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.

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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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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.

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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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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.

By Winifred Phillips | Contact | Follow

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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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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