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Music Conceptualization

To create successful music for a game, the game development team works with the composer to conceptualize the music. Conceptualization helps define the stylistic, creative, and functional goals of the music before the actual composing begins.

In this section we discuss how to conceptualize the score. You’ll find some guidelines for how to establish the overall creative direction, but you should feel free to revise these ideas based on whatever process works best for your team. Music conceptualization is often jointly developed between the composer and the game developer, although very large games may be an exception (see the note on this topic on page 32).

When setting out to write music for a game, it’s best to come up with an overall strategy first. The following steps will help you keep focused as you determine which direction is the most effective for your game.

1. Gather and Assess Materials

When beginning to generate the overall creative framework for a music score, the first step is to gather all the materials related to the game: game design documents, scripts, art assets, prototypes, and notes. Some or all of these assets might be missing when you begin the project, and in many cases composers start with very little on a project. Don’t be too concerned if there isn’t a lot to go on. You can revise the creative direction as more material is defined.

2. Prioritize Primary Music Objectives

The materials gathered in the first step will help you start to prioritize the most important ideas that you want to convey in your music. If you had to distill all the information down to a few key ideas, what would they be? For instance, are the puzzle elements the most important aspect of the game, or is the overall story more important, or a particular character? Making these decisions will better inform the music you create for your game.

Once you’ve narrowed down your primary objectives, then it’ll be easier to determine how the music will function in the game. Compare your objectives with the music functions listed earlier in the chapter.

Are there secondary objectives that you might want to include in the overall creative strategy? Many games use multiple objectives in defining the overall music direction.

3. Create an Asset List

Once you’ve determined your primary and secondary objectives, start planning the music asset list around them. A music asset is any cue that you’ll need for the final game. If you’re basing your music around character themes, then write out which themes you’ll need and when you might use them in the game. Later in this book, we’ll look at how best to determine the lengths of music for particular sequences.

4. Define Interactive Elements in the Score

The music score may contain additional interactive components that allow it to change in real time based on player decisions. In this step of the conceptualization phase, you want to define the parameters in the game that control the various elements in your score. These parameters might include AI behavior such as when an enemy attacks or when you solve a puzzle. These game parameters might be mapped to changes in the music.

See the previous “Synchronization and Integration of Music” section to help define the interactive elements. Throughout this book, you’ll continue to learn about many interactive scoring techniques for use within your game.

5. Create a Supporting Audio Style Guide

A style guide is a tool that many designers use to help focus the direction of a creative element. In art, style guides are used to define the overall look and feel of a project. For a video game, an art style guide is made up of many different pictures representing the unified direction that the game should take.

An audio style guide usually consists of a variety of musical selections that represent musical genres and that help the design team hone in on the final direction of the music. It also helps the team identify criteria for judging whether a final piece is effective.

Generally, when groups listen to music for the first time, if they don’t have a specific criterion on which to judge the music, they use their own music background to judge it. This can be difficult for a composer when presenting new music. For example, perhaps the game designer on the project broke up with his girlfriend while listening to music that had a saxophone in it. This association may have caused the game designer to hate saxophones. If this person is listening to the first presentation of the game music without the criteria in place, he’s going to hate the saxophone no matter what, even if it’s the best instrument for the game. In such a case, it’s important to establish that the game designer doesn’t like saxophone music before the composer begins working on a project.

The audio style guide helps inform the overall direction of the music before the composer begins writing. When each new piece of music is written, it can be compared to the initial style guide to determine whether you’re making progress on your project or whether you need to rethink your initial approach.

Here is a list of criteria that you should establish with a style guide:

  • Genre of the music (e.g., classical, techno, jazz)
  • Tempo of the music (e.g., fast, slow)
  • Instrumentation (e.g., orchestral, synthetic)
  • Size of the group playing (e.g., intimate, grand)

You may need to have different style guides for different parts in the game. For example, if the character in a game is jumping around the globe as in Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009), each part of the game may need its own style guide.

6. Create an Audio Design Document

After you’ve done all of the work establishing your objectives, asset list, and style guide, it’s important to create a document that you can share with your development team that outlines the overall creative strategy for your game. The audio design document is a compilation of the overall audio strategy for the game in written form. This document usually includes information about not only the music, but also all of the audio including sound effects (SFX), dialog, and music. In this book we focus primarily on the music aspects. The audio design document should contain information about the following music items:

  • Overall creative direction for the style of music
  • Music interactivity and implementation outline
  • Preliminary asset list outlining the number and lengths of pieces
  • The file names and formats that will be used

7. Revise

Throughout game development, you may find that some of your initial assumptions have changed. For this reason, it’s important to update and revise your audio design document as the game progresses. Developing design documents is a standard practice in the game industry, as these documents generally contain all the information critical to the game development team and are considered a blueprint for how the game will be made.

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