Think back to the games you remember most from your childhood. Doesn’t the music start to come back to you as well? And like it or not, start to loop incessantly in your head? Whenever I think of the original Legend of Zelda, Koji Kondo’s renowned title/overworld theme come directly to mind and won’t leave (which is OK, because it’s so good I walk around town like I’m on an epic mission). Even the sounds come to mind—I loved the sound of the sword beam so much that I would wander around trying to find half a heart just to get the sound back.
This, developers, is why audio is so important to your game—it is part of your game’s essence.
Branding your game
Music and sound is a big part of your game’s brand and IP. It sets the mood and feel just as much as that art design you’ve agonized over through your development process. Is it possible to think of Angry Birds without thinking of the goofy opening music? Rovio Mobile did a great job creating a complete IP package, with the music, character and art design, and even the “wheeee!” sound effects whenever a bird gets launched. Composer and sound designer Ari Pulkkinen put a lot of thought into the audio side of Angry Birds, and it paid off by becoming a huge part of the game’s brand.
There’s a reason that so many corporations rely on audio logos as a part of their branding campaigns. Audio, especially when connected with video, really sticks with people whether they want it to or not. Probably everyone around you at this moment could recognize the five tones of the Intel audio logo (Blom...dun-Dun-dun-Dun). Audio should be built in to your brand, not just tacked on at the end. This is arguably even more important in the saturated mobile gamespace, though audio faces new challenges brought on by the mobile devices themselves.
Game audio has come full circle
A GDC session this past year called “Audio Full Circle,” put on by Guy Whitmore and Jeff Essex, discussed how the mobile game world has brought music and audio programming back to its old-school roots. Early NES games had minimal audio teams, primitive hardware specs, and tiny file sizes—so small that music files were composed in text editors. With the advent of the PS2, file size wasn’t as much of an issue (650 MB, OMG!), and suddenly composers could use CD audio in the projects. Later, compressed audio formats like mp3 allowed hours of music within a game, paving the way to adaptive music and other creative applications of music.
Now, the mobile world has brought back some of the old restrictions of the 8-bit world. We’re back to small dev teams, one audio guy, minimal hardware, and small file sizes. And not only that, most users will experience all sound through a half-inch speaker. So composers once again have to get creative with their choices—a few one-minute music loops and a title theme is usually all we’re offered, and few or no transitions/crossfades to lessen the CPU load. Where Koji Kondo had to think about what instruments to drop out in lieu of sound effects in Super Mario Bros., mobile composers have to come up with concise and memorable music that doesn’t get too repetitive while using instruments that can actually be heard through the tiny speaker. This is the new art of mobile game music. With a single person in charge of your game’s entire audio identity, finding the right talent and communicating with them properly truly impacts the quality of your game and it’s brand.
Choosing your sound
As the game designer, one of your many tasks should be to think “what should the music convey here?” You don’t need to get deep into instrumentation or musical form, but having a vision of something when seeking a composer really helps. Is your game fun and quirky like Angry Birds? Or is it dark and brooding like in Rage? Do you want it to communicate a gameplay element like in Resident Evil 4, where music usually means there are enemies around? Or do you want the music to simply keep the energy up during wave after wave of enemies? Answering these questions will help you guide your composer along your vision’s branding path, be it a dark and violent zombie world (Resident Evil) or a casual and comical zombie world (Zombie Farm). The music in both of these examples is key to framing the user experience and make their atmospheres significantly different even though they are both set in a zombie-ridden world.
On the other hand, your composer is in charge of making the music sound awesome. And this is no easy task, especially when it comes to those short loops in mobile and social games. It’s hard to walk the line between “memorable” and “repetitive”—there must be peaks and valleys in the music so it doesn’t sound droning, but too much of a peak begins to stand out every time we hear it. Social games in particular have a particularly hard time with this, because most users typically spend most of their time in one environment, hearing the same one minute loop over and over. There’s some great music in Playdom’s Facebook game Gardens of Time, where the different instrumentations and moderate tempo changes really make the music “breathe” and actually bring me back to the game. When music is done properly, it becomes a tool for user retention by being a part of the memorable experience you are striving to create, and thus a composer is a necessity when creating a quality modern game.
Finding a composer
This, of course, means carefully choosing your composer and sound guy is just as important as ever. Just as you probably wouldn’t hire the cheapest artist you could find, or hire a complete mismatch for your project (you probably wouldn’t seek out the composer for Deus Ex: HR to do music for Farmville for both style and budgetary reasons), finding someone can be difficult. You could always license some pre-made, generic music, but then you're missing an opportunity to tie original and innovative music to your game's experience.
Hopefully, you can find a composer the same way you would find any other vital contractor for your team. Go look through your Linkedin connections and groups (like I Make Music, I Need Music). Get out to those IGDA and other networking events. Even Reddit can be a great resource. And even better, ask your fellow developers who they used and what they thought. Most companies only contract out to composers anyway, so chances are they completed the project and have moved on. Once you start asking around, you’ll find there’s more of us out there than you thought. And hey, I’m usually available. (/shameless plug)
If you’re on a tight budget with limited time like most indie developers, at least consider trying out AudioDraft. It’s essentially 99Designs for music, where you write a proposal, put up a few hundred bucks as a prize, and watch the numerous entries come in. As the contest creator, you get the giant end of the bargaining stick, with nominal fees and many different options to choose from. Personally, I enter AudioDraft contests as a fun way to expand my portfolio into different musical genres, and many upcoming composers use the service hone their skills. Figuring out exactly what the developer wants from a simple design brief is an art in itself, and best learned through experience.
While outside doing yardwork the other day, some tune came back into my head, and I couldn’t place it. After a half hour or so of singing it to myself, I finally realized it was the level music from iOS game ZombieSmash—written by my colleague Chris Huelsbeck. This was a game that I had bought and played for only a couple days before it faded into the rest of my 200+ installed apps. But the music pulled me back in, for a little while anyway--and just long enough to hit the next content update.
Isn’t a memorable experience the purpose for all of the time, energy, and thought you’ve put into every aspect of your game? Music is a large part of this experience, creating the atmosphere of the game world before the player even leaves the start menu. In today’s mobile market, a game needs a good brand to stand out from the crowd, and your audio identity will help to create one. So find a composer, and go make your game memorable--and maybe you’ll create something as recognizable as Angry Birds. Wheeeee!