Game music: The next generation
Martin O'Donnell, Jesper Kyd and Jason Graves on making music for the biggest games in the world, and what PS4 and Xbox One mean for the industry
We may be entering a new era of the 'celebrity' game director and auteur, where the likes of Bleszinski and Kojima are household names uttered as casually as Spielberg or Scorcese, but there's another role in the game industry that's been growing, albeit more quietly, in stature over the past decade: the game music composer.
Speaking to Martin O'Donnell, the man behind the unforgettable sounds of the Halo series and forthcoming FPS MMO Destiny; Jesper Kyd, who in a vast career has worked on everything from MDK to Assassin's Creed and Borderlands 2; and Jason Graves, who composed the nightmarish soundscapes of the latest Tomb Raider and the Dead Space trilogy, I was given an inside view on the unique journeys of these artists, the challenges they've conquered and now face, and - not least - what next gen means for the modern composer.
With leaps in processing power and visual fidelity so striking and momentous in the past decade, it's easy to forget - or simply not comprehend - the major milestones in game music composing and sound design that have come to shape how we hear our games.
"When Microsoft came out with the Xbox specs, for me, that was the siren call: to be on the same system people were watching movies on"
For Martin O'Donnell, Bungie's uniquely titled "audio director/composer", it was one game in particular that changed the way he saw game music. "Myst was the game that got me interested in the switch from film and commercial music into games," he says. "I saw an aesthetic shift from a constant soundtrack of music - like in the early Nintendo and Sony days - where games seemed to have this constant soundtrack telling you everything you needed to know because they couldn't do dialogue or convincing sound effects. It was all very MIDI-sounding, 8-bit things."
O'Donnell believes that Myst's revolution was - as with many innovations in the game industry since its birth - driven by the enabler of new technology.
"It was technology, I think, just holding it back," he says. "It was the coming together of technology and a creative vision that [revolutionised] game music at that time. When I saw Myst I saw something doing a more ambient score telling an emotional story rather constantly being music in my head. As soon as I heard that I thought 'ok, this is the time to check out this industry.'"
O'Donnell went on to work on Myst's sequel, Riven, in 1996, and while the PC was the industry-leader in terms of game audio at the time, it wasn't long before it had some competition: "Sony's machine started doing some interesting things," he explains. "I remember playing Final Fantasy VII and some other games... and I know everybody was [then] upgrading their technology [at that time]. When I started out on PC it seemed to be ahead of the consoles but then the consoles caught up and it was really a pleasure to jump to the Xbox."
That "jump" to the first Xbox was, of course, due to Microsoft's acquisition of Bungie and it's Halo IP in a bid to spearhead its fresh game industry ambitions. The platform brought a perk for O'Donnell that trumped any fame or fortune, too: "The fact that there was a 5.1 surround chip onboard, meaning you could hook up your home surround system to your Xbox, actually let us - as creators - deliver a surround sound environment for everything. It was a huge, huge jump. Back in 1999 working on PC and Mac there were lots of interesting things happening, but on the audio side you actually had to go out and fight, convince people to buy a sound blaster or something or other. Creative Labs had surround sound speakers but that was so, so hard to do. And it just seemed at that point we were so far away from a user-friendly way of just hooking up your home theater. And then when Microsoft came out with their specs, for me, that was the siren call: to be on the same system people were watching movies on."
"Game companies outsource music the same way they do wall textures: they literally have the choice of any composer in the world"
O'Donnell's longevity and renown is rivalled by very few other game music composers working today, but Jesper Kyd is one of them. His journey into the industry has followed a similar timescale and trajectory; getting his break a few years ahead of O'Donnell (Kyd's work stretches back to the Amiga and the Sega Genesis in the early 90s) and as such Kyd experienced the Compact Disc revolution firsthand albeit as a Sega Genesis developer. "That was a huge step forward, suddenly we could use a live symphony orchestra, as we did for Hitman 2, and I don't like the expression but it became 'real music' after that point".
But where O'Donnell says he's seen no equivalent revolution since the milestones of CDs and 5.1 surround, Kyd identifies a more delicate trend shaping the way composers go about their work today:
"The game industry is definitely driven by production quality now, certainly in the last five or six years, and it makes sense. There's the drive towards the best graphics and it's the same [with music]. It's not always about the best game or gameplay. And it's started to happen to game music, too, where production quality has really become a focus. It's very much part of the game industry, pushing things so they just sound more impressive."
