July 9, 2008

Video Game Music Strikes a Bigger Chord

In mid-June, Senator John McCain [R-Ariz.] appeared in a campaign ad condemning war and recounting his own five-year ordeal as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Not much about it was new, so voters who watched the video on YouTube (GOOG) might have missed what bloggers at GamePolitics.com heard: music playing in the background from the first-person shooter video game, Medal of Honor: European Assault.

Video game music might seem an odd choice for a U.S. Presidential campaign ad. But it shouldn't. The gaming industry is a $38 billion global entertainment business [and growing], and developers are spending more than ever on marketing and production. Now they're showering big bucks on composers to write original scores that are as long and complex as movie and TV music.

The largest game companies spend $300,000 to $1 million on music for a big-budget title, composers say. That includes the composer's fees of $800 to $2,000 per minute of music as well as the cost of hiring orchestras, renting recording studios, and producing the final cut. "[Movie] studios pay more but not by much anymore," says Christopher Lennertz, who wrote the music for the Medal of Honor series.


Economics are partly driving the equation: Last year, in the U.S. alone, gaming industry revenues were $18.9 billion, according to market researcher NPD Group. That's nearly twice the $9.6 billion of movie box-office ticket sales, and the figure even surpasses the $16 billion in DVD sales last year.

Technology has played a huge role as well. Gaming consoles now resemble souped-up computers and can play data-packed optical discs in high-fidelity. But the equipment wasn't always so advanced. When Japanese composer Nobuo Uematsu got his start in the mid-1980s, consoles were still relatively low-tech, and the music he wrote using a Roland JX-8P synthesizer for the early Final Fantasy games was mainly electronic tones. Back then sound effects were more important. "The hardware could only handle music made up of three notes at any time, so I had one for melody and the other two for bass and arpeggio," says Uematsu. "If there were sound effects, the arpeggio got cut out."

Crossover Talents

This new technological sophistication explains why some established film and TV composers have crossed over into gaming. John Debney, whose The Passion of the Christ score was nominated for an Academy Award, wrote the music to the fantasy adventure game Lair. Steve Jablonsky, who worked on the soundtracks for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Transformers, also did the Transformers game and two sci-fi Command & Conquer titles. Even Howard Shore, the Academy Award-winning composer of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Harry Gregson-Williams, credited for Shrek and The Chronicles of Narnia, have tried game scores. They have added their own halo of prestige to the gaming industry.

The flow of talent isn't one-way. Some composers have reinvigorated or launched their careers with video games. Michael Giacchino's work on The Lost World: Jurassic Park game led to a job with director J.J. Abrams on the TV series Alias and Lost, which opened doors to the movie business. Lennertz's career has a similar trajectory. He has since added to his resume the TV series Supernatural and the parody Disaster Movie.

Exposure and Accolades

Another benefit is the exposure to listeners that a game score gets. Most people might see a movie once or twice, which is the only time they will hear the soundtrack. Contrast that with diehard gamers who might play for hundreds of hours. The pace of work differs, too. In movie-making, the music is done last. Composers often have just three to six weeks to create 60 minutes of music, which has to match what's happening on-screen. With the game Destroy All Humans!, Garry Schyman had two months to produce an hour of music for THQ (THQI) and Pandemic Studios. "For me that was a luxury," says Schyman. He ended up writing several three-minute 1950s sci-fi pieces that would play in a continuous loop, intense battle-scene tunes, and thematic music for movie-like scenes.

It's not enough to just write music, though. "The other half is working on implementation with the designers and the artists and sound programmers," says Tommy Tallarico, a longtime games composer and the co-creator of Video Games Live, a concert series featuring some of the world's top orchestras performing the gaming industry's greatest hits. "You have to let them know that you want this version to play when there are a hundred guys on horseback and this other version when there's only one."

Schyman's scores have earned him industry accolades, and have led to other projects. Through Destroy All Humans!, he met game designer-cum-Internet celebrity Matt Harding, and the two have collaborated on YouTube videos of Harding dancing in far-flung locales around the world, which have a cult following.

Some Tough Crowds

Even so, soundtracks can be thankless work. Few composers ever become household names, and it's standard practice to forfeit ownership to a studio in what's known as a work-for-hire agreement. At times, that can cause conflicts. Lennertz, who's supporting Senator Barack Obama [D-Ill.] for President, says he was "upset" that the music he wrote, which Electronic Arts (ERTS) owns, was used to promote McCain's Presidential bid. The videos have since been pulled. [McCain campaign officials couldn't be reached for comment.] "I will definitely be adding a clause to future contracts that has certain stipulations about using the music for controversial purposes," Lennertz says.

Some composers complain that big projects can drag on for a year. Not everyone thinks that's bad; it can even work in a composer's favor. "I've been scoring a game since January that's just finishing up now, but I also did four episodes of Supernatural and a movie within that time," says Lennertz.

Some have a tougher crowd to answer to. "My parents would rather say their son is scoring a movie than a video game," says Schyman. "It's a generational thing perhaps."