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Video game music is the soundtrack that accompanies video games. Early video game music was once limited to simple melodies of early sound synthesizer technology. These limitations inspired the style of music known as chiptunes, which combines simple melodic styles with more complex patterns or traditional music styles, and became the most popular sound of the first video games.
With advances in technology, video game music has grown to include the same breadth and complexity associated with television and film scores, allowing for much more creative freedom. While simple synthesizer pieces are still common, game music now includes full orchestral pieces and popular music. Music in video games can be heard over a game's title screen, menus, as well as during the entire gameplay. Modern soundtracks can also change depending on a player's actions or situation, such as indicating missed actions in rhythm games.
Video game music can be one of two options: original or licensed. In order to create or collect this music, teams of composers, music directors, and music supervisors must work with the game developers and game publishers. The popularity of video game music has expanded education and job opportunities, generated awards, and allowed video game soundtracks to be commercially sold and performed in concerts.
Early video game technology and computer chip music
At the time video games had emerged as a popular form of entertainment in the late 1970s, music was stored on physical medium in analog waveforms such as compact cassettes and phonograph records. Such components were expensive and prone to breakage under heavy use making them less than ideal for use in an arcade cabinet, though in rare cases, they were used (Journey). A more affordable method of having music in a video game was to use digital means, where a specific computer chip would change electrical impulses from computer code into analog sound waves on the fly for output on a speaker. Sound effects for the games were also generated in this fashion. An early example of such an approach to video game music was the opening chiptune in Tomohiro Nishikado's Gun Fight (1975).
While this allowed for inclusion of music in early arcade video games, it was usually monophonic, looped or used sparingly between stages or at the start of a new game, such as the Namco titles Pac-Man (1980) composed by Toshio Kai or Pole Position (1982) composed by Nobuyuki Ohnogi. The first game to use a continuous background soundtrack was Tomohiro Nishikado's Space Invaders, released by Taito in 1978. It had four descending chromatic bass notes repeating in a loop, though it was dynamic and interacted with the player, increasing pace as the enemies descended on the player. The first video game to feature continuous, melodic background music was Rally-X, released by Namco in 1980, featuring a simple tune that repeats continuously during gameplay. The decision to include any music into a video game meant that at some point it would have to be transcribed into computer code by a programmer, whether or not the programmer had musical experience. Some music was original, some was public domain music such as folk songs. Sound capabilities were limited; the popular Atari 2600 home system, for example, was capable of generating only two tones, or "notes", at a time.
As advances were made in silicon technology and costs fell, a definitively new generation of arcade machines and home consoles allowed for great changes in accompanying music. In arcades, machines based on the Motorola 68000 CPU and accompanying various Yamaha YM programmable sound generator sound chips allowed for several more tones or "channels" of sound, sometimes eight or more. The earliest known example of this was Sega's 1980 arcade game Carnival, which used an AY-3-8910 chip to create an electronic rendition of the classical 1889 composition "Over The Waves" by Juventino Rosas.
Konami's 1981 arcade game Frogger introduced a dynamic approach to video game music, using at least eleven different gameplay tracks, in addition to level-starting and game over themes, which change according to the player's actions. This was further improved upon by Namco's 1982 arcade game Dig Dug, where the music stopped when the player stopped moving. Dig Dug was composed by Yuriko Keino, who also composed the music for other Namco games such as Xevious (1982) and Phozon (1983). Sega's 1982 arcade game Super Locomotive featured a chiptune rendition of Yellow Magic Orchestra's "Rydeen" (1979); several later computer games also covered the song, such as Trooper Truck (1983) by Rabbit Software as well as Daley Thompson's Decathlon (1984) and Stryker's Run (1986) composed by Martin Galway.
Home console systems also had a comparable upgrade in sound ability beginning with the ColecoVision in 1982 capable of four channels. However, more notable was the Japanese release of the Famicom in 1983 which was later released in the US as the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985. It was capable of five channels, one being capable of simple PCM sampled sound. The home computer Commodore 64 released in 1982 was capable of early forms of filtering effects, different types of waveforms and eventually the undocumented ability to play 4-bit samples on a pseudo fourth sound channel. Its comparatively low cost made it a popular alternative to other home computers, as well as its ability to use a TV for an affordable display monitor.
Approach to game music development in this time period usually involved using simple tone generation and/or frequency modulation synthesis to simulate instruments for melodies, and use of a "noise channel" for simulating percussive noises. Early use of PCM samples in this era was limited to short sound bites (Monopoly), or as an alternate for percussion sounds (Super Mario Bros. 3). The music on home consoles often had to share the available channels with other sound effects. For example, if a laser beam was fired by a spaceship, and the laser used a 1400 Hz square wave, then the square wave channel that was in use by music would stop playing music and start playing the sound effect.
The mid-to-late 1980s software releases for these platforms had music developed by more people with greater musical experience than before. Quality of composition improved noticeably, and evidence of the popularity of music of this time period remains even today. Composers who made a name for themselves with their software include Koichi Sugiyama (Dragon Quest), Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy), Rob Hubbard (Monty On the Run, International Karate), Koji Kondo (Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda), Miki Higashino (Gradius, Yie-Ar Kung Fu, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), Hiroshi Kawaguchi (Space Harrier, Hang-On, Out Run), Hirokazu Tanaka (Metroid, Kid Icarus, EarthBound), Martin Galway (Daley Thompson's Decathlon, Stryker's Run, Times of Lore), Yuzo Koshiro (Dragon Slayer, Ys, Shinobi, ActRaiser, Streets of Rage), Mieko Ishikawa (Dragon Slayer, Ys), and Ryu Umemoto (visual novels, shoot 'em ups). By the late 1980s, video game music was being sold as cassette tape soundtracks in Japan, inspiring American companies such as Sierra, Cinemaware and Interplay to give more serious attention to video game music by 1988. The Golden Joystick Awards introduced a category for Best Soundtrack of the Year in 1986, won by Sanxion.
Some games for cartridge systems have been sold with extra audio hardware on board, including Pitfall II for the Atari 2600 and several late Famicom titles. These chips add to the existing sound capabilities.
