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Inside the Game

 
  Lennie Moore '83
 
  Norihiko Hibino '97

Video games are now the biggest money earner in the entertainment industry and offer composers of interactive music opportunities in the burgeoning field.

In a contemporary generational disconnect, millions of young people spend hours daily playing video games while their parents fret that it's all a huge waste of time. But if a young person aspires to a career in the gaming industry, all that time spent might be well spent after all. Video games have become the hottest commodity in the entertainment industry. In the United States last year, sales of video games totaled $18 billion and a whopping $38 billion worldwide. PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts even greater growth in the coming years. Recently electronic game sales surpassed revenues for music CDs, movie box-office receipts, and DVD sales. The growing demand for video games has brought new developers into the marketplace, along with opportunities for lucrative careers for those involved in all facets of game development and production.

Since the 1970s, the evolution of sophisticated game consoles has offered developers expanded possibilities for creating elaborate story lines, spectacular graphics, and high-fidelity soundtracks. These elements have combined to give the current generation of games tremendous appeal. And while technology for the audio portion of games was once limited to simple synthesizer tones, that's now a thing of the past. While many game scores still feature synthesizer tracks, a growing number feature big-budget orchestral scores recorded with pristine sound quality. Renowned film composers Howard Shore '69, Harry Gregson-Williams, John Debney, and others have scored games. All these factors have elevated the art and business of game music to a new level.

"Some of the people I'd worked with in television and the movie industry started to write for video games five years ago," says Dan Carlin, chair of Berklee's Film Scoring Department. "I had visions of them writing for something like Pong or solitaire games, but then the music turned out to be a great thing. These guys weren't falling off the turnip truck; they were leading the new wave."

The widespread interest in electronic games and their music has moved beyond the home-entertainment center to the concert hall. Game composer icons such as Tommy Tallarico of the United States, Nobuo Uematsu of Japan, and others have connected directly with audiences through live performances of their video-game music. Video Games Live, a highly successful multimedia concert attraction created and produced by composers Tallarico and Jack Wall, has brought video-game music (with synchronized footage from classic and new games) to such venues as the Hollywood Bowl and London's Royal Festival Hall, to name only two. Performances feature revered ensembles, including the Baltimore Symphony, Washington's National Symphony Orchestra, the Utah Symphony, the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and peer organizations in South America, Europe, and Asia. The groundbreaking Eminence Symphony Orchestra of Sydney, Australia, has made concerts of video-game and anime music its calling card. By offering performances of video-game music, several other orchestras whose program consists of primarily classical repertoire and occasional film music concerts now draw large young audiences.

Special Considerations

For composers whose trade is writing compelling music to accompany visuals, there are special considerations that make writing for video games much different from writing underscore for a movie. A film has a linear story line with an ebb and flow of emotions dictated by the plot. After the composer understands the flow, he writes music to support the emotion and action on the screen. The interactive nature of games means that as the player navigates through the game, scenes change unpredictably. Hence the music has to be flexible and interactive as well.

It's not like writing for film; a composer has to think much differently to write interactive music."
- Dan Carlin, chair of Film Scoring
 

"The score has to make sense and have smooth segues that take keys and tempos into consideration," says Carlin. "When a player does something in the game, the music has to be able to quickly take a left turn with the action. It's not like writing for film; a composer has to think much differently to write interactive music."

Unique Skill Set

One of the composers who has been successful at composing interactive music is Lennie Moore '83. Since the 1970s when he was in high school, Moore has been tuned into video games, and as games evolved, he watched with great interest. "I used to play the text-based game Empire that had no music," he recalls. "Space Invaders had tone-generated scores, and Myst, a puzzle game, had an electronic score that created a great mood."

For 20 years, Moore has composed for film, TV, and commercials, and a decade ago he brought video-game composing into his repertoire as well. One of his first scores was written for Outcast by the French game publisher Infogrames Entertainment. The company sought a Hollywood film composer, and Moore got the nod to write a sweeping score with 80 instrumentalists and a 24-voice choir. He has since scored such titles as Dirty Harry, Dragonshard, The War of the Ring, and Wizards of the Coast in addition to composing for films, TV, and Webisodes.

"I see video games as a fascinating compositional puzzle," says Moore. "It's fun for me to help figure out the puzzle with the designers and come up with interesting musical solutions. For instance, games have multiple endings, and you have variations for when the player wins or loses. Each ending has to fit with all of the other music as if it was a linear piece. This requires a unique skill set."

Composers are called on to create seamless loops for the various game states or situations. Often, a composer creates tracks that are unique, independent pieces of music representing an element in the game. They may play individually or be layered to support the game state following the player's actions. The tracks can fade in or out, be muted, or all play together when the action calls for climactic music.

