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Video-Game Music: Better Than Film Scores?

An interview with video-game music composer John Debney

11 min read

”Music in Video Games: Surpassing the Scope of Film Scores” --that was the title of a keynote talk given at the 2008 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco by composer John Debney. Last year, Debney set film work aside to score the hit video game Lair , because he believes composing for video games is the better gig these days. It's a surprising idea coming from someone who has won three Emmy Awards and in 2005 was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Score. There's more: the video-game community, more so than Hollywood, ”is where a lot of the more imaginative people reside right now.” The week before the February speech, Debney spoke by phone from his recording studio in Southern California to IEEE Spectrum Senior Associate Editor Steven Cherry.

IEEE Spectrum: I wonder if you could talk about the differences between film music and game music generally, and then the difference that it makes for the composer.

John Debney: The single greatest difference between the two disciplines that I see right now is the time frame. In Hollywood right now, we're in an environment of tremendous cost cutting because of technologies that make it really easy for the director to change a film all the way through the postproduction process. It's really made it quite difficult for the composer. Postproduction schedules are very much accelerated. So the composer has to be very adept at making changes, very quickly and at every step of the way.

For the one video game I've done so far, Lair , it was a totally different process. The composer is hired, starts to work, and then there are large tracts of time where the video game is gestating, and different areas of the game are getting finalized. It's a much longer period of time from start to finish, more like a year, or even two years for certain games. In the film world it's the exact opposite--how quickly can you get it done? The whole process has been, in the film world, scrunched down.

So the creative process in writing for games is potentially a much more leisurely affair, a much more creative affair, because the composer gets a longer time to try things out or to write other kinds of melodies for different areas of the game. So in structure they're really quite different, although the compositional process is what it is. It's the same in both disciplines.

Spectrum: I'm a little surprised. I had assumed that scoring a movie was more of a back-and-forth process, that you look at the script, or at least the treatment, and you start getting some ideas, and it's generally more iterative. And then in postproduction you see much of what will be the actual movie and fine-tune the music. But it's not like that.

JD: It's not like that, and I'm so glad that we're talking about this. I think that it might be an eye-opener for many people. I certainly wish it were more like what you're describing. It does happen. There are certain clients one works with, hopefully, in the film business, and it becomes an intimate process. The composer can come on early, can definitely be a part of the process of reading the script, of writing music while they're filming. But I must tell you that in my life, that might be one time out of 10. The other 90 percent has been much the opposite.

Hollywood, because of its belt-tightening for the last few years now--it's truly about shrinking budgets, shrinking time frames, coming on later in the process, as we've said, so you're really thrown into the fire very quickly and have to be very nimble. On top of that, there's a new phenomenon in Hollywood, the new or first-time director.

So it helps if you're a seasoned composer because you can jump in, and knowing that you have four to five weeks to write a score, you jump in and open your individual bag of tricks--you hit the ground running. Whereas what you're describing was once really more the norm, truly in the past five to 10 years it has taken a turn for the worse, in my opinion.

Spectrum: If you were at an earlier point in your career right now, or if you were advising a composer who was at an early point, it sounds like this would be a big reason to go for a game instead of a film.

JD: Absolutely. The fact is, video games eclipse the film business. The video-game business--I'm looking at the statistics right now--in 2007, revenues were up 43 percent to nearly US $18 billion. Film, by contrast--I don't want it to sound like the film business is not doing well; it actually is--film revenue was at a record high for 2007, that being $9.6 billion.

[Editor's note: Industry statistics vary wildly for both games and film. For example, the Motion Picture Association of America has put worldwide 2007 box office revenues at $26.7 billion, making it twice the size of gaming. One thing is clear: games are growing much faster than movies--more than twice as fast, according to a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers study, which also predicted that the worldwide video-game market will be worth $46.5 billion in 2010.]

So when you look at both as a whole, the gaming business is double what the film business is. And I think most analysts think it's going to continue to surpass the film business. Where the film business used to drive the game business, I think it's the opposite now. I think that the gaming business as a whole is driving film. You're going to continue to see more and more movies based on games, just for that reason.

Getting to your question, I think the opportunity for young and upcoming composers is tremendous. I certainly would highly recommend young composers see if they can get a couple of games under their belt. It's a tremendous training ground too. I mean, I'm hearing wonderful scores coming out.

Spectrum: It also sounds like the process is going to be much more agreeable for the young composer who can't just reach into the bag of tricks and whip out something in four weeks.