Early digital synthesis and sampling
From around 1980, some arcade games began taking steps toward digitized, or sampled, sounds. Namco's 1980 arcade game Rally-X was the first known game to use a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) to produce sampled tones instead of a tone generator. That same year, the first known video game to feature speech synthesis was also released: Sunsoft's shoot 'em up game Stratovox. Around the same time, the introduction of frequency modulation synthesis (FM synthesis), first commercially released by Yamaha for their digital synthesizers and FM sound chips, allowed the tones to be manipulated to have different sound characteristics, where before the tone generated by the chip was limited to the design of the chip itself. Konami's 1983 arcade game Gyruss used five synthesis sound chips along with a DAC, which were somewhat used to create an electronic version of J. S. Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
Beyond arcade games, significant improvements to personal computer game music were made possible with the introduction of digital FM synth boards, which Yamaha released for Japanese computers such as the NEC PC-8801 and PC-9801 in the early 1980s, and by the mid-1980s, the PC-8801 and FM-7 had built-in FM sound. This allowed computer game music to have greater complexity than the simplistic beeps from internal speakers. These FM synth boards produced a "warm and pleasant sound" that musicians such as Yuzo Koshiro and Takeshi Abo utilized to produce music that is still highly regarded within the chiptune community. The widespread adoption of FM synthesis by consoles would later be one of the major advances of the 16-bit era, by which time 16-bit arcade machines were using multiple FM synthesis chips.
One of the earliest home computers to make use of digital signal processing in the form of sampling was the Commodore Amiga in 1985. The computer's sound chip featured four independent 8-bit digital-to-analog converters. Developers could use this platform to take samples of a music performance, sometimes just a single note long, and play it back through the computer's sound chip from memory. This differed from Rally-X in that its hardware DAC was used to play back simple waveform samples, and a sampled sound allowed for a complexity and authenticity of a real instrument that an FM simulation could not offer. For its role in being one of the first and affordable, the Amiga would remain a staple tool of early sequenced music composing, especially in Europe.
The Amiga offered these features before most other competing home computer platforms though the Macintosh which had been introduced a year earlier had similar capabilities. The Amiga's main rival, the Atari ST, sourced the Yamaha YM2149 Programmable Sound Generator (PSG). Compared to the in-house designed Amiga sound engine, the PSG could only handle 1 channel of sampled sound, and needed the computer's CPU to process the data for it. This made it impractical for game development use until 1989 with the release of the Atari STE which used DMA techniques to play back PCM samples at up to 50 kHz. The ST, however, remained relevant as it was equipped with a MIDI controller and external ports. It became the choice of by many professional musicians as a MIDI programming device.
IBM PC clones in 1985 would not see any significant development in multimedia abilities for a few more years, and sampling would not become popular in other video game systems for several years. Though sampling had the potential to produce much more realistic sounds, each sample required much more data in memory. This was at a time when all memory, solid-state (ROM cartridge), magnetic (floppy disk) or otherwise was still very costly per kilobyte. Sequenced soundchip generated music, on the other hand, was generated with a few lines of comparatively simple code and took up far less precious memory.
Arcade systems pushed game music forward in 1984 with the introduction of FM (Frequency Modulation) synthesis, providing more realistic sounds than previous PSGs. The first such game, Marble Madness used the Yamaha YM2151 FM synthesis chip.
As home consoles moved into the fourth generation, or 16-bit era, the hybrid approach (sampled and tone) to music composing continued to be used. The Sega Genesis offered advanced graphics over the NES and improved sound synthesis features (also using a Yamaha chip, the YM2612), but largely held the same approach to sound design. Ten channels in total for tone generation with one for PCM samples were available in stereo instead of the NES's five channels in mono, one for PCM. As before, it was often used for percussion samples. The Genesis did not support 16-bit sampled sounds. Despite the additional tone channels, writing music still posed a challenge to traditional composers and it forced much more imaginative use of the FM synthesizer to create an enjoyable listening experience. The composer Yuzo Koshiro utilized the Genesis hardware effectively to produce "progressive, catchy, techno-style compositions far more advanced than what players were used to" for games such as The Revenge of Shinobi (1989) and the Streets of Rage series, setting a "new high watermark for what music in games could sound like." The soundtrack for Streets of Rage 2 (1992) in particular is considered "revolutionary" and "ahead of its time" for its blend of house music with "dirty" electro basslines and "trancey electronic textures" that "would feel as comfortable in a nightclub as a video game." Another important FM synth composer was the late Ryu Umemoto, who composed music for many visual novels and shoot 'em ups during the 1990s.
As cost of magnetic memory declined in the form of diskettes, the evolution of video game music on the Amiga, and some years later game music development in general, shifted to sampling in some form. It took some years before Amiga game designers learned to wholly use digitized sound effects in music (an early exception case was the title music of text adventure game The Pawn, 1986). By this time, computer and game music had already begun to form its own identity, and thus many music makers intentionally tried to produce music that sounded like that heard on the Commodore 64 and NES, which resulted in the chiptune genre. The release of a freely-distributed Amiga program named Soundtracker by Karsten Obarski in 1987 started the era of MOD-format which made it easy for anyone to produce music based on digitized samples. Module files were made with programs called "trackers" after Obarski's Soundtracker. This MOD/tracker tradition continued with PC computers in the 1990s. Examples of Amiga games using digitized instrument samples include David Whittaker's soundtrack for Shadow of the Beast, Chris Hülsbeck's soundtrack for Turrican 2 and Matt Furniss's tunes for Laser Squad. Richard Joseph also composed some theme songs featuring vocals and lyrics for games by Sensible Software most famous being Cannon Fodder (1993) with a song "War Has Never Been So Much Fun" and Sensible World of Soccer (1994) with a song "Goal Scoring Superstar Hero". These songs used long vocal samples.
A similar approach to sound and music developments had become common in the arcades by this time and had been used in many arcade system boards since the mid-1980s. This was further popularized in the early 1990s by games like Street Fighter II (1991) on the CPS-1, which used voice samples extensively along with sampled sound effects and percussion. Neo Geo's MVS system also carried powerful sound development which often included surround sound.