Jason Graves agrees: "Around 2007 I saw it become less about how much music you could fit on the disc and purely about how much a developer could afford to implement. The big part of it, actually, just becomes about 'how much can we afford to buy?' It takes man-power to implement. It's man-power dependent, not [entirely] technology dependent [now]."
This new age of superior technology and competition, driven by the race towards higher fidelity, means the opportunities available to composers have never been richer: "There's no limit anymore," says Kyd. "Chip music was all about limitations. We have unlimited channels now, unlimited RAM, you can write a piece of music and deliver it in CD quality. You can always compress it down. It's about bit-rate now, not RAM. And I'm hoping with these next generation consoles we can get really high bit-rate."
"The technology just supports whatever direction you want to go now," adds O'Donnell. "It's getting better all the time."
The fact that a composer's tools have never been so advanced or open brings with it one caveat for jobbing, freelance composers like Kyd: the competition gets stronger and the door to the industry is open wider than ever before. Graves is a fellow freelancer and identifies the job security issues of next-gen composing: "the way game music currently works is very much like the early years of the Hollywood movie system, where you'd have people brought in, in-house, for specific roles. It works great for me - it's liberating from a creative point of view. But the fact is the technology is now allowing freelance composers to work with anybody in the world. The tech we have now means you can compose amazing quality audio, maybe not as good as I can do in the studio, but 99 per cent of people wouldn't be able to tell. You're getting into minutiae. It's so accessible that anyone with a laptop, headphones and the right software can start writing music. Game companies outsource music the same way they do wall textures: they literally have the choice of any composer in the world they want to work with. They're not tied down."
"The more choice you give players the more difficult giving them a seamless audio environment is"
The stories and styles of O'Donnell, Kyd and Graves may be as unique as the soundscapes they craft, but there's another challenge that they're all facing together besides stronger competition: the new wave of videogame design. We may not have a technical revolution as obvious as the compact disc or 5.1 but gameplay itself is presenting music composers with the next major transformation of their work and challenge to their methodology.
If there was a message to come out of E3 this year it's that open-world, always-online gaming with emergent play is where most developers are headed. For game music composers this poses an intimidating question: how do you compose around random play? As bold and intimidating as the shift from a constant music track to the likes of Myst's ambient, narrative-focussed audio design, composers are now faced with a transition from more linear experiences to free-form worlds where anything can happen and there are more ways to play than ever before. And, consequently, more ways for your music and sound design to get lost in all the noise.
"[Before] you had adaptive sound, adaptive play and you could sort of test everything, most peoples' experiences," says O'Donnell. "As games get more and more complex, and with a game like Destiny which people are going to keep coming back to, experiencing in different ways, and there are elements that are persistent, we just don't know all the ways people will experience things so we have to come up with systems that will adapt to peoples' preferred way of playing."
Kyd believes the solution to the problem of designing open-world audio for next-gen may be solved by software: "One thing I'd really like to see would be companies like Cubase developing software for the next-gen. So maybe you could import a whole session from Cubase. Imagine mixing 200 channels of music in real-time... you could change and mix it depending on what the player's doing at the time, that would be really cool."
A real-time mixing method is also top of O'Donnell's wishlist: "Me and my guys want the experience to feel unique and personal and scored," says O'Donnell. "From the audio to voiceover, the emotional journey you're taking that the music enhances, the satisfying sounds of weapons and vehicles and so forth. But you need a system that can mix it real-time and give each person their own individual experience and they don't lose anything. The more choice you give players the more difficult giving them a seamless audio environment is. We're working on it right now and we'll see how it works..."
"What I'm hearing today is everyone likes Hans Zimmer - and he's a great composer - but... everyone sounds like Hans Zimmer"
O'Donnell, like Kyd, also sees tools as a crucial weapon in the war on next-gen development, especially now he's in the business of cross-platform games.
"There's a lot of thirdparty tools out there that are really helping us," he says. "It's not that we're even thinking about 'well, we can do this specific thing on an Xbox and this on a PlayStation' more we're thinking 'what should the user experience be?' And it'll be pretty much the same on each platform. We've got seven audio studios here at Bungie and all outfitted with the same [tech]. Pro Tools and other Apple stuff is what we use to actually produce the music and audio itself, in terms of implementation we're working with a thirdparty company called Wwise. Using their tools is helping us implement across all the platforms we want to work on."
