High Score: How Video Games are Offering New Opportunities to Composers, Producers and Orchestras

By Steven Rosenfeld  •  November 18, 2016

(l-r) Composers Tom Salta, Gordy Haab, Austin Wintory and Jason Hayes

The world of video game composing is not just exploding on computer screens, tablets, phones and at conventions where tribute bands play well-known scores. It has also grown remarkably in recent years and offers composers extraordinary opportunities to write and produce vast bodies of work for fans that are not just appreciative—but obsessive.

“I absolutely imagined this is where the industry was going,” says Tom Salta, who toured and recorded with Peter Gabriel and Mary J. Blige before becoming a full-on video game composer-producer-artist for acclaimed projects such as the Halo series. “I’ve been a gamer right from the beginnings in the late ‘70s. But it wasn’t until I started playing games like Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, Rainbow 6 and especially Halo: Combat Evolved, that I saw where game music was headed.”

“It was 2001 when I had the epiphany that the most creative and innovative music in the entertainment business was music for games,” Salta says.

Salta’s conversion, after working in pop music, television, advertising and film was not that unusual among many of today’s well-known VG composers. Consider Gordy Haab, who never thought he would write for games, let alone compose for Star Wars.

“I used to limit my goals to composing for film,” Haab says. “I also never would have imagined 15 years ago that I would ever compose music for games. I also never would’ve imagined that I’d be given the chance to write many hours of music for Star Wars, and record it with the best musicians from all over the world.”

But that’s what unfolded for Haab, whose two hours of music for Star Wars: Battlefront was recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra. As he explains, John Williams’s film scores were not optimal for that game. “Even with a title such as Star Wars, which has at its disposal the large body of wonderful music composed by John Williams, there is still the opportunity to create so much more,” he says. “Both because of the technical requirements of music in games that ‘preexisting’ music may not meet, but also because of the creative desire for music to accompany the gamer’s journey. Unlike film, video games are a living, breathing, ever-changing thing that will never play out the same way twice. For this reason, even more musical content is needed.”

It would be a mistake to think that opportunities in VG composing are all huge blockbusters—like Star Wars: Battlefront or the Halo series. Consider Adam Gubman’s experience. He has scored more than 500 “casual games” and worked on larger projects. 

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Concept art from Halo: The Fall of Reach

Casual games are no longer the “low-hanging fruit,” Gubman says, as production quality, intellectual property licensing, and quality of game play has improved tremendously and still has room to grow. “The audio being delivered for the bigger budget casual is AAA quality,” he says. “Many games are using full orchestras, and smaller titles are supplementing with live musicians.”

Budgets for the smaller-scale games have only increased over the years, Gubman adds. “Companies producing top-tier downloadable content are making hundreds of thousands daily in micro transactions/in-game purchases. Consequently, the audio budgets for many mobile titles rival the AAA on a per-minute of music composed basis, which is great for those of us who have established ourselves in this industry. The work has certainly become more lucrative over the years.”

Like any composer trying to break into the soundtrack field, Gubman says there were opportunities with up-and-coming companies—startups. These independent developers have proliferated over the past decade and there is no indication that trend is slowing, especially as computer hardware makers are increasingly creating platforms that can support more sophisticated games and streamed audio.

Start-up developers often ask composers to work a “highly reduced” rate, Gubman says, which means “it’s important that composers who choose to take on the lower paying gigs try to supplement their income by retaining rights to their music, soundtrack sales, etc.” For him, composing for smaller projects has meant working in an array of genres, which he also said was satisfying. “What’s expected of a downloadable/ casual composer is not different than an AAA composer… In one week, I may be writing Elizabethan theatre music, epic Scottish- themed battle music, electronica, jazz.”

There are other facets of VG composing that are markedly different from writing for film. Most pronotable is the intensity and loyalty of the audience, which not only propels soundtrack sales long after games are launched, but also is not shy about giving composers feedback. As Austin Wintory, whose score for Journey made history as the first VG soundtrack nominated for a Grammy, puts it, “Pound for pound, gamers are far more aware of and appreciative of scores in games than their film counterparts.”