The evolution also carried into home console video games, such as the release of the Super Famicom in 1990, and its US/EU version Super NES in 1991. It sported a specialized custom Sony chip for both the sound generation and for special hardware DSP. It was capable of eight channels of sampled sounds at up to 16-bit resolution, had a wide selection of DSP effects, including a type of ADSR usually seen in high-end synthesizers of the time, and full stereo sound. This allowed experimentation with applied acoustics in video games, such as musical acoustics (early games like Super Castlevania IV, F-Zero, Final Fantasy IV, Gradius III, and later games like Chrono Trigger), directional (Star Fox) and spatial acoustics (Dolby Pro Logic was used in some games, like King Arthur's World and Jurassic Park), as well as environmental and architectural acoustics (Zelda III, Secret of Evermore). Many games also made heavy use of the high-quality sample playback capabilities (Super Star Wars, Tales of Phantasia). The only real limitation to this powerful setup was the still-costly solid state memory. Other consoles of the generation could boast similar abilities yet did not have the same circulation levels as the Super NES. The Neo-Geo home system was capable of the same powerful sample processing as its arcade counterpart but was several times the cost of a Super NES. The Sega CD (the Mega CD outside North America) hardware upgrade to the Mega Drive (Genesis in the US) offered multiple PCM channels, but they were often passed over instead to use its capabilities with the CD-ROM itself.
The popularity of the Super NES and its software remained limited to regions where NTSC television was the broadcast standard. Partly because of the difference in frame rates of PAL broadcast equipment, many titles released were never redesigned to play appropriately and ran much slower than had been intended, or were never released. This showed a divergence in popular video game music between PAL and NTSC countries that still shows to this day. This divergence would be lessened as the fifth generation of home consoles launched globally, and as Commodore began to take a back seat to general-purpose PCs and Macs for developing and gaming.
Though the Mega CD/Sega CD, and to a greater extent the PC Engine in Japan, would give gamers a preview of the direction video game music would take in streaming music, the use of both sampled and sequenced music continues in game consoles even today. The huge data storage benefit of optical media would be coupled with progressively more powerful audio generation hardware and higher quality samples in the Fifth Generation. In 1994, the CD-ROM equipped PlayStation supported 24 channels of 16-bit samples of up to 44.1 kHz sample rate, samples equal to CD audio in quality. It also sported a few hardware DSP effects like reverb. Many Square titles continued to use sequenced music, such as Final Fantasy VII, Legend of Mana, and Final Fantasy Tactics. The Sega Saturn also with a CD drive supported 32 channels of PCM at the same resolution as the original PlayStation. In 1996, the Nintendo 64, still using a solid-state cartridge, actually supported an integrated and scalable sound system that was potentially capable of 100 channels of PCM, and an improved sample rate of 48 kHz. Games for the N64, because of the cost of the solid-state memory, typically had samples of lesser quality than the other two, however, and music tended to be simpler in construct.
The more dominant approach for games based on CDs, however, was shifting toward streaming audio.
MIDI on the PC
In the same timeframe of the late 1980s to mid-1990s, the IBM PC clones using the x86 architecture became more ubiquitous, yet had a very different path in sound design than other PCs and consoles. Early PC gaming was limited to the PC speaker, and some proprietary standards such as the IBM PCjr 3-voice chip. While sampled sound could be achieved on the PC speaker using pulse width modulation, doing so required a significant proportion of the available processor power, rendering its use in games rare.
With the increase of x86 PCs in the market, there was a vacuum in sound performance in home computing that expansion cards attempted to fill. The first two recognizable standards were the Roland MT-32, followed by the AdLib sound card. Roland's solution was driven by MIDI sequencing using advanced LA synthesizers. This made it the first choice for game developers to produce upon, but its higher cost as an end-user solution made it prohibitive. The AdLib used a low-cost FM synthesis chip from Yamaha, and many boards could operate compatibly using the MIDI standard.
The AdLib card was usurped in 1989 by Creative's Sound Blaster, which used the same Yamaha FM chip in the AdLib, for compatibility, but also added 8-bit 22.05 kHz (later 44.1 kHz) digital audio recording and playback of a single stereo channel. As an affordable end-user product, the Sound Blaster constituted the core sound technology of the early 1990s; a combination of a simple FM engine that supported MIDI, and a DAC engine of one or more streams. Only a minority of developers ever used Amiga-style tracker formats in commercial PC games, (Unreal) typically preferring to use the MT-32 or AdLib/SB-compatible devices. As general purpose PCs using x86 became more ubiquitous than the other PC platforms, developers drew their focus towards that platform.
The last major development before streaming music came in 1992: Roland Corporation released the first General MIDI card, the sample-based SCC-1, an add-in card version of the SC-55 desktop MIDI module. The comparative quality of the samples spurred similar offerings from Soundblaster, but costs for both products were still high. Both companies offered 'daughterboards' with sample-based synthesizers that could be later added to a less expensive soundcard (which only had a DAC and a MIDI controller) to give it the features of a fully integrated card.
Unlike the standards of Amiga or Atari, a PC using x86 even then could be using a broad mix of hardware. Developers increasingly used MIDI sequences: instead of writing soundtrack data for each type of soundcard, they generally wrote a fully featured data set for the Roland application that would be compatible with lesser featured equipment so long as it had a MIDI controller to run the sequence. However, different products used different sounds attached to their MIDI controllers. Some tied into the Yamaha FM chip to simulate instruments, some daughterboards of samples had very different sound qualities; meaning that no single sequence performance would be accurate to every other General MIDI device.
All of these considerations in the products reflected the high cost of memory storage which rapidly declined with the optical CD format.
Pre-recorded and streaming music
Taking entirely pre-recorded music had many advantages over sequencing for sound quality. Music could be produced freely with any kind and number of instruments, allowing developers to simply record one track to be played back during the game. Quality was only limited by the effort put into mastering the track itself. Memory space costs that was previously a concern was somewhat addressed with optical media becoming the dominant media for software games. CD quality audio allowed for music and voice that had the potential to be truly indistinguishable from any other source or genre of music.
