Hybrid Dynamic-Diegetic Music for Game Music Composers (From Spyder to Sackboy: GDC 2021)

During the Game Developers Conference 2021, video game composer Winifred Phillips delivered a lecture that included a discussion of her music for two projects, including the project pictured here (Spyder for Apple Arcade).

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Hi!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  Welcome to installment five in my series of articles based on my lecture, From Spyder to Sackboy: A Big Adventure in Interactive Music.  In delivering my presentation at this year’s edition of the popular Game Developers Conference, I based my lecture content on my experiences composing music for two projects in simultaneous development at Sumo Sheffield – Sackboy: A Big Adventure for PS5/PS4, and Spyder for Apple Arcade.  (Above you’ll see a photo from one of the sections of my GDC 2021 lecture in which I’m discussing the Spyder project).  The music design for these two games included multiple dynamic systems that were both complex and ambitious in scope.  While they both relied on some of the most tried-and-tested strategies for musical interactivity, they were also quite innovative in their own distinctive ways.  While composing music for these projects, I had the opportunity to see how flexible dynamic music models can be.  I learned a lot from the experience, and it was really interesting to explore the similarities and differences during my GDC 2021 lecture!

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Hybrid Horizontal-Vertical Structure for Video Game Composers (From Spyder to Sackboy: GDC 2021)

This screen from the GDC 2021 lecture of video game composer Winifred Phillips was taken during the discussion of how success is recognized by the dynamic music system.

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Delighted you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m very happy you’ve joined us for this latest entry in my series of articles for video game composers, based on the lecture I gave during the Game Developers Conference 2021 – From Spyder to Sackboy: A Big Adventure in Interactive Music!  Over the previous year, I had the privilege of working with the expert development team at Sumo Sheffield on music composition for two fantastic projects – Sackboy: A Big Adventure for PS5/PS4, and Spyder for Apple Arcade.  (Above you’ll see a photo from one of the sections of my GDC 2021 lecture in which I’m discussing the Sackboy project).

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Pure Vertical Layering for Game Music Composers (From Spyder to Sackboy: GDC 2021)

This image is captured from the GDC 2021 presentation of award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips.

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So happy you’ve joined us!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I’d like to welcome you to the continuation of this series of articles based on my lecture from GDC 2021 – From Spyder to Sackboy: A Big Adventure in Interactive Music!  Using the example of two of my projects from the previous year, I explored the contrasting models of dynamic music design employed in two games –  Sackboy: A Big Adventure for PS5/PS4, and Spyder for Apple Arcade.  (Above you’ll see a photo from one of the sections of my GDC 2021 lecture in which I’m discussing the Spyder project).  Both Spyder and Sackboy were developed by Sumo Sheffield and featured whimsical characters and situations.  Each of the two projects had a long list of music requirements and strategies that were dramatically different.  In composing music for these two games, I learned a lot about the flexibility of dynamic music systems.  Since I worked on music for both games simultaneously, it was fascinating to make comparisons between the two projects after the fact.  Preparing my GDC presentation became an exercise in understanding how flexible video game music can be.  If you haven’t had a chance to read the previous two installments of this series, you can read first about Horizontal Resequencing and Song Structure, and then Horizontal Resequencing & Dynamic Transitions.

As we discussed in the previous article, interactive music design is highly contextual. The circumstances dictate our choices.  No single method can be considered the best way, or the right way. Working on these two projects at the same time, I came across this idea over and over again.  

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Horizontal Resequencing and Dynamic Transitions for Game Music Composers (From Spyder to Sackboy: GDC 2021)

From the GDC 2021 presentation of video game composer Winifred Phillips, this image depicts the section of Phillips' lecture discussing horizontal resequencing in both the Spyder and Sackboy: A Big Adventure videogames.

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Welcome!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m happy you’ve joined me for the second installment in this series of articles based on the content of a lecture I gave during the Game Developers Conference 2021.  My talk was entitled, “From Spyder To Sackboy: A Big Adventure in Interactive Music.”  In my presentation, I compared and contrasted the interactive music design of two of my video game projects from the previous year.  Both projects were developed by one of the game industry’s top development studios – Sumo Sheffield.  Both projects included ambitious dynamic music systems, using similar techniques and approaches.  However, there were lots of differences in the execution of those techniques.  This series of articles explores the similarities and differences between the dynamic music design of the popular Sackboy: A Big Adventure game for PS5/PS4, and Spyder for the new Apple Arcade (a great platform for supporting larger-scale game development for iOS).  (Above you’ll see a photo from one of the sections of my GDC 2021 lecture in which I’m discussing the music systems of both of these projects).  If you missed the first article in this series, you can find it here.

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Horizontal Resquencing and Song Structure for Game Music Composers (From Spyder to Sackboy: GDC 2021)

Photo of BAFTA-nominated video game music composer Winifred Phillips, working in her music production studio.

