Hi Michael, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started in the video game music business?
When I was graduating college, I had a keen interest in writing music for electronic games. But at that time the state of the technology was rather dismal. Composers tended to be lumped together with sound designers and audio programmers. One music director I spoke to asked me if I knew how to program Yamaha FM synthesizer chips (!). That sounded far too much like legitimate work, and upon reflection I realized I was really most interested in orchestral scoring. So I focused on film music instead, and did some work in that area for a number of years.
But as fate would have it, I was offered a position as in-house composer and audio director at a startup entertainment company called Zoesis Studios, where I ended up working for a number of years. I wrote music for a number of CD-ROM and web-based games and had a lot of fun. By the end of my stint, game audio and aesthetics had matured considerably, and live production started to become popular, so my interest was piqued again. Today as a freelancer I work in both traditional media– film and TV – as well as games.
Your latest project is Empire Earth II for Mad Doc Software. How did you get involved in that project?
I’d known the founders of Mad Doc for a number of years, and in fact I knew the company’s president and CFO back in college. But I wasn’t aware they had started a game company until around a decade later, when I learned that their headquarters was a few miles from where I was working at the time. I sent them a demo of some of my orchestral film work, and they brought me aboard to score one of their earlier projects, Jane’s Attack Squadron. We did a modest symphonic score with an orchestra in Prague . The producers were pretty happy with the results, and brought me back for Empire Earth II.
How would you describe the score and what aspect of it are you most proud of?
Both Mad Doc and I wanted something big, exciting and apocalyptic. The distinguishing feature of the Empire Earth series, which makes the games so replayable, is their spanning of so many ages of human civilization. You start out throwing rocks at the enemy, and end up piloting mechs and dropping nuclear bombs. The music, correspondingly, had to give a sense of grand scope, and evoke a sense of an struggle that’s lasted throughout all of history.
For the menu music and score for the opening cinematic, I took some inspiration from the historical-epic film scores of the 1960s, as well as their spiritual descendants such as Basil Poledouris’ fantastic score for the original Conan film. I brought in a chorus to evoke the sense of scope and drama. In one of my more artsy-fartsy moments, I wrote a miniature Latin poem for the chorus, taking the POV of one of the countless warriors that the player directs towards certain doom. The lyrical refrain is the old maxim morituri te salutant – we who are about to die, salute you. It felt pretty appropriate.
We also wanted the score to reflect the particular nations and cultures involved in the game, particularly those in the single-player campaigns and scenarios: Germany , Korea, the US ,and the Middle East . So I gave each of these cultures their own signature theme and instrumentation. The German theme is anthemic and brass-intensive. The Koreans have a more Eastern-flavored melody for strings and woodwinds. The United States’ theme is martial and optimistic. (If you play to the end of the US campaign, the final victory music also reprises the game’s central theme in a grand finale.) The Middle Eastern theme starts as a sparse solo for Armenian duduk, then blossoms into full symphonic form. Each theme develops with its corresponding nationality; when you start the Korean campaign in prehistoric times, you hear the Korean theme on a bamboo flute and native percussion. At the end of their campaign, where the Korean people have fulfilled their destiny as a nation, the theme is reprised by the full orchestra.
As for where I’m most proud… well, I’m a melodist at heart. I tend to be most pleased when I write themes that I like to listen to after the project’s done, and I think did a decent job here. I’m particularly happy with the Korean and Middle Eastern themes.
How did you approach the scoring for a strategy game? What is the balance between ambient and thematic cues?
We emphasized the thematic cues, which play during cinematic sequences and campaign briefings. Ingame music conists of ambient cues written for small ensembles of indigenous instruments, meant to suggest the culture of whatever nationality is under player control. So during a game played as a Far Eastern nationality, the ingame music employs a Chang-ko (a Korean hourglass drum), daegum and shakuhatchi flutes, and similar instrumentation. We recorded the indigenous instruments back in L.A. with some studio musicians who are specialists in this kind of work. They did a bang-up job.
Did you enjoy working with a real orchestra? How much does the overall composing process differ when using a live orchestra as opposed to a sampled score?
