Duane Decker

Credits:
- Mechwarrior 4
- Rise of Nations
- Rise of Legends

 

Official website

 

Composer Duane Decker's work includes the famous Mechwarrior series as well as the strategy title Rise of Nations. We talked to him about scoring for games and television, the commercial release of game scores and the future of the industry.

Hi Duane, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started in the video game music business?

Hi Oliver. Thanks for the opportunity to speak on your web site!

I’ve been playing music since I was 8, professionally since I was 13. I spent many years on the road touring with original rock acts and my solo act. I spent a few more years as Product Specialist for synthesizer manufacturers. I learned a lot about both music and technology throughout those years. Games began coming out of the stone age in the early 90’s and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. So I took a job at Premier Technology as in-house composer. I composed and produced over 13 Gottlieb pinball games while there. I was then fortunate to find a job with FASA Interactive as Composer/Sound Designer. After some PC game success with MechWarrior, MechCommander and location based entertainment for Virtual World and Walt Disney Imagineering, the company was acquired by Microsoft. I worked as Audio Lead for Microsoft Game Studios for over 4 years and continued to compose and produce music for several successful titles including MechWarrior 4, MechCommander 2 and Rise Of Nations. As the business model for game development become more like film production where music is contracted out, I decided that the writing was on the wall. So I left Microsoft and formed my own music production company in 2003. Since forming DDMusic LLC, I’ve composed and produced more game music, movie promo libraries and a few television ads.

 

Let’s talk about Mechwarrior 4: Vengeance. How did you get involved in that project?

MW4 was one of the first projects that the FASA team developed for Microsoft. Since I had been the Composer/Producer on MechCommander and the composer on MechWarrior 3, I was given the opportunity to compose the soundtrack for MechWarrior 4.

 

The score is a mixture of orchestra and synthesizer. How much freedom were you given to choose the style of the score?

There was a lot of controversy between team members about the style of music that should be used in MW4. Some wanted rock, others wanted classic film score, still others wanted techno. As a composer, you always try to satisfy everyone - your boss, the producers, the publisher, the team and ultimately the players who buy and play the game. With MW4, I tried to come up with a musical style that would solve that issue and hopefully push the envelope a bit. At that time, there were few games that used live orchestras and even fewer that released the soundtrack as a separate product. I hope that I came up with something that was fairly original and provided some emotional impact.

 

Parts of the score were performed by real instruments. Did you enjoy working with live players? How much does the overall composing process differ when using a live orchestra as opposed to a sampled score?

The MW4 score was the first game that I had the privilege and budget to work with an orchestrator and live session musicians. Believe me, there is no greater thrill for a composer than to hear your music come alive in the studio, played by world-class musicians.

If the style of music I am composing is to be recorded by a live orchestra, I use only orchestral samples. If the style warrants other instruments, I use a bigger palette of samples in the score. In any case, the electronic score sounds very close to the final orchestral mix.

 

One of your latest projects is the strategy game score Rise of Nations. How did you approach the strategy genre musically? How did you handle the problem of repetition of music in games?

Rise Of Nations was interesting because it was my first project that had no past. I didn’t have to worry about the legacy of what had been done before. It was an open slate. We originally discussed licensing world music for the game. Thankfully, the developer (Big Huge Games) decided that the game needed a custom score and I was excited to be commissioned to score a new franchise. It became apparent that I needed to accomplish two things: 1) Combine world music with movie style background scoring; and 2) Compose a wide enough variety of music from around the world to cover the vast territory that the game would cover.

This approach addressed both issues – composing a strategy game soundtrack and having enough music to not appear to be repetitious. I say “not appear to be repetitious” because it is a fact that there is never enough space on CD, DVD, hard drive, or resources to include enough game music. Music is usually the last consideration for space in a game. Yet the average game is played for over 50 hours. Rise Of Nations allowed me to compose on a wide stylistic palette so that repetition was less of an issue.

 

The score has been released in Dolby Digital 5.1. Are you planning to release your future scores as well? In 5.1?

Music transmits emotions - whether or not it includes lyrics. I am a fan of so many types of music that I couldn’t imagine a place that wouldn’t value all kinds of music. I love to listen to artists’ interpretation of the world around them. Sometimes it’s beautiful, sometimes disturbing. It’s a chronicle of the human condition, our innermost feelings and our simplest emotions. Commercial releases of game, film and TV soundtracks bring the listener back to the original experience they felt when playing the game or watching the film or TV show. I hope to have more of my music appear on soundtrack albums but that’s up to the publisher (Microsoft Game Studios), since they own the copyright to the music.

The 5.1 question goes much deeper. At the time we released the Rise Of Nations soundtrack, there was a lot of positive buzz about surround sound and I was really excited about the format. I am still a true believer in the format. Unfortunately, surround has not caught on with music lovers as we had hoped. In fact, music is now being compressed even more and delivered via iPods on headphones. While it’s great to carry your music collection around in the palm of your hand and listen to it anywhere you go, it’s not the ultimate musical listening experience.

I think film DVD’s and game consoles will continue to sustain and even push the surround format forward for home theatre systems. But there doesn’t seem to be enough support for surround sound in the “music only” format releases to justify the extra cost of production. Only time will tell.

 

You’ve also written music for movie and television. How would you compare movie and game scoring?

To clarify, I have written music that has appeared on TV shows, TV advertising and promo music for films that are seen/heard on TV, radio ads and trailers. I have also scored a number of shorter format cinemas and videos. Despite some interesting prospects in the near future, I have yet to score a full length, theatrically released film. That said, I love seeing the action and story unfold while scoring to picture. It is easier in some ways than scoring a game where you have to imagine the action. On the other hand, you can be more creative and push the limits when scoring games. I enjoy composing for either format.

 

Have you ever considered moving from game scoring to movie scoring - and if "yes" would you consider the move a permanent one for you?

I would love to compose film scores, but I would not want to give up game scoring. Film/TV and games are two very different animals. Film/TV is a linear format – the story is the same every time the viewer sees it and therefore can be scored knowing exactly what will happen. The emotional landscape can be plotted down to a single picture frame. Games on the other hand, are non-linear and the player chooses how the story will unfold. Both formats have their advantages and disadvantages to the composer. I would love to be involved with both formats because each presents their own challenges and rewards.

 

Are you pleased that your scores are being discussed / compared with film scores? For many years the direction for "crossing over" has been from game scores to movie scores (e.g., Giacchino), but more recently movie composers have gone the other way (e.g., Schifrin, Elfman & Shore). Any thoughts as to why this latter flow is happening?

It’s an honour for my work to be compared to film scores and set along side some of the finest composers of our time. I have learned volumes from studying the works of people like John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith, Michael Kamen, etc. The film industry has been around for over 100 years, while the game industry has only been around for a few decades. There is a lot to learn from films, while also pushing into new directions because games have a unique, non-linear format.

It also makes sense that film composers would get involved, on some level, with scoring games. They certainly have higher profiles than game composers and their names might add to the marketing efforts of a project. As games continue to compete with films for customers discretionary dollars, top games now have the budget to commission top film composers. These composers are more likely to take on game projects when the revenue is similar to what they would make for their film work. I think the competition for work, whether games, TV or film, makes us all better composers.

On the other hand, film composers may not be as well versed in the idiosyncrasies of non-linear story telling as game composers. While there are a significant amount of similarities to scoring a linear project, there are just as many unique qualities that make scoring a game unique.

 

Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?

I would like to think that we will get closer to the “interactive experience” that we have all been trying to attain for so many years. The appeal of games is that the player controls the story. I am hoping that we will keep refining the music scoring process to address all the issues that arise from this random storytelling process.

 

Is there any particular type of music that you prefer to compose?

I have a few “comfort zones.” Orchestral film style and rock are what I have done the most. It’s always good to push out into new directions however. It’s always inspiring to tackle a different musical genre and combine what you know with what’s new. It can be very exciting.

 

What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?

The most difficult task for a game composer is creating a world from only a concept. While you might have scripts, storyboards or artwork from the developer, tying in music to support the storyline and game play is sort of like playing three dimensional chess. The score needs to make sense on a lot of different levels.

Oddly enough, that’s also one of the enjoyable things as well. A game composer has a lot of freedom to explore, try new things and push the boundaries.

 

What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player right now?

I was raised in a musical family, so I grew up appreciating a wide variety of musical styles. I love to hear almost all styles of music -- if it is performed by talented artists. I also find that if you explore new and different styles of music, your musical tastes will expand. You will start to appreciate and enjoy a wider array of music.

My CD player rarely has the same music in it from play to play. The world of music is too big and fascinating to limit yourself to just one style.

 

What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?

Every project I’ve worked on has had its good points and bad. Usually, the project I’m working on at the time is my favourite. I guess that’s how I’ve kept my enthusiasm for music throughout my life. That, and the fact that I have always wanted to make “this project” the best thing I’ve ever done. I’d like to look back when I’m really old and be proud of what I’ve done and proud that I’ve entertained a whole lot of people along the way.

 

What would be your dream project?

I’d love to be involved with a project that makes a positive, indelible impression on people’s lives. It has been a privilege to work on so many projects that have reached a world-wide audience. I hope that I will get a chance to contribute to many more projects that not only entertain, but also contribute to the human spirit.

 

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on the music score for “Rise Of Nations: Rise Of Legends”, which is the next game being developed by Big Huge Games. My experience with them and Microsoft Game Studios (the publisher) has been outstanding. I’m excited about being involved with such a talented team and know that all the time and effort spent on the project is well worth it.

 

Do you play PC or console games yourself?

I do play, but I must admit that my son can almost always beat me in multiplayer mode. I try to immerse myself in whatever game I’m composing. I also enjoy the short bursts of adrenalin you get from racing games.

 

Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t cover?

First off, thanks again for the opportunity to be interviewed for your web site. I hope it proves to be interesting to your readers.

I also want to say that this is a very competitive business. If any of your readers are thinking of becoming composers, I’d like to offer a small bit of advice. While it has been a real challenge for me to chase my dream of being a composer, the dream came true for me. Work at your craft like it is an obsession because it takes that kind of commitment to succeed. Knock on every door to find work. When a door opens, pursue it like it is the last thing you will ever do in your life. And never give up. Life is too short to give up on your dreams…

Visit me on my web site. www.duanedecker.com

 

Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.