Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

2 June, 2007

Weekend Design Challenge: Music
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 2:59 AM

Let’s go cross-disciplinary this week. Let’s think about designs that involve music.

Some of my thoughts below the jump.

I’m a but unusual for a designer. (Cue the chorus of “You can say that again!”) I never got into playing a musical instrument, unlike other designers that have CDs for sale on their sites. I actually tried to get into music in middle school, but music practice was during class, and I got engrossed in the class and forgot to attend my music class at school. (Plus my parents never really appreciated me practicing the clarinet at home, so….) But, I’ve always liked music. I just spent a bit of time putting music onto my Pocket PC, which serves as a glorified MP3 player these days. In college, I had a huge CD collection, and I still buy a fair amount of CDs. I like an eclectic types of music, with favorites in just about every genre. (EXCEPT “new country,” that’s teh sux.)

In most games, the music works best by not being noticeable. We notice if a loop is too short or is played too often, and it often starts to annoy us. In many games we go to the menu and turn off the music as soon as we get into the game. Sometimes it takes a few hours for the music to start grating our nerves. Thankfully, more and more modern games are starting to pay more attention to music and are starting to make exceptional music. I really enjoyed the operatic type scores in the old Heroes of Might & Magic games.

However, it’s interesting how music plays a very large part of many games. The fabulous Katamari games are even more fun for the strange collection of music that is included on the games. Most people who have even watched someone play it can probably hum the theme song right now. (And, those of you who will have it stuck in your head for the rest of the day: you are welcome. ;) The quirky music added to the overall quirky nature of the game and made it a lot more enjoyable, in my opinion.

Another game that used music to good effect was Rez. It was pretty strongly focused on electronica music, but the way that enemies made sounds when they died and added to the background music was pretty neat. Most people mentioned how the soundtrack was almost collaborative with the player adding to it by just playing the game.

Of course, there are the rhythm games that are are so popular these days. DDR, Samba de Amigo, and the more recent Guitar Hero all feature music as an important part of the game. The game would be a lot less interesting without the music in most cases.

So, discuss a design that involves music in a novel way. Perhaps a new style of rhythm game, or something that allows players to create their own music while playing a game. What are your thoughts?

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  1. For a while now I’ve wanted to see a fighting game that had a rhythm game component, where by performing moves in time with the music you’d get some kind of bonus or style points or something. I’m not quite sure how you could balance the fighting and rhythm portions of the game and not have one overshadow the other though.

    Comment by Vargen — 2 June, 2007 @ 8:27 AM

  2. I’m with Vargen on this one: music choreographed with battle. Either you can move in sync with the music and gain bonuses, or maybe your movements create sounds so a good player will sound quite melodic.

    I have to say that while I like games where the music changes depending on circumstances, if it’s done badly it sucks. e.g. every time you start a fight a certain song plays then mysteriously cuts out afterwards.

    I wonder if there’s a way for musicians to find games more appealing.. maybe in MMO’s they can actually compose their own bard music to go with the bard spells.

    Comment by Jpoku — 2 June, 2007 @ 11:26 AM

  3. Jpoku wrote:
    I wonder if there’s a way for musicians to find games more appealing.. maybe in MMO’s they can actually compose their own bard music to go with the bard spells.

    Jason Booth is a musician and former MMO designer. He worked on the music system in Asheron’s Call 2 that allowed for a lot of creativity, or so I read. (Jason’s now at Harmonix and worked on Guitar Hero and now the upcoming Rock Band.)

    Raph also wanted to put the ability to compose music into Star Wars Galaxies, but he said that legal nixxed that idea due to potential copyright infringement. People might “compose” a popular song still under copyright, and given the nature of MMOs that could lead to all sorts of problems more than someone sitting in a house strumming that song on their guitar.

    The Grand Theft Auto games spent a lot of money licensing appropriate music, or so I’ve heard. So, it is possible to license soundtracks, but that can get expensive for people on a budget.

    Anyway, I do like the idea of a choreographed battle. That would be pretty cool, although you’d have to worry a bit more about simultaneous attacks.

    Keep up the good work. :)

    Comment by Psychochild — 2 June, 2007 @ 12:39 PM

  4. One of the most annoying game soundtracks I have ever heard was the orchestral madness of Total Annihilation. At first it wasn’t that bad, but when you played the game for a few hours it started to drive you totally mad. Some of the best soundtracks I have ever heard were on quite old games. The best ever is and will always be the soundtrack of “Xenon II: Megablast”. The Commodore 64 also had a few games with excellent music. Everybody who has owned a C64 probably remembers Commando!

    Comment by Videogame Biscuit — 3 June, 2007 @ 6:32 AM

  5. Here’s my idea notebook entry for May 26th:
    idea: a call-and-response game where you are an African slave in the fields and you participate in a call-and-response singing. The goal could perhaps be to become the leader in the call-and-response, though I would expect that the role cycled around. I’ll have to investigate the history. Since the slaves can’t talk to each other, the leader must be self-organized by the group. If one person tries being the leader and calling, the strength of their support by the group could be measured by how many people choose to respond. Any one person’s support would be based on several factors, such as how well the candidate sings and responds, the past record of who’s been leader if they are trying to enforce a cycle, and if they have a grudge or like the person particularly.