I love working with the live orchestra, and try to bring in live musicians on any project where a symphonic score makes sense. There is no comparison of even the best sample libraries to the sound of the real thing. I bend over backwards trying to put together live production scenarios that can accommodate my clients’ budgets, because the end result is so much better. Sometimes that means recording overseas, because although L.A. studio musicians are the best of the best, they’re also beyond the budgetary scope of some game projects. I’ve been lucky to work with some phenomenally talented musicians in Budapest and elsewhere who have allowed me to provide symphonic scores for several projects that couldn’t otherwise have afforded one.
When working for a live orchestra, I use an old-school writing methodology, writing with pencil on scoring pad. I then make sampler mockups for the clients to review. I find that orchestral writing works best when you think in terms of the orchestra, drawing from your own perceptual memory of what the orchestral can do, rather than your immediate awareness of what your samplers can do. It’s best not to just improvise into a sequencer in these cases, because you’re robbing yourself of the many capacities of the live orchestra that can’t be reflected by samplers. (Though to be fair, today’s sample libraries sound pretty astounding.)
By contrast, when working with samplers, I use the sound palette as a starting point. Samplers and live ensembles both have different capabilities and limitations, so it’s important to write for the medium in which one is working.
You’ve also worked on Day of Defeat. What can you tell us about that project?
I wrote menu music and victory music for three different nationalities – United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany. What was especially fun here was writing the UK music, where we used a live bagpipe player. I had recently come from a tour of Scotland where I had watched a piper demonstrate the instrument. I had no idea I’d be putting that experience to practical use a few months later!
You’ve also written music for film and television. How would you compare movie and game scoring?
They’re related experiences that draw from some of the same instincts, but are also very distinct from one another in several respects. The core difference is that film and TV scoring is very deterministic – you’re accompanying a fixed sequence of events, and tend to work with the director to fine-tune every moment of music and its relationship to the visuals. Game scoring by contrast is by nature non-deterministic, because the game experience is partially defined by the player. Unless working on a cinematic sequence, a game composer is scoring a feeling or mood, rather than a fixed scene.
One thing I love about game scoring is the artistic freedom it offers. Film and TV cues are tightly constrained by the nuances of the visuals – and if there’s a last-minute edit, you need to be ready to slice and dice your music to accommodate it. In game projects I’ve been told to “do something really cool that’s about two minutes long”. And that’s a composer’s fantasy: being able to write an entire piece along a certain set of dramatic guidelines. And game music is typically very intense and dramatic, which I find very appealing. You generally don’t have game music cues called “3M5 - Bob Waits For The Bus In The Rain, Contemplating His Divorce”. Not that I don’t like scoring introspective or contemplative scenes, but it’s fun to have something adrenalized and exciting to work with.
But game music gives the composer an additional responsibility, which is writing music that’s going to work for a variety of different situations. Part of the game composer’s challenge is thinking through the score, so it will make sense for whatever ingame events transpire. This takes a lot of active imagination and foresight, and a sense of what the gameplay experience is like for a player.
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?
First of all, I hadn’t heard about that till just now, but that’s very nice to know! Some of the music that most moves me comes from the film music repertoire.
I think a reason for big-name composers doing game work is that games are finally becoming mainstream, and the game industry is eager to emulate the scope and success of big film projects. One way to do this is to bring in as many creative and production elements from the film world as possible, and respected composers such as Elfman and Howard Shore must be very attractive prospects to game developers. These guys are veterans of huge ambitious projects, so they’re bringing in not just artistic vision but a tremendous amount of practical experience as well. This crossover phenomenon isn’t new, either: I remember that Bruce Broughton did a CD-ROM score back in the 90s, for example.
I think great film composers can make great game composers, provided they’re aware of and respect the differences in the two media.
Where do you see game music in five to ten years from now?
As the game business continues to grow and become more mainstream, I suspect it will follow a path comparable to that of film. There will be a lot of pressure to create blockbusters that will capture a large market segment, a la World of Warcraft. Bigger projects will involve larger development teams and longer production cycles. As a great deal of time and money will be invested in the success of these projects, creative decisions will be made by committee, and guided by marketing philosophy and established precedent. This means that game scores will often be written by composers with an established association with financially successful projects. Pop songs with perceived marketing clout will continue to play large roles in game soundtracks as well.
