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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.
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.
We've done a lot of big-budget games so far in our Best Video Game Music of 2011 series, but there were some great indie soundtracks released, as well. One of the very best of those was Danny Baranowsky's dangerous, dark, synthy work on the Zelda-esque roguelike The Binding of Isaac.
Described by our own Stephen Totilo as "A wonderfully warped Old Testament Take on The Legend of Zelda," The Binding of Isaac was a rigidly difficult game that centered around punishing exploration and experimentation as players made their way through a series of randomly generated basement levels in an attempt to help the titular hero escape from his mother's zealotous captivity.
It was a wonderfully challenging, creepy game, but what put it over the top for me was Baranowsky's sinister soundtrack. A dark combination of synths and electronic beats, it took a bit of Danny Elfman, a touch of Muse, a hint of old-school Final Fantasy boss music, and brought 'em all together into something dark and unique.
For this entry in our series, I thought it would be fun to chat with Baranowsky about the process behind writing three of my favorite tracks.
This is one of the first tracks to play in the game, and one of the most evocative. It's got this winding, ever shifting 6/8-ish thing going on, and the melody twists and turns and never quite resolves the way you expect it to. The chord progression almost reminds me of a creepy (or, creepier) version of "The Carol of the Bells," which feels appropriate, given the sinister biblical allegory of the game. Here's Baranowsky:
"Welcome to the basement" was kind of the idea [with "Sacrificial."]. Something brooding, a little "music-box"-y, and inspired by classical choral music (to fit in with the biblical allusion). But at this point the way I write is very based on state of mind, I try to consume the aesthetics of the game and the situation of the track at hand, and just be absorbed in it and just.....go.
That it ended up being in 9/8 with other parts in 6/8 just kind of happened, I felt like the asymmetry of it would help to make people not get comfortable in any kind of familiar rhythm, while at the same time having sections that were something to ground the track and give people a feeling of progression.
This piece is gorgeous. Nothing says "a moment of calm in the storm" like some wide, wandering ambient chords. I love the natural sixth that turns up in here—most minor tonalities have a flat sixth, but here, we've got an "A" landing while in C minor (kind of sounds like it's over a Bb chord, actually). It's that brightness that gives things a pensive air, as opposed to the driving dread of most of the other tracks on the soundtrack. Which is fitting, since it plays inside of the "safe" secret rooms in the game.
Late in development, most of the music was done, and I had some time to polish/add extra shit, and so I started doing like the "Shop Theme (Greed)" and "Ambush Room Theme (Burning Ambush)", and I felt that the secret rooms (you find them by bombing walls) was a great opportunity to introduce music unlike most of the rest of the game, kind of a contrast to the madness/insanity/evil of the rest of the game.
Indeed it was.
The funny thing about "Respite" is that the idea for the arrangement came to me instantly, and the whole track was sone in about 15 minutes. Not terribly impressive, it's very short, but the funny thing is Omnisphere (the VST used to make it) had some some dumb ass bug that made it POP every time it looped. I spent hours screaming at my buddy Jimmy Hinson (Big Giant Circles, worked on Mass Effect 2 soundtrack) who is kind of an Omnisphere guru and he calmed me down and helped me fix it. and then, to top it all off, because of the way the game was coded (flash) all the tracks have gaps when they repeat anyway, so it didn't even matter....
This track is shit-hot. In my opinion. What starts out as the sort of typical boss-battle-ish driving thing quickly morphs into something more notey and more compelling. Right around 0:33 shit gets real, as the beat double-times with this cool-as-heck ascending sixteenth-note line in E minor, pulling up, up, up and back around to the driving, building main theme. A terrific example of boss-style music done right.
I don't know why but boss music has always been my favorite music from probably anything ever. I can't begin to try and guess how many hours of my life I've listened to the boss themes from FF4, FF6, FF7 and FF8 on loop. I like to think my boss themes are very Uematsuean (i just coined that), which feels like blasphemy to say, but he is by far the greatest influence on my with regards to music in general, and certainly boss themes.
You can download the The Binding of Isaac soundtrack for ridiculously cheap from Baranowsky's BandCamp page, and he has also just released a very cool album of piano renditions of tunes from his killer Super Meat Boy soundtrack. Check 'em both out.
