How to… compose music for video games

Stephen Lord, head of audio at game developer Jagex, gives us his top tips for composing music for video games…

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 22 Aug 2013
  • min read
The video games industry is a rapidly expanding sector and one where composers can find numerous opportunities to get their music heard.

However, there are perhaps no obvious routes into the industry for a writer or composer who wants to feature their work in the latest game for console or mobile.

Stephen Lord is head of audio at Jagex, an independent games developer and publisher responsible for the hugely popular RuneScape.

Here Stephen talks through the top tips for composers wanting to write music for games and how they can stand out in an increasingly crowded marketplace…

What are the key skills video game composers need?

I look for creativity and passion first and foremost. I hear a lot of demos trying to sound like someone else, or a perceived games industry stereotype.

I’m just a musician at heart who gets excited by originality and great composition. Composers also need to understand our industry with the many unique and technical opportunities that can affect how the development process works.

For example, music for games often follows a non-linear process so I would recommend that composers develop skills relating to dynamic and interactive music, as well as knowledge of available audio middleware solutions.

What makes for a good pitch from a composer looking to work with video games?

A pitch needs to stand out from the crowd as there can be a lot of people competing for attention. An application should be relevant to the company’s genre of games. Show them you care about their particular games as opposed to producing a generic mail out. Do your research, listen to what they have previously produced and give them some new, considered and interesting options.

Is the industry competitive? What attributes can help make a composer stand out?

The games industry is extremely competitive, with some very established and respected composers. Simply supplying a bunch of full length tracks probably won’t get you too much attention; music takes time to listen to, and an audio director may well only have a few minutes with your showreel.

First impressions count, so give your music immediate impact by submitting a short, effective showreel with relevant examples tailored to the specific company’s portfolio of games. Examples of stems or loopable sections of music with changing intensities, or stings that can jump in and out of the music on a beat or bar will all show a deeper and practical understanding of some of our fundamental principles.

What are the routes into the video games industry for emerging composers?

I would recommend starting small as it’s unlikely that an unknown composer would get chosen for a ‘triple A’ title. There are plenty of indie game developers, and the number of games coming out has never been greater, particularly on social and mobile platforms. Get a few titles under your belt and start to build a portfolio and reputation. There are some amazing soundtracks coming out of indie development and I would not hesitate to commission those particular composers. The experience of working on a commercial title would also show how the composer can produce quality assets to a defined brief as well as working to a deadline.

I don’t really see any trends in composing as our industry pretty much covers every genre of music from licensed artists, to full orchestras, very minimal soundtracks, and everything in-between. There is a real diversification and I am constantly delighted and absorbed by some of the evocative and contemporary soundtracks now making their way into games.

The beauty of our industry is that as musicians we often have more control stylistically over the direction of music in games. I always try to leave room for my composers to express themselves and not tie them down to my mindset or make the brief too rigid. Composers that are pro-active, creative, and show initiative are the ones I enjoy working with the most.

What are the main pitfalls composers need to consider when working with video games?

Composers need to be aware of any technical limitations or possibilities of the platform they are developing for. Play games, love games, understand technical aspects of all the different development platforms and you will avoid pitfalls.

What are the main functions of music within video games?

Music should never be in a game for the sake of it; it can often be better to say nothing than to use music to merely fill a gap. My remit is to provide a musical environment that helps deliver and emphasise the stories being told. Great music with detailed implementation will enhance the drama and emotion of any particular scenario, whether its purpose is to provide high adrenaline game play or maybe pull on a few heartstrings.

Are there any tested musical formulas that work especially well in video games?

I’m not a big fan of formulaic music, as soundtracks that don’t conform to public pre-conceptions are usually the ones that revolutionise our industry. Anything goes as far as I am concerned and if music jolts the senses, stirs up emotions and generally makes a player stop and think for a minute, then it’s doing a good job.

What percentage of specially commissioned music to pre-recorded music is in the average video game?

That depends entirely on the game and what the objective is for music in the game. At a previous studio I licensed over 150 commercial tracks for one game, whereas for most other games I have worked on entirely bespoke soundtracks. For me, specially commissioned music is always preferable because it is written to specific environments and circumstances

Is composing music within the gaming industry lucrative?

It certainly can be lucrative for established games composers. I guess like any industry if you have talent and you are passionate and show commitment, then the rewards will follow.

Which companies are the main games developers operating in the UK? 

Jagex is the largest independent games developer in the UK, although there are many other studios large and small dotted across the country.

Stephen will be talking about his experiences at the upcoming Game Music Connect conference on 9 September. Find out more about the event.