I dearly hope that game music doesn’t become subject to the same temp-track phenomenon that hit film music, where film scores start to blend and become indistinguishable from each other because composers are asked to imitate the scores from other, successful films.
One thing we can rely upon to maintain the quality of both games and game music is the notorious discrimination of game players. Gamers are unforgiving of mediocre quality, and that’s a wonderful thing. This means that there will always be a reward for good game design, and that creativity and innovation will always be an asset. And good game developers care about game music, because they know firsthand the kind of impact it has on the gameplay experience.
What is, in your opinion, the most difficult / challenging / enjoyable task when composing for a video game?
Thinking through the score’s reactivity. As I mentioned above, the score has to work as a system, not as accompaniment to a set of static scenes. A composer needs to imagine gameplay for a product that might still be in alpha, and anticipate possible transitions, changes, and shifts of mood. This is especially true when doing live music production, where it’s difficult to make substantive changes at the last minute. Memories of past gameplay experiences can be a composer’s best guide here.
What other composers / musical styles have had the greatest influences on you? What is in your CD-player right now?
My strongest influences come from film music. I was in my formative years when the original Star Wars trilogy came out, and I think John Williams’ scores kind of imprinted upon my impressionable young mind. I can listen to the most pedestrian moment in any of the Star Wars scores – Jabba the Hutt doing his taxes, or whatever – and still love every second of it. Other favourites include James Horner (particularly with respect to his older works), Jerry Goldsmith, Thomas Newman, Rachel Portman, Miklos Rosza, and Franz Waxman.
In the “legit” music world I’ve been strongly influenced by the late 19 th century nationalist romantic composers. Mussorgsky, Dvorak, Suk, Grieg, Rimsky-Korsakoff, and that crowd. They had a talent for unpretentious dramatic expression, and especially for orchestration. Prokofiev too, for similar reasons. I love their incorporation of folk music idioms into the symphonic language. This parallels how much influence pop music has on today’s symphonic writing.
On the popular music front, my tastes are more eclectic. I have favourites from the dawn of swing music to contemporary electronica. I grew up listening to progressive rock and 80s synth pop, so I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for bands like Genesis and The Cars.
In my CD player right now is Lalo Schifrin’s score for “Caveman”. It’s a little-known score, but a hoot.
What is, so far, your favourite project you’ve worked on?
The next one I’m hired for, of course!
What would be your dream project?
I’d love to do a big science fiction score. For a film, for a game, for a laundry detergent ad, whatever. Just let me at it. Subjects based in fantasy or mythology also have a big appeal. You can see why I enjoy game scoring so much.
What are you currently working on?
At this moment I’m back on the film side of things, writing a score for a feature film called Siren. I did recently do something game-related, and wrote theme songs for a gaming industry podcast called Gaming Steve. We did a Motown/soul music approach, which was a tremendous amount of fun. Half the show’s audience is too young to appreciate it, and I think they want to kill me. Hopefully they won’t recognize me in public.
Do you play PC or console games yourself?
I think you have to be a game player to write effective game music. I’ve been a gamer since childhood, when I was an Atari 2600 junkie. I used to write text adventure games for the Commodore 64, and even wrote a primitive Ultima-style game from the Amiga computer called Zerg. (No relation to the Starcraft race.) You can still find it if you poke around the web.
These days I have a dedicated gaming PC, and an Xbox. I’m something of an RTS junkie. When prepping for Empire Earth II I ended up spending embarrassing chunks of time “researching” the original. I’d start to play around 10pm , look up, and wham, it would be five in the morning.
Is there anything you’d like to say that I didn’t cover?
Just the obligatory self-endorsement. Your readers are invited to hear my music at my website, http://mikemusic.com/ , or visit my just-launched professional blog, http://mikemusicradio.com/ . They can also freely download the Empire Earth II score from the game’s website.
Thanks again and good luck on your future endeavours.
Thanks for the interview!