The Score of a Video Game

Mario Music BlockMusic is the heart of a good video game. Ponder back to any game you really loved and I bet you can still hum or whistle at least a song or two from its soundtrack. I think back on my all time favorite games over the years, just to list a few: Super Mario World, Tetris, Final Fantasy (specifically VII and X), Pokemon, Baldur’s Gate, FTL, and now on iOS I think of Tiny Wings, Jetpack Joyride, Devil’s Attorney, Super Hexagon, Bastion, and of course Ridiculous Fishing.

They all had great gameplay, a great visual style/direction, but they also had iconic soundtracks–music that truly brought those games to life. Video games are an immersive audio-visual experience–and music is an essential part of that experience. Music can give the game a deeper impact on the player. Good music can drive the action or slow things down. It can prompt the player to stop and really take the game’s story in for a moment. It can make a boss fight feel more epic. It can make you sad at the death of an NPC or it can set a playful upbeat tone. It can turn pixels and lines of computer code into a vibrant and colorful world–one that feels real and pulls the player into it. A game’s soundtrack can worm its way into your brain and stick there. Back in the good old days I’d swear I could hear Pokemon music when my GBA was actually turned off. And even after decades have gone a few notes of any of the Super Mario songs will still bring a flood of memories back.

While some games use more music than others, typically games without a proper score is missing a vital piece of the puzzle. The game will be hollow and stale. Music augments the style, the tone, and the general overall experience of a game. Music can compliment the existing look and feel of a game in a way that ties everything together. It makes a simple game a memorable, immersive, and impactful experience. Plenty of iOS games have great soundtracks but lots ignore music as a crucial component of a good game.

The Greatest Video Game Music

The App Store typically attracts two extremes: very small indie studios (perhaps 1-4 people) and big name studios (hundreds or even thousands of people). Indies are typically underfunded and are trying to make a game with as little money as possible. And big studios tend put out as many games as possible as a way to increase theirs odds of having at least one that does really well–like dumping quarters into a slot machine in the hopes that one will lead to a jackpot. For both indies and big studios quality music can be easy to skip over. Music is not as obvious as graphics or gameplay and so often gets left by the wayside. For indies it might look like an unnecessarily and unaffordable expense. And for many big companies investing time and manpower into a game’s music gets in the way with their “dump out as much stuff as possible” business model.

I think this is a big mistake–for big and little devs alike. Forgetting about a game’s music is a huge neglect in quality. Without good music the game is so much less than it otherwise could be. While its true that the App Store can be a gamble (any market is), it has repeatedly favored quality games over the flood of slapped together commercial garbage that many seem to think is the key to mobile success. Sure there are rare exceptions–great games that bomb financially (like the critically acclaimed Punch Quest). And you also sometimes get the occasional horrible game that finds it way into the top 100 charts (utter crap like 4 Pics 1 Word). But the fact of the matter is the marketplace consistently respects an awesome game when it sees it. Well made games usually do well. Perhaps not always Angry Birds or Temple Run well, but a really solid game is typically fairly successful. The secret to the App Store isn’t all that complicated. Just make a great game that people won’t be able to put down. Sure that’s much easier said than done–but if you can do that then the hard parts over and you’re going to see at least some success. And separate from financial motives I think in the end most developers (even ones working for giant studios) want to make work they can be proud of.

Gameboy ChiptunesSo find a decent musician for your game. If your game deserves to be made then it deserves a good score. If you’re on a budget check around. Odesk or similar sites can be a good place for hired help but make sure you get someone good and who understands the vision and style of your game. I for one recommend Beat Scribe–he’s very talented, reliable, and easy to work with–but there are lots of great artists out there. Composing music is usually something game developers don’t have any familiarity with so finding someone who doesn’t just understand music but understands “video game music” is super important. Whoever you go with make sure you explain what your game is all about. They need to be as passionate about your project as you are. A skilled composer can turn a stale or bland game into a masterpiece. Maybe 20 years from now people will be humming YOUR game’s music and flash back to all the fun they had playing your creation.