In fourth generation home video games and PCs this was limited to playing a Mixed Mode CD audio track from a CD while the game was in play (such as Sonic CD). The earliest examples of Mixed Mode CD audio in video games include the TurboGrafx-CD RPG franchises Tengai Makyō, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto from 1989, and the Ys series, composed by Yuzo Koshiro and Mieko Ishikawa [jp] and arranged by Ryo Yonemitsu [jp] in 1989. The Ys soundtracks, particularly Ys I & II (1989), are still regarded as some of the most influential video game music ever composed.
However, there were several disadvantages of regular CD-audio. Optical drive technology was still limited in spindle speed, so playing an audio track from the game CD meant that the system could not access data again until it stopped the track from playing. Looping, the most common form of game music, was also problem as when the laser reached the end of a track, it had to move itself back to the beginning to start reading again causing an audible gap in playback.
To address these drawbacks, some PC game developers designed their own container formats in house, for each application in some cases, to stream compressed audio. This would cut back on memory used for music on the CD, allowed for much lower latency and seek time when finding and starting to play music, and also allowed for much smoother looping due to being able to buffer the data. A minor drawback was that use of compressed audio meant it had to be decompressed which put load on the CPU of a system. As computing power increased, this load became minimal, and in some cases dedicated chips in a computer (such as a sound card) would actually handle all the decompressing.
Fifth generation home console systems also developed specialised streaming formats and containers for compressed audio playback. Games would take full advantage of this ability, sometimes with highly praised results (Castlevania: Symphony of the Night). Games ported from arcade machines, which continued to use FM synthesis, often saw superior pre-recorded music streams on their home console counterparts (Street Fighter Alpha 2). Even though the game systems were capable of "CD quality" sound, these compressed audio tracks were not true "CD quality." Many of them had lower sampling rates, but not so significant that most consumers would notice. Using a compressed stream allowed game designers to play back streamed music and still be able to access other data on the disc without interruption of the music, at the cost of CPU power used to render the audio stream. Manipulating the stream any further would require a far more significant level of CPU power available in the 5th generation.
Some games, such as the Wipeout series, continued to use full Mixed Mode CD audio for their soundtracks.
This overall freedom offered to music composers gave video game music the equal footing with other popular music it had lacked. A musician could now, with no need to learn about programming or the game architecture itself, independently produce the music to their satisfaction. This flexibility would be exercised as popular mainstream musicians would be using their talents for video games specifically. An early example is Way of the Warrior on the 3DO, with music by White Zombie. A more well-known example is Trent Reznor's score for Quake.
An alternate approach, as with the TMNT arcade, was to take pre-existing music not written exclusively for the game and use it in the game. The game Star Wars: X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter and subsequent Star Wars games took music composed by John Williams for the Star Wars films of the 1970s and 1980s and used it for the game soundtracks.
Both using new music streams made specifically for the game, and using previously released/recorded music streams are common approaches for developing sound tracks to this day. It is common for X-games sports-based video games to come with some popular artists recent releases (SSX, Tony Hawk, Initial D), as well as any game with heavy cultural demographic theme that has tie-in to music (Need For Speed: Underground, Gran Turismo, and Grand Theft Auto). Sometimes a hybrid of the two are used, such as in Dance Dance Revolution.
Sequencing samples continue to be used in modern gaming for many uses, mostly RPGs. Sometimes a cross between sequencing samples, and streaming music is used. Games such as Republic: The Revolution (music composed by James Hannigan) and Command & Conquer: Generals (music composed by Bill Brown) have utilised sophisticated systems governing the flow of incidental music by stringing together short phrases based on the action on screen and the player's most recent choices (see dynamic music). Other games dynamically mixed the sound on the game based on cues of the game environment.
As processing power increased dramatically in the 6th generation of home consoles, it became possible to apply special effects in realtime to streamed audio. In SSX, a recent video game series, if a snowboarder takes to the air after jumping from a ramp, the music softens or muffles a bit, and the ambient noise of wind and air blowing becomes louder to emphasize being airborne. When the snowboarder lands, the music resumes regular playback until its next "cue". The LucasArts company pioneered this interactive music technique with their iMUSE system, used in their early adventure games and the Star Wars flight simulators Star Wars: X-Wing and Star Wars: TIE Fighter. Action games such as these will change dynamically to match the amount of danger. Stealth-based games will sometimes rely on such music, either by handling streams differently, or dynamically changing the composition of a sequenced soundtrack.
Being able to play one's own music during a game in the past usually meant turning down the game audio and using an alternative music player. Some early exceptions were possible on PC/Windows gaming in which it was possible to independently adjust game audio while playing music with a separate program running in the background. Some PC games, such as Quake, play music from the CD while retrieving game data exclusively from the hard disk, thereby allowing the game CD to be swapped for any music CD. The first PC game to introduce in-game support for custom soundtracks was Lionhead Studio's Black and White. The 2001 game included an in-game interface for Winamp that enabled the players to play audio tracks from their own playlists. In addition, this would sometimes trigger various reactions from the player's Creature, like dancing or laughing.
Some PlayStation games supported this by swapping the game CD with a music CD, although when the game needed data, players had to swap the CDs again. One of the earliest games, Ridge Racer, was loaded entirely into RAM, letting the player insert a music CD to provide a soundtrack throughout the entirety of the gameplay. In Vib Ribbon, this became a gameplay feature, with the game generating levels based entirely on the music on whatever CD the player inserted.
Microsoft's Xbox allowed music to be copied from a CD onto its internal hard drive, to be used as a "Custom Soundtrack", if enabled by the game developer. The feature carried over into the Xbox 360 where it became supported by the system software and could be enabled at any point. The Wii is also able to play custom soundtracks if it is enabled by the game (Excite Truck, Endless Ocean). The PlayStation Portable can, in games like Need for Speed Carbon: Own the City and FIFA 08, play music from a Memory Stick.
The PlayStation 3 has the ability to utilize custom soundtracks in games using music saved on the hard drive, however few game developers used this function. MLB 08: The Show, released in 2008, has a My MLB sound track feature which allows the user to play music tracks of their choice saved on the hard drive of their PS3, rather than the preprogrammed tracks incorporated into the game by the developer. An update to Wipeout HD, released on the PlayStation Network, was made to also incorporate this feature.
