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

BAFTA-nominated video game composer Winifred Phillips is pictured here working in her music production studio at Generations Productions. Phillips' video game credits include music for games in the famous franchises Lineage, Total War, God of War, Assassin's Creed, LittleBigPlanet, and The Sims.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey everybody!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips.  Thanks for joining me for this second article in my series based on my Game Developers Conference 2022 lecture, “Composing for Lineage M: Modular Construction in Game Music.”  In my GDC presentation, I discussed my work composing music for a recent installment in the famous Lineage franchise (one of the most popular MMORPG game series ever made).  This article series will share the content of that GDC talk, along with the audiovisual samples I included in my presentation at the conference.

In the first article of this series, we explored how retro gaming has made an awesome impact on the game industry, leading to the release of a port of the original Lineage PC game for mobile devices under the name Lineage M.  We also discussed the brand new gothic DLC content for this game, entitled Lineage M: The Elmor. 

Art excerpted from a video game trailer, included to illustrate the article by game music composer Winifred Phillips.

I shared my experience being hired to compose new music for DLC content supplementing a game originally released over 24 years ago. We discussed how traditional interactive music approaches were adapted to this game’s retro music system, and how a modular approach was crucial to the music implementation strategy for this project.  You’ll find all these ideas discussed in detail in part one of this article series.

Continuing our discussion of modular music system, let’s pick up with the idea of structural compatibility.  If all the internal elements of a game’s musical score are designed to be compatible with each other, this is a great way to enable the modular approach.  In the gameplay music for Lineage M: The Elmor, everything was 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. But we need to take care that there’s still diversity and variation, despite the common tempo and key signature. So let’s look at some of the ways that issue was addressed for the music of Lineage M: The Elmor.

This map of the gameplay terrain from a popular DLC release is included in the discussion by popular game music composer Winifred Phillips.

The city of Escaros is located in the larger kingdom of Elmor, and the playable landscape includes five distinct territories: The Cave of Sorrows, the Plains of Silence, the City Walls, the Sacred District, and the City Center. For each of these territories, I composed a group of musical sections, each lasting 8 measures. The sections could be taken in any order, and were frequently juggled to help keep the music feeling fresh.  The philosophy behind this approach bears a strong similarity to the Horizontal Resequencing method of dynamic construction, long favored by game audio experts for modern interactive music design.  I discussed this idea in my book, A Composer’s Guide to Game Music (The MIT Press):

The cover of the MIT Press book, A Composer's Guide to Game Music, authored by popular game composer Winifred Phillips.

“In music, we mentally picture the ephemeral concept of time as a horizontal phenomenon, moving inexorably from left to right (like the notes on a musical staff).  Likewise, most audio editing software visually presents audio as a waveform moving horizontally from left to right.  The fundamental idea behind horizontal re-sequencing is that when compose carefully and according to certain rules, the sequence of a musical composition can be rearranged.  This process occurs while the music continues to move forward on the horizontal axis of time, allowing a continuous free-flowing transformation of musical content.”  (Chapter 11, page 188).

For each of the five territories that comprise the city of Escaros, I prepared an assortment of 8-measure musical segments.  Because the music had been purposefully divided into these distinct sections of equivalent length, they were capable of being freely rearranged.  This helped to instill variety into the music over time.  The sections were also designed so that their instrumentation could be taken apart with fine detail, allowing them to be stripped down to a spare atmospheric mix, or built up in complexity and momentum. Each of these instrumental recordings could also be mixed and matched between the sections – so they weren’t functioning solely as individual music compositions, but also as sets of modular components. The sections cross-fertilized each other, not only within the gameplay territories, but also between them. For instance, a melodic phrase or instrumental performance from The Cave of Sorrows might reappear during the City Walls sequence, or in the Sacred District. It was a flexible system that instilled a sense of unified musical identity across the game’s new playable territories.

An illustration conveying the importance of musical cross-fertilization between in-game locales, included in the article by Winifred Phillips (BAFTA-nominated game music composer).

