The first step to create a good score for a game is to conceptualise the music. Music conceptualisation can be compared to sketching the blueprint for a building. Before you get into the details of how to decorate the rooms of the building, you need to decide how many floors there are, the size of each floor and the number of rooms. Similarly, music conceptualisation is necessary to set the stylistic, creative and functional goals of the music before the composer starts working on the actual notes. Consider conceptualisation as a high-level music planning activity.
You might think that conceptualisation should be up to the composer. I think you’ll be better off if you conceptualise the score by yourself, or at least if you try to work together with a composer on this. Music conceptualisation is fun and it’ll help you to know your game better. Also, you and your team are the people who know the game you’re developing best and therefore you should be able to decide the more effective roles and style for the music. You may not collaborate with a composer but use royalty-free music or create the music by yourself. Even in this case, you’ll find that by conceptualising the music first you’ll improve the soundtracks of your games a lot.
In the remaining parts of this post, I’ll provide you with some guidelines on how to conceptualise a score. Feel free to refine the process I outline here, based on whatever works better for you.
To set the overall direction of your musical score in an effective way you can follow the 8 steps below, which are adapted from the great book written by Michael Sweet Writing Interactive Music for Video Games:
- Gather and revise game materials
- Identify the functional goals of the music
- Decide genre(s) and mood(s)
- Create a music asset list
- Define adaptive elements in the music
- Create a music guide
- Create a music design document
1- Gather and revise game materials
When you start working on music conceptualisation, the first thing to do is to collect all the materials related to the game such as art assets, game design documents, sound effects and the script. Use this creative material as a source of inspiration for deciding the stylistic and functional goals of the music. For example, if your game uses pixel art it might be worth going for chiptune music to match this particular visual style. Don’t worry if you don’t have all the creative materials already. You can always start working on the music plan with what you have and refine the conceptualisation at a later stage, once more game materials are available (see step 8).
2- Identify the functional goals of the music
Music can have multiple functions in a game beyond the traditional/simplistic role of sonic background. Music can help set the scene by providing players with clues about where they are in the game and about the time and place of the game environment. Think of the Zelda series for example, where different musical themes are often used to establish locations. Music can also be used to introduce and portrait characters, to signal change in the game state, to alter the dramatic tension of a scene, to communicate an event to the player or to strengthen the emotional connection of the players with the game. I only scratched the surface of the possible functional roles of video game music here. I’m planning to flesh this out in a future post.
Your task for this step is to outline the goal(s) of the music in your game. Would you like for the music to enhance the characterisation of your characters or to provide sonic cues to the player? It’s totally fine if you want the music to take on multiple functions. In this case though, divide the multiple functions into primary and secondary goals. This will help you understand what’s more important for you in the soundtrack and to prioritise things, in case you didn’t have enough resources to achieve all of the musical goals you initially set.
3- Decide genre(s) and mood(s)
Genre and mood are two key components of any soundtrack. First, decide the genre. For example, if you’re working on an RPG, probably a medieval-like music featuring flutes, plugged strings and drums might be a worth option to explore. Perhaps you’d like something more “epic”. Then, a Hollywood-like classical orchestral score is the way to go. You can pick multiple genres for different parts of your game. Be aware though that the soundtrack should ideally be internally coherent and be recognisable as a unique piece of work. Employing a single genre – or a limited number thereof – throughout the game is a good strategy to achieve this unique “musical fingerprint”.
After you decide the genre, focus on the mood of the music for the different parts of the game. Music is a powerful means to elicit emotional states such as happiness and sadness in the listener. Use this aspect to your own advantage to enhance the emotional experience of the player. For instance, you can attach a sad theme to a character with a sad background story or use a joyful theme for a bucolic village positioned on top of a hill. Remember to write down the mood of the music for the different parts of the game.
4- Create a music asset list
Once you’ve decided the function, the genre and the mood of the music, you should come up with an asset list. This is made up of all of the musical cues you need for the final game. For example, if you want to have different themes for different game locations, then specify what themes you’ll need and when you might use them. Along with this information, write out the approximate length of each cue. The music asset list will help you to figure out the amount of money and time you need to invest in order to implement your musical plan. It will also help you to understand if the plan you’ve come up with is feasible with your current resources.
5- Define adaptive elements in the music
The score may contain some adaptive elements that allow the music to change in realtime based on the actions of the player. Adaptive music enhances the engagement of the player and improves the overall quality of a game soundtrack. If you want to know a bit more about adaptive music, have a look at this post I wrote.
Your job in this step is to identify a set of game parameters that will eventually be mapped onto changes in the music. For example, you may decide to tie the level of tension of the music to the number of enemies in the game. The more enemies the player has to fight, the more tense the music will sound. The parameters might include locations, in-game events, AI behaviours and character states. The possibilities with adaptive music are really endless. Be creative!
6- Create a music guide
It’s usual for game designers to come up with a selection of pictures to inform the visual direction a game should take. A similar approach is important for music too. You should assemble a list of pieces to be used as a reference by the composer when writing the music for the game. The music guide can also be used as a way of assessing the final music against a group of criteria you set. Some of these criteria are genre, instrumentation (e.g., orchestra, small ensemble, rock band), tempo (e.g., fast vs slow) and mood. You can think of a music guide as a practical implementations of the genre(s) and mood(s) you already picked before, which will indicate to the composer the overall direction you set for the music.
7- Create a music design document
It’s important to create a document where you write down all the information about the music strategy you’ve previously decided. The music design document is useful to share information with your team and/or with a freelance composer. This document will help them to know the overall musical direction of the game and how the music will interact with the game. Include the following information in the music design document:
- functional goals of the music
- music genre(s) and mood(s)
- adaptive elements of the score
- music asset list outlining the number and lengths of the pieces
- file names and formats to be used
Congrats, you’re almost done! The last thing you have to do is to revise the work you have done so far and see if everything is coherent and in line with your expectations. Often time throughout the game development process some of the elements you’ve based your musical blueprint on may change. If this happens, remember to update the music plan in order to adapt to what’s changed from the initial assumptions.
As in many activities related to video game development, planning pays off for music too. Before starting to work on the actual notes for the soundtrack of your game, it’s best to come up with an overall musical strategy first. Music conceptualisation will help you to set the functional goals for the score and to identify a set of styles and moods that are in line with the content of the game. This process may take some time to be carried out, but it will definitely improve the quality of the music. And as we know, the better the musical experience in a game the more engaged the player will be!
Have you ever gone through music conceptualisation in the past? What tactics/processes have you employed for coming up with a general musical plan?