We had the opportunity to sit down with Chance Thomas, Author of Composing Music for Games on the day after he received the first shipment of his book – a book he has been working on for more that 3 years (and gathering data for more than 20 years!) It was an exciting day, and one the Game Audio community has been awaiting for months! The book SOLD OUT on Amazon on the first day it was released! It should be back on the shelves now – so be sure to check it out! To learn a bit more about his process in writing the book, read on!
If you are going to be attending GDC, be sure to check out the end of the article which has an announcement about how and where you can meet Chance in person at the show!
Designing Music NOW: Chance! Thanks for joining us to talk about your new book, Composing Music For Games. We think this will be a super valuable resource for our readers and can’t wait to learn more about it. But before we dig into your book, what is this new VOID project you’ve been working on? We keep hearing the most amazing things about it!
Chance Thomas: Ah yes, the VOID… Tactile VR built over physical environments. It is the most exciting thing I’ve ever experienced in entertainment. They debuted at the TED conference a couple of weeks ago to rave reviews from EVERYONE, including a couple people you might recognize…
We are having such a blast doing the music and sound. What’s interesting, and relevant for this conversation, is that the same game scoring principles and techniques outlined in my book are the exact principles and techniques we’re using to bring The VOID to life. Film scoring methodologies simply don’t work. Because of the unpredictable nature of the VR timeline, we use scoring blocks, layers, ambient sets – all of the things I teach inside my book.
It’s becoming clear that the rising tsunami of VR and AR is engulfing us all. As creatives, we all welcome it. And those composers who understand the game scoring principles, techniques and technologies outlined in the book will have a HUGE advantage over those who don’t. If young composers today are only studying film scoring, then the VR tsunami has already passed them by!
DMN: So your book is relevant for composers wanting to work in VR and AR?
DMN: How did the idea for writing the book come about?
CT: The idea came about as a result of my frequent speaking engagements at universities and music schools throughout the country. I meet hundreds of students with enormous talent, intelligence and desire. But very few have any idea how to equip themselves for success in this field. At the time, there was no textbook, no guidebook. I was acquainted with Caitlin Murphy of Focal Press, and I approached her with the idea of producing just such a book. She loved the idea, and off we went! Thankfully, there are now two other excellent books which have come out in the interim, A Composer’s Guide To Game Music by Winifred Phillips and Writing Interactive Music for Video Games by Michael Sweet.
DMN: When did you start working on your book?
CT: I started my manuscript back in 2013, although I had been developing the underlying principles and techniques for over a decade. The book was actually finished last summer, but my publisher went through a merger, an acquisition, restructuring — even the editor who brought me onboard was let go. For a while I wondered if my book would ever see the light of day! So I was very relieved when this box finally showed up at my house!
DMN: The question could be asked, why train up your competition? Why give away all your secrets?
CT: I grew up with the game industry. I’ve spent 20 years struggling in video game music, testing, learning, failing, succeeding, inventing and reinventing along with the rest of my peer group. Together, we have brought game music to a pretty good plateau. But as a profession, we can’t stay put. If I can impart what we’ve learned to the rising generation, then they can start their journey higher up the ladder than we did. Which means they can take game audio to new places we never even imagined. And that’s a very exciting prospect.
DMN: You collaborated with a wide variety of people for your book, from game audio professionals to people like Warren Buffet. Can you share some quotes from your collaboration that you learned from during this process?
CT: Here are a few of my favorites:
“It takes twenty years to build a good reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” Warren Buffet.
“It’s always easier to be a character than to have character.” Neil A. Maxwell.
“You don’t close a sale, you open a relationship.” Patricia Fripp.
“First, do no annoying.” Marty O’Donnell.
“A rising tide lifts all boats.” Tommy Tallarico, paraphrasing John F. Kennedy.
DMN: Great quotes! What about some of your own quotes? Have you coined any phrases that you hope will be especially meaningful for readers? Could you give us 10 examples?
