Tidbit: Roadblocks as Stepping Stones

While at Berklee, I took a Game Audio class with Michael Sweet. Earlier this year, he asked me to share an experience from my career for his recently published book, ‘Writing Interactive Music for Games’.

We spent months prototyping a music system for a series of rain levels in “The Floor is Jelly”. The system played an individual note for each drop, as it hit a surface. These drops generated harmonies that changed as the player moved. We even made an in-game editor. Unfortunately, playing a sample for each drop was too CPU intensive. Our system trashed the frame rate. The issue crept on us because we prototyped the idea using a sparse amount of rain. When we found we couldn’t increase the notes and droplets together, we had to scratch the whole system.

Instead, we created short loops of rain-like music that change as you progress through the world. The frequency of rain is great enough that synchronizing with each droplet was unnecessary.

For ‘Cannon Brawl’, we prototyped another system. The music comprised of four bars; two for the blue team on the left side, panned to the left, and two for the red, panned to the right. The concept seemed sound; the notion of two marching bands, in a never-ending call and response. The intensity of each team’s band fluctuated, depending on the game state. While this idea seemed great on paper, “trading twos” turned out to be annoying.

The final solution involved a longer piece of looping music, made up of many stems. Certain instruments represent each team, and are often panned to their respective side. When either team gains a level, the appropriate stem gets added to the mix. The concepts of our first prototype informed the simpler solution we reached.In both cases, our 'what if’ approach created useful roadblocks on the path to the final solution.

Presentation: How to FEZ

I recently gave a workshop at the Gamer’s Rhapsody Video Game Convention in St. Paul, Minnesota.

In this workshop, I made a FEZ style track in about 45 minutes and shared some of the production techniques involved.

Q: How do I find game audio gigs?

Folks have asked me this question many many times, and I think with good reason. It can seem rather daunting to find a game project to score. The reality is there’s no guaranteed path to success. My journey has been winding, but fortunate. My first gig was fortuitous. I cold emailed an indie developer for my second. I went to GDC on college loan money to find my third. My fourth and fifth projects were internships. My sixth was a result of a reference from my fifth. My most important (FEZ) happened in part because I played a show in Montreal.Being a freelancer is a bit like rolling a snowball. Sometimes you gain a lot of ground in a short time, and other times it’s a grind. I had part-time jobs for awhile, until I lucked out and worked on a very successful game. It’s easy to admit that a lot of the projects I have worked on since FEZ have been the result of exposure I gained from it.

Work Philosophy

Like anything, finding projects to work on is about who you know. The most important thing you can do is be visible. Have a strong web presence, and attend lots of events where there are game developers. Share your music. It’s okay to let people know that you are looking for projects to work on, but don’t be too aggressive about it. Developers are well aware that there are a lot of composers who are looking for work.Don’t put the cart before the horse. Game developers are human beings, many of them lovely. The best way to develop a working relationship with someone is to get to know them in person.

Where Do I Go?

There are many wonderful events that happen every year, where creative people of all kinds congregate in the name of games.

  • Conferences
  • GDC
  • IndieCade
  • Fantastic Fest
  • PAX
  • etc…

Game Jams This format is one of the easiest ways to work on a game. You will meet lots of cool people if you make an effort. I find writing music at game jams to be difficult, but it’s not impossible and I think it can be worth it regardless. My friend Bill Kiley wrote music for a dozen games at MolyJam a few years ago. That’s a lot of future potential right there!

Here are some sites that maintain a calendar of game jams happening around the world:

There are game jams happening all the time. It doesn’t take much to get involved when the stakes are so low. People go to have fun, and so can you!

Online Communities Do you prefer the shadows of your abode to the dangers of the real world? There are plenty of websites where game developers and creative types gather. I’m a bit out of the loop, but I spent a lot of time on TIGSource, which is still alive and kicking. Also, this may go without saying, but don’t forget: Google is the most essential resource of our time.

What Do I Do?

Release Music Getting your music out there can’t hurt. It also gives others a better understanding of your identity as a musician. I use Bandcamp to sell music on my website, and CDBaby to push my music to the most popular channels.

Build a Portfolio Part of being visible is giving people an easy way to learn more about what you do. A portfolio also allows you to communicate the direction you are looking to move in with your work. If you don’t have any gigs to showcase, you can always make demo material.

Live Performance A great excuse to travel, meet new people, and showcase your music. Traveling is in part how I ended up working on FEZ.

Business Cards Here are some great reasons not to buy business cards:

If You’re Fortunate…

It’s easy to say yes to an opportunity when there are no others. That said, as soon as you feel like you can, try to be discriminating about the projects you undertake. I believe that we all benefit when we choose to focus on the projects that resonate with us.

More Links

Composer Chance Thomas gives some great advice about developing a long-term strategy for finding work:

Some inspiration: