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6 Surprising Facts About Composing Music for Video Games

An interesting article on composing music for Video Games by Brian Schmidt of Game Sound Con. While there are significant differences in composing for video games vs. film and TV, this article touches on some interesting perspectives. If your interested in Video Game Composition or sound design, check this article and Game Sound Con out!

- dfMG

It’s no secret that a lot of composers from more traditional media such as TV, film, commercials are getting interested in doing games. Go to a GameSoundCon or GDC, and many of the composers there have done the bulk of their work composing for film, TV and other more traditional media. Oftentimes, these composers are struck by how different composing for games can be from composing for other media. Here are 6 things that typically surprise those getting into games for the first time:

Writing game music presents a whole new set of creative challenges in addition to those required to create great music.

As a composer, you know how to set the tone, evoke emotions in your audience and write to support story as well as how to orchestrate, record, mix and master. A game composer needs to do all of that, plus master techniques for non-linear composing and production.

Because you don’t know when various story elements will actually happen (it depends on the player), when composing for video games you have to write your music to be flexible, and know how to quickly change from “wandering around” music to” battling for your life,” while not sounding obvious or abrupt. Game composers also need to be able to write music that can be arranged and pieced together so as to not sound repetitive—even when the player plays the game multiple times-- and to know the specific game music tools that enable that flexibility.

When you write music for a game, you will have technical limitations placed on you that affect how you need to compose your music.

Because of the technology used to deliver games, you will have restrictions placed on what you can do. These restrictions may be frustrating! You may be told that all your music needs to fit within a certain amount of computer memory. You may be told to learn and use a specific music tool that the game developer has created or licensed. You may be asked to break your music into layers which can be mixed on the fly in reaction to game actions. In the course of getting into composing for games, you may have very creative ideas you would like to see implemented, but may not be possible due to technical or other handcuffs.

With a few exceptions, there are no PRO (ASCAP/BMI/SESAC) royalties for video game music.

Once you are paid for the music for the game from the developer, that will likely be the last money you make off the music. In the US, you will almost certainly not receive any performance payments from ASCAP or other PROs. It’s not that game developers are trying to be sneaky, underhanded or dishonest. Rather, it’s because the purchase or playing of a game in the U.S. is not considered a “performance” in the legal sense of the word. So unlike a film which might be broadcast on TV or other media (which generate Performance Royalties), since there are usually no “performances” of games, there are no performance royalties due to the composer.

The above notwithstanding, it is always a good idea to try to get your music registered with a PRO anyway. There are few cases where game music can generate performance royalties. It’s relatively infrequent, but it does occur from time to time. Some of those cases include:

  • The game’s music appears in traditional media (movie, TV, etc.). For example, a character playing a video game in a movie or TV show would generate PRO payments the same as any other piece of music in the film/show.

  • The game itself is broadcast. "e-sports", where people playing video games are broadcast live.

  • Game soundtracks (including covers of game music) played on services like Spotify or Pandora

In addition, in some countries outside of the US, a portion of a video game download is actually considered a “performance,” so the above item is mainly applicable to US companies and composers. If you compose music for games in Europe please contact your PRO.


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