Since the turn of the 21st century, video games have become bigger both in scale and in budget. They’ve become more cinematic and much, much more complex. The stories at the centre have become more involved, the characters more complex, and the look and feel of the cut scenes, more filmic. Now, that change has come about in part from developments in technology. As new graphics and sound systems offer designers new possibilities, they exploit them in imaginative new ways, and create new gaming experiences. Game music is right at the heart of that. As music engines have allowed designers to create music and soundscapes that are more tightly integrated with the gameplay, the game soundtrack has become central to the gaming experience.
Jessica Curry, the multi-award winning composer and co-founder of the game studio, The Chinese Room, created two very memorable game soundtracks with Dear Esther and Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture. The music in both is wonderful. It’s atmospheric and it leads the player through the game experience, but I think it’s innovative on a deeper level because the music connects the gamer with play in the most fundamental of ways.
Both games are examples of sandbox games, games that depend on exploratory play to understand the game world that the player finds themselves a part of. They present the player with little beyond a loose game framework and the opportunity to explore, and I think they represent an interesting shift in the notion of what gaming is and how it’s structured. It shifts the responsibility for the creation of the game narrative, and any meaning that might result, onto the player. The soundtrack in both of these games works beautifully to lead the player into the experience, and guides them gently through, sometimes anticipating actions and sometimes responding to them.
It combines a dramatic, almost theatrical space and a gaming space in a seamless and very effective way. But there are those who find that trend troubling. Much of the criticism levelled at titles like Dear Esther is that they aren’t really games at all, but something else. In a recent interview for the British newspaper The Telegraph, Shigeru Miyamoto, the man who gave us Donkey Kong and Super Mario Bros. told film critic Robbie Collins that he’s never really thought of games as a means of storytelling. For him, involving gameplay and player agency are the key. Games, when they’re at their best, subsume you into their world.
If there’s a film analogy at all, it’s that the player is the director of their own unique and evolving experience. And yet, even in Miyamoto’s vision of gaming, for those experiences to happen, the game worlds must first be created and curated. Someone must create the graphics; someone the sound; someone the music, and someone the code that makes it all work. Back in the very early days of gaming, that someone would probably have been just one person. One person would come up with a game concept, sketch out the graphics with coloured pencils on graph paper, write the code, and then finally, add a short melody or two.
As hardware, software, and even ideas about what constitutes a video game have developed, designers have responded creatively, and in response, development roles have become far more specialised. [VIDEO GAME MUSIC] Take a look at Atari’s Snoopy vs. the Red Baron, for example, a side scrolling defender clone from the early 1980s. Even back then, you can see how, although they’re still fairly lo res, the graphics look authentic, while the soundtrack, written by professional TV composer Ed Bogas, although slightly out of tune thanks to the Atari soundchip, is much more adventurous and musically adept than virtually any Atari soundtrack that came before it. This game really marks the start of the professional specialism of the video game musician.
Over time, as games increased in scale and complexity, thanks to more memory, more processing power, and storage media that could hold gigabytes of data, there was a need to specialise further. Games released in different parts of the world might require different regional soundtracks, for example, and so there was a need for localisation specialists who could translate and re-record dialogue, music, and sound effects to make the game specific to the different overseas territories in which it would be released. As game soundtracks converged with popular music and film score, there was a need to involve not just composers but music producers and engineers.
Although the very biggest game developers could justify the expense of having an in-house music team and recording studios, for most, it made better sense and was cheaper to hire in talent when it was needed. And today, a thriving industry has grown up to service that need. I’m joined by Raymond Usher, who runs Euphonious, a company that provides professional audio services to the games industry. Raymond, before we get on to Euphonious, can you tell us how did you get started in the games industry? I’ve always been interested in music and sound.
I’ve always had an interest, a real interest, in computers and video games, so it kind of made sense to marry the two together, and I guess that’s part of it, as the technology progressed, it became easier to do that. How I actually got my foot in the door was quite an interesting thing, in that I was at school and I was taking a different route home through the city centre, and it was actually raining. That’s why I was taking a different route home.
And I went past DMA Design’s shop – they had a shop selling computers at that time – and there was an advert up in the window, it said looking for someone to do music and sound effects for their games. So I gave them a call, and got a summer job of it, and that’s really where it all began. My first professional gig, I guess. That was 1992. So you’ve worked in the industry, then, for quite a while. Where did the idea for Euphonious come about? So it’s something that has kind of been on the back burner for quite a few years.
I should mention, having worked in the industry for a while, you start to see efficiencies that could be made – just different ways of working, and that’s where the idea really came around. The thing that really gave me the kick was when Realtime Worlds went into administration, so at that point, we’re all out of work, and a lot of folk that I’d worked with in the past had started establishing small companies, doing games for mobile and so forth. And they start asking if I could do some sound for them, and that was the kind of thing that kicked it off, really.