    So it is a social dynamics game. It could also be a rhythm game as well. You start off not knowing the songs, which appear as rhythmic sequences of button presses which you must imitate for the response. It’s partly a memory game, like the electronic handheld Simon, and also a rhythm game and a social game. And it could be a serious game.

    Sound interesting?

    Comment by axcho — 3 June, 2007 @ 12:31 PM

  6. Elite Beat Agents for the DS took rhythm games in a different direction that Wii and PS3 could abuse due to gyroscopic controllers. The game is addictive and done well, and their mechanic of having you trace things on the beat could be used in fighting games to get things done by a creative developer.

    Accordion Hero takes the Guitar Hero concept (‘play’ an instrument) to a different level that I imagine other companies will try to follow.

    AS to something new so you can steal all my uber design ideas… How about a game that isn’t focused on music, but uses algorithmically generated music matched to player actions as a means of adding flavor/feel to the project? Take the fighting game since Vargen threw it out there.

    What if each attack category was tied to a certain musical idea.. punches are high tempo and Major key notes. Kicks are low tempo Minor key notes, blocks are low tempo Major key notes and jumps/moves are high tempo Minor key notes. Each arena could have a preference for Major or Minor notes specifically (tied to a damage reward, or perhaps the destructible elements in the level only crumble from attacks of the proper key). Each enemy could be weak to a specific tempo.. the more of that tempo you keep, the higher your damage bonus goes.

    This way players are encouraged to keep to a specific key and tempo if they want to have all the perks and do it easy. Or, if they are hardcore they can play the fight deliberately avoiding those very same things so they are running a little weaker than they normally would.

    I’m a Community Manager, so I don’t know if that’s good design, but it’s an idea!

    Comment by Grimwell — 3 June, 2007 @ 8:54 PM

  7. OMG POst moderation???

    Comment by Grimwell — 3 June, 2007 @ 8:54 PM

  8. OMG POst moderation???

    Nope, you got caught by the spam filter, you dirty spammer. I fished it out, though.

    BTW, if this happens again, just drop me a quick email.


    Comment by Psychochild — 3 June, 2007 @ 11:52 PM

  9. A very interesting use of music was planned for the game “The City of Metronome” by Swedish developer Team Tarsier. The game’s hero was able to record music and sounds on a strange device he carried with him, and could then modify and play the recording to solve puzzles or to fight. In one sequence, he recorded a yelping puppy, pitched down the sound and created a “monster dog” effect he could use to scare away enemies. In another sequence, he recorded a lullaby and used it elsewhere to put an enemy guard to sleep.

    Here’s a screenshot showing him recording

    Unfortunately “City of Metronome” is currently on hold because the devs could not find a publisher for this ambitious and strange project. :-(

    Comment by Kay — 4 June, 2007 @ 11:43 AM

  10. Grimwell, I actually did that dynamic music with a fighting game thing with my game Braids. Flash is pretty weak when it comes to sound, and I’m not much of a composer, but it’s an interesting prototype.

    You should be able to find the game from the link on my name. I don’t want to post a direct link because this post will probably get filtered out.

    Comment by axcho — 4 June, 2007 @ 11:05 PM

  11. I dedicated an entire blog to this last year. I’ll list some highlights, but the blog is here:

    One of the things that makes the most sense to me is the use of leit motifs (themes specific to story objects). MMOs have long given environments a musical theme, but I’d like to see characters given themes. John Williams does this all the time, like with Luke Skywalker’s theme or Vader’s. He also uses motifs to signify important moments in story progression, like the way he uses the main Harry Potter theme. The simplest way to work a motif into an MMO is to repeat an epic quest theme at the onset of each quest leg, to reinforce the feeling of it being one epic quest and not a serious of mildly connected tasks.

    Something else I haven’t seen used well in an MMO is silence. As your party delves deeper into a dark, damp dungeon, the music fades…very slowly, so the player doesn’t notice. You hear every drop of water from the ceiling, every crackle of the lamp, and get goosebumps when you hear movement around the corner. When the attack comes, a lack of combat music forces you to concentrate on the horrible sounds the monster is making while it howls and claws; or you might hear the necromancer chanting a curse, or a cleric praying for intervention, etc. The volume of sound effects and filters applied to them (like reverb) could be manipulated to enhance the effect.

    A third possibility is folk music. Folk music can take many forms (lively, laments, protests, etc), but it acts as a cultural and historical identifier. This might be something as simple as a lone NPC musician or there might be a full band of locals playing in a corner. Smart use of folk music could go a long way in distinguishing settings from one another, as well as informing the player about the local character and conditions. Protest songs could put the player on edge, and provide an introduction for NPC dialogue. But one of the most important factors in pulling this off is to have a composer who can compose in many styles.

    There are some more ideas in that old blog. I considered vying for a game audio designer/composer position a couple years ago (composing ability is one thing, but recording and technological prowess are something else).

    Comment by Aaron — 5 June, 2007 @ 12:28 PM

  12. Thanks for pointing those out Brian! Quick addition: in the announced patch notes for LOTR online – they are planning on throwing in a composing element. Could be interesting.

    Comment by Jpoku — 6 June, 2007 @ 10:18 AM

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