It might seem a like simple process, but picking the right music genre for a game soundtrack is a challenging task. The musical styles are almost infinite: free jazz, fusion, epic rock, late romantic, Gregorian, gypsy folk; to list just a few options available. Should you use a traditional classical orchestral style for your new RPG game or should you try an unexpected solution like trance music? As we know, music can make or break a game and the genre plays a major part in the process. In this article, I’ll give you some guidelines, inspired by the great book A Composer’s Guide to Game Music written by Winfred Phillips, on how to pick a music genre for your game that will (hopefully) resonate with your players. Before delving into this, let’s have a short detour on game genres, which, as we’ll see, are deeply intertwined with music genres.
Although video games come in all shapes and sizes, they can be classified into a number of genres. There are shooters, platformers, RPGs. puzzles just to name a few. Each genre has a unique game style and is characterised by a particular atmosphere. Think of RPG games for example. Many of them are set in fantasy/medievalish worlds with a bunch of good knights, princesses and wizards that set out on a quest to fight against the bad guys, in order to restore peace.
Each game genre appeals to a specific target demographic. Most developers know this and they (un)consciously design their games based on what their target market likes and dislikes. The game genre is a marketing tool by itself. For example, it would be unthinkable to market a complex game like Dark Souls III to casual gamers. For this game, you need core gamers passionate about RPGs and adventure games who love to be challenged.
There’s a strong connection between game genre and music genre. The most important role of a video game soundtrack is to enhance the enjoyment and immersion of the player. To achieve this goal, the music should be influenced by the musical taste of the target demographic which likes to play a specific game. Just like the game genre is a marketing tool, so is the music genre. As music researcher David Huron says “musical styles have long being identified with social and demographic groups. Musical style might therefore assist in targeting a specific group”.
One of the steps involved in planning the music for a game is to pick up a genre. If you’re interested in a handy guide for video game music planning you can check out this article that I wrote. When deciding the style of your soundtrack you should think of the music genre as a marketing tool that will make your product (the game) more appealing to the target demographic of your game. This doesn’t mean that you should be completely constrained by the musical tastes of your audience though. In fact, you should find a balance between what your target market likes and what you think it’s best for enhancing the game experience through the music.
Before deciding the music genre for your game soundtrack you should ask yourself the following questions:
- Who’s my target demographic?
- What are the musical tastes of my target market?
- Which are the music genres normally used for my game genre?
- What is my expectation for the music?
You can action the questions above following the 4 following steps:
- Identify the player type of your game.
- Understand the musical tastes of your player type.
- Figure out the music genres for your game genre.
- Pick a music genre mediating between the previous points and your idea of the music.
Notice that I’ve used the concept of player type, which is a fancy name for describing the prototypical player of a game which has a specific personality and set of behaviours. More on this in a sec.
1- Identify the player type of your game
The first step for deciding the music genre is to understand who’s the prototypical player of your game, i.e., the player type. Who are the main player types? Game researchers Chris Bateman and Richard Boon categorise player values and behaviours and connect different personality profiles to the game genres they are likely to enjoy. The researchers surveyed many gamers asking them questions about personality traits and preferences on game genres. Here are some of the aspects that they analysed with the questions:
- A propensity to be outgoing and comfortable in large groups.
- A tendency to prefer planned rather than spontaneous action.
- An inclination to consider the feeling of other before taking action.
The 4 basic player types
After they studied the results of the questionnaires, Bateman and Boon realised that the gamers could be categorised in 4 main player types. Gamers who belong to the same player type share similar personalities and values. Here are the 4 player types and their most recognisable personality traits:
- Conquerors – Strongly determined players who want to “beat” the game, and who feel emotional satisfaction when winning.
- Managers – Players who enjoy mastering all the required skills of a game, rather than “beating” it. They like to think ahead and to keep track of all of the game variables in realtime.
- Wanderers – Players who love discovering immersive environments.
- Participants – Social and emotional players that prefer games which are based on social interactions with other people, and with compelling stories.
Bateman and Boon refined the 4 player types further, by dividing each of them into two subcategories: hardcore and casual gamers. Hardcore players play many titles, for a long time and are willing to learn complex procedures. On the other hand, casual players play few titles for a short amount of time and prefer simple game logic.
Your role in this step is to understand the player type of your game. By getting this information, you’ll be able to see the world through the eyes of your target demographic and therefore to understand your players’ values and needs. Once you know the player type, you can think of a music genre that may satisfy the expectations of the players. For example, a conqueror may want an energising epic-rock music that rewards him every time she kills a boss. This is the case for the soundtrack of the first-person shooter Halo 2 which features numerous pieces in the rock/metal style.
As you may understand, figuring out the player type of your game isn’t valuable in the music domain only. This information can also guide you while designing your game or even when marketing it.
