What Does a Composer (Video Games) Do?

As video games have grown more complex and immersive, so too have the soundtracks that accompany them. Today, contemporary video game scores can be every bit as dynamic and sophisticated as movie soundtracks, and video game composers are likely to contribute to film and television scores as well. Just like film scores, video game scores require dozens of individual pieces of music—called "cues"—that collectively serve to create a mood, enhance the action and drama playing out on screen, and cultivate a sense of time and place. However, that's where the similarities end; while films and television shows are passive viewing experiences, video games are interactive journeys that require composers to embrace variables unique to game design.

To get a foot in the door, aspiring composers will need a show reel to send to prospective employers, which means recording a short collection of cues on their own time.

Unlike movie scores, video game scores must respond seamlessly to different modes of gameplay (e.g., exploration, combat, or problem solving) and react instantly to a player's on-screen maneuvers—swelling in victory the moment a battle is won, for example, or quieting ominously as the player shifts into stealth mode. Writing music for an interactive framework requires that composers master the creation of rich linear loops, music chunks suitable for resequencing, individual themes for characters, and compositional fragments for use within a generative system (such as in the life-simulation game Spore). Composers who write for top-tier games may record their orchestral scores with full orchestras, while independent developers and smaller titles may use a combination of sampling and recorded instruments.

People in the Field

Kazuma Jinnouchi

Name:

Kazuma
Jinnouchi
Class of 
2002
Position: 
Composer

Composer (Video Games) at a Glance

Career Path

Video game composers can kick-start their careers even as undergraduates by getting in touch with game design students or independent studios and contributing to a game soundtrack. Getting ahead in this industry is about luck and talent, yes, but it's also about working hard and contributing music to as many games as possible. Video game composers who are early in their careers will certainly need an outside source of income; this could mean working for video game studios in other capacities (e.g., as an audio developer), working entrepreneurially as a freelance composer/arranger, or working in an unrelated day job while waiting for a big break. Skilled video game composers, especially those who demonstrate great flexibility in their compositions, are a hot commodity in this industry. The reward for their hard work is a steady flow of projects from top-tier studios, enabling them to support themselves by doing what they love most—writing music for video games—while contributing to exciting, genre-defining projects.

Finding Work

A rapidly growing industry, video gaming is overflowing with opportunity and competition. To get a foot in the door, aspiring composers will need a show reel to send to prospective employers, which means recording a short collection of cues on their own time. Even more valuable, however, is a complete game with a corresponding soundtrack. A show reel can demonstrate one's ability to write engaging compositions, but when it comes to showing off one's ability to create a mood and enhance a story or setting, a game or game demo cannot be beat. Networking with game developers in one's community is a great way to find these initial collaborative opportunities. Video game composers should keep in mind the myriad cutting-edge opportunities available in mobile gaming, as well as with virtual and augmented reality companies like Magic Leap, Oculus, and Exit Reality.

Professional Skills
  • Orchestration and arranging
  • Composing character themes
  • Composing loops
  • Home studio setup
  • DAWs
  • Synthesizers and samplers
  • Audio editing
  • Video game design
  • Compositional flexibility
Interpersonal Skills

Like other forms of musical composition, video game composing is an act of love. The basis for a career as a video game composer is a real, deep passion for video games and the distinctive culture and community surrounding them; composers should have a burning desire to contribute their own ideas to the larger musical conversation. Video game composers are usually independent contractors and, as such, need tenacity and salesmanship to thrive in this fast-growing and wildly competitive field. While composing is a solitary art, it is also, paradoxically, an intensely collaborative one. It is critical to be a skilled networker, and to work well with a creative team.

Work Life

Most video game composers are independent contractors who work from home studios, either alone or—if well-established and working on a higher budget—alongside a team of assistants. Composers may come into video game studio offices for meetings of the creative team, but for the most part, the work is performed remotely. In-house positions in this industry are rare, but composers who make strong professional connections with a particular studio or team, or who work on the soundtrack for a multi-title franchise, may find themselves working consistently with the same studio.