We'll be back tomorrow with another of 2011's best video game soundtracks.
Did that headline get your attention? Good, because you should go and read this super-cool piece by Kill Screen's Lana Polansky about mechanics, practice, saxophone, jazz, and Street Fighter. (It also features the amazing illustration above, drawn by Daniel Purvis.)
Wait, why the heck am I referring to myself in the third person? Ugh. Anyhow, Polansky's piece is tackling an angle near and dear to my heart, looking at how Street Fighter requires a strict, musical mastery of its systems before play is possible:
I can't imagine a more perfect example than Street Fighter for how a game system can treat practice and play. It not only demands a fairly profound understanding of how its mechanics work, but allows players to combine those mechanics in intriguing and unusual ways once they understand them. Once mastery is achieved, the feeling of play emerges.
From there it goes to a lot of super brainy places, like… the work of Hungarian psychology professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Bit.Trip Beat and Super Monkey Ball.
It's a cool piece, and worth a read. Everyone we can get to start talking about music and games in this way is a win, as far as I'm concerned. The two have so much in common, we gotta get those crazy kids together more often.
Please Try Again [Kill Screen]
We've seen our share of Humble Indie Bundles over the past year or two—independent developers who gather under the "Humble" brand and release a bunch of their games priced at whatever people want to pay.
The latest one, Humble Bundle #4, might be the best one yet—for any price you want, you can get Super Meat Boy, Bit. Trip Runner, Jamestown, Shank and Nightsky. Pay more than the average price (currently tracking at $4.61 on the Humble Bundle site), you get Cave Story + and Gratuitous Space Battles as well.
There's no shortage of gaming to be done this December, but these are all great games, for a great price. And not only will you be supporting indie devs, you'll have the option to give money to either the American Red Cross or Child's Play.
Check out their (endearingly cheesy and reference-laden) trailer above. It's funny, I was quoting that bit from The Rock all last weekend for some reason.
Humble Indie Bundle #4 [Humblebundle.com]
Following in the footsteps of the Humble Indie Bundle, today only you can buy the Game Music Bundle for as much as you'd like to pay, from $1 to $10,000. (Yes, there is actually an option to pay ten grand.)
The soundtracks include most of the best indie game tracks from the past couple of years, including Danny B's killer Super Meat Boy OST, SoulEye's VVVVVV soundtrack, and C418's Minecraft: Volume Alpha. If you play $10 or more, you'll get seven bonus soundtracks, including the soundtracks from The Binding of Isaac and Extreme Road Trip.
Any way you slice it, that's a hell of a lot of music for very little dough. Even if you're participating in Buy Nothing Day, well… surely $1 towards independent game music composers wouldn't be the worst way to break your fast?
Indie Game Music Bundle [gamemusicbundle.com]
Edmund McMillen's The Binding of Isaac managed to be one of the creepiest, most f-ed up games come out in quite some time. So, it's especially fitting that the co-creator of Super Meat Boy's offering a sizable update on All Hallow's Eve for his action-RPG shooter. Here's what the update adds, from McMillen's blog:
-Added chapter 5 (unlocked after 10 mom kills)
-Added 3+ new bosses
-Added 4 new enemies
-Added 20+ new items
-Added one new unlockable character (Eve)
-Added one new "FINAL" ending.
-Added 6+ new achievements
-Added 2 new music tracks
-Added updated collection viewer
-Added 4 new tarot cards (finishing the major arcana)
McMillen promised that he'd be rolling out fresh Isaac content if the game garnered a sizable following and this update follows up on that pledge. You can get the game over on Steam right here.
The Binding of Isaac Halloween update! [Edmund McMillen]
The Binding of Isaac, the latest gruesome game from Edmund McMillen - one of the creators of Super Meat Boy , is out on Steam for both PC and Mac for $5. Pick it up.
One of the guys behind Super Meat Boy has a new game. This is it! I enjoyed their last title (review here), and am looking forward to this, Binding of Isaac.
Heading to Steam (PC and Mac) this September, the game is a randomly generated, action role-playing game shooter. It'll cost $5.