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Developing musical ideas in video games

Part 2

By: Kole Hicks

<-- Back to Part 1 of this article

Welcome to part two of this two part series on developing musical ideas in video games. If you haven’t read part one I highly recommend you do so.

In part one we defined the tools we have to work with and analyzed two successful titles that developed their musical ideas in unique ways (Journey & Rayman: Origins). In this article I’d like to break down and detail out all of the ways we could go about developing our musical ideas in a hypothetical game situation.

Hypothetical situation: Online only Multiplayer game (FPS)

Our game is a Modern Military FPS (First Person Shooter) that is online/multiplayer ONLY. There is progression with the player’s character as they achieve objectives, but not a linear/single player campaign. To further complicate our situation, we must understand that games of this nature don’t feature a lot of music (for good reason too). Sound Design is essential in a game like this and players need to hear the direction of every bullet whiz, footstep, etc. to locate their enemy. Furthermore, many people who play these games prefer to use teamwork and chat with their friends while playing. With all of this audio going on, we must be very selective with where we place our music.

(Click image for large version)

So how do we create an emotionally evocative score that develops ‘organically’ in a game where our character progresses over time, and yet we’ll find ourselves playing through the same maps/modes quite often?

Most definitely our music (even if it was phenomenal) could get stale after a while if our character never progressed. However, fortunately in this game our character is not only rewarded with new gear as they level up, but with new maps and additional features added to pre-existing maps (Lvl. 1 – 5, 6 – 10, 11 – 15, etc.)
With all of this taken into consideration, our first step is ‘Spotting’ the game or answering all of our music related questions for the game (When, Where, How, etc.) We already understand that our options are limited because of all the sound effects/chatting going on and while this can be a negative, there is also a positive benefit to our restriction. Music, when it does come in, will ultimately be more evocative because of its scarcity.

So let’s make a little ‘blueprint’ of where and when to place music in our hypothetical game.


  • Main Menu/Opening Screen
  • Loading for Various Maps/Modes
  • Beginning of Match
  • Nearing the end of the Match
  • End of the Match Results Screen (Win & Lose)

Personal/Individual (Stingers)

  • Capturing/Achieving Important Objective
  • Kill streak/ Multi-Kill
  • Helping Teammates (Healing, Assists, etc.)

These are just a few of the numerous possibilities we have to choose from. I'm sure you've thought of a few others as well, but in order to keep this direct and to the point I'll only discuss how our music can develop under the 'Universal' options.



Our Main Menu music will be the largest, most prominent, and most played piece of music that players will hear on a consistent basis. This piece of music will state our main themes while sticking to the 'core' instrumentation we would have determined before this. Furthermore, our Main Menu piece of music should be of a 'healthy' length since the player may spend quite a bit of time here tinkering with their gear, upgrades, etc. This'll give us ample time to introduce many of the musical ideas we'll be developing as they progress through the game.

(Click image for large version)

When the gamer chooses a map to play, our music will set the mood based off of the location of the map. So, if they are playing a jungle map then our music could potentially switch to ethnic woodwinds, percussion, etc. In addition, we can re-state some of our main themes here and they will seem fresh because of the difference in instrumentation.

*We could also slightly develop the various loading screen pieces of music as the player progresses and moves into a new 'level bracket.' So a very high level character could hear a super inspiring orchestral metal piece with big percussion and a lower level character may only hear some percussion with some electric guitar elements. It's a subconscious way of rewarding the player as they level up and keeping the musical 'palette' fresh the more they play the game.

As the player is waiting in-game for the countdown to end and the game to start, we have an opportunity to invigorate the moment of anticipation. A thirty second countdown will allow all of the players time to organize and give us one of only a few linear moments to write music to. We know the game begins at the thirty second mark, so our piece of music will build to a quick climax and state our Main Theme when the game begins (still using instrumentation based off the map type to keep it fresh).

As the end of the match nears a timer pops up on the screen counting down from sixty seconds. We have another a linear moment to work with here and an opportunity to not only push forward the momentum of the game, but let the players know that the end of the match is coming soon (especially if some players like to eliminate as much visual clutter as possible and deselect the timer notification). Sticking with our map's instrumentation, we have an opportunity to develop some of the themes we've introduced during the Main Menu, Loading Screen, and Beginning of the Match. It could differ from map to map, but that could mean variations in the melody, re-harmonization, introducing new textures, etc.

Last but not least, we have the results screen where everyone can check out how well they did and wait until the next map loads. Once again we'd stick with the chosen instrumentation for this map, but our system would play different pieces of music depending on if the player's team won or not. Perhaps re-harmonizing some of the most important themes that were introduced in earlier pieces.
As you can see, we can develop our musical ideas in unique ways and further immerse the player in the game experience. Even if that game severely limits our options on where and how to present that music. Thank you for reading, I hope you’ve found these articles useful, and are able to apply some of these ideas in your next project!

About the author: Kole Hicks is an Author, Instructor, and most prominently an Audio Designer with a focus in Games. He's had the pleasure of scoring mobile hits like 'Bag it!', has provided audio for Indie PC titles like 'Kenshi' and 'Jeklynn Heights', and was nominated for a 2012 GANG award for an article written exclusively for titled, "Mixing as Part of the Composing Process. Emotionally Evocative Music & Visceral Sound Effects... Kole Audio Solutions.

Other articles you may find useful:

Shockwave-Sound's website and offers:

Choosing music and using stock music libraries:

Composing and producing music:

Sound effects, Sound recording, Sound design:

Voiceover, voice recording, dubbing:

Music for movies and TV shows:

Music for video games:

Other / Technical issues and various.:

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