Techniques for Modular Game Music (Composing for Lineage M: GDC 2022)

In the Generations Productions music studio, video game music composer Winifred Phillips is pictured here working on projects. Phillips is best known for composing music for games in the franchises Assassin's Creed, Total War, God of War, Lineage, The Sims, and LittleBigPlanet.

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Hello there!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  At the most recent Game Developers Conference, I was pleased to present a lecture as part of the conference’s audio track.  GDC is a top video game industry conference, packed with expert sessions supplemented by an array of awesome opportunities to network and learn.  Whenever I give a GDC presentation, I like to include the content of my lecture in my articles here, so I’m now kicking off a five-part series of articles based on my presentation in March!  In these articles, I’ve included the substance of my GDC presentation, along with most of the multimedia materials I used to illustrate concepts during my lecture.  So let’s get started!

I’d like to share some of what I learned composing music for one of the most famous and successful video game franchises of all time. In 1998, NCSoft released the Lineage MMORPG – the first game in what has now become one of the highest-grossing video game series ever made.  Here’s what the box art looked like in 1998:

Video game cover art, included in an article written by award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips.

There have been eight games to date, and while the Lineage series has been successful in America and Europe, it’s an absolute monster hit in Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. In Lineage, players fight their way through dungeons, form parties to defeat monsters, and undertake massive world raids.

So why are we talking about a game that’s over 24 years old? Well, as we all know, retro gaming has made a huge mark in our industry. Games from the early days are getting new releases, right alongside new games that are designed to look, sound and feel incredibly old-school and lo-tech. And it turns out that gamers are happy to embrace pixelated visions of our past – because a slew of these retro-style games have turned into huge success stories.

An image illustrating a discussion of the popularity of retro games, as included in the article by BAFTA-nominated composer Winifred Phillips.

And that brings us to the subject of our talk today.

As game composers, the large majority of our projects involve highly interactive music systems – so we’re essentially trained to think that way. We’re on the bleeding edge of audio technology, and we’re constantly innovating and experimenting with new tools and techniques to make our music as dynamic and responsive as possible. We’re always looking to the future. So what happens when we have to turn our attention to the past instead?

In this image included in the article by game music composer Winifred Phillips, the past and future of game music are illustrated.

In 2017, NCSoft decided to turn back time by porting the original Lineage game to mobile platforms under the name Lineage M, complete with the old-school look and feel of the original game. This retro release quickly became the highest grossing title in the franchise. So popular, in fact, that players wanted to move their exciting sword-and-sorcery adventures off their mobile devices and onto their PCs. So NCSoft launched the mobile game on its PC emulator service… and just like that, the original Lineage from the nineties was back on millions of PCs, and more popular than ever.

Game logo image included in the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips.

This is where things take an interesting turn. June 2021 marked four years since the launch of Lineage M, and NCSoft celebrated by offering some expansive DLC content, including the first new playable territory for Lineage since its initial PC release in 1998. NCSoft hired me to compose the music for the DLC release, and it was a fascinating experience. I’m going to be sharing what it was like working on this project over the course of these five articles, so let’s start by checking out the first new in-game content released for Lineage in over 24 years, along with some of the music I composed for the game. Here’s a look at Lineage M: The Elmor.

Lineage M was one of the most unusual projects I’ve worked on. The DLC game includes lots of brand new content, but it’s all developed to work within a game engine that’s over 24 years old. So the music couldn’t be structured with modern techniques, because the game engine was designed only for linear music tracks called one-shots.  I wrote about this type of linear game composition in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music (The MIT Press):

This is the book cover of A Composer's Guide to Game Music, published by the MIT Press and written by game composer Winifred Phillips.

The In-Game One-Shot: this is a track that will be triggered during gameplay but will not loop.  It will therefore be written with a beginning, middle, and end.  However, like the linear loop, the music of the in-game one-shot track must be written to accommodate any activity that may occur while the music is playing.  We should remember that the ending of a one-shot track may not necessarily happen in the most advantageous moment, as the nature of gameplay at that point will be impossible to predict.  With this in mind, the composer should remain aware of the resulting vacuum that will be created by the ending of the one-shot track and structure the ending to gradually diminish so that it will blend away into the general atmosphere.”  (Chapter 10, Page 182)

So according to this definition, the linear one-shot track plays once, and then ends.  The game engine of the original Lineage game was built around this type of track, so there couldn’t be any loops, or horizontal segments, or vertical layers. There couldn’t be anything dynamic or interactive… but it was still a game. And a game should never be scored in a purely linear way, like a TV show or a movie. As game audio pros, we had no intention of doing it like that.

An illustration incorporated into an exploration of the one-shot and its use in the musical score of a retro game, as discussed in the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips.

