The art of producing music soundtracks for online games

I have a friend called Ervin Nagy who is a Hungarian concert pianist. I also have 3 sons who all like playing online games. Ervin has branched out into composing music for online games. It’s interesting how trades that have been around for centuries are now being applied in the era or the world wide web.

Ervin comes from Budapest and has a story to tell about how he got into the business. This is a longer than usual blog post but I thought the story worth telling. You can scroll down quickly if you just want to hear the music development mp3s.

In the late 80s, the use of computers In Eastern Europe was very much in its early days. It was rare to see a consumer in possession of  a PC and  very few businesses. Anyone who wanted to get familiar with computer technology had to go to specialist  clubs, libraries, or so-called “cultural houses” (we are talking communist bloc here).

The greatest number of attendees at these clubs were teenagers who swapped ideas and programmes. Recognising this demographic the majority of these programmes were games.

One of the Budapest clubs decided to develop their own game. The team (average age 17) was divided into three sections focussing on graphics, programming and sound. There was no grand plan. They just wanted to “do stuff”.

The first game, Reunion, was finished in 1993 and was bought by British publisher Grandslam who released it in 35 countries. It wasn’t a runaway success but got very good press coverage and was good enough for them to decide to start a business and the British publisher was able to help the team by imposing business practices.

The first release was Imperium Galactica published by GT Interactive. In 1997 the game was translated into 7 languages and marketed in 45 countries. Imperium Galactica 2 followed after three years of development using a structured process for the first time:

  • They worked to a two month timetable for new revisions
  • Periodically used a team of 30 – 40 testers to review and provide feedback
  • Introduced a “Game Engine” that was used to pull together the diverse components of visual and audio content, game logic and code.

This engine is responsible for the imaging (3D graphics) for  the two imaging (eg, interface elements, different at different  times), and for the entire music and audio.

This engine is also ensures that the final game runs all kinds of hardware configurations.

Music development comes in after the halfway point  because before this time the structure of the game isn’t mature enough to realistically composition.

For Imperium Galactica 2 the composer and the sound engineer was one person, Tamás Kreiner.  He had a year to create the music and sound for the game, which sounds a long time in today’s environment of quick results. Big games today have a whole team on the job.

Music brought the company its first recognition. Imperium Galactica 2 received a BAFTA for the best original soundtrack for a game beating off 800 competitors to win the award.

From this point on the company realized the importance of the soundtrack for a game. These were boom years in the gaming industry. Rapid improvements in graphics technology meant that the accompanying the sound and music also had to move on and became an essential  atmospheric element of the game.

Back bedroom composers with their own low cost synthesizers wanted to make game music. Hollywood composers started to work for games, and some companies even included in their budget to hire a whole symphony orchestra to record the music. Considering that many big games have soundtracks that last an hour or more the costs would have been significant. Typically between  5 and 15 percent of the whole budget goes to the sound including music. If the company decides to use a real symphony orchestra that comes extra.

In 2001 Ervin, a highly successful concert pianist on the international stage, appeared on the game scene. That year Digital Reality launched Haegemonia commissioning Nagy to add to its music team. In the following years this team created more than 20 game soundtracks with much acclaim in the international press. The soundtrack of Haegemonia was also published separately from the game itself in CD format.

Erv moved on with Tamás Kreiner to found Newtex Production, an independent music and sound effect company. Newtex outlived Digital Reality which had been unable to repeat the success of Imperium Galactica.

Newtex, as an independent team, became much sought after working for a variety of international production companies, still mainly creating game music but also dipping in to animation, documentaries and commercials in Germany, France, USA, Britain and Japan.

The link between music composed for film and game genres is very strong. At the very beginning game composers had to rely on film scores as a reference.

The industry standard sound was very similar to those in Hollywood but the use of the music was different. Writing a film score the composer is working for the picture in an ordered fashion from the very first frame and note to the last.

