The Video Game Industry and New Opportunities for Composers

  • Alarm Will Sound performs Zappa's Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat. Photo by Cory Weaver.

    Alarm Will Sound performs Zappa's Dog Breath Variations/Uncle Meat. Photo by Cory Weaver.

  • A screen from the video game Battlefield: Bad Company.

    A screen from the video game Battlefield: Bad Company.

  • A screen from the video game BioShock. Composer Garry Schyman wrote the score.

    A screen from the video game BioShock. Composer Garry Schyman wrote the score.

  • Chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound contributes to the soundtrack of Battlefield: Bad Company.

    Chamber ensemble Alarm Will Sound contributes to the soundtrack of Battlefield: Bad Company.

Aliens Are Attacking. Cue the Strings.

December 26, 2008  |  The New York Times

In the video game BioShock turbulent Rachmaninoff-like music plays while an evil composer named Cohen shouts, “Presto, presto” before incinerating a hapless pianist and his instrument. In Battlefield: Bad Company gamers hear a string quintet playing earthy music redolent of Bartok. In Alone in the Dark: Inferno the evocative timbre of the female choral group the Mystery of Bulgarian Voices adds to the suspense as the hero fights for survival in Central Park.

These are just a few of the recent soundtracks written and performed by classically trained musicians who are finding new outlets for their talents in the booming video game industry.

Not long ago such work “felt like a throwaway for composers who couldn’t get work elsewhere,” said Steve Schnur, worldwide executive for music and marketing at the software giant Electronic Arts, describing the beeps and whirs of early games as “Good Humor truck” music, created hastily and late in the development process. Now musical scores — whether rock, rap or classical — are becoming an integral part of the finished product, often lavishly produced and seamlessly embedded into the story lines and gaming action. At its best, Mr. Schnur said, music “is the reason for the emotional response that games never had 10 to 20 years ago.”

The care now lavished on classical soundtracks is evident not only in the impressive quality of many scores but also in the first-rate performers recruited to record them. Mikael Karlsson’s orchestral music for Battlefield is performed by a 70-piece ensemble (including members of the chamber group Alarm Will Sound and the International Contemporary Ensemble) conducted by Alan Pierson. Wolfram Koessel, a member of the American String Quartet, performs the melancholy cello solos.

Martin Chalifour, concertmaster of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, performs the eerie concertolike solo in “Welcome to Rapture,” part of Garry Schyman’s score for BioShock. In Prince of Persia, Stuart Chatwood plays the oud and other instruments to add an exotic touch to Inon Zur’s sweeping orchestral score.

The field has also attracted major film composers like Danny Elfman, Howard Shore and Hans Zimmer. The composer Michael Giacchino began his career writing for games (including the Medal of Honor series) before branching into film and television. And more composers might follow his path now that schools like the Berklee College of Music in Boston have started game scoring classes.

For composers and performers accustomed to struggling to find steady work even in flush times, there’s good money to be made in an industry that, according to the NPD research group, generated $21.6 billion in retail sales in the United States alone in the 12 months that ended in November. Tommy Tallarico, a game composer who founded the Game Audio Network Guild to promote the field, said the typical fee for a composer is $1,000 per minute of music, with top names making up to $2,000. For a typical game, which requires one to two hours of music, a composer could make $60,000 to $240,000.

The increasingly nuanced scores reflect “the growing maturity of the games industry, which is getting better at storytelling” and weaving moral dilemmas into game plots, said Sean Decker, general manager at DICE, the division of Electronic Arts that created Battlefield. The main challenge for composers is switching from a linear to an interactive medium in which the music has to reflect several possible outcomes at each stage of the game. Different music is needed, for example, depending on whether a gamer perishes or emerges victorious from a tussle with a venomous monster.

Jesse Harlin, music supervisor at LucasArts (which uses scores by John Williams, among others, for its Star Wars games) is swamped with demos from composers. He encourages them to write music that reflects what is happening to the gamer in the story and to avoid loop-based scores that can result in listener fatigue. Music can be “dynamically mixed in real time by the game itself,” he said, meaning that if the gamer gets into a hectic combat situation, for example, brass and percussion can be layered on top of a string track.