2- Understand the musical tastes of your player type
In this step you have to look up the musical styles that your player type most likely enjoys. To do that, we should be able to connect the 4 player types to different music genres. Can we do this? Yes, because there’s some great research in music psychology that correlates personality traits with preference in music genres.
Personality profiles and musical preferences
A study conducted by Delsing, surveyed thousands of people asking questions about their personality and their musical preferences.
The researcher categorised music into 4 big styles: rock, urban, pop/dance and elite. Rock is pretty self explanatory. Urban includes styles like hip-hop, rap, soul and folk. To pop/dance belongs trance music, EDM and all of those songs that usually make it into the top positions of the international music charts. Elite includes jazz, classical/orchestral music and religious music. It goes without saying that this music categorisation is a clear simplification, but nonetheless it can help us to understand the general trends in musical preferences for different personality profiles.
Delsing measured the personality of a person considering 5 variables: extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, emotional stability and openness to experience. By analysing thousands of questionnaires, Delsing found a correlation between personality types and musical preferences:
- People with the highest levels of introversion are most likely to enjoy rock.
- Extraverts are most likely to enjoy urban and pop/dance.
- Respondents who were open to new experiences are most likely to enjoy rock and elite music.
- People who tend to plan things ahead are likely to prefer elite.
- Subjects who enjoyed social interactions are likely to enjoy a vast array of genres: urban, pop/dance and elite.
Player types and music genres
We can now map these personality traits onto the 4 player types, because the two studies of Desling and of Bateman and Boon refer to similar correlating characteristics. This allows us to find a connection between personality types and preferred musical styles:
- Conquerors (introverts, planners) are likely to enjoy rock and elite.
- Managers (introverts, planners) are likely to enjoy rock.
- Wanderers (open to new experiences) are likely to enjoy rock and elite.
- Participants (emotionally involved, enjoy social interactions) are likely to enjoy urban, pop/dance and elite.
Now that you know the musical preferences of the 4 different player types, it’s very easy to identify the music genres that are likely to be enjoyed by the players of your game.
3- Figure out the music genres for your game genre
In this step you should find out what are the music genres that are most common for your game genre. If you like logic, there’s a chance you’ll enjoy the following argument! A correlation exists between player type and game genre. Indeed, different target demographics enjoy different game genres. As we’ve seen in the previous step, player types are connected with music genres. Therefore, game genres are correlated with music genres via player types. In simple words, the (stereotyped) music genres, which tend to be (re)used in a certain game genre, are determined by the musical preferences of the correspondent player types of that game genre.
You can ignore the previous theoretical detour without missing any vital information, but you should definitely pay attention to what’s coming next. Here’s a list of common game genres with the player types that are most likely to play them and with the relative music genres, which are traditionally associated with them:
- Shooters | conquerors | rock, elite
- Platformers | wanderers | pop/dance, urban, elite
- Adventure | managers | rock, elite
- RPG | conquerors, managers, participants | rock, elite, urban, pop/dance
- Survival horror | wanderers | rock, elite
- Racing | casual gamers of all types except participants | rock, pop/dance
- Simulations | managers | rock, elite
- Strategy | managers | rock, elite
- Puzzle | managers, wanderers, participants | rock, pop/dance, urban, elite
- Fighting | conquerors | rock
- Stealth | conquerors | rock, elite
Look up the music genre(s) associated to your game genre and use it along with the information about the player type to decide the music genre of your game in the next and final step.
4- Pick a music genre mediating between the previous points and your idea of the music
Now it’s time for you to make a decision! You already have all the information you need in terms of target market, player type’s musical tastes and music genres commonly associated with your game.
Hold on for a second and consider what you expect from the music of your game. You may want to have your players feeling comfortable while listening to a genre you know they’re probably going to like. In this case, your next RPG should definitely feature an orchestral soundtrack. Perhaps you’d like to shock the players going against all of their musical expectations? If so, try to blend a trance soundtrack with the medieval looking villages of your retro RPG.
Whatever genre you decide to go for, you now have the means and understanding to decide whether to follow the mind or the heart. It’s up to you!
Choosing a music genre is a fundamental step for laying the foundation of a good music plan. As is clear, there’s no perfect strategy for picking a music genre for a soundtrack that’s guaranteed to be enjoyed by all of your players. If you follow the steps I outlined above (considering the player type, her musical tastes and the music associated with the genre of your game) it’s likely that you’ll end up choosing a genre that should work. But you may want to go against these “rules” because of your creative ideas and needs. This is perfectly fine!
In any case, try to balance the reasoning with what you feel and remember that you aren’t the end user of your game. The previous sentence isn’t exclusive to the musical domain. Put the players at the centre of all of the aspects of the game development process and try to figure out how you can create the best experience possible for them, not for you. We can call this process PCD (player-centred development). I really like making up acronyms!
How do you choose the music genre for the soundtrack of your video games?