In the video game Audiosurf, custom soundtracks are the main aspect of the game. Users have to pick a music file to be analyzed. The game will generate a race track based on tempo, pitch and complexity of the sound. The user will then race on this track, synchronized with the music.
Games in the Grand Theft Auto series have supported custom soundtracks, using them as a separate in-game radio station. The feature was primarily exclusive to PC versions, and was adopted to a limited degree on console platforms. On a PC, inserting custom music into the stations is done by placing music files into a designated folder. For the Xbox version, a CD must be installed into the console's hard drive. For the iPhone version of Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, players create an iTunes playlist which is then played by the game.
Developments in the 2000s
The Xbox 360 supports Dolby Digital software, sampling and playback rate of 16-bit @ 48 kHz (internal; with 24-bit hardware D/A converters), hardware codec streaming, and potential of 256 audio simultaneous channels. While powerful and flexible, none of these features represent any major change in how game music is made from the last generation of console systems. PCs continue to rely on third-party devices for in-game sound reproduction, and SoundBlaster is largely the only major player in the entertainment audio expansion card business.
Nintendo's Wii console shares many audio components with the Nintendo GameCube from the previous generation, including Dolby Pro Logic II. These features are extensions of technology already currently in use.
The game developer of today has many choices on how to develop music. More likely, changes in video game music creation will have very little to do with technology and more to do with other factors of game development as a business whole. Video game music has diversified much to the point where scores for games can be presented with a full orchestra or simple 8/16-bit chiptunes. This degree of freedom has made the creative possibilities of video game music limitless to developers. As sales of video game music diverged from the game itself in the West (compared to Japan where game music CDs had been selling for years), business elements also wield a new level of influence. Music from outside the game developer's immediate employment, such as music composers and pop artists, have been contracted to produce game music just as they would for a theatrical movie. Many other factors have growing influence, such as editing for content, politics on some level of the development, and executive input.
Impact and importance
Many video game players believe that music can enhance game play and outlets such as Popular Science have stated that it is designed to "simultaneously stimulate your senses and blend into the background of your brain, because that's the point of the soundtrack. It has to engage you, the player, in a task without distracting from it. In fact, the best music would actually direct the listener to the task."
Sound effects within game play are also believed to impact game performance. Ambient sounds such as those present in Resident Evil are seen to enhance the tension felt by players, something that GameSpot stated was also used in cinema. Speeding up the sound effects and music in games such as Space Invaders is also stated to have a strong impact on the gaming experience when done properly. Properly done, this can help create realism within virtuality and alert players to important scenes and information.
Music and sound effects can become memorable, enabling people to instantly recognize music or sound effects as well as hum or mimic the tune or sound effect. Polygon has stated that despite the popularity of video game music, people may not always know the name of the composer.
Using licensed music for video games became more popular as the medium used to distribute games grew large enough to accommodate songs alongside a game's other assets. Additionally, with the large growth of the video game market in the 2000s, song licensing became a lucrative route for music rights holders to gain part of that revenue. Games like those in the Grand Theft Auto series became showcases of licensed music. Music licensing is generally complicated due to various copyright laws, typically with at least two separate copyrights to consider: the songwriters' and the performers' contributions. Most large video game developers and publishers which use licensed music typically have staff proficient in licensing to clear songs for use in video games with the various music labels and other creative persons.
Games with licensed music can have problems well past release if perpetual rights for the music are not secured for the game. Early games before the onset of digital distribution would have perpetual right for the music since there was no practical way to update the game following release at retail to deal with curtailed rights. However, digital distribution platforms, like Steam, Xbox Live, and PlayStation Network keep games up-to-date automatically. Music licenses for games sold through digital distribution may include limited terms, requiring the publisher to re-negotiate rights with the music's owner, or otherwise the music must be removed from the game through these updates. Notably, Alan Wake by Remedy Entertainment, first released in 2010, had to be pulled from digital sale in 2017 due to expiring music rights. However, with Microsoft's help, Remedy was able to re-secure these rights a year later and returned the game for sale. Alpha Protocol by Obsidian Entertainment was also pulled from sale in 2019 due to expiring music license rights, though there are no known plans if publisher Sega will seek to renew these.
Licensed music in video games has also affected video game streaming, such as Let's Play videos. Due to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), most popular video sharing and streaming site implement automatic forms of detecting copyrighted music from most music labels, and flag or block user videos that employ that music, such as YouTube's ContentID system. These actions apply equally to videos of people playing video games, flagging the video from the licensed music in the game. To avoid this, games using licensed music may offer a "stream-safe" music option, either disabling the music playback or replacing the licensed music with copyright-free or royalty-free music.
Game music as a genre
Many games for the Nintendo Entertainment System and other early game consoles feature a similar style of musical composition that is sometimes described as the "video game genre." Some aspects of this style continue to influence certain music today, though gamers do not associate many modern game soundtracks with the older style. The genre's compositional elements largely developed due to technological restraints, while also being influenced by electronic music bands, particularly Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO), who were popular during the late 1970s to 1980s. YMO sampled sounds from several classic arcade games in their early albums, most notably Space Invaders in the 1978 hit song "Computer Game". In turn, the band would have a major influence on much of the video game music produced during the 8-bit and 16-bit eras.
Features of the video game music genre include:
- Pieces designed to repeat indefinitely, rather than having an arranged ending or fading out (they however create an atmosphere, especially in important scenes of the game. They introduce a philosophical dimension in the game, as they may introduce questioning in the mind of players, in relationship with their next action).
- Pieces lacking lyrics and playing over gameplay sounds.
- Limited polyphony. Only three notes can be played simultaneously on the Nintendo Entertainment System. A great deal of effort was put into composition to create the illusion of more notes playing at once.
Although the tones featured in NES music can be thought of emulating a traditional four-piece rock band (triangle wave used as a bass, two pulse waves analogous to two guitars, and a white noise channel used for drums), composers would often go out of their way to compose complex and rapid sequences of notes, in part due to the restrictions mentioned above. This is similar to music composition during the Baroque period, when composers, particularly when creating solo pieces, focused on musical embellishments to compensate for instruments such as the harpsichord that do not allow for expressive dynamics. For the same reason, many early compositions also feature a distinct jazz influence. These would overlap with later influences from heavy metal and j-pop music, resulting in an equally distinct compositional style in the 16-bit era.