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Hey everybody!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I was excited this year to present a talk at the Game Developers Conference.  GDC is one of the top conferences in the video game industry, and it was a fantastic event this year, full of expert sessions and lots of opportunities to learn and network.  As in previous years, I thought it might be best if I included the content of my GDC lecture in my articles here, so I’m now kicking off a six-part series of articles based on my presentation in July!  I’ve included the substance of my GDC presentation, supported by some of the multimedia materials I used to illustrate concepts during my lecture.  I’ve also enlarged upon most of those topics with a bit of further explanation that couldn’t be included in my original GDC presentation (due to time constraints).  So now without further ado, let’s get started!

A slide from the GDC 2021 lecture of video game composer Winifred Phillips, depicting her work with Sumo Sheffield on two simultaneous projects.Back in the summer of 2019, I started working with Sumo Sheffield on music for two different games. It was pretty intense work over the course of many months on two awesome projects with very different musical needs.  The list of musical requirements was quite long for both projects, and I spent a lot of time ping ponging back and forth between them. After they both hit retail in 2020, I realized how eye-opening that experience had been. Both games required complex musical interactivity, but each met that goal in very different ways.

In this article series, we’re going to be taking a look at those two projects: Sackboy: A Big Adventure for the PS5/PS4, and Spyder for Apple Arcade.

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Diegetic sound and music for the video game composer (GDC 2021)

Photograph of video game music composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio. This photo illustrates Phillips' work on two popular video games developed by Sumo Digital.

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Hello there!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  Next week, I’ll be giving a lecture during the Game Developers Conference 2021 event.  During my lecture, I’ll be talking about the music I composed for Sumo Digital for both the Sackboy: A Big Adventure and Spyder video games.  My lecture is entitled, “From Spyder to Sackboy: A Big Adventure in Interactive Music,” and will take place on Friday July 23rd at 3:40pm PT.  Although GDC is still an all-virtual affair, the event does provide lots of opportunities for experts within the game development community to share their knowledge, coupled with forums enabling game audio folks to network and learn from each other.  In addition to my prepared lecture, I’ll also be participating in a live Speaker Q&A that will take place right after my presentation.  It should be a lot of fun!  Really looking forward to sharing my experience working with Sumo Digital simultaneously on these two fantastic games.

The famous logo of the Sackboy: A Big Adventure video game, as included in the article by award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips.

This was an incredibly rare and awesome opportunity for me to compose music for two projects simultaneously in development by the same company.  Because of this, I found the comparisons between the two games fascinating.

My talk will delve into the mechanics of the dynamic music systems in both games, An image of the official Spyder video game promotional poster, as included in the article by video game music composer Winifred Phillips.showing how a comparison between these two projects can shed some light on the utility of the top interactive techniques and strategies.  While comparing this list of interactive music techniques provided me with a lot of material for my GDC lecture, there were other ways in which the two projects were similar.  I thought I’d share some brief thoughts on one of the other common threads I found between these two Sumo Digital games.

As composers, we’re often asked to provide a general atmosphere that adds either character to gameplay or distinctive flavor to menus.  If it’s a horror game, maybe we’re being asked to provide a crushingly heavy drone of doom during tense exploration, with soul-shuddering tone clusters bubbling up from the darkness and then sinking back down into the murky depths.  For a whimsical game, we might be creating airy, open textures with little mischievous accents from the mallets or woodwind section… or maybe we’re creating a brightly whimsical melody for an opening menu or splash screen.  If it’s a fantasy roleplaying game, we may be providing softly ambient tracks for exploration, with a pensive flute wandering gently through Gaelic figures.  Or maybe we’re creating a thunderously epic main theme for an opening menu, designed to emphasize the world-shattering stakes of the adventure to come.

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Game Developers Conference: Ask Me Anything about being a video game music composer

Promotional photo used in connection with the Ask Me Anything session with video game music composer Winifred Phillips, taking place as a part of GDC Summer 2020.

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Hey everyone!  I’m videogame composer Winifred Phillips.  GDC 2021 is coming this July 19th to the 23rd, and I’m excited that I’ll be giving a talk during this year’s conference!  My talk is called, From Spyder to Sackboy: A Big Adventure in Interactive Music, and I’ll be sharing more details about my talk as the conference gets nearer.  Once again, GDC will be a fully virtual game industry event this year.  I think all of us who have participated in GDC’s awesome online events over the past year have really enjoyed the experience.  Considering the long list of structural and logistical changes that had to be made, it’s amazing how smoothly everything went!

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Composer Interview: GDC Showcase Game Music Q&A

Pictured: video game music composer Winifred Phillips, at the Moscone Center in San Francisco giving her GDC speech. This photo is included in the article about the GDC Showcase event in 2021.

