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Writing and orchestrating music for games has evolved and branched into an accessible, entirely viable way for today's composers to make a living with music. Big-budget AAA games have co-opted the studio orchestras and recording spaces of Hollywood films, and smaller indie games provide independent composers a means with which to broadcast their music to a massive and enthusiastic audience. Any way you slice it, video games are the newest, broadest, and most exciting way to make a living writing music today.
"I tried to do music for films for seven years," composer Danny Baranowsky told me. "I did around twenty projects. And over seven years of indie film music I've made probably $2,000. Total. I'm not saying you can't do it. But I did not find a way to do it."
Baranowsky put aside film scoring to move into the world of video games, and today he's a well-known name in the world of video game music—his soundtracks for Super Meat Boy and The Binding of Isaac, as well as his work on several successful iOS games, have earned him critical accolades and financial success. He's a regular speaker at conventions like Minecon, PAX and the Music and Gaming Festival (MAGfest), and he's providing music for Minecraft creator Marcus "Notch" Persson's next game. In other words, Danny Baranowsky is making it happen.
"I was glad when I finally got my break in games," he told me. "I was so sick of feeling like I was spinning my wheels. I was getting better, I was improving, but the idea of making a living at it was something that I couldn't get any traction in at all."
Baranowsky laughingly told me that the first game he got paid for was a puzzle game for the Nokia Sidekick, which he actually had to do in MIDI. He did another game for the same company, this time for the iPhone, composing five minutes of original music for, as he recalls it, $70 a minute (this is very, very low for a composer). The game was never released.
Soon after that, Baranowsky provided the music for Adam Atomic's iPhone games Canabalt and Gravity Hook, both of which were App store hits. His subsequent work on Team Meat's Xbox Live Arcade hit Super Meat Boy locked him in as a composer to watch, and finally started putting some real money in his pocket.
That's in large party because Baranowsky owns the rights to the music from the game, which he sells through his Bandcamp page. Baranowsky told me that independent music sales have accounted for about double what was paid for working on the game.
In fact, had the soundtrack been bundled through Steam as it was with The Binding of Isaac, he would have made much, much more. " Isaac was a fairly successful game, but I made ten times as much money on the Steam bundle option as I did on Bandcamp. It just goes to show that although Steam isn't where you would go to get music, the reach of Steam is… it's fucking amazing."
In other words, Baranowsky made ten times more money selling music through an online video game store than he did through online musical outlets. Many artists think of making a living by selling tunes through iTunes or Bandcamp or CD Baby, but the idea of tying original music to a platform like Steam is smart, focused, and at least in the case of The Binding of Isaac, really works. (Surely it helps that the Isaac soundtrack is very, very good.) Other artists have found similar success by doing work for indie games—both Bastion's Darren Korb and Sword & Sworcery's Jim Guthrie are songwriters whose work has received huge amounts of new attention thanks to their involvement with successful video games.
Not every musician working in video games makes a living by going indie. Jeremy Levy, a friend of mine and fellow University of Miami jazz graduate, has been doing just fine following a more traditional route. He's a session trombonist, orchestrator and arranger in Los Angeles, and has provided orchestration work on video games from Batman: Arkham City to inFAMOUS 2 to God of War III, as well as TV shows like Battlestar Galactica, Pushing Daisies and The Event.
Levy told me that shortly after leaving Miami to spend ten months in a touring horn section, he decided to head out to California to give Hollywood film-scoring a shot.
"I had pretty lucky go of it," he said. "I made a good amount of connections either from UMiami or from touring, and Gary Lindsay (Miami's arranging professor) gave me a few composers out here to get in touch with." From there, Levy wound up working with Tim Davies, the Australian Orchestrator who conducted and headed up orchestration for many of the same games that Levy has worked on, as well as a bunch more.
(While looking Davies up, I found that he worked on both Prototype and inFAMOUS. Ha!)