In an unrelated but parallel course in the European and North American developer scene, similar limitations were driving the musical style of home computer games. Module file format music, particularly MOD, used similar techniques but was more heavily influenced from the electronic music scene as it developed, and resulted in another very distinct subgenre. Demos and the developing demoscene played a big part in the early years, and still influence video game music today.
As technological limitations gradually lifted, composers were given more freedom and with the advent of CD-ROM pre-recorded soundtracks came to dominate, resulting in a noticeable shift in composition and voicing style. Popular early CD-ROM titles were released with high-resolution graphics and recorded music. Since the audio was not reliant on a sound-card's synthesis, CD-ROM technology ensured that composers and sound designers could know what audio would sound like on most consumer configurations and could also record sound effects, live instruments, vocals, and in-game dialogue.
As the divisions between movies and video games has blurred, so have divisions between film scores and video game scores. Adventure and fantasy movies have similar needs to adventure and fantasy games, i.e. fanfare, traveling, hero's theme and so on. Some composers have written scores in both genres. One noted example is U.S. composer Michael Giacchino who composed the soundtrack for the game Medal of Honor and later composed for the television series Lost and wrote scores for movies such as The Incredibles (2004) and Star Trek (2009).
Outside of video games
Appreciation for video game music is strong among fans and composers, particularly for music from the third and fourth generations of home video game consoles, and sometimes newer generations. This appreciation has been shown outside the context of a video game, in the form of CDs, sheet music, public performances, art installations, and popular music.
CDs and sheet music
Selling video game soundtracks separately as CDs has become increasingly popular in the industry. Interpretive albums, remixes, and live performance albums were also common variations to original soundtracks (OSTs).
Koichi Sugiyama was an early figure in this practice, and following the release of the first Dragon Quest game in 1986, a live performance CD of his compositions was released and performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra (then later by other groups including the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra, and NHK Symphony). Yuzo Koshiro, another early figure, released a live performance of the Actraiser soundtrack. Both Koshiro's and fellow Falcom composer Mieko Ishikawa's contributions to Ys music would have such long lasting impact that there were more albums released of Ys music than of almost all other game-type music.
Like anime soundtracks, these soundtracks and even sheet music books were usually marketed exclusively in Japan. Therefore, interested non-Japanese gamers had to import the soundtracks and/or sheet music books through on or offline firms specifically dedicated to video game soundtrack imports. This has been somewhat less of an issue more recently as domestic publishers of anime and video games have been producing western equivalent versions of the OSTs for sale in UK and US, though these are often for more popular titles. Video game music companies like Materia Collective have pursued and produced published book editions of video game music.
The sale of video game soundtracks has created a growing symbiotic relationship between the music industry and the games industry. Commonly, games are being used to promote and sell licensed music, rather than just original score, and recording artists are being used to market and sell games. Music marketing agency Electric Artists conducted a study that revealed a number of interesting statistics surrounding ‘‘hard-core gamers’’ and their music habits: 40% of hard-core gamers bought the CD after hearing a song they liked in a video game, 73% of gamers said soundtracks within games help sell more CDs, and 40% of respondents said a game introduced them to a new band or song, then 27% of them went out and bought what they heard. Some game soundtracks have become so popular they have reached platinum status, such as NBA Live 2003.
Many original composers have publicly exhibited their music through symphonic concert performances. Once again, Koichi Sugiyama was the first to execute this practice in 1987 with his "Family Classic Concert" and has continued these concert performances almost annually. In 1991, he also formed a series called Orchestral Game Music Concerts, notable for featuring other talented game composers such as Yoko Kanno (Nobunaga's Ambition, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Uncharted Waters), Nobuo Uematsu (Final Fantasy), Keiichi Suzuki (Mother/Earthbound), and Kentaro Haneda (Wizardry).
Following suit, compositions by Nobuo Uematsu on Final Fantasy IV were arranged into Final Fantasy IV: Celtic Moon, a live performance by string musicians with strong Celtic influence recorded in Ireland. The Love Theme from the same game has been used as an instructional piece of music in Japanese schools.
With the success of Square's 1990s games Final Fantasy VI, Final Fantasy VII and Final Fantasy VIII by Nobuo Uematsu, and Chrono Trigger, Xenogears and Chrono Cross by Yasunori Mitsuda, public performance began to gain international popularity. On August 20, 2003, music written for video games such as Final Fantasy and The Legend of Zelda was performed for the first time outside Japan, by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra in a Symphonic Game Music Concert in Leipzig, Germany at the Gewandhaus concert hall. This event was held as the official opening ceremony of Europe's biggest trading fair for video games, the GC Games Convention and repeated in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007.
On November 17, 2003, Square Enix launched the Final Fantasy Radio on America Online. The radio station has initially featured complete tracks from Final Fantasy XI and Final Fantasy XI: Rise of Zilart and samplings from Final Fantasy VII through Final Fantasy X.
The first officially sanctioned Final Fantasy concert in the United States was performed by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, California, on May 10, 2004. All seats at the concert were sold out in a single day. "Dear Friends: Music from Final Fantasy" followed and was performed at various cities across the United States. Nobuo Uematsu has also performed a variety of Final Fantasy compositions live with his rock band, The Black Mages.
On July 6, 2005, the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra also held a Video Games Live concert at the Hollywood Bowl, an event founded by video game music composers Tommy Tallarico and Jack Wall. This concert featured a variety of video game music, ranging from Pong to Halo 2. It also incorporated real-time video feeds that were in sync with the music, as well as laser and light special effects. Media outside the video game industry, such as NPR and The New York Times, have covered their subsequent world tours.
On August 20, 2006, the Malmö Symphonic Orchestra with host Orvar Säfström performed the outdoor game music concert Joystick in Malmö, Sweden before an audience of 17,000, holding the current record of attendance for a game music concert. Säfström has since continued to produce game music concerts around Europe under the names Joystick and Score.