CT: Sure. I think authors strive for memorable and meaningful quotes in the same way that a composer strives for memorable and meaningful themes. Time and reader response will tell if I hit or missed! So here we go…
- “All puzzles yield to persistent effort.”
- “While the player is playing the game, a great music score is playing the player.”
- “Music scoring is a language. It is a codified means of communicating ideas to the human mind. It is knowable, learnable and repeatable.”
- “A great theme is a nifty memory hook for human emotions.”
- “First contact is the opening of potential’s doorway, the courting of unimagined possibilities.”
- “It is always, always, always and forevermore amen about the client. The client! THE CLIENT!!!”
- “Understanding even basic steps of implementation can shine a light into this particular black hole, revealing it to not be a black hole at all. Rather, it is a workshop of wonder, where powerful moments of gameplay magic are forged.”
- “Editing can be like plastic surgery for the score. Done tastefully and with great skill, it can restore damage and enhance the musicality of a recording. If taken too far, it can create an artificial sense of sterility or vacuousness. When done clumsily it can even warp the music into a misshapen oddity.”
- “Dishonesty is disastrous in any form.”
- “Grasping current techniques is important. Sparking innovation may be even more important. Today’s methods are only the beginning.”
DMN: Let’s talk about tools for a moment. Do you spend any time in your book on implementation? For example, how important is it to understand audio middleware such as FMOD and WWISE?
CT: Very important. In almost every case, knowing these tools makes you more valuable to a developer. But there’s definitely a steep learning curve. That scares some people off. In dealing with implementation, I wanted to provide a set of rocket boots to readers, so they can blast right through those learning curves. To do that, I created targeted project assignments which require both FMOD and Wwise to complete.
Next, I partnered with Indiana University and professor Norbert Herber to produce a series of training videos which walk readers successfully through each project assignment. As a result, readers see how principles and practices outlined in chapters 2-3, find expression through techniques introduced in chapters 4-5, and achieve delivery through implementation learned in chapter 8. I favor this comprehensive, core-to-stratosphere approach in my teaching. I think readers will benefit in progressing from the theoretical to the practical to the technical. This kind of didactic is employed throughout the text.
Here are the links to watch those videos online. Readers can also download standalone versions of each video from the book’s website, including the corresponding files so they can duplicate the processes on their own workstations.
DMN: Why so many pictures, charts and other kinds of graphics in your book? No other book on the subject even comes close.
CT: Although I make my living with my ears, I realize that most people have an incredible sense of visual orientation. As a result, I think the right image can convey reams of understanding.
Here’s an example. In an early chapter I compare video game music to Tinkertoys, and talk about how composers can connect a series of musical building blocks together in various ways to build an incredibly sophisticated music score. Text alone doesn’t really convey the vast potential of this scoring approach. But the right picture makes the idea abundantly clear!
Other images are both fun and educational. For example, in the section on contracts, I discuss indemnification clauses and how powerful companies intimidate composers into signing ridiculsouly broad agreements, requiring a lone composer to protect a billion dollar corporation against any and all claims and allegations – not just actual breach, but even potentially frivolous accusations. This picture gets the point across and makes me smile too!
I include a number of charts and templates which readers can use to help them think through a music design, organize their project and even reach out with a cold-call email. There are a large number of resources like these in the book, with downloadable templates available from the book’s website.
Pictures can pierce our sensitivities too, bringing us to a depth of “getting it” which words alone can’t reach. For example, I found that in chapter 12 (Lifestyle Management), it was much more effective to show you the horrifying results of substance abuse than to simply talk about it.
Finally, there are lots of smart and talented people who contributed to this book, and I like including their pictures so readers can feel a connection to them while reading what they have to say. And truly, the collective wisdom and insights drawn from these superstars is both unprecedented and extraordinary!
DMN: Where can people pick up a copy of your book?
CT: Amazon is probably the best bet. Although they sold out of the first shipment within a day after it was released, they are restocking even as we speak. Here’s the link.
DMN: Thanks so much! And let’s not forget GDC. For those attending the conference, CRC Press is holding a book signing event with Chance Thomas on Thursday, March 17 at 3:00 pm.