While Levy started out doing grunt work—taping parts, printing out music, and other things like that, he quickly graduated to the kind of jack-of-all trades work that is necessary to make a living as a professional musician. "It's whatever and wherever work comes in," he said of his day-to-day gigs. "Writing, orchestration, arranging, music prep, anything I can get my hands on."
Unlike Baranowsky, Levy works very much in the Hollywood model, which means he has to live in Hollywood. By way of contrast, Baranowsky remarked upon the locational flexibility of the indie games scene. The internet, he said, has leveled the playing field in a lot of ways, from distribution to promotion, but one of the biggest ways is geography.
"I live in Phoenix, dude," Baranowsky said. "The asshole of suburbia. And I work with people in Britain, and Sweden, and New Zealand, and South Africa, and Santa Cruz and North Carolina, and it doesn't matter at all. It's cool to see people, and meet people in real life, but still, anybody can do it, as long as they have an internet connection."
For a long time, Baranowsky composed with a low-key setup, mostly using Propellerhead's Reason, though he's switched up these days and uses more elaborate sample libraries. His process sounds idiosyncratic in that way that only solo composers can be—he described banging out the music for Canabalt in a single session and sending it off to Adam Atomic immediately afterwards.
Baranowsky is no longer living from project to project, something that's in large part attributable to the fact that he can independently sell his own work. "I'm not living check to check," he said, "which is a new thing for me." He says that while he's always interested in talking about bigger projects, the idea of taking on a big-budget AAA game soundtrack doesn't really interest him. "I think it would be less money, and less fun, and I wouldn't have the rights to my music."
Levy, on the other hand, is much more of a hired gun. Much of his work is through the local California musician's union, and it's much less likely for a composer to retain full ownership of his or her compositions; if they're lucky, they'll retain some of the publishing rights.
AAA games are currently very focused on making everything sound big and exciting, just like Hollywood soundtracks. Levy said his ability to find work making video game soundtracks depends somewhat on the whims of the market—will the public always want game soundtracks that sound like movies? Will there always be as much work for arrangers, conductors and orchestrators in the gaming scene? When I asked him how sustainable the kind of work he was doing is, he wasn't sure.
"I don't know if I have an answer for that," he said. "Music will always exist, and if anything there will only be more need for it in the future. What I do is very dependent on live performers, and it's dependent on the type of project that would need that. Now it's popular with games, because they're trying to make everything as epic as possible. Who knows if that will stay. Like how in the 80's [in film], all of that stuff went away."
Levy makes a good point—there really is more cross-media demand for music than there ever has been. And, of course, he doesn't only make a living from games—much of the work he does comes from TV shows, films, and other musical projects.
Between them, Levy and Baranowsky perfectly demonstrate the disparate ways that professional musicians can make a living making music. Both make a living writing a lot (Levy) or exclusively (Baranowsky) for games, but they're almost opposites in terms of their daily work and their approach. No one way is "better" than the other; both have their strengths, and both are fueled by demand for very specific kinds of work.
"I'm much more of a traditional writer," said Levy, "I write scored charts, so I fell into this because it was what I'm good at. But if things need to change, they need to change. You start using a sequencer, you start using a sample library—everything can become about tech. I certainly have plenty of that dabbling in my life, but I prefer to have my music performed by real people. It's really hard to tell right now where it'll go."
Baranowsky says he knows plenty of composers who have headed up the soundtracks on AAA games, and says that the things he hears about the trials and tribulations of AAA game-composition turn him off.
"All I can think is man, I don't want to be AAA. If some AAA studio gave me an offer I'd have to really think about it." (He was quick to say that he has a Star Wars Exception: If anyone ever asked him to do the soundtrack to a Star Wars game, he would be required to say yes.)