Usually, game composers take traditional linear techniques and apply them within an interactive framework, but here, it was the exact opposite. The audio team at NCSoft and I took interactive techniques and applied them within a linear framework, in order to make these one-shot tracks work better in the context of a video game. And the first step was to plan everything carefully, in detail, using a modular approach.  But before we start to list the details of what the modular system was and how it worked, let’s first get acquainted with the story of the game.

In Lineage M: The Elmor, you are a noble warrior charged by your great king to defend the ancient snow-bound city of Escaros against relentless attacks from hordes of the undead. During this time, you are suddenly overcome by a vision of the Grim Reaper himself, who offers to make you all-powerful, if you agree to fight his battles on earth. In agreeing, you are transformed into a stern hooded figure with demonic powers, wielding an enormous scythe. Thus armed, you are perfectly equipped to send the undead monstrosities back to their eternal rest.

An illustration of the Grim Reaper on the battlefield of war, as included in an article by Winifred Phillips (BAFTA-nominated video game music composer)

The musical style of Lineage M: The Elmor needed to reflect the bombastic sword-and-sorcery style that had been established within the original game, while infusing some gothic horror into the mix. And while every track composed for this DLC game needed to convey these elements of story and style, they also had to conform to a modular construction. So let’s now discuss what modular means in the context of game music.

Composing for games is all about increasing the utility of our tracks, so that they can fit into multiple situations. In order for this to happen, we break music up into lots of component parts – like separate units (or modules) that are combined to form a larger, modular construction. Early on in the planning stages, the Lineage M audio team and I decided to apply a similar philosophy here.  Before we look at how the music functioned during gameplay, let’s first take a closer look at the music itself, so that we can consider its modular construction.

While there are lots of different tracks in Lineage M: The Elmor, they are all composed of interchangeable units (or modules) that are all compatible with each other. The individual sections of the composition, along with their rhythmic content, their melodies and countermelodies, and even their instrumentation – these are all treated as modules – mixed and matched in multiple configurations in order to best support gameplay, and this requires a common key signature and tempo that enables the modular approach.

Bullet list illustration accompanying a discussion of modular construction in game music, from the article by video game composer Winifred Phillips.

So let’s first listen to just a few of the modular components, randomly chosen so we can begin to see how they’re structured for compatibility.

You can see that everything is designed for compatibility. For instance, I composed all of the gameplay music for Lineage M in E minor at 130 beats per measure – it’s all structured around those two immovable factors. This enables the modular construction, and there are pros and cons to this approach. Having a cohesive tonal center and pacing helps to instill aesthetic unity into all the in-game tracks. For this reason, using a common tempo and key signature is a well-known strategy employed by modern dynamic musical scores.  However, the issues raised by this technique can be difficult to resolve.  We need to take care that there’s still diversity and variation, despite the common tempo and key signature, and finding a solution to this problem has proven to be a real challenge.  In part two of this article series, I’ll discuss how this issue was resolved in the music for Lineage M: The Elmor, and how the modular approach provided tools to introduce variety and novelty into the game’s musical score.

 


Photo of game composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio.

Winifred Phillips is a BAFTA-nominated video game composer whose most recent project is the music for one of the latest blockbuster releases in the Lineage series (one of the highest-grossing video game franchises of all time).  Recent projects include the hit PlayStation 5 launch title Sackboy: A Big Adventure (soundtrack album now available).  Phillips’ popular and award-winning Assassin’s Creed Liberation score was recently singled out by GameSpot as their favorite in the franchise, naming it one of the “best video game soundtracks you can stream.”  As an accomplished video game composer, Phillips is best known for composing music for games in five of the most famous and popular franchises in gaming: God of War, Total War, The Sims, Assassin’s Creed, and Sackboy / LittleBigPlanet  Phillips has received numerous awards, including an Interactive Achievement Award / D.I.C.E. Award from the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, six Game Audio Network Guild Awards (including Music of the Year), and three Hollywood Music in Media Awards.  She is the author of the award-winning bestseller A COMPOSER’S GUIDE TO GAME MUSIC, published by the MIT Press. As one of the foremost authorities on music for interactive entertainment, Winifred Phillips has given lectures at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, the Society of Composers and Lyricists, the Game Developers Conference, the Audio Engineering Society, and many more. Phillips’ enthusiastic fans showered her with questions during a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything session that went viral, hit the Reddit front page, received 14.9 thousand upvotes, and became one of the most popular gaming AMAs ever hosted on Reddit.  An interview with her is now featured as a part of the Routledge text, Women’s Music for the Screen: Diverse Narratives in Sound, which collects the viewpoints of the most esteemed female composers in film, television, and games.  Follow her on Twitter @winphillips.

 

One response to “Techniques for Modular Game Music (Composing for Lineage M: GDC 2022)

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