“One of the things that really sets video game fans apart from fans of other forms of entertainment is that a large percentage of them really care about the music,” says Salta. “Players spend many hours listening to the music so it becomes part of their experience. Music is almost always the element that breathes life in games and why it becomes such a personal experience for some people. And when music is heard outside the games, it brings all those experiences back to life.”

Gamers are not shy about telling composers what they like and dislike, Haab says. “This is one of the finer aspects of working in games for me,” he says. “They are very interested in engaging directly with composers, which I see as a great opportunity that is relatively unique to games—and I love that I can be directly involved with those who my music is affecting. I get to feel immediately validated and appreciated by the positive feedback I receive—and motivated to do even better by the criticism I receive. And it’s all instantaneous.”

This fan engagement has opened up a new sphere of business opportunities, says Gregory Ferraiolo, VP Licensing and Business Development at Sumthing Else Music Works, one of the first labels to carry VG music. “Fans may finish a game in a week and move onto the next hot title, but the music is timeless and allows those fans to connect to the game on an emotional level even years later.

“You don’t have to look any further than sales to prove that,” Ferraiolo says. “Games sales come out strong, then drop off and eventually stop altogether, but soundtrack sales remain pretty consistent. If you go back and play a game from the ‘80s, it may not be as enjoyable as when you first played it, but the music is just as fun.”

If that sounds like a bit of a stretch, consider that VG conventions now regularly feature live bands and ensembles playing soundtracks. Jason Hayes, who helped compose the World of Warcraft score, says this level of fan nostalgia and engagement is not just “one of the nicest surprises” but has also made him a bit of a VG world rock star. 

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Jason Hayes (far right) performs with his video game music band Critical Hit

His symphonic rock band, Critical Hit, performs at Wizard World Comic Con and other events where they play many VG themes. “It’s exciting to see how mainstream video games have become,” Hayes says. “It may only be a virtual world, but it’s one in which people form real relationships and make real memories.”

Needless to say, Hayes and the others say the most important factor in a game’s success is the game. “If the game isn’t fun to play, then no amount of aesthetic window dressing will make it work,” he says. “But once the fun factor is realized, music can play a critical role in helping people feel something about the characters and the situation that elevates the immersion and investment in the story.”

Where all this is heading is both clear and unclear. The VG industry is huge and poised for continued rapid growth. As Grammy nominee Wintory says, there were “many, many great scores [that] came before Journey which were worthy of the nomination, and many have come since. When it becomes a regular occurrence, and seems unremarkable that a game would be nominated, we can safely say that [the pronotable fessional] recognition has been achieved.” But, to date, only Wintory’s Journey has been nominated for a Grammy, which underscores the still-upstart nature of this creative field.

Aside from recognition, there are plenty of challenges and opportunities for composers in this world. On the challenge side, the field is growing and that means there is more competition among composers to get assignments, Haab says, adding “with this comes a demand and expectation for high-quality work.” Another challenge cited by composers was ensuring that royalties from games sold and streamed online are collected and distributed.

But the opportunity side of the ledger is vast. Gubman says that hardware makers like Apple are creating platforms that are expanding the reach of games. “iOS has made pocket gaming systems available to everyone with an iPhone, and quality/content is getting better,” he says. “As the tech improves, we have more ability to get technically creative with our compositions, offering adaptive music, songs, more live elements, and larger thumbprints of content. It’s only going to get better.”

Salta agrees, and urges aspiring composers to immerse themselves in the industry—and be persistent. “You just have to want it bad enough and go after it,” he said, adding that he cannot predict what the future of VG composing will be. “Mobile games have arrived and are no longer synonymous with low budgets,” he says. “But perhaps the newest, most exciting frontier that I see in the gaming world is in the area of virtual reality and augmented reality… I predict we’re on the precipice of a new generation of games in these areas. I hope to be on the frontlines of that movement.”

“The game industry is so smart in the way it directly parallels the fast growing technology and ever- changing way people communicate,” Haab says, adding that when he grew up people watched TV and movies and kids reenacted their favorite scenes. “Now communication is immediate, and people of all ages can create ever-changing adventures, in real time, with friends from all over the world—thanks to the game industry.”