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Music and its connection to game design

May 4, 2009

Last night, I finished an 11-hour drive from Indianapolis to Savannah on route from Chicago. I selected Guns N’ Roses on Pandora somewhere early into the trip. What followed was a wonderful reliving of my life from about 17 on: Ozzy Osbourne, Sabbath, GnR, AC/DC, Aerosmith. My goodness, it was wonderful. I know a lot of game designers who are musicians – Raph Koster, Sid Meier, Shigeru Miyamoto. A good many of us sing and still more have performed professionally.

Along with this pattern, I also began to wonder about the role of music in the design process. From the late Wizardry’s on, I have more or less listened to exactly the same music while designing – a combination of rock (see above) and Celtic music (Ashley MacIsaac, The Young Dubliners, Frankie Gavin, etc).  For good measure, I also had a particular run with Pearl Jam and Talking Heads during Wizardry 8.

Only twice in my career have I strayed from that musical pattern, and in both cases, the games were subpar. I wonder if there’s a connection.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 4, 2009 10:18 pm

    I can honestly say that Stop Making Sense has been one of my favorite albums since childhood and I’ve often had it on while designing. What I listen to specifically while I am designing, though, depends on the game. Sometimes I’ll listen to the soundtracks from Grim Fandango, Pitfall: The Mayan Adventure, or a Final Fantasy Piano Collection just to get in the gaming mindset. Other times I’ll crank the Jethro Tull, Tool, Nine Inch Nails, or Alice in Chains. It comes down to a mix of classic rock and grunge for the most part.

    Every once in a while though, if I really need to get the creativity going, Mozart’s Requiem.

  2. May 4, 2009 10:26 pm

    I fully believe that music plays a large role in the design process. I’m currently in the process of starting a small game development company with two others and we’ve incorporated this in our design philosophy. I am a student at Georgia Tech, one other is a student from SCAD-Atlanta, and the third is a student from SAE (School of Audio Engineering). We believe that our three areas (technical, art, audio) deserve to coexist in all stages of production.

  3. May 4, 2009 10:27 pm

    Since I’m one of those that have music to “fall-back-on” from game design (yeah, right), what about the other way around?
    What games are people into when writing music, “designing” a song? I know I tend to make allusions to code in my lyrics, or a bandmate of mine would use the idea of mario collecting lots of coins for a song, later to tell us that that was what he was going for and once we heard it again, we stopped questioning his ideas PERIOD.
    In other words, how do games or game design affect other artistic compositions? Thanks for the thought experiment, Brenda! 🙂

  4. frankmalcher permalink
    May 5, 2009 12:17 am

    Music has been an important part of my life for a long time (I’ve even played in a symphonic band for some years), and I definitely see some kind of connection between music and my game design process.

    I sense something similar to Brenda’s experience, but in many cases, it also works a little bit different: it’s more of a synesthetic thing during the design process. Even before the first prototype (while I’m “playing the game in my mind” to get the game feel I want) I normally “feel” the BGM of the game during this “mental play” – setting not only the mood, but also the pace and “feel” of the gameplay.

    That’s not exactly a true composition, but a really strong feel about how the music should be, and so, both things (this “musical feel” and the game feel) kind of entwine, enhancing each other, and helping to “shape” the creation. After this, I can explain more easily to the composer what I want, in a language that he can understand, and instantly know if a music “works” or not with that game.

    I think there are 5 key points on this music-and-game-design relation: mood, pace, theme, personal inspiration, and the “tension dynamics” of the gameplay experience. I believe music acts helping the “shaping” of these elements in the games we are designing. That’s a very subtle, subjective, and even emotional effect, but I feel it’s there.

  5. Editor permalink
    May 5, 2009 1:52 am

    When Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club, Choke) writes a novel, he’ll pick one song and play it over and over while he writes, until it doesn’t even sound like music anymore. It becomes a noise that resembles the song. He says each novel is inseparably bonded with its song.

  6. May 5, 2009 10:45 am

    I definitely agree that different musical styles make me think differently, but as an engineer that’s a serious advantage. It helps me tackle different problems, and helps me analyze problems from different angles.

    Drum ‘n Bass and Progressive Rock – chugging through core code, very methodical work.

    Hip Hop n’ Swing – More creative thinking, architecture designs, art work.

  7. May 5, 2009 12:51 pm

    I actually don’t listen to music while designing; I enjoy music but find it distracting. Does this mean my games are destined to be missing something because the process is lacking a critical component?

    • May 5, 2009 1:57 pm

      That’s interesting. I can find new music distracting, but typically design with some kind of music on. I suppose silence is a pattern on its own, too. I suggest that the next time we have a smaller project, you find some music that’s not distracting and we can explore it.

  8. Brian Shurtleff permalink
    May 7, 2009 8:55 pm

    I tend to make music for my own games, so I often make music for the game i’m working on (whether or not it’ll be used) and play it now and then while i’m designing.

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