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Week 2 Summary

Dr Kenny McAlpine summarises the second week of his free online short course, A Bit-by-Bit History of Video Game Music.
Let’s take a moment to reflect on and review what we’ve learned from our second week of activities. Because they were based in Japan, Nintendo was largely isolated from the effects of the American video game crash. However, its effects on consumer confidence made it difficult for Nintendo to break into the American market. When it finally did gain a toehold in 1986, it was the Nintendo seal of approval, a guarantee of gaming quality, that saw consumer confidence in gaming begin to grow again. Super Mario Brothers embodied that sense of quality. It looked great, it was fun to play, and it had a catchy soundtrack that managed to capture the qualities of the gameplay. That was composer Koji Kondo’s biggest contribution.
He really defined the form of video game music. When Commodore’s Amiga launched in 1986, it was a machine ahead of its time. Packed with innovative technology and design, its sound chip, Paula, could handle four sampled sounds simultaneously. Something that just a few years earlier had been the sole preserve of high end, electronic synthesisers that cost more than the average house in the UK. The launch of easy to use composition tools transformed computer music making from being a musically informed, technical programming task to a technically supported, creative one. The release of the PlayStation, with its integral CD-ROM drive, changed the sound of video game music forever. Before then, music had to be generated in real time, using onboard sound chips.
The CD-ROM enabled developers to produce authentic sounding popular music, and store it on CD. All of a sudden, video game soundtracks could sound every bit as good as the music that you might actually listen to, and rights holders like Sony used gaming as a way to licence and cross promote their music. It wasn’t enough simply to stream pre-recorded music, however. Players wanted music that behaved like Kondo’s Mario music on the NES. They wanted it to integrate with the gameplay and to respond to their input. Specialist software packages like FMOD and WWise, packages known as middleware or sound engines, were developed to provide a set of tools to help composers write non-linear music.
Music that would adapt in real time to gameplay. That fusion of the underlying technology and the heavily produced sound has given us the polished video game music that can be heard today. Developing those soundtracks in-house in a development company, however, is expensive and very specialised work. As game concepts and budgets have grown, many developers have concluded that they don’t have the full range of skills that they need to do this work in-house, and nor would it really be cost effective to develop and maintain them. Instead, a range of specialist service studios have grown up around the industry.
These specialist studios offer a range of production and implementation support to companies, and it’s a trend that looks set to continue in years to come. And that concludes our course. I really do hope that you’ve enjoyed it, and that you leave with a deeper appreciation of the craft of video game composition, and a better understanding of how video game music evolved from the bleeps and bloops of the early consoles and home computers, through to the fully orchestrated soundtracks of today’s games. Now of course, we’ve only really been able to scratch the surface of this fascinating subject.
Whether you’re interested in the technology or the music or indeed, the point at which those two things meet, I’d encourage you to explore it further. Below, I’ve attached some suggestions for further listening and for further playing. And do, please, take a look at my book, Bits and Pieces. It’s published by Oxford University Press, and it gives a much deeper perspective on the material that we’ve explored here. If you have enjoyed this course, then please do sign up for one of the other introductory courses in game design and development, offered by the UK Centre for Excellence in Computer Games Education at Abertay University. Goodbye.

In this video, we’ll summarise what we’ve learned in the second week.

Please note that my book, Bits and Pieces: A History of Chiptunes, is still in the final stages of preparation for publication, and should be available early in 2018. It’s not a core text for this course, but it does pick up and explore its themes in much more detail.

If you’d like to know when it’s released, or if you would like to know of any readings or public lectures that I’ll be giving around the launch, then please follow my Twitter feed, @thesonsiebogle, or drop me an email at

Thanks for taking my short course. I do hope you’ve enjoyed it.

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Video Game Design and Development: A Bit-by-Bit History of Video Game Music: Video Game Sound and Music

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