Levy told me that he'd certainly like to do more independent scoring, working on smaller, more self-contained projects, but wasn't sure if his current trajectory would end up there. "I definitely think it's something I'd be interested in doing, it's something that I never really had the opportunity to do. When I got [to L.A.], I fell into what I'm doing pretty quickly, so I never really went [the indie] route, you know, scoring films for film students. I sort of missed out on that. That may be something I need to address in the future. But I never really presented myself as doing that; you go down one path, and it leads to other things along that path."
Near the end of our conversation, Baranowsky shared an anecdote: "I'm friends with a band here in Arizona, they're fairly big; they've sold hundreds and hundreds of thousands of albums. Now, they have to split that five ways, which that's something to keep in mind. But: I've made more money by myself than they did with with their album sold in best buy, doing a national tour."
Whether composing music in an Arizona apartment or running parts with an L.A. studio orchestra, there are more ways to make a living making music than ever. It requires hard work and talent, but there are scores of creative outlets for composers that didn't exist even five years ago.
Video games provide a fantastic new venue for talented young composers, and I for one can't wait to find out who we hear from next.
Despite the fact its creators have railed against the quality of iPhone games, and openly trolled consumers on the iTunes store by selling a parody game for $350, Super Meat Boy is being rebuilt to be playable on touch-screen mobile devices, the game's two-man team said in a Twitter conversation today.
Yes, that could mean SMB is released only for Android and/or Windows Phone. But it's intriguing enough given Team Meat's history on the subject. Back in 2010, at Game Developers Conference, Team Meat's Tommy Refenes ranted that he "absolutely fucking hate[s] the iPhone app store," and compared the platform to the shitty Tiger handhelds of the early 1990s—moneygrubbing LED games that capitalized on a popular brand without doing any justice to the console game it invoked.
Refenes went so far as to develop a Super Meat Boy LED-style app (pictured) to prove this point. An earlier game he made, Zits N' Giggles, saw its price go up every time someone bought it. It actually sold for $350 at one point before Apple removed it.
So will Team Meat retreat on its hardline stance against the iTunes App Store, or will it suckle from the teat of that good, good money cow? If Super Meat Boy isn't coming to the iPhone, don't worry. You can always get CheeseMan. Though Team Meat promises its port won't have "shitty touch controls," CheeseMan gives an idea of what the game plays like with them.
The blisteringly-difficult Super Meat Boy may find its way to "touch devices." Team Meat has announced development of a "prototype," but reassured fans that a mobile Meat Boy game would be very different from the original game. "This prototype will not play like SMB," the developer proudly proclaimed on Twitter.
"It will be a re-envisioning of SMB remade from scratch for touch. We aren't half-assing this if it turns out to be fun."
If the prototype comes to fruition, it won't be the first time the Meat Boy franchise has graced touch devices. In 2010, Team Meat released an iOS game that parodied the iOS game scene. "Super Meat Boy Handheld is all the branding of Super Meat Boy, without the actual gameplay or art from Super Meat Boy...and all for ONLY A DOLLAR."
This new effort appears to be a more serious effort. "We just had a few cool ideas and wanted a challenge," the developer noted. "It wont be a simple game like Doodle Jump; it will be a larger more traditional game," adding: "We promise you we wont make a game with shitty touch controls."
"If it turns out it sucks, we will act like it never happened and move on to the next idea."
Team Meat is currently tinkering around with a smartphone version of its hit platformer Super Meat Boy.
Studio co-founder Edmund McMillen told Eurogamer that it has an idea for how to make the precision jumper work on a touchscreen and is prototyping the concept.
"We are currently developing tech for the next game that might be a touch remake of Super Meat Boy for both [iOS and Android] platforms mentioned," he explained.
"If we end up doing it it won't be anything like the version people are familiar with but something new that embodies the SMB spirit.
"Bottom line, SMB on a mobile device is by far the most requested thing we get asked and a few months ago we started playing around with a very odd idea that could make SMB work on a touch devise," he added.
"It seemed fun and inspired so we decided to start prototyping it to see if it was worth making. That's where we still are.
"Who knows if it will happen or not, if it sucks we won't release it, if it's fun we will continue working on it."