 
  From the left: Associate Professor Michael Sweet and Film Scoring Chair Dan Carlin
  Spencer Kennedy
  Interactive Education

When Berklee administrators decided to offer additional courses in interactive music, they enlisted the help of composer and music director Michael Sweet '90, a graduate of Berklee's MP&E program. Before arriving at Berklee this fall, Sweet served as a founding partner of Audiobrain, a company that has created sonic branding, interactive audio, and sound design for Microsoft's Xbox 360, Virgin Mobile USA, and three Olympic broadcasts for NBC, to name a few. This past summer, Sweet was in China working with NBC producers as a music supervisor for spots produced during the Beijing Olympics.

"I have a passion for teaching," he says. "It's something I've enjoyed on a bunch of different levels. In the past, I've come to Berklee to speak to the students about games, my area of expertise. When Dan [Carlin] was looking for someone to help the college develop courses to prepare students to enter the world of game music and game audio, he felt my background was suited for it."

In addition to his work over the past eight years at Audiobrain, Sweet concurrently taught a course in sound design at Parsons, the New School for Design, in Manhattan. He recently decided to begin the transition out of his work at Audiobrain and into teaching.

At Berklee, Sweet has started teaching a new class he developed, "Introduction to Interactive Music" that covers music for games and other interactive media, as well as the course, "Music and Sound Production for Games," that was already part of the curriculum. As well, Sweet will help expand Berklee's curricular offerings overall for interactive and multimedia music.

"Interactive music is a cross-disciplin[ary] field that involves a lot of technology, and combines elements from MP&E, music synthesis, and film scoring," says Sweet. "The college is grappling with how to have the different departments collaborate on this new thing. We hope to see this become a real collaborative venture over the next few years.

"A lot of schools across the country have dabbled in this area, offering introductory courses, but not real development. We are trying to put something in place that steps students through the material level by level. We want to turn out well-rounded game composers who understand harmony and counterpoint, know how to write for interactive projects, and have a breadth of knowledge that includes sound design, implementation, and how projects are built in games."

Carlin and Sweet hope Berklee will play a leadership role in education for interactive music. "The ultimate goal is to create something here that is really unique and prepares our students to go into the professional world with all the skills they will need to succeed in the marketplace," says Sweet. "I'm really excited about this."

A Solid Opportunity

After studying jazz composition at Berklee, another successful game composer, Nori Hibino '97 of Tokyo, got into the business upon his return to Japan. At the time, the PlayStation 2 (PS2) game console was being developed, and Hibino found that few Japanese musicians were enthused about working in the video-game industry. Young and hungry for work that involved writing music, Hibino took a job at Konami Digital Entertainment, a leading Japanese game developer and publisher. "I actually joined Konami because they were able to buy all the gear I would need to write music," he confesses. "I just couldn't afford it on my own. I was unaware that their Metal Gear Solid game series was already famous all around the world. I worked continuously on that series after I started with Konami."

The audio quality and music on PS2 games was a key feature, and the company assigned Hibino to collaborate with film composer Harry Gregson-Williams for the music to the Metal Gear Solid games. "I started learning about the audio side of the gaming system, including programming, mixing, voice-over, and sound effects," says Hibino. "I ended up making all the cue sheets for the game, giving directions to Harry, and composing the remaining music after receiving his completed songs."

Since then, Hibino has enjoyed many career highlights in game music. "I would say that my most exciting work so far was creating the theme song for Metal Gear Solid 3, titled ?Snake Eater,'" he says. Hibino has also contributed to the Zone of the Enders game series and, more recently, to Ninja Blade.

The music from Metal Gear Solid has been played numerous times at performances by Video Games Live, Play! A Videogame Symphony, and the Eminence Symphony Orchestra. Hibino even served as the conductor of a 15-minute medley for the Metal Gear 20th Anniversary: Metal Gear Music Collection soundtrack.

"Recently, I've been working with my music production team, GEM Impact, and we finished Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots and an anime series called Blassreiter. Next year our music will be featured in what is predicted to be a blockbuster Microsoft title. These are exciting times, and we have a lot of great projects in the works."

New Challenges

Those in the business of composing for games have noted the special challenges of the work. "A composer friend once told me that approaching a new game is like seeing a big black mountain lying ahead of you," Hibino says. "First of all, the schedule is usually very tight, and we never know if we can finish everything on time. Also, both the team and the fans set the quality standard, and you have to go beyond. You can't do the same thing over and over.

"Communication with the producer is the best help here, because this person will tell you what needs to be accomplished and may give hints for new ideas. Sometimes you have to figure out what the goal is by yourself. That's really challenging?especially on projects where large numbers of people are involved who may say different things. Sometimes you need to fight for your ideas. That's really hard!"

Moore is mindful of a major consideration for game composers that isn't an issue in writing for film: game music is heard repeatedly. "The average game has about 40 hours of game play and about one hour of music," he says. "Composers spend a lot of time thinking of how to make the music as interesting as possible for repeated listenings."

Composer Michael Sweet '90, who has done extensive work in the interactive music field, notes things that don't have solutions yet. "There are problems that we need to solve technically," Sweet says. "For instance, if you've recorded an orchestral score and put it into a game, it's very difficult to make the score speed up in real time if, let's say, the figure on the screen starts running. These are difficult things to overcome. As the technology gets more robust, things we fight with now will be solved."

