In this post I’m going to analyse the pros and cons of some of the strategies available to get music for video games, and help you decide which might be the best for you.

We all know that music is particularly important for video games. A soundtrack sets the overall tone of the game and it shapes the experience of a player without them really noticing it. Music can also provide clues about the situation the player is in and make a game stand out from the crowd. Think of the Skyrim main theme for example… you probably just need the initial three drum hits to recognise the game. That’s great branding!

Unfortunately, for an indie game company it isn’t always simple to get the best music for a game. Sometimes it isn’t even easy to get decent music really. In a perfect world, you would probably hire Nobuo Uematsu to write the soundtrack for your next game, but I guess in this world – at least for a few more years – you really can’t do that! There are a number of aspects you should consider when deciding how to get the music for your game. Let’s flesh them out:

  • How much money can you spend on music?
  • How much time can you dedicate to music?
  • Do you want control over the music?
  • Do you want unique/tailored music?
  • How much do you care about having (high) quality music?
  • Do you want more advanced soundtracks using adaptive music?

If you want to know a bit more about adaptive music and understand how it can improve the players’ engagement in your game you can read this post I wrote some time ago.

As is often the case, there’s a trade off between all of the elements I mentioned. You can’t have Nobuo Uematsu (excellent quality music) to write your soundtrack for a few bucks! Let’s see what options are available to acquire music and understand how to pick one that fits your needs. Before that, try to answer the questions above to see where you stand.

1- GET STOCK MUSIC

Getting music from music libraries is quite popular among indie devs these days. You go to a website like AudioJungle, start browsing their music library and when you’re happy with what you hear you buy a track. You can filter the search by genre, emotion and all sorts of metadata that helps you to ease the (quite annoying) search process. Most of these online services are royalty-free, meaning that you just pay for a track once and then you can use it whenever you need it in your game.

Pros

The main advantage of stock music is that it’s cheap. You can usually spend from $5 to $50 for a track and you can also take advantage of discounts applied to multiple purchases. In other words, you can get a complete soundtrack for a game for as little as $100, if not less.

Cons

There are many downsides to using stock music. The search process for finding the right musical pieces for your game is super time consuming. It can take ages to find a composition with the right tone for a level of your game, and it’s even more difficult to find a bunch of tracks – usually composed by different musicians – which may sound good together. A good game soundtrack has a unique musical “fingerprint” that’s traceable in most of its tracks, which provides a sort of “musical branding” to a game. Achieving this is nearly impossible with stock music. Therefore, when using music libraries the quality suffers a lot. You also need to give up control over the music. There’s no possibility to adjust a piece to suit the gist of the game and you should accept that the compositions you pick won’t be uniquely heard in your game. They may be used in other games, videos, and ads, and that’s not great for game branding!

When to use

If you’re on a tight musical budget and you think that music won’t be an essential part of your game experience you should consider stock music, granted you have enough time to search through the thousands of tracks of a middle-size music library.

2- HIRE AN AMATEUR MUSICIAN

There are many amateur musicians around which would like to build a career as video game composers and develop their musical skills while working on game projects.

Pros

Amateur musicians are reasonably cheap. They’re definitely cheaper than professional composers. An amateur musician is able to create unique tracks which are tailored to your game, and they can definitely respond to the game developer’s feedback in order to improve the music according to their needs.

Cons

The main issue with amateur musicians is that they (usually) don’t have much experience making soundtracks. Having a long experience as a video game composer helps a lot, because it allows a musician to be more flexible and to do things quicker.  With an amateur musician the quality of the music can also suffer a bit. By quality, I mean both the composition and production sides of the music making process. These are skills which are difficult to improvise and which take years of serious training to develop. Also, it’s not unusual for inexperienced musicians to underestimate the time they need to deliver a musical asset. This may threaten the release of your game. Consider this if you’re on a tight schedule.

When to use

If your budget is limited but you are looking for custom music for your game, then hiring amateur musicians is a good solution.

3- HIRE A PROFESSIONAL COMPOSER

As the game industry is expanding, the number of professional composers who focus on video games also is increasing. The offer of video game composers is large and it isn’t difficult to find the right fit for your game by checking  composers’ websites – which usually showcase some of their work – by word of mouth or by using social networks like Twitter or Facebook.  Composers come of all shapes and sizes. There are those who specialise in orchestral RPG-like music and others who prefer working with 8-bit music. As a rule of thumb, a good composer can write music in any style if asked, although she might need sometime to experiment with styles she’s not familiar with.

