5 Game Composers Answer Questions About Writing Music For Games

Sean R Scott founder of GameDevMasters recently conducted a survey on his Facebook pageasking game composers to answer 7 questions about writing music for games.

The thinking was that this information would be helpful for any game developers wanting to hire a composer.

Sean then kindly asked me to review and analyze the results, which is exactly what this article is about.

Firstly, I want to say that I am fully in favour of this type of survey, as I firmly believe music composers and game developers should talk a lot more openly about how they work with each other.

This type of openness can save everyone a lot of time (rather than skirting around the various issues such as price!).

So without further ado, let’s get to the analysis:

Question 1) What do you like to receive in a request for proposal from a client to determine time and cost for providing music?

The main thrust of the responses here from the composers was the importance of establishing the size and scope of the project.

Is the game in need of 4 x 30 second looping tracks or 90 x 2 minute loops with 20 + cutscenes and a fully interactive score. These two examples are worlds apart in terms of time, complexity and so obviously cost.

An idea of genre is also important to them. This isn’t to say the composer wanted the game developer to suggest actual genres, but it’s vital the composer knows if he is creating a 2 track chiptune or a 150 track epic orchestral score.

Deadline was also mentioned, but not as prominently as scope, presumably because deadlines can be worked out or negotiated along the way, and the speed at which the work is required doesn’t actually affect the amount of work needed.

A couple of the composers also mentioned an audio design document, which I guess could be vital if the game was large. For a small indie game this may not be needed though.

Question 2) What factors do you consider when determining the cost? Do you consider who retains ownership, client’s overall project budget, client’s given audio budget, complexity of the music, etc.?

As mentioned above, the amount of music needed is obviously vital here.

Deadline is also a factor, as the composer may be able to fit your work in amongst his other projects if the deadline is flexible. If you require your game to be finished within 2 weeks however, he may have to drop everything to give it the time it deserves, so don’t be surprised if the rate is higher.

The complexity of the music concerned some composers but not others. Whether that is because those who weren’t concerned are truly capable of writing in any style at the same speed or not I’m not sure. But as I don’t really see this myself, I suspect it’s more to do with it not really being a concern for them from a general perspective.

The exclusivity of the music also drew mixed responses. Some were very clear that composers always retained the rights to the music whereas others were open to negotiating this point depending on the project.

I suspect this is where prices and points of view will vary a great deal depending on a composer’s outlook on his work and how he allows it to be exploited.

I wrote a whole article specifically on the question of what affects the cost of a composer if you are interested in my take on the subject.

Question 3) What do you believe is the cost range for small indie projects for original music?

Now we are getting to the meat of the survey, and interestingly this is where the answers varied the most.

If we exclude ‘free’ as an option for the purposes of this question, the prices quoted by our composers for a small indie game music ranged from $4,000 to $60,000 for the whole game!

I think there’s a couple of things at play here:

I think the question was possibly part of the problem in that ‘small indie project’ could be a one man app for iOS or a 10 man team for consoles. So that is clearly open to interpretation.Each composers experience will obviously be different, and a composer with a longer career with more games under his belt will charge more than someone just starting out, so this may have affected the answers.

The takeaway? There is no such thing as an average price, and it really depends on who you are talking to. There are a lot of factors to weigh up in choosing a composer and price is only one of them.

Question 4) What do you believe is the cost range for large AAA projects for original music?

Things were slightly more consistent here in that the top end of the fees quoted was $75,000 per project.

One composer referred to a survey by the Film Music Institute from 2012 which also quoted this top end figure for AAA games. I found Film Music Magazine’s survey from 2011–2012 which I am presuming is the same thing, and that does indeed quote $75,000.

The survey does note that this figure would be with a ‘named composer’ though. It’s also worth noting that things may well have changed since 2012.

One aspect worth mentioning here is that for a large AAA game by a named composer, his fee could very well be purely for the composition, and any mixing, orchestration or mastering costs etc would be outside of that fee. This basis for hiring a composer would be called a ‘creative fee’.

For low to mid end projects though (and common for a great many more deals these days) the composer would be employed via a ‘Package Deal’, in which he would be responsible for delivering the finished score, with any additional players, orchestrators or other costs being paid for by the composer.

Question 5) Do you have any specific tips for clients on working with a game audio composer?

This was one of the answers that got the composers most animated.

All the composers are in agreement here. Game developers should talk to their composers about the game play, the tone they want to aim for and the emotions involved.

They warn against game developers naming specific instruments, musical techniques and suggesting the composer integrates those into the score though. I wholeheartedly agree with this.

The composers job is to take the developer’s stories, imagery, emotions and passion and convey those elements in musical form. Leave the composer to decide exactly how the piece should be constructed and which actual instruments should be included — he will know what works the best.

Without naming names, I have been involved in a couple of projects where I was very dictated to about specific instruments and the musical direction of the music, and in all honestly, I think those are some of my weakest pieces.

There’s a balance to be met here obviously. If the game developer is musically minded he’s obviously going to have musical opinions, just remember why you are hiring an expert.

Another point emphasised was the interactive/joint process involved in working with a composer. Develop the relationship and bat ideas back and forth in order to let the score evolve organically.

It’s also perfectly ok to reference existing music as a target genre or style. Indeed, from my experