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The World's Best Game Composers Unite At Game Music Connect

by Matt Helgeson on Sep 03, 2013 at 07:07 AM

Composer James Hannigan is known for his work on games like Dead Space 3. Now, he's created a new event that hopes to unite some of the world's best video game soundtrack artists.

Game Music Connect will take place on September 9 at the Purcell Room of the Southbank Centre in London, UK. It features panels and symposiums on the art of video game music from composers like Jesper Kyd (Assassin's Creed series) and Martin O'Donnell (Halo series).

Talk about Game Music Connect. What was your initial vision for it and why do you think it was needed?
Game Music Connect aims to bring together leading game music professionals to discuss their creative processes and personal experiences, and to look at the art of creating music for games in general. It's something that I hope has appeal to composers of all backgrounds and industries and, indeed, to anyone simply taking an interest in music for the games medium.

When initially discussing the event with John Broomhall, the co-creator of Game Music Connect, we had the idea of creating an event series looking at the aesthetics of game music or at showcasing specific games/composers, while also going back to basics a little and taking stock of how we got where we are today, not to mention speculating on the future. Our hope also is that Game Music Connect will start a wider debate on some of the philosophical questions surrounding music for games as well, and challenge industry conventions relating to the use of music. For instance, questions such as why we have music in games at all and what it exists for may seem unnecessary to some, but are actually pretty relevant right now. Especially at a time when, at the blockbuster end of games at least, games can be seen moving ever closer to the film model and are increasingly adopting a filmic approach to storytelling. Players are, after all, participants in gaming experiences and not just passive viewers and that in itself raises a lot of questions about the role music plays.  So, Game Music Connect is - in part, at least - an attempt to talk about what makes games unique and distinctive from linear media forms such as film and television, but also about what it has in common with them as well. In fact, we kick off the day with a talk from leading film music academic Stephen Deutsch on what the games industry can learn from the use of music in film, which I think will be particularly interesting, and possibly even a little surprising, to many who think they already know what it is that music adds to films and games.

On the practical side, Game Music Connect will also be looking a little at interactive music, the composer/audio director working relationship and the business side of working in the industry, along with how composers market and present themselves, so it's not all about the 'art' as such.

Is there a real "community" of game music professionals in the same way that there is in other parts of entertainment. Or do you think events like Game Music Connect are needed to help build that?
There's a little bit of a community, but not much of a public-facing one in my opinion. There are pockets of people who tend to go to - and talk at - industry events but, on the whole, I feel they're talking to each other a lot of the time, rather than engaging with the outside world. That's not their fault, but more to do with the games industry lacking many public-facing forums or a human face in general. There are exceptions, of course.

Then there's another group of composers who have been drafted in from the film industry over the last ten years, presumably on the strength of their film scores and/or in the business-led expectation that a bit of film industry star power will help to sell games -- or even make them better -- and these people tend to be more savvy in terms of harnessing social media and creating a public persona. 

Industries have their own cultures, and even languages, and that could explain this lack of cohesion a little bit. But the democratization of game development plays a part as well, and the emergence of the indie sector and the ongoing fragmentation of the games industry in general I think has meant fewer people dominate the scene in music than before. As in film, where there are Hollywood studio blockbusters and also art-house and indie productions, not everyone working in the various sectors of game development will be rubbing shoulders or even have that much awareness of each other.  

The games industry is still finding its feet and establishing a so-called mainstream identity, and it's clear that at the blockbuster end of the spectrum that has meant adopting film values and thinking of games as being somewhat filmic, borrowing from the language of cinema. I love all that when it's done well as it just happens to suit me personally, but there are vast numbers of people who think of games in other ways as well, and they form their own niches and communities, looking to games for unique experience and even sounds.  But if there's a real reason there's not that much community I think it could be because a lot of game development still goes on behind closed doors in a closed and rather corporate, software industry-style environment. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but I think it's possibly a throwback to the industry's Silicon Valley 'computer' industry roots, which saw games as an entertainment medium essentially growing out of computing and the discipline of programming. The perception of games being made by 'computer geeks', whether fair or unfair, is one that persists even today in the public imagination and has proven surprisingly difficult to shake off. The film industry is certainly more public-facing with its multitude of mainstream, headline grabbing award ceremonies, public panels and forums, festivals and so on and its communities are more visible in the press.