Team Meat hasn't exactly been vocal in its enthusiasm for smartphone gaming in the past. Back in March 2010, McMillen's colleague Tommy Refenes publicly stated that he "absolutely f****** hate[s] the iPhone app store", likening the service to the failed '90s Tiger handheld.
However, McMillen explained the pair are now slowly starting to come around.
"As for the 'U-turn', Tommy and I decided to question the platform's strengths and instead of being pessimistic at least make an attempt at making a good game for the platform rather than just say it's all s***. There have been quite a few good games that have come out since Tommy's rant so there is hope.
"FYI, the rant about the iPhone was from about three years ago and about how porting games to iPad was like Tiger handhelds of the early '90s, and also how the store sucks (it still sucks).
"You can't get away from how the mobile market is pretty bad these days, especially with its horribly encouraged copy-cat mentality and everyone out to make a quick buck.
"But there have been good games made for the platform that are unique and well done, we would like to attempt to be one of those instead of simply poo-pooing every aspect of the platforms."
Team Meat's notoriously unforgiving debut launched on Xbox Live Arcade to rave reviews back in 2010. See Tom Bramwell's sweat-flecked 9/10 Super Meat Boy review for details.
US cable TV network HBO has optioned the rights to make a fictional TV series based on forthcoming documentary Indie Game: The Movie.
According to Deadline, the film's directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky signed on the dotted line at the annual Sundance Film Festival in Utah over the weekend, where the film premiered to glowing reviews.
Initial reports that HBO wanted to turn it into a half-hour comedy have proved wide of the mark, with a post on the movie's Facebook page today stating "HBO has optioned IGTM for the basis of a (fictional) series. It is NOT a comedy. It is NOT a sitcom."
Hollywood veteran Scott Rudin - whose credits include 2011 Oscar winner The Social Network, Moneyball, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Queen and Wes Anderson's take on Roald Dahl favourite The Fantastic Mr Fox - will reportedly produce. No word on potential casting choices, but the mind boggles.
It's worth noting that not every property that gets optioned by a network necessarily makes it through to full production.
The film follows a number of recent indie titles through development, including Super Meat Boy, Braid and Fez. Take a look at a trailer for the flick, which is due out later this year, below.
HBO is limbering up for a television drama tackling the most harrowing and difficult subject it's approached yet: indie video games. It's early days yet, but the American cable channel has unexpectedly optioned documentary Indie Game: The Movie to make a half-hour series. And in true indie style, it's already been misunderstood.
The initial report from Deadline said that Home Box Office's series would be a comedy, raising more than a few eyebrows in the indie community. However, the original documentary's makers Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky insist that's not the case.
"HBO has optioned IGTM for the basis of a (fictional) series. It is NOT a comedy. It is NOT a sitcom," the pair explained on Facebook.
The documentary follows the trials and tribulations of the developers behind Fez, Braid and Super Meat Boy. Presumably HBO's series will be inspired more by the tone and struggle than the developers themselves, though we must say James Van Der Beek would make a mean Phil Fish.
The series is being produced by Scott Rudin, who's backed The Social Network, Moneyball, True Grit, No Country for Old Men, and heaps of other fine things.
"The people involved, the network involved - all are, BY FAR, the best people possible to make this show," Pajot and Swirsky say. "We are ecstatic about the possibilities of working with this team. All you need to do is look at the list of HBO series titles & Scott Rudin's IMDB and you can see why we think this is a brilliant thing. We want to see this show happen. We want to watch this show."
Do remember that optioning something doesn't guarantee it'll be made, merely that it could. The documentary made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Friday, then will have a theatrical release followed by the DVD. Here's a peek at it:
Team Meat's indie darling, Super Meat Boy, has now joined the elite video gaming ranks reaching "Platinum" status last month. While the game debuted on Xbox Live Arcade, it's likely that the game is still showing its best performance on PC. The title raced past one million sales, as it recently expanded to Mac, and eventually found its way on the fourth Humble Indie Bundle.