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This March, the GDC held their first-ever Showcase event.  This online gathering provided the game development community a chance to get together and share expert knowledge in the time window usually occupied by the full-fledged Game Developer Conference in San Francisco.  Completely free of charge, this event featured talks fromThis image includes the time and place details for the GDC Showcase lecture, Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense, given by award-winning video game composer Winifred Phillips. the GDC Vault: a repository of lecture videos from the long history of the conference.  During Showcase week, GDC curated a selection of lectures from their illustrious history and spotlighted those talks in live-streams accompanied by enthusiastic text discussions in an accompanying chat box.  One of my lectures from a previous GDC event was featured during this GDC Showcase, and I was happy to participate in the chat discussion, answering questions and providing additional resources.  My lecture was entitled, “Homefront to God of War: Using Music to Build Suspense,” and you can watch the entire video of my lecture for free at this link in the GDC Vault.

While the videos remain a part of the GDC Vault, those chat discussions from GDC Showcase are no longer available in any form.  I found the chat conversation during my lecture session to be lively, intelligent and tremendously worthwhile, so I preserved the text of the discussion and I’d like to share portions of it here. As we all know, these sorts of text-chat discussions don’t really allow for lengthy answers, and often the questions fly by so fast that there’s little time to elaborate on ideas.  With that in mind, I thought I’d expand on some of the topics brought up during my GDC Showcase session.  You’ll see that I’ve organized this article under topic headings, quoting the original chat excerpts and then adding a few additional thoughts to flesh things out.

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Composer Interview: Examining the Craft of Video Game Music Composition

Photo of video game music composer Winifred Phillips in her music production studio. This photo illustrates the awards and accolades received by the music of the Spyder video game.

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Glad you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  Last year, I participated in an online discussion session during a popular live-stream chat event hosted by Video Game Music Academy.  The lively conversation that took place there seems worth sharing at this point.  What follows is a partial transcript of the most substantive conversation from that hour-long session.  I was interviewed by public school music teacher Daniel Hulsman.  At the time, one of my projects had just released – the Spyder game for Apple Arcade – which had won a Global Music Award that year and was also nominated for a NAVGTR Award (pictured above).  Much of the discussion focused on that project, but it also touches on my work in other games, and the topics broaden out to encompass more of the top issues pertaining to the craft of video game music composition.  You’ll see that I’ve also included a few videos here and there to supplement the transcript and illustrate the discussion.

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Getting your big break – 2021 edition (Video game music composer)

This photo depicts game music composer Winifred Phillips working in her music production studio at Generations Productions LLC on the musical score of the Sackboy: A Big Adventure game from Sumo Digital. Winifred Phillips is an award-winning video game music composer whose credits include games from five of the biggest franchises in gaming (Assassin's Creed, God of War, Total War, LittleBigPlanet, The Sims).

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Delighted you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and this past year has been particularly busy for me.  I’ve released several projects this year, including Sackboy: A Big Adventure (my latest, pictured above) – and I’m very pleased that my Waltz of the Bubbles composition from Sackboy: A Big Adventure just won a Global Music Award, and is nominated along with the rest of the game’s soundtrack in this year’s NAVGTR Awards!  In between projects, I’ve given three virtual talks this past year at the Game Developers Conference in March, the VGM Academy Live event in April, and the GDC Summer event in August.  Popular events like these are great opportunities to touch base with the community and exchange ideas about the art of game composition and the business of being a video game composer.

All during this time, I’ve been keeping up with this blog, writing monthly articles that explore different topics of interest to us as game composers.  In addition to the regular monthly entries, every year I write an article that tries to answer the question, “how does an aspiring composer break into the video game industry?”  This is the question I’m personally asked most often, and it’s one I always struggle to answer.

Part of the reason for this is that my own “breaking into the business” story is so unusual.  My first video game project happened to be a triple-A blockbuster (God of War from Sony Interactive), The logo of the original God of War video game from Sony Interactive Entertainment. Game music composer Winifred Phillips was a member of the music composition team for this video game.and I was able to land the gig because an example of my work landed on the desk of a music supervisor for the project at exactly the right time.  What are the chances of that?  It’s akin to being struck by lightning, and I certainly can’t advise young composers to depend on that kind of lightning to strike.  But I don’t want to leave hopeful young composers in the lurch either.

So every year, I revisit the subject, trying to learn what helpful advice might be offered by virtue of the common wisdom that exists at the time.  In expert articles and community posts, the subject is ceaselessly examined and reconsidered.  It’s an evolving conversation that shifts in subtle but appreciable ways from year to year.  So this is the 2021 edition, in which I share the interesting observations I’ve gathered from online sources during the previous year.  Hopefully, this article will provide some guidance and support for those who are embarking on their own game music careers. But first, in case anyone might like to hear a fuller retelling of my own “breaking into the business” story, here’s an interview I gave in 2011 with GameSpot in which I recount how I landed my first gig.  The relevant discussion begins at 4 minutes and 15 seconds:

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