So let’s start examining the music of those five gameplay territories, starting from the foundation of the modular structure.  Here’s a brief taste of the most low-keyed, ambient content in the modular system, organized by gameplay territories:

Now let’s add some rhythm on top of a few of these sections, so that we can see how they’re distinguished by the territory for which they’re written. Rhythmic changes help to introduce variety into the musical structure, even though the meter and tempo remain fixed. Notice that the meter sometimes shifts from straight common time to compound quadruple meter, but this doesn’t bring about any alteration to the tempo, and it doesn’t change the downbeat placement.

In addition to rhythmic changes, many of the sections incorporate melodies – and sometimes countermelodies – into the modular system. These melodic lines were written for particular territories in the city of Escaros such as the Cave of Sorrows or the Sacred District. We’ll be checking out how all of this functions in-game later in this series of articles, but first let’s get a taste of some melodic content from this music system.

Finally, the instrumental performances of these melodies were treated as modular components, so they could be easily transplanted from one section to another. In order to best understand the structure of these recordings within the modular system, we’ll need to discuss the role of stemming in the modular approach, and the division of single instrumental performances into multiple modules.  Since this is a more complex topic, we’ll tackle that discussion in the next article.  Until then, thanks very much for reading!

 

Game composer Winifred Phillips works in her music production studio in this photo.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.

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.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

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!

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Video Game Composers: Thematic Approaches to Game Music (GDC)

Pictured working in her music studio at Generations Productions, Winifred Phillips is a BAFTA-nominated video game composer of music for games in the franchises God of War, Assassin's Creed, Total War, Lineage, LittleBigPlanet, and The Sims.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Hey everyone!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I’m excited to share that I’ll be giving a talk at the upcoming Game Developers Conference!  My talk is entitled, “Composing for Lineage M: Modular Construction in Game Music,” and it’s taking place on Wednesday March 23rd at 10:30 am PT (1:30pm ET).  In my presentation, I’ll be focusing on my experience composing music for a game in one of the most successful video game franchises of all time – the Lineage MMORPG franchise from NCSoft.  During my talk, I’ll be sharing details of the music composition process for this awesome project, including how thematic content was incorporated into the matrix of musical components that formed the structure of the Lineage M musical score.

I won’t be getting into much detail about the substance of my upcoming GDC presentation in this article.  However, it occurred to me that musical themes are a popular discussion topic that has come up in many of my past GDC presentations.  With that in mind, I thought I’d offer a short review of the subject, including some content from a few of my previous GDC talks.  I’ve confined this discussion to my GDC sessions that are now available to view for free in their entirety via the videos list in the Game Developers Conference Official YouTube channel.  You’ll see that I’ve embedded the full-length YouTube videos of those talks below, in case you’d like to see the lectures in their entirety.  For each of these presentation videos, I’ve also included a few short lecture extracts that touch upon the relevant subject matter.  So let’s get started!

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

This captured image from the GDC 2021 lecture of video game composer Winifred Phillips includes details of a discussion of the music of the video game Spyder.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

Glad you’re here!  I’m video game composer Winifred Phillips, and I’d like to welcome you to the sixth and final installment in my article series based on my GDC lecture – From Spyder to Sackboy: A Big Adventure in Interactive Music!  Last year I had the privilege of working with Sumo Sheffield on music composition for two projects in simultaneous development – 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 lecture in which I’m discussing the Spyder project).  Both the Sackboy and Spyder projects incorporated highly interactive music into their design.  While both projects included the basic dynamic models of horizontal and vertical structure, they each brought new twists and quirks to these ever-popular music implementation methods.  Since I spent a lot of time bouncing back and forth between the two projects, I got a chance to see how malleable interactive music systems can be when employed creatively.  Now, I’m glad to share my best experiences and observations creating music for these two awesome projects!

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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.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

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.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

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.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

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.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

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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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.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

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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