The thing that made me really think this was a business was when I was asked by Traveller’s Tales to work on the Lego franchise. That was the thing that made me realise it can make a living out of it, anyway. Yeah. So when they come to you, the companies aren’t just buying a set of sounds, are they? They’re buying all of that expertise and experience hewn from years at the coalface of the games industry. Yeah.
I mean, that’s the thing is that I’m not saying anyone can produce sound – I mean, a lot of people can produce sound – but it’s being able to provide it in the right format, to understand the gotchas that they’re experiencing, to understand the limitations of the hardware, and so forth. That’s what they get with us. And also, the established relationships that we’ve got with other content providers and technology providers. We’ve got… from Dolby, DTS, and so forth. So if we don’t do it directly, then we know someone that can do it and manage that on the client’s behalf. So it’s not just about then producing a very polished sound.
It’s about understanding how that sound works in context, and also understanding enough about the underlying technology to make it work? Yeah, absolutely. I mean, as you said, it’s knowing – it’s not just the content. A lot of people can produce content. It’s knowing… It’s having an understanding of the tools, having an understanding of how the sound can be applied, and in an interactive manner as well. You don’t know what’s going to – the order things are going to happen like with film and stuff, and other linear media. Yeah, and having access to the technology providers, and so forth, to make… to realise the client’s vision. Now, companies like yours exist because, I think, of two predominant factors.
On the one hand, you can provide a really specialist service that’s very difficult for a games company to provide in-house, but then, because you’re also servicing multiple clients, you can do it at a lower cost than an in-house team. So do you see then that specialism, that type of model becoming more prevalent in the industry as we look forward? I think one thing I’ve learned from the past few years, and in fact, my entire time in the industry is that you have to be flexible. You have to adapt to the demands of what the industry needs and what the industry wants at that time.
I’d probably say it’s quite – my experience of it is quite cyclical. So we go back 20, 25 years ago, we had small, independent specialists doing music, writing some code and so forth for video games. As the projects grew and became more complicated, then audio specialists started to appear in-house. So you may have started off with one person doing the audio for an entire game, then you start specialising in music and dialogue and sound effects as titles got larger.
And relatively recently, we started having this boom in mobile games, and at that point, it didn’t make financial sense for the developers to have an entire in-house audio team for the scale of the project they’re working on, for the budgets they had. So that’s where the demand for the out-house, outsourcing content providers came. So as I said, it’s quite cyclical. I feel we’re actually back where we were 20 years ago. Not that that’s a bad thing, but who knows where we’re going to go. We may end up taking on a model like a film industry, where we get specialists in, which is kind of what’s happening at the moment, but we don’t know.
I think the key thing is to be flexible and adapt to the demands of the industry. You’ve mentioned film a couple of times, and certainly, games have been becoming more cinematic over the last few years, but one of the things that strikes me about your company is that you’re set up in a way that allows you to service other types of screen media, not just games, but interactive entertainment, animation, film, television, and that gives you quite a broad perspective. That trans-media approach, do you think that’s having an impact on gaming? There’s certainly a convergence of all these different areas of – creative areas.
I mean, you’ve got a lot of film and television content producers working to get into video games. To me, there always has been a drive for improving quality, trying to make things more realistic, and I’m not actually sure that’s all – we want to keep going that way. I think being a bit more creative and doing things that are slightly differently, a bit more off the wall things… Certainly, that’s an area that we should be exploring, but again, we can pull that in from other industries as well, as develop it internally. So will we see a David Lynch video game? Yeah, I mean – I still think the industry is quite young.
I still think we’ve got a long way to go, but we have reached a point where the technology is able to let us realise our visions, but where we go from there is up to us. OK. So the next big step is all about the ideas? Yeah. I think the creative aspect is certainly one to drive this, I think. Yeah. Definitely. OK. Thank you, Raymond. OK. No problem. So the future, it seems, looks, well, interesting. In some respects, video gaming has become a bit like the film industry in the sense that every year, there are a few huge blockbusters produced, the AAA titles that command massive budgets and enormous production teams.
At the other end of the scale, there are indie micro-developers who depend on open source development tools and a network of specialist companies, like Euphonious, to provide creative assets and services that they can’t produce in-house. That indie development market has come around, in part, because of platforms like the App Store, which provide a direct route to market, and middleware tools and assets that have made the process of game development much more accessible, although still not trivial.
On the one hand, this could be seen as being a very positive development, since it brings new perspectives to game development and opens up new opportunities for innovation, just as we saw with Dear Esther and just as happened in the early days of computer gaming. But on the other, it could be seen as a negative, possibly flooding the marketplace with mediocre game clones produced by enthusiastic amateurs, just as happened before the first big video game crash. What’s your take on this? How might we all encourage the former and discourage the latter? Have a think and please post your thoughts to the discussion board. And then join me again to sum up with what we’ve learned in week two.