Despite the industry’s technological advances, Mr. Zur said gaming was “still in the development stage as far as how to implement music.” For Prince of Persia he composed cues to inspire a particular emotion in the player, not necessarily to reflect the scenery. A game producer, he added, rarely stipulates what the player is supposed to feel, but instead tends to describe specific situations, which allows the composer a certain freedom. Mr. Zur might be told, for example, that “there is a monster, it’s scary, and the hero doesn’t stand a chance.” But instead of resorting to “scary monster music,” he said, he prefers to compose music that reflects the panic of the player as he confronts a hopeless battle.

Olivier Deriviere, who wrote the music for Alone in the Dark, said complicating the process was that the score was usually created separately from the game’s actual production, making alignment of story and score especially difficult. On the plus side composers have more time to write than their counterparts in the film industry.

Some systems, like the Xbox 360, allow gamers to create custom soundtracks using MP3s. But many players (even the youngest) appreciate the attention software companies dedicate to music. In the Virgin Megastore in Union Square in Manhattan, Atticus Wakefield, 10, said, “Music and the sound really give the game more depth and make it much better to play.”

Alexis Estrate, 20, visiting from France, said the opera on the Double Clef FM radio station in some Grand Theft Auto games “is cool, as you calm down.” (Other radio stations in the game feature jazz, metal and reggae.) Jamal Monsanto, 22, a Virgin Megastore salesman, described the soundtrack to Battlefield as “pretty dope” and added that the music on a commercial for Prince of Persia made him more likely to buy the game.

Mr. Karlsson, who said his soundtrack for Battlefield was inspired by Mahler, Bartok, Schnittke, Schoenberg and the Balanescu Quartet (an avant-garde string ensemble), was aware that his audience might not include many classical aficionados. Silas Brown of Legacy Sound recorded the Battlefield quintet (three cellos, viola and double bass) to emphasize the gritty, aggressive timbre of the strings, which are underpinned by the relentless rhythms of African drums in Mr. Karlsson’s arrangement of the main orchestral theme.

Mr. Karlsson said that because his chamber music cues for Battlefield, heard in the game’s loading screens, were so unusual, they have sold better than the orchestral excerpts available on iTunes. Unlike film soundtracks, which are often immediately available on CD and for download, only the top game titles have their music released in the United States, although that is standard practice in Japan.

There is currently no separate slot in the Grammy Awards for video game music, which can be entered only under the “Music for Film, Television and Other Visual Media” category. Bill Freimuth, vice president for awards at the Recording Academy, said there were no plans to add a separate section for game scores, a move advocated by many in the industry. (The MTV Video Music Awards created a games category in 2006.)

Even so, composers can attract more attention with game scores than with film or concert music, even as they draw new listeners to classical music. The use of Gregorian chant in Martin O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori’s score for the popular Halo series has no doubt contributed to the popular interest in chant. Performers also see the potential: the pianist Lang Lang, for example, has indicated he would like to create a game modeled after Guitar Hero.

Mr. Tallarico, who considers games “the radio of the 21st century,” said he created Video Games Live, a multimedia concert series featuring music from popular games, to “prove to the world how culturally significant video games have become.” After each concert he receives many e-mail messages from appreciative parents. Some say, for example, that their children now want to learn the violin so they can play their favorite game music.

Mr. Tallarico became interested in composing after hearing Mr. Williams’s soundtrack to “Star Wars” as a child, which prompted his interest in the symphonic music of Mozart and Beethoven. “If Beethoven were alive today, he’d be a video game composer,” he said.

Mr. Schyman, whose score for BioShock also includes Penderecki-like sound clusters and aleatoric elements, said the game’s developer, Irrational Games, urged him to create something unique because it didn’t want a “Carmina Buranaesque” score. He said that while television and film producers often want ambient music, software companies “are craving strong statements.”

“Which,” he added, “is fantastic for the composer.”

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