How to Start with Game Music – The Tools

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In part 1 we talked about interactivity, in this chapter we’ll touch upon some of the most commonly encountered tools and additional resources.

Learn FMOD and/or WWISE

FMOD and WWISE are two pieces of leading middleware – these are programs that work along with game engine to create code layer for interactive game audio – both the sound layer (footsteps or dialogs) and music. 

There are many articles and tutorials, especially on YouTube, that can teach you how to work with both of these middleware programs. You don’t have to know both, but learn at least one.

Some games, especially independent ones, do not use these programs, because you need to purchase a license to use them in your commercial game (but they can be downloaded for free, for example to learn how to use them). Still, the principles of interactive music remains the same, so an indie game may have a programmer to knows how to code some level of interactivity. Once you know how FMOD works, and what basic things you can do with it, you can still compose music and work along with a programmer to add some adaptivity to indie games.

Learn how to code and learn Unity and/or Unreal engines

Knowing middleware such as FMOD or WWISE on its own may not be enough. You also have to understand how game engines work. A game engine is a piece of software that manage various elements of the same – such as physics, animations or audio – it and does that through computer code that can be written directly, or managed through visual interface. Unity and Unreal Engine are two quite popular game engines. Thanks to them, developers can focus on game mechanics, instead of coding their own physics engine.

Note that both Unreal Engine and Unity game engine can be downloaded for free. The same goes for FMOD and WWISE, so you don’t have to invest money in the software itself.

Now, I’ve mentioned earlier that adaptive music is triggered somehow, usually by trigger zones and computer code in the game engine. Thus, you can learn the basics of working with Unreal Engine and Unity, and how to create trigger zones along with code that uses FMOD and WWISE projects, and this will give you an actual idea of how to create adaptive music. 

For example, you may learn how to loop 30 seconds of your piece of music in FMOD, creating first loop, and then how to loop another 30 seconds of this piece to create a second loop.

Then you switch to Unity, and you learn how to create a trigger zone and write code to manage it, so that the game engine actually switch between the loops once a player character enters the trigger zone. 

Once you understand how to do this, you will improve your composition skills because you will figure out how to create a transition part for your music to make the transition smoother. 

And because of this, when the game director tells you “I want to hear soaring emotional music once the player gets into this area,” you will actually understand that there must be two pieces of music that will be triggered by some kind of code. Yay :).

I know this sounds weird, that’s why it’s important to actually learn how to do this. I discussed a lot of these things in my own free FMOD course, and there are many books about Unity and/or Unreal.

While coding and working with game engines may seem scary, I can assure you, that it’s not. I don’t want you to become a full-time coder – just learn the basics. The basics are very simple, and they often rely on graphical tools. Learning how to use FMOD and/or Unity should take you only a couple of hours in total, and even such basic understanding of these tools will improve your work as a composer for games.

Things Change a Lot

Building games is an iterative process. Developers create builds and test them to see if they’re fun to play – if they’re not, they scrap them and try something else. In game development, things change a lot and they change often. Today you may have composed a wonderful 2 minutes of music for a cutscene, and tomorrow they tell you the cutscene won’t be in the game because they’ve changed the entire story, and you have to start again :).

This would be a dire situation, but things happen. The amount of such unexpected changes depends on the developer’s experience and the management process, but you should be prepared that there will be situations when you have to remake music, because the game has changed. So this is one of the things you should expect in game development.

Also, be aware that game development is famous for crunch culture – long hours of work, no breaks, a huge amount of stress, even more than in film music. This is considered a toxic culture, and it’s slowly changing for better, but you may still encounter companies that encourage their workers to crunch.

Worthy Reading

I’m a big fan of reading, so here are some suggestions.

There’s a great book about the subject of interactivity of music, Writing Interactive Music for Video Games: A Composer’s Guide by Michael Sweet, which I recommend for everyone thinking about composing music for games. It explains a lot of things such as adaptive music or vertical integration and it’s a great guide for composers.

Another book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music by Winifred Phillips is also one that I recommend for those who want to make music for games.

Unity in Action: Multiplatform game development in C# by Joseph Hocking is a great book for beginners, explaining the basics of working with Unity game engine. 

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I hope this short article gives you a general idea of things you should learn when thinking about composing music for video games.

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Wojciech Usarzewicz

Wojciech Usarzewicz

Wojciech Usarzewicz is a music composer from Poland. He enjoys studying cinematic scores. He composed music for TailQuest: Defense, an indie tower defense game coming soon on Steam. He published a completely free course, Interactive Game Music for Beginners in which he teaches how to work with FMOD and adaptive game music.

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