The PS3 is one of the highest-profile platforms Meat Boy hasn't touched, and unfortunately, it doesn't appear that's going to change any time soon. "SMB will never be on PS3 sorry," the team's Twitter apologizes. However, it's likely the team's next game will manage to show on Sony's black box. "We will dev for the PS3 eventually!," a recent tweet proclaims.
While little is known about Team Meat's next game, it promises to be less "straightforward" than Meat Boy. "I think it's going to be more ambitious design-wise and it's going to be more of a challenge for us. It's a bigger project. It's going to be fun and that's exactly why we're into it. It's going to be pretty fresh."
And no, "there will never be a SMB2!," the dev told the world, in case you're asking.
Rock hard downloadable game Super Meat Boy has sold over one million copies, developer Team Meat has revealed.
"Fun Fact: Super Meat Boy past [sic] the million sales mark last month!" the indie developer wrote on Twitter. "PLATINUM BABY."
Super Meat Boy, designed by Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, launched on Xbox Live Arcade in October 2010 as part of Microsoft's GameFeast XBLA promotion. It later launched on PC and Mac.
The two-man studio is now hard at work on its "ambitious", "fun", "more experimental" new project.
It was independent games development's darling of 2010, and all who dared cross it risked the righteous anger of its creators and fans. But badass platformer Super Meat Boy still is not available on mobile gaming's No. 1 platform. And I don't think it's because one of its creators got into a pissing contest with Apple.
It's probably because this kind of game really isn't fun with multitouch screen control, a conclusion reached after spending some time with CheeseMan, the best port of Super Meat Boy you can put finger quotes around. Frankly, I'm not sure it wasn't published by proxy for Team Meat. Either way, it's available now for 99 cents on the iTunes App Store.
CheeseMan is, evidently, doing its thing with the blessing of Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, the creators of Super Meat Boy. Dr. Fetus, their game's antagonist, is right there staring CheeseMan in the face on the first level, after all. Other Meat Boy characters will appear later. And the same gameplay style is there throughout—you're an anthropomorphized cheese cube instead of a meat wad, zipping through a platform level, avoiding spikes, sawblades and other gruesome instant-death traps, clinging to and double jumping from walls and trying to reach the goal in as little time as possible.
Your strategy evolves as it did in the original Super Meat Boy, too. Basically, you go haul ass into some uncharted part of the screen, die, remember there's a hazard there, and try not to hit it in your next life. Controls are carried out on a virtual game pad of left and right and a jump button.
These are not ideal controls for this kind of game. So much of Super Meat Boy involved technical, perfectly timed jumps that you really need fixed, physical controls that you can feel with your digits through a long gaming session, rather than virtual squares that feel no different when you reposition your hands after picking your nose.
My parkour jumps between walls never went smoothly, even without hazards forcing me to act quickly. Too many times I simply wall-humped my way to the top rather than try to switch my left thumb while hammering the virtual jump button at the same time. This is on an iPhone, whose playing surface dimensions reasonably approximate a gamepad controller. On an iPad, I'm not sure what it's like.
CheeseMan is allegedly published by AlphaNoize, a German shop founded in November of this year. It, like Team Meat, is a two-man outfit made up of Hicham Alloui and Arne Worheide. I have no idea if these are pseudonyms, aliases, alter egos or secret identities. They don't appear to be anagrams. Alloui's bio lists work for Ubisoft in his credits.
Maybe CheeseMan is totally original; maybe it exists with a license from Super Meat Boy. Maybe it is the game that allows Team Meat to reach the iOS without compromising the intellectual stance Refenes took way back in March 2010, when he declared iOS devices to be the "Tiger handheld game of this generation."
None of the intrigue changes the fact that you are still playing an extremely demanding platformer with virtual controls, whether meat, cheese, or something else is involved. Good luck.