From April 20–27, 2007, Eminence Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra dedicated to video game and anime music, performed the first part of their annual tour, the "A Night in Fantasia" concert series in Australia. Whilst Eminence had performed video game music as part of their concerts since their inception, the 2007 concert marked the first time ever that the entire setlist was pieces from video games. Up to seven of the world's most famous game composers were also in attendance as special guests. Music performed included Red Alert 3 Theme: Soviet March by James Hannigan and Shadow of the Colossus by Kow Otani.
Since 2010, video games-themed "pops" concerts have become a major proportion of the revenue in many United States concert halls, as traditional classical music performances decline in popularity.
On March 16, 2012 the Smithsonian American Art Museum's "The Art of Video Games" exhibit opened featuring a chipmusic soundtrack at the entrance by artists 8 Bit Weapon & ComputeHer. 8 Bit Weapon also created a track called "The art of Video Games Anthem" for the exhibit as well.
In popular music
In the popular music industry, video game music and sounds have appeared in songs by various popular artists. Arcade game sounds had a particularly strong influence on the hip hop, pop music (particularly synthpop) and electro music genres during the golden age of arcade video games in the early 1980s. Arcade game sounds had an influence on synthpop pioneers Yellow Magic Orchestra, who sampled Space Invaders sounds in their influential 1978 debut album, particularly the hit song "Computer Game". In turn, the band would have a major influence on much of the video game music produced during the 8-bit and 16-bit eras.
Other pop songs based on Space Invaders soon followed, including "Disco Space Invaders" (1979) by Funny Stuff, "Space Invaders" (1980) by Playback, and the hit songs "Space Invader" (1980) by The Pretenders and "Space Invaders" (1980) by Uncle Vic. Buckner & Garcia produced a successful album dedicated to video game music in 1982, Pac-Man Fever. Former YMO member Haruomi Hosono also released a 1984 album produced entirely from Namco arcade game samples entitled Video Game Music, an early example of a chiptune record and the first video game music album. Warp's record "Testone" (1990) by Sweet Exorcist sampled video game sounds from YMO's "Computer Game" and defined Sheffield's bleep techno scene in the early 1990s.
More recently, "video game beats" have appeared in popular songs such as Kesha's "Tik Tok", the best-selling single of 2010, as well as "U Should Know Better" by Robyn featuring Snoop Dogg, and "Hellbound" by Eminem. The influence of video game music can also be seen in contemporary electronica music by artists such as Dizzee Rascal and Kieran Hebden. Grime music in particular samples sawtooth wave sounds from video games which were popular in East London. English power metal band DragonForce is also known for their "retro video game influenced" sound.
Video game music education
Video game music has become part of the curriculum at the degree, undergraduate, and graduate levels in many traditional colleges and universities. According to the Entertainment Software Association, there are over 400 schools offering courses and degrees in video game design in the United States, many of which include sound and music design. Berklee College of Music, Yale University, New York University, and the New England Conservatory have all introduced game music into their music programs. These programs offer immersive education in music composition, orchestration, editing and production. Other post-secondary schools have more games-focused programs, such as DigiPen Institute of Technology, Columbia College Chicago, and Academy of Art University, who all offer programs in Music and Sound Design. These programs include courses in sound effect creation, interactive sound design, and scripting music.
Similar programs have gained popularity in Europe. The Utrecht School of the Arts (Faculty of Art, Media and Technology) has offered a Game Sound and Music Design program since 2003. The University of Hertfordshire has a program in Music Composition and Technology for Film and Games, Leeds Beckett University offers Sound and Music for Interactive Games, and dBs Music Bristol teaches Sound for Games and Apps.
Extracurricular organizations devoted to the performance of video game music have also been implemented in tandem with these new curriculum programs. The Gamer Symphony Orchestra at the University of Maryland performs self-arranged video game music and the Video Game Orchestra is a semiprofessional outgrowth of students from the Berklee College of Music and other Boston-area schools.
According to the National Association for Music Education, video game music is now being taught at elementary and secondary school levels to aid in the understanding of music composition. Students at Magruder High School in Montgomery County, Maryland have even started a student-run gamer orchestra, and many high school bands perform game music.
Academic research on video game music began in the late 1990s, and developed through the mid 2000s. Early research on the topic often involved historical studies of game music, or comparative studies of video game music and film music (see, for instance, Zach Whalen's article "Play Along - An Approach to Videogame Music" which includes both). The study of video game music is also known by some as "ludomusicology" — a portmanteau of "ludology" (the study of games and gameplay) and "musicology" (the study and analysis of music) — a term coined independently by Guillaume Laroche and Roger Moseley.
A prominent figure in early video game music and audio research is Karen Collins, who is associate professor at the University of Waterloo and Canada Research Chair in Interactive Audio at the University of Waterloo Games Institute. Her monograph 'Game Sound: An Introduction to the History, Theory and Practice of Video Game Music and Sound Design' (MIT Press 2008) is considered a seminal work in the field, and was influential in the subsequent development of video game music studies.
The Ludomusicology Research Group is an inter-university research organisation focusing on the study of music in games, music games and music in video game culture, composed of four researchers: Michiel Kamp, Tim Summers, Melanie Fritsch, and Mark Sweeney. Together they organise an annual international conference held in the UK or Europe (at the time of writing, the most recent was the Ludo2017 conference held at Bath Spa University). The group was founded by Kamp, Summers and Sweeney in August 2011, who have also edited a collection of essays based around the study of game sound entitled Ludomusicology: Approaches to Video Game Music, published in July 2016. They also edited a double special issue of The Soundtrack and initiated a new book series for the Study in Game Sound and Music in 2017. In September 2016, Tim Summers' book 'Understanding Video Game Music' was published by Cambridge University Press. Fritsch officially joined the group in 2016. She had edited the 2nd issue of the online journal ACT - Zeitschrift für Musik und Performance, published in July 2011, which included ludomusicological contributions written by Tim Summers, Steven B. Reale and Jason Brame. She had been a regular at the conferences since 2012 and published several book chapters on the topic. Whereas Kamp, Summers and Sweeney have a background in musicology, Fritsch's background is in performance studies.
The North American Conference on Video Game Music (NACVGM) is an international conference on video game music held annually in North America since 2014. It is organised by Neil Lerner, Steven Beverburg Reale and William Gibbons.