For a long time now Kyd has been working on games that have planted the seed from which today's open-world ambitions have arguably blossomed, from Hitman and Freedom Fighters to Assassin's Creed, Borderlands 2 and most recently State Of Decay. And one thing he isn't keen to return to is the composing method of "layers", where "you deliver a track and it's in layers, and you just remove a layer when someone does something [in the game]. It's like these layers are associated with stealth, these are associated with action and we ramp it up and down. And that's fine, but people aren't using it as much as they used to. My perspective is that music [like that] isn't then designed to be played all at once... you end up taking things away. And in most cases I've experienced with layering is it feels like something's missing. So you're doing stealth and it's like 'wait, something's missing'. That's the hard thing to figure out..."
The problem may be complex but Kyd's solution is gloriously simple and obvious: "I think we might just need a lot more music", he says dryly. "It's not unusual to have two, three hours of music for an open-world game now, but I can see that doubling or even tripling depending on the size of the game. It's important the music all interacts with each other in a seamless way, not just with more bridges and layers - that would become very complicated very quickly."
"You're reacting to the gameplay, that's the best thing a score can do: react to and support gameplay"
Graves, who's had his own brief daliance with open-world scoring in this year's Tomb Raider reboot, agrees, having moved on from the layering approach himself in Lara's latest: "The interactive aspect has always been the most exciting part of working with games, for me. Before Tomb Raider, with Dead Space, it was four layers that would come in and out depending, essentially, on the fear factor. But with Tomb Raider I sat down with the developer and played the game. We would take every encounter and approached every single situation on its own and never scored the same way twice. Sometimes there's be layers, but sometimes there'd be stems or stingers, with everything done on an encounter-by-encounter basis. You're reacting to the gameplay, that's the best thing a score can do: react to and support gameplay."
A layering approach would also require a different recruitment approach: "You'd need composers who specialise in that skill of layering, it's a very specific thing, and as more and more film composers are getting into games I don't think it's going to go that way."
A little less conversation
Designing sound for open-world experiences may be the next obvious frontier for composers, but O'Donnell also believes there's one crucial area still holding the profession back; a relic from the past that just won't go away: voice-chat. "I've been saying this for a few years now, that voice-chat is the lowest fidelity audio in a game, and it gets in the way. I think the next generation will be a step towards a better quality of audio chat, but just a step."
Kyd has his own bug-bear with the way game music is evolving at the moment, but it's more of a creative concern: "There's a lot of looking towards Hollywood right now and just saying 'let's take that sound'. That's not really pushing it as much as we can, that's taking something pre-existing, not doing something 'next-generation'. You can do things in unusual ways, you don't have to follow what's expected. When a developer's on board with that it becomes interesting and you can start pushing in interesting directions..."
Graves concurs with Kyd's frustration at the current me-too approach of some composers: "What I'm hearing today is everyone likes Hans Zimmer - and he's a great composer - but... everyone sounds like Hans Zimmer. The downside is everyone's music sounds the same. And there are so many people wanting to get into the industry now, whether it's film, TV or games, and I think games has gotten a lot more attention from kids straight out of school - you can get degrees in game music now - and the competition is ten times what it was when I got started. My advice to anyone today is: stop listening to film music, stop listening to the Dark Knight; folks are looking for something different."
The blessing and support of a developer, the wider studio, is something each composer views as vital to the success of their work. As game music becomes more integral, and revered, the composer's role is, finally, becoming more important and ubiquitous in the overall game production workflow. A composer working today needs to have a wide view of the production, says Kyd: "You need that constant feedback. You need to be around the lead designers, in communication, that goes for film, TV, whatever - its vital you're involved in the whole production. You can't just sit there, do your music and send it in."
O'Donnell - as an audio director - is emblematic of the composer's more inclusive role in video game production. But this idea of the all-powerful and knowing composer could dissuade rookie, up-and-coming musicians hoping to get their foot in the door at a lower level. It's an issue that's set to be addressed in September by the inaugural Game Music Connect event which O'Donnell, Kyd and Graves are headlining in a bid to raise the profile of the profession and lift the lid on a role that's been previously maligned. As one of the event's organiser, John Broomhall reminds: "What used to be an afterthought is now an integral part of AAA development with composers and audio directors working together earlier and more closely. And many games use the best recording studios, conductors and orchestras/musicians on the planet. It's a rich, vibrant world of creativity which ultimately has a profound influence on the gaming experience of millions."
Inaugural events like this show game music's star rising at the dawn of the next generation of consoles, and as composers like O'Donnell, Kyd and Graves pioneer new modes and methods of music-making for a new wave of emergent, interactive experiences, the profession's profile is only going to - figuratively and literally - get louder.
David Valjalo is a freelance writer and game consultant