A Composer's Perspective on Game Audio

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Written by Lance Hayes

Like many readers of Keyboard Magazine, I write music and create sound design for media. Historically, I’ve made a nice niche for myself with licensing, studio and soundtrack work. In 2005, I added game audio to that list and that quickly became my fastest growing market.

Since then, I’ve scored and created sound design for everything from casual games to AAA titles designed for the PC tohandheld devices and major game consoles. This list includes small games to massive projects. I’ve been to a multitude of conferences, networking like crazy. I’ve also delved into the dark art of implementation and come out in one piece. In the end, I can tell you one thing with unwavering certainty; there is a lot to know about game audio.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time getting up to speed with current practices and standards. As I segued from game fan to game professional, one of the first things I had to wrap my head around was the scope of the gaming field and the role that composers play in it.

Interactive sound and music are big components in the current landscape, and they allow for some of the amazing experiences that make gaming such a fast growing, compelling and exciting medium.

Given the complex nature of the beast I thought that a little background might be helpful.

VG Music and History

It’s become common knowledge that games are the biggest selling entertainment format in the world right now. Since they are less expensive to produce than Hollywood blockbusters and come with a steeper price tag than going to a first run film, they are able to produce huge profits for the studios and publishers.

A popular comparison in profits this year has been “Avatar” and “Call of Duty Modern Warfare2”.Avatar and CoDMW2, scored by Hanz Zimmer were both released about the same time and have both pulled down over a billion dollars in sales. What many articles don’t tell you is that the update to the franchise “Call of Duty: Black Ops” had the single biggest launch event of all time and has also scored over a billion dollars in sales for Activision.

Statistically speaking, in 2004, video games collectively became a $10 billion industry in the US alone. In 2009, they had grown to about $20 billion and this year’s sales are looking stronger than 2009.

But it wasn’t always that way. If you are interested in the historical development of music in this fledgling industry, there is a wonderful piece on GameSpot by Glenn McDonald titled “A Brief History of Video Game Music”. It covers everything from Pong to the early part of this century. And of course Wikipedia has articles on both the history of video game music and the history of video games. That should get you started.

Helpful Game Links

Some other good sources of game and game music information include:

IASIG a nonprofit that is focused on creating standards and educating the game audio industry

Gamasutra one of the best sources of information on the net about game development

G4TV.com fantastic source for breaking gaming news

Audio G.A.N.G. is a resource for composers and sound designers in the game industry and its membership votes on the annual GANG awards handed out at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco every year

Down the Line

I have found that many folks at every level in this industry are generous, gracious and willing to share their knowledge. I’d like to think that this blog may be my opportunity to do the same for a new generation of composers looking for information on becoming game composers themselves.

In future blogs I’ll talk about the tools of the trade, specific experiences I’ve had and discuss some of the challenges that a composer faces when he is creating original pieces for use in games.


Author bio: Lance Hayes is also known as DJ Drunken Master and is a keyboardist, synthesist, and leading composer of music for video games. Most recently, he composed the soundtrack for Microsoft's Forza Motorsport 3 title. Find out more at www.djdm.com.

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