks such as vacation pay, 401(k)’s, bonuses and stock.

You can major in video game music composition.

Over the past several years, several universities and colleges have begun to offer bachelors or masters degree programs in composing music for video games. These programs vary by institution, but generally cover music composition and orchestration, and some of the more technical aspects of writing music for games. Tools like Unity, FMOD Studio, Wwise, Unreal are taught alongside music production software such as Logic, Cubase, Reaper or ProTools. These programs may also include multidisciplinary team projects, where you work along side game designers, programmers and artists creating original video games

Read more at the GameSoundCon Blog

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