In late 2016 the Society for the Study of Sound and Music in Games (SSSMG) was launched by the Ludomusicology Research Group in conjunction with the organisers of the North American Conference on Video Game Music and the Audio Mostly conference. The SSSMG has the aim of bringing together both practitioners and researchers from across the globe in order to develop the field's understanding of sound and video game music and audio. Its focus is the use of its website as a "hub" for communication and resource centralisation, including a video game music research bibliography (a project initially begun by the Ludomusicology Research Group).
The Ludomusicology Society of Australia was launched by Barnabas Smith in April 2017, during the Ludo2017 conference in Bath, UK; it aims to "offer a centralised and local professional body nurturing game music studies for academics, people in industry and game music fans alike in the Australasian region."
Creating and producing video game music requires strong teams and coordination among the different divisions of game development. As the market has expanded, so have the types of jobs in game music. The process often starts with the game designer, who will have a specific musical theme or genre in mind for the game. Their options include contracting original composers or licensing existing music, both of which require other music experts.
During the arcade and early console era (1983 to the mid 1990s), most game music was composed by full-time employees of the particular game company producing the game. This was largely due to the very specialized nature of video game music, where each system had its own technology and tool sets. It was not uncommon for a game company like Capcom or Konami to have a room full of composers, each at their own workstation with headphones writing music.
Once the CD-era hit and studio recorded music became more ubiquitous in games, it became increasingly common for game music to be composed by independent contractors, hired by the game developer on a per-project basis. Most bigger budget games such as Call of Duty, Mass Effect, Ghost Recon, or Lost Planet hire composers in this fashion. Approximately 50% of game composers are freelance, the remaining being employees of a game company. Original score and soundtrack may require the hiring of a Music Director, who will help create the game music as well as help book the resources needed for performing and recording the music. Some music directors may work with a game's Sound Designer to create a dynamic score. Notable exceptions include composer Koji Kondo, who remains an employee at Nintendo, and Martin O'Donnell, who worked at Bungie until early 2014.
The growth of casual, mobile and social games has greatly increased opportunities for game music composers, with job growth in the US market increasing more than 150% over five years. Independently developed games are a frequent place where beginning game composers gain experience composing for video games. Game composers, particularly for smaller games, are likely to provide other services such as sound design (76% of game composers also do some sound design), integration (47% of game composers also integrate their music into audio middleware), or even computer coding or scripting (15%).
With the rising use of licensed popular music in video games, job opportunities in game music has also come to include the role of a music supervisor. Music supervisors work on behalf of a game developer or game publisher to source pre-existing music from artists and music publishers. These supervisors can be hired on a per-project basis or can work in-house, like the Music Group for Electronic Arts (EA) that has a team of music supervisors. A music supervisor is needed to not only help select music that will suit the game, but to also ensure the music is fully licensed in order to avoid lawsuits or conflicts. Music supervisors may also help negotiate payment, which for artists and songwriters is often a one-time buy out fee, because games do not generate music royalties when they are sold. A growing trend is to contract artists to write original songs for games, to add to their value and exclusivity, and once again supervisors can be a part of that process.
Since the mid-2000s, video game music has been recognized in a number of award shows, though some categories have been short-lived. The MTV Video Music Award for Best Video Game Soundtrack ran from 2004 to 2006. Additionally, for only one year in 2006, MTV offered an award for Best Video Game Score.
From 2010 to 2011, the Ivor Novello Awards has included a category for Best Original Video Game Score. The 2010 award winner was Killzone 2 (composed by Joris de Man), and in 2011, Napoleon: Total War (composed by Richard Beddow, Richard Birdsall, and Ian Livingstone).
In 2011, video game music made its first appearance at the Grammy Awards when "Baba Yetu", a song from Civilization IV, won the 53rd annual music awards' Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocalists, making it the first video game music to be nominated for (or to win) a Grammy. The song won for its placement on Christopher Tin’s album Calling All Dawns, but had been used in the game six years prior.
In 2012, the Grammy Awards included video game music as part of its Visual Media Awards, expanding the category to include Motion, Television, Video Game Music, or Other Visual Media. In the same year the soundtrack for Journey was nominated for the Best Score Soundtrack For Visual Media category. The four Visual Media awards are Best Music for Visual Media, Best Compilation Soundtrack for Visual Media, Best Score Soundtrack for Visual Media, and Best Song Written for Visual Media.
In 2014, Hollywood Music In Media introduced their own award show that celebrates three video game categories – Original Score, Song, and Song/Score for Mobile Video Game.
Other video game awards include the International Film Music Critics Association (IFMCA) award for Best Original Score for Interactive Media and Machinima.com's Inside Gaming Awards for Best Original Score and Best Sound Design. Past winners include Olivier Deriviere for Remember Me and James Hannigan for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
The expansion of the video games industry led to the creation of a video game award show, which included a few categories in music. From 2003 to 2014, the Spike Video Game Awards celebrated game music with awards for Best Soundtrack, Best Song in a Game, and Best Original Score. When the Spike Video Game Awards were cancelled, they were replaced by The Game Awards, which offers an award for Best Score/Soundtrack.
In addition to recognizing the composers of original score, the Guild of Music Supervisors offer a GMS Award to the music supervisors that select and coordinate licensed music for video games. Past winners include Brandon Young and Katie Byam for Guitar Hero Live and Laura Katz and Gregory J. Gordon for Sunset Overdrive.
Fans also make their own song remixes and compilations, and have built online remixing communities through the ease of internet distribution.
Japanese dōjin music scene is notable for producing albums of arranged videogame music which derived from popular retro franchises such as Mega Man, Chrono Trigger or Final Fantasy, from dōjin games, such as Touhou Project, studio Key visual novels and When They Cry series, from popular franchises on Comiket, such as Type-Moon Fate series or Kantai Collection. There have been over six thousand dōjin albums of Touhou Project music released.
- Circuit bending
- Game rip (audio)
- IEZA Framework
- List of video game musicians
- List of video game soundtracks released on vinyl
- Music video game
- OverClocked ReMix
- Video Games Live
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