JD: Correct. I want to make it clear: obviously, I haven't done 30 games. I've only done one. But from what I glean and from what I hear, it's just a much different process. I would liken the game-composing process to scoring an animated feature. When I do a feature for Disney, I'll go in and be writing scenes very early. Many times we'll score one or two animated reels of a film and then months can go by as they develop more of the film. It's a process more similar to what the video-game process is.

Spectrum: You mentioned wonderful game scores. Could you name a few?

JD: An old friend of mine--actually a guy I knew, interestingly enough, in the television arena, Garry Schyman--won an award with the score for BioShock . I thought it was a terrific composition. There is a team of composers that wrote for the God of War franchises. This newest God of War really sounded terrific.

There are people like Jack Wall and Tommy Telerico who are writing really, really wonderful scores. And let's go back couple of years ago to a guy who is flourishing now in the film business, Michael Giachinno. I was first blown away by Michael's work in--is it Medal of Honor or Call of Duty ? That sort of thing made me take note, a number of years ago, that the quality of the scores was just jumping up and getting better and better very quickly, using live ensembles, much bigger production values, orchestras, and live choirs. In the last 10 to 15 years, maybe even the last 10 years, the quality has really just jumped up light-years, at light-year speed.

Spectrum: The music industry itself is in quite a bit of turmoil. Breaking in new acts and taking them up to the superstar level are harder and harder nowadays. Things like film and even television--a band can get a break by just appearing in a Buffy episode--

JD: That's true.

Spectrum: --so film and game composing seems like it must be more and more important nowadays.

JD: Well, it is. You've hit on one of the biggest problems in popular music right now. The record companies are going by the wayside. Technology again is transforming the whole business. And yet where there are these tremendous new sources of revenue for bands or for composers, I also think there is a potential pitfall, which is that of loss of identity and uniqueness.

So this would also be part of my advice to composers or bands: we need to find our own voices and try to be as unique as we can. One of the problems of the last few years with film scoring--because of the tremendous constraints and time pressures and budget constraints I've mentioned--film scoring by committee has become more popular. It has inherent in it the trap of sameness: songs and scores sounding similar to one another. Let's remember the creative side. Let's bear in mind that it's also an art form.

Next: Game-composing: a 3-D puzzle

Spectrum: Are there technical differences in composing for a game?

JD: I would say structural differences. The technical sides are pretty similar, in terms of the way the music is presented or the way the music is recorded. But structurally, a video game is much more of a big puzzle. You have to write pieces of music that can fit with other pieces of music that are disparate from what you intended. There's a distinct art or a technique in video games that one has to observe too. It's more segmented. For one thing, it's used in a much bigger time frame. A gaming title--let's say it's 82 hours of game play. One has to bear that in mind as a composer.

With a film, you write a given piece of music, and it's supposed to be in a given place in the film. And it will lead chronologically into another piece of music. Gaming is horizontal and three-dimensional--you've got to make some music work as the game changes. You have to make sure that your music can change with what's happening in the game. In other words, it's a different technique of writing. The game is much more of a 3-D puzzle; in the film it's more of a linear, chronological approach.

Spectrum: I go to a lot of movies, and I hardly play games at all, so this is probably a naive question: Are there aesthetic differences as well? In a movie, frequently you're setting a mood or evoking a mood or some other moment in the film because of an emotion. Does the same thing happen in a game, or is it more narrative and action-oriented?

JD: No, that's a great question. I think the lines are blurring. We're finding that for a lot more games now, instead of a lot of action and no narrative, you're getting a lot of narrative. In Lair , the game I did, there are many more set dramatic moments and pieces and areas of the game where you sit back and watch these little minimovies playing in front of you. They give you the context of why you're going to go into battle or what the circumstances are that have led up to a given set piece. I think that's wonderful.

Again, the lines are getting very, very blurred. Many of these newest games that are coming out, these minimovies, though they're only a few minutes long, are really quite sophisticated. They have a wonderful score, they give you the characters, you're introduced to the world and the conflicts within that world. So by intent, the video-game designers want this to be more of a visceral, filmlike experience. That's a wonderful thing, because it adds depth and dimension to the video-game experience. It's getting much more filmlike!

Spectrum: So, correspondingly, film music used to lend itself much more than games to individual songs that could be released on a CD or even broken into the Top 40, and not so much for games. Is that changing too?