Pros

Professional composers are able to create high-quality music that fits the tone of a game. As in the case of amateur musicians, the soundtracks they compose are obviously unique to a  specific game. Most composers are also able to create complex adaptive soundtracks which can enrich the musical experience and help to keep the players more engaged .

Cons

Hiring professional composers can be expensive. Of course, the cost depends on the experience of the composer in the games industry. A newcomer will always ask for less than an established composer with a solid reputation.  As a general point, professional composers can ask anywhere from $100 to $5,000 per minute of music. Working with composers can be sometimes frustrating because of communication issues. Have you ever tried to explain to a composer what you have in mind for the music of your game and you felt as if you couldn’t communicate your points effectively? In case you did,  you just experienced the lack of a shared language. Miscommunication can definitely slow down the music composition/acquisition process. Another problem with professional composers is the slow turnaround. Once you tell the composer the musical requirements it can pass weeks or even months before you hear back from her again. This way the feedback can be slow and you’ll have little control over the music.

When to use

Hiring a professional composer is  a good solution if you can afford to spend quite a lot on music and if the game requires high-quality music. You should also be OK with not having much control over the music.

4- CREATE THE MUSIC BY YOURSELF USING LOOPS AND SEQUENCERS

If you have some musical skills and are able to use basic music software you can consider creating the soundtrack of your music by yourself. This is an enriching process and a quite satisfying one. Ask Toby Fox for confirmation!

Pros

Composing  music by yourself is really cheap. It can actually cost you nothing, if you go for free music software and samples that are freely available on the Internet. You can also have total control over the music you create. And let’s admit it, you’ll have some great time while creating the soundtrack. A secondary advantage is that you’ll improve your musical skills while experimenting with the music.

Cons

The main issue with composing a soundtrack by yourself is that the process is extremely time consuming, and more so if you aren’t an experienced musician. When creating a piece you should come up with a good melody, a rich-enough harmony, a nice orchestration, and one or more convincing countermelodies. We usually don’t think of the big technical/creative effort the composer has to put into a piece like the main Oblivion theme – just to remain in the Elder Scrolls saga! Quality is another major problem with home-made music. If you’re not a musician, it might be difficult to come up with a good musical track.

When to use

Composing a soundtrack by yourself is a good strategy if you have much time,  you’re on a really tight budget,  you don’t want to give up control over the music and you still want a custom solution. It goes without saying that the necessary requirement for composing the music by yourself is that you have at least some minimal musical skills and familiarity with music software.

5- USE COMPUTED-GENERATED MUSIC

Computer-generated music isn’t common today – the main reason being that there aren’t solutions on the market which provide it on a scale – but here at Melodrive we believe that this will be the future of  video game music and we’re working to make this vision come true. The basic idea behind computed-generated music is that an Artificial Intelligence system automates the compositional process usually based on some parameters like style, emotion, tempo defined by a human user. Computer-generated music has already  been used in video games successfully. A great example is Spore, where the music is generated by an AI system in realtime depending on the user interactions.

Pros

Computer-generated music is able to create unique music which is tailored to a specific game cheaply. A major advantage of this method is that it can create infinite musical content, for example by varying the same musical theme endlessly.  This method can also be used to create complex adaptive soundtracks which react to the actions of the user. Computer-generated music has a fast turnaround and it is quick to implement.  A user, interacting with a generative music system, can tweak some generation parameters, listen to the musical results immediately, and then modify the generation parameters in order to adjust the music to her own liking. This tweak-and-listen process provides the user with a lot of control over the music.

Cons

Mmmh… I might be biased, but I don’t see any clear disadvantages to computed-generated music unless you buy into the argument that music is a human activity and that machines can’t replace humans in creative tasks. But this is a philosophical argument – a flawed one in my opinion – which I won’t get into here.

When to use

Computer-generated music is the perfect solution if you haven’t much money and time to spend on music, would like to create complex adaptive scores that are tailored to your game project, would like to retain control over your soundtrack, and would like to have high-quality music that enhances the players’ experience.

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS

As we’ve seen, there are several methods available to get the music for a video game. Each of these has some advantages and disadvantages. Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution in this case. For this reason, it can sometimes be difficult to understand which method is the best for your case. To overcome this issue, you can consider a number of variables such as budget, time to allocate on music, need for control over the music, degree of customisation and quality. Once you have a clear idea of what are the resources and needs for the music of your game, you can choose the acquisition method accordingly.

How do you get the music for your games? Do you use other methods I haven’t listed in this article?