What do you hope an aspiring game music creator could take home from the event?
Although hopefully informative and educational, Game Music Connect is I think going to be quite personal. By that I mean, it's going to hinge on the personal experiences of the speakers involved and it's not really what you'd describe as a 101 on game music. Some of the guests have been responsible for making music in the most critically and commercially successful western games in history. So, from that point of view, I believe the content will be very interesting to aspiring composers on an anecdotal level alone. There will be some practical demonstration of how interactive music works in AAA games though, with an emphasis on content and composition rather than on technology alone. 

Some of our speakers are working on huge next gen titles and will be able to offer insights into the possibilities presented there as well. For instance, Martin O'Donnell will be able to discuss his work on Bungie's forthcoming Destiny -- a title he's been scoring in collaboration with Sir Paul McCartney recently.

In general, what's your advice for people that want to make game music?
There's no single piece of advice or any kind of magic bullet for enabling a composer to break into the industry, I believe. All that established composers can really offer on this front, I feel, is their own experiences and views of what composers need to know in order to ready themselves for working in the industry. Some composers have become successful through luck or as a result of working on the right game at the right time, some through raw talent, some through hard work and some through the right kind of marketing -- although I expect, for many, all of these things play a part. All we can do is offer practical advice on how the work gets done and how we engage with the industry. Incidentally, Game Music Connect will offer interesting insights on this front from established Audio Directors as well as composers, and these are the people who tend to select and work with composers on games and actually oversee the placing of music within them.

Talk about some of the speakers at the conference.
Aside from me and host John Broomhall we have, in alphabetical order: Adele Cutting, Joris de Man, Stephen Deutsch, Jason Graves, Richard Jacques, Jesper Kyd, Alastair Lindsay, Paul Lipson, Steve Lord and Martin O'Donnell. Some of these names you may recognize as being associated with franchises such as Assassin's Creed, Halo, Dead Space, Tomb Raider and others, but you can get full details -- including speaker biographies -- over at

What are some of the breakout sessions you're having and how did you decide on the topics?
Just to reiterate, this event is largely about the great people involved, so even if cream cheese was the subject matter of the day, I'm sure it'd make for some pretty interesting discussion. But in all seriousness, the whole point of this is to talk about making music within the games industry as understood through the lens of personal experience, with a load of practical advice thrown in. If I had to single out two sessions I'm really excited about they'd probably be "Soundcard To Symphony" and "Music Machine", quite simply because it's going to be great to have so many accomplished and experienced composers and audio directors share the stage talking about music in games.

Tell us a little bit about your musical background and how you became involved in video game music.
It was a happy accident. I was looking about for work in television and film in my early twenties, and I did a few freelance game projects on the side, sending out my reel to people as a matter of course. I got offered a job as an in-house composer at Electronic Arts back in the mid-90s and I jumped at it. I learnt a lot in-house at EA about games development, which was useful experience when going freelance again in 1997.  While at EA I worked on various EA Sports titles, games like Space Hulk and Privateer: The Darkening, and I continued working with the company on a freelance basis after leaving, starting with some of the later Theme Park games and eventually on various Command & Conquer and Harry Potter titles. I started up several working relationships with others as well after leaving EA, such as with the now-closed Digital Anvil and Elixir Studios.

What are some of the projects that you've worked on that you are most proud of?
In terms of raw composition, I think I'm most proud of the music for the Harry Potter games as it all felt pretty true to the series in general but I was also able to be myself and introduce my own themes. When it comes to individual themes though, I was quite pleased with Red Alert's 3's "Soviet March" and the theme of Evil Genius for pure memorability and, in terms of synergy between game design, visuals and music, I felt Freelancer was pretty effective.

We're getting ready to move into a new generation of game consoles. Obviously, technology affects video game composition more directly than in other mediums. What are some of the biggest changes or most exciting things you see coming around the corner?
New technology is helpful but still only a means to an end, I feel. Content and technology go hand-in-hand when creating interactive music, but content is still king and advances in technology I think can only go so far in improving things. For instance, if I was to suggest to you that musical content was somehow improved simply as a result of going from MP3 to CD quality, then from CD quality to 24Bit, 96KHz quality, I think you'd be right to wonder if that was really going to make all that much of a difference to your listening pleasure, fundamentally speaking. New technology and extra resources are of course enabling in many ways, especially when it comes to processing and manipulating audio in real time, and will make for a cleaner and more seamless audio experience in games at the very least. But it won't tell you what music you need, where it needs to go or write any of it for you.  Not yet, anyway.