The very nature of an online game is its unpredictability. The composer needs to create a wide range of musical tensions and atmospheres, from a nearly motionless ambient to the most intense.

The first problem here is how to fit together different music with different tempos, dynamics and thematic  structures. A specific piece of sountrack can be stopped at any time and replaced by another. For example when someone is shooting a gun but is then killed.

Musical changes should not distract the players attention. The answer to this question is partly technical but also musical. For example a continuing hint of the same musical theme across the moods and tempos helps with the move from one scenario to another. Fading in and out is also used to avoid the feel of a sudden change.

Probably the most interesting question for a listener is how a musical idea is born and how it develops to its final state.

We have here an example from a game called Warfront. Warfront is an alternative World War 2 game with science fiction elements, launched at the E3 Games Convention in Los Angeles in 2006.

At first the team received the picture only without narration. You can experience how does it feels in the video embedded below. Turn the sound off and try to imagine what kind of music would fit (with the sound on you can hear the finished result).

That is how the team worked and after many attempts using trial and error they recorded the thematic and harmonic base with a single piano:

1WF_Piano_Track.mp3

At this point the team already have some idea of orchestration and as a first step the strings section was recorded.

2WF_Strings_Track.mp3     

The sound is now already quite complex – most of the theme is being played by the strings.

Layering brass on top lets makes the music far more monumental.

3WF_Strings_plus_Brass_mp3

The progress continues until the whole orchestra is playing although this is still not the final production version.

The track goes to another studio for mixing and mastering. This is when the balance between instruments and the quality of the sound is set.

This finished piece sounds like this.

4WF_Complete_Track.mp3

After music composition the sound effects are produced and combined with the narration to produce the finished game.

Perfect synchronisation with the picture is achieved by using time codes for every part of the work.

During the 11 years their music has evolved to be richer and more complex in line with the improvement in the technology they have been using.

Most music was recorded with computer technology – no real orchestra behind. The main difference is in the samplers – every year a new one was used. These sampler programmes contain recorded notes of each instrument of the symphony orchestra both solo and ensemble, using as many kind of sound of the instruments as much possible.

Each progressive sampler had more and more variety of effects for each instrument section. The limitations of the earlier samplers had an impact on the music. Eg if an instrument did not have very good recorded short notes the composers simply did not write short notes for that instrument which did not help much for creativity. The later versions were better.

Looking at the differences over time from a purely musical perspective, the biggest difference is in the orchestration. In the beginning, for example, being inexperienced in orchestration, if a whole orchestra playing was required the composers doubled the number  instruments being used many times. It is a very time efficient way to orchestrate, all you need is copy and paste and the result is an astonishing big sound.

Many composers, particularly in Hollywood, have very good orchestrators, sometimes a whole team. We aren’t just talking about the great generation that included Jerry Goldsmithand John Williams who knew how to orchestrate brilliantly.

Ervin and Tamás have been studying these Hollywood scores for years, so learned a lot about orchestration including when to use “copy-paste” (seldom) and where not to. They have had to get to know all instruments, what sound good on certain instruments, how to mix that with the orchestra, etc.

On the other hand the change in their music was not always a straight progressive line. Different type of games required different music and not always of the most sophisticated kind. Also with the increased number of technical tools it has been more tempting to achieve certain effects with technique rather than creativity. This represents an industry wide trend and sometimes reflects the lowbrow musical taste of the general public.

I finish with a couple of game trailers below. The first is the original Hegemonia and the second Nadirim completed in November 2010.

That’s it. A departure from the usual type of post but relevant I think. Thanks very much to Ervin Nagy for his help with putting this together. You can find him here.

PS if you play online games the faster the connection the better. At home we use FTTC provided byTimico.

PPS Ervin tells me not all the games were played online. Many were PC only. It doesn’t really from the soundtrack development process though.

Published by Trefor Davies

Liver of life, father of four, CTO of trefor.net, writer, poet, philosopherontap.com

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