Tips: Break into Video Game Music

Music Industry Tips: Do's and Don'ts of Breaking into Video Game Music

You’ve got the best speakers you can afford, the latest plug-ins and you’ve spent years building your skills. You like the idea of writing video game music, but don’t know how to get started. With so many choices and unknowns out there, here are game composer Chris Lines’ top tips for what to do and what not to do.

Stop Buying Plug-Ins
You need your music to sound great, but if you go down the plug-ins rabbit hole, you truly will never come out. There are so many lovely EQ's, fx and sample libraries out there, it can be a full-time job just keeping up. Make sure you have the basics covered and then move on. Playing around with plug-ins is fun, but a huge distraction. And the worst part is, you’ll think you’re working hard.

Stop Hanging Out With Composers
Yes, you may have some friends who are composers, and maybe they want to work in games too. It can certainly be handy to swap tips and stories from the front line. I do this myself. But guess what, they aren’t going to employ you! Your time would be better spent getting to know (and even be friends) with people in the video game industry. I know, right… scary. But just think about the sense it makes for a moment.

Educate Yourself
When you are offering your services as a composer in film, TV or games, you need to know something about the industry you are entering. Games are especially intimidating for new composers, either because they aren’t gamers themselves, or because they are scared to death by the interactive music scores they’ve heard so much about. Guess what, there’s a whole wealth of books, blogs and videos online to help you learn. And if you don’t play games, you should start. You don’t need to buy a console yet, download Steam and buy a few games you like the look of. As well as educating yourself, you’ll start to develop a taste for what games you actually like.

Always Be Ready
Make sure you know what equipment you do have, and know it well. So you’ve never looked at Scarbee’s Funk Guitarist that came with Kontakt? Well, spend an evening looking at the manual, watching some videos online and actually learn how to use it. Sure, you may only use it every so often (unless you write a lot of Pop or Funk), but you’ll be thankful when the time comes. Equally, make sure your speakers are in-phase, you know how to export your music in various different formats and that you are confident what comes out of your studio sounds good on lots of other systems. You want to be ready when the time comes without struggling with the basics of how to get things working.

Get Out Of Your Studio
Nothing is as valuable as meeting people face to face. Email is fine, but Skype is so much better, and the best is in person. Getting away from your desk and meeting game developers in person will help you no end. It will also boost your confidence as you’ll slowly start to become part of the industry. Force yourself into your discomfort zone at least a few times a month. If you live anywhere near a major city, you have no excuse.

Learn On The Job
I see it a lot online, where composers are so worried about getting their knowledge or skills up to scratch, they won’t dare throw their hat into the ring until they are “ready.” Yes, we all know video games can sometimes use complex music systems, but you don’t need to know all this stuff on day one. There are plenty of small games out there being made which will need little more than a few looping tracks. The chances of you landing your first gig and having to work on a complex audio system are pretty small. And guess what, if you do somehow land a job scoring the next Batman, you can stay up for a week or two and learn the damn software you don’t yet know.

Don’t Default To One Style Of Music
This will differ depending on your musical path so far, but getting a gig scoring a game when you are brand-new is hard enough. I would argue that you are limiting your chances even more if you are going to say you will only write in a specific genre. You don’t need to be able to write in every conceivable style, but try out a few styles you wouldn’t normally write in. Apart from giving you the experience, you will also then have a starting palette of sounds for that genre should you be asked.

Actually Ask For Work
Every job I’ve ever got has been through directly reaching out to a developer whose work I’ve liked. It’s hard work in the trenches––you have to get out there and HUSTLE! Pitch game developers all the time, and not just anybody––actually spend the time researching the games you like. You’ll need to do it a lot; I have Excel files hundreds and hundreds of lines long with developers I’ve contacted. Most came to nothing, but some did! There is a silver lining to this approach too, the more potential clients you have, the less precious you will get about their replies.
Don’t Default To Free
A lot of composers post adverts linking to their Soundcloud page and offering to work for free. If you offer your music for free, you’ll probably be classed the same as every other composer offering free music––a commodity. In a way, you would stand out more being the most expensive. (I once heard a developer say this to a composer.) Now I’m not suggesting you should do this, but hopefully you get the point. Act like a professional and charge what you are worth. It might be that a lot of developers walk away––fine, that’s just the cost of being in the game (no pun intended!). Now free does have its place under very specific circumstances, but just don’t feel that in order to work in games you have to be the cheapest.

Take Big, Bold, Daily Action
Thinking, planning and dreaming have their place, but these activities aren’t going to get you where you want to be. What’s the thing you’re most scared to do, the bravest action that would mean you taking the bull by the horns? That’s probably your next best step. It could be posting your music online for everyone to hear (although this is unlikely to get you anywhere). More likely, it’s contacting game developers directly, letting them know you exist and that you’re available for hire.

CHRIS LINES has over 20 years experience in the music industry. He has written music for a number of games, most notably The Haunt. He also has a site to help composers trying to break into video game music: gamecomposeradvantage.com.