JD: Yes. As they're getting more sophisticated, games are going to need more, as it were, real dramatic scoring. Now you've got love stories and back stories and political intrigue stories. I think again, it makes it more interesting, more fun for the composer, and potentially a better listening experience.

There's been a wonderful advent of gaming concerts, which are becoming hugely popular--which, by the way, hasn't happened as much in the film arena. Guys like Jack Wall and Tony Telerico are presenting game music on the concert stage, and they're wildly successful. I just think it's a tremendous thing, and the film business could take note.

That's one example of where--and I hazard to say this--but I think the video-game community as a whole is where a lot of the more imaginative people reside right now. I think that's just a fact. When you look at the fare that Hollywood is producing and then you look at some of what the video-game community is producing, it's quite different in terms of just the sheer imaginative quality of the product. That's something that Hollywood really needs to look at, and I think they are starting to do that.

Next: Follow the money

Spectrum: The title of your talk is ”Music in Video Games: Surpassing the Scope of Film Scores.” Have we covered all of the ways in which game scores are surpassing film scores?

JD: This is a very important aspect that you may not be aware of--and a lot of game composers are not aware of--and that is the pay scale, the business side of composing for video games. It's far behind the curve of the film industry.

In the game-composing world, the game composer makes his deal based on a fee per minute of music. That's the norm, to my understanding. That means, for the most part, a finished piece of music, be it synthesizer only or synthesizer with some live complement of musicians. And on the face of it, it sounds like a good payment. But it's really not, because the video-game composer does not participate in any royalty structure. Once you're paid, that's it. It's a work for hire; it's a buyout.

That's got to change, given that the video-game business has surpassed the film business now by 2 to 1--US $18 billion versus $9 billion. This is why, many, many years ago, the composer societies, ASCAP and BMI, were established. ASCAP--that's the one I'm a member of--is an advocate for the musician, for the artist, whether a songwriter or a composer. It's imperative, now that the video-game business has grown to these soaring heights of success, that there be some kind of a royalty schedule for game composers.

Games like Halo that sell millions and millions of units should start looking at how to compensate the artist fairly--the artist and, by the way, perhaps other people who are involved in the creative team. This is normal in film and television. This is why some of the best and brightest composers want to get into film and television. Let's say you do a hit series; that hit series can go on for many years, and the composer is paid royalties quarterly and yearly for the public performance of their music.

So that's a huge, huge financial difference between these two worlds. One can make a very handsome living doing a television show. Conversely, you could do--and I'm not singling out the guys that did Halo , but let's say it's a game like Halo that sells in the millions of units--is it fair that a composer writes, say, 60 minutes of music and makes $60 000 for a work that will last years and years and years? I don't think it's fair. And I think as time goes on, video-game companies should come up to the plate and look at that.

Now, there's got to be a different, probably a much different formula, for how we can benefit from that. But now that this world is growing in leaps and bounds, the composers should also be able to participate in some of the profit margin. It's only right.

Spectrum: Was that a fair example, by the way--60 minutes, $60 grand?

JD: I'm glad you asked that. I kind of just said that out of you know where. My understanding is that the fees are anywhere from just that, from $1,000 a minute to $2,000 a minute. I'm not an expert. That's something you may want to check out. It's been my understanding--that has been the figure that's been thrown out there.

Spectrum: And what would be a typical film deal?

JD: Film deals are much different. Film deals usually have nothing to do with the per-minute count. They're usually based on the stature of the film composer you're going to hire. For example, John Williams is at the very top--he's the crème de la crème--he's going to make the very highest fee that film composers can make. And let's say another film composer who's just starting out is going to make far less than that. And it's based on other factors as well. The budget of the film, for one thing.

And I like it that way, by the way, because the per-minute count--for me--takes some of the artistry and the creative juice out of it. Because if I'm working on a beautiful little movie that has 10 minutes of music, you know, 10 minutes could be extremely important. It could be an Academy Award�caliber film. So then I don't want to be paid for 10 minutes of music; I want to be paid for my artistic contribution. And I think that's the way it should be.

So this idea, it's an old formula that the video-game community has come up with. Writing music for an animated series was sort of like that. I did that in my youth. You'd get a per-minute fee. It was like wham, bam, thank you ma'am, you don't own any of this, you can't participate in royalties. And I would guess that that was, in effect, the business model that early video games had. And they probably didn't know any better--by the way, I'm not blaming the video-game developers; it just was a different approach. And they probably never dreamed in their wildest dreams that video games would become, as they are today, this huge behemoth of money and creativity.

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