Sweet says that writing interactive scores involves notation difficulties as well. "Notating an interactive score has its challenges," he says. "Currently, there are just a few symbols traditionally used to indicate a jump back or forward to another section. In a large adaptive score, you might be jumping to places that are hard to follow because they can change each time the game is played. We do it now by writing directions on the page, but we need to develop notation that would allow another composer to understand your interactive score."

Open Ears

Over the 63-year history of Berklee, administrators have kept an eye on music industry trends and an open ear to what students want to learn. That process guided them to offer electric guitar as a principal instrument, develop music synthesis and songwriting as majors, and to add turntablism courses and more to the curriculum. The prominence of video games in the entertainment marketplace and the groundswell of interest among Berklee students has prompted the college to develop new courses on interactive music composition and writing for video games.

Jeanine Cowen, Berklee's assistant vice president for curriculum, developed and teaches the course "Music and Sound Production for Games." She also created the course "Introduction to Game Audio," which she teaches for Berkleemusic.com, the college's online school (visit www.berkleemusic.com). Film Scoring Chair Dan Carlin, Cowen, and others believed that it was time for Berklee to offer more training in interactive music.

"Berklee students formed a video-game club in the fall of 2007 with 14 students," says Carlin. "By the end of the spring semester, there were 100 students in the club. Last spring we hosted a very successful panel discussion and workshop with Paul Lipson, the president of Game Audio Network Guild (G.A.N.G.), and composers Clint Bajakian, Tommy Tallarico, and Norihiko Hibino. There is a lot of interest in this area among our students, so I went to the administration, and we got rolling on this.

"Paul Lipson is assisting us in the development of our curriculum," says Carlin. "We are collaborating with the leaders of this movement to make sure we get it right. The people in this industry are really willing to help. They appreciate the fact that we are listening to them and treating the industry with respect."

This fall, Sweet became a Berklee faculty member and started teaching a section of Cowen's course "Music and Sound Production for Games" as well as a new offering he developed, "Introduction to Interactive Music" (see the sidebar "Interactive Education"). The Film Scoring Department plans to construct an interactive music lab that will house workstations outfitted with a Mac, a PC, and a keyboard where students can work on projects.

Ultimately, the intro courses will be open to all interested students, but other courses that are lab classes will be limited to film scoring majors. Carlin and his staff plan to offer comprehensive training to equip students. "We will teach writing for all kinds of interactive media," Carlin says. "This will be a major new focus here. It's where the work is, so we have an obligation to our students to prepare them to make a living."

The compensation in music writing for games can be pretty attractive, says Lennie Moore, who taught pioneering video-game composing courses at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a current faculty member at the University of Southern California. "In video games, the average is about $1,000 to $1,200 per minute of finished music," he says. "Some of the orchestral composers get more. On the low end, a composer might get $500 per minute. Calculating fees based on the number of minutes of music needed has been a standard, but some people make deals that have a wider range of perks, with back-end bonuses like those a film composer might get. It's still a young industry, and nothing is set in stone."

The Future

For those who haven't followed the upward trajectory of the video-game industry, the increased interest in games and the revenue they generate may come as a surprise. Not so for those who have been involved in gaming. Andy Martin '96 is an MP&E graduate who over the past few years has worked as sound designer for games. His résumé lists credits for sound design for the games Airborne, Hellgate: London, and more. Since 2007, Martin has been the lead sound designer for the game developer Sucker Punch Productions located in Seattle, Washington, and is working on sound effects for an open-world game for PlayStation 3 titled Infamous.

"If gaming was still in the era of Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis, I'd be surprised at the level of success games have today," Martin says. "Now that we have PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, wii, and next-generation PC gaming where designers create something very interactive with rich story-telling, graphics, and sound, I'm not surprised. Games are almost like interactive movies. Americans?despite our reputation for being couch potatoes?have always been interactive. We want to get our hands into something, and this aspect of games has drawn many people in.

"Films can get more meaning across and make you think, while a game gets you involved. Gaming is still a new art form, and no one knows where it can or will go yet. There is something about movies that can make us laugh out loud and then cry a few minutes later. I'm waiting for the day when a game will be able to make us do that."

In Japan, Hibino hopes to bring his game-music fans into purely musical territory. He established the record label GEM Factory and has opened a music club in Tokyo called Vanilla Mood. "The club is a place for young cats to gather and play and where I can find good musicians for recording projects," Hibino says. "We don't have a video-game-related event yet, but I'd like to do that someday. I'm trying to open up new possibilities all the time."

Michael Sweet hopes for the day when game composers will achieve the kind of recognition that major film composers have attained. "There are a lot of great composers writing for games, but there is no one yet who has the name recognition of someone like [film composer] John Williams," says Sweet. "I hope we'll see composers from Berklee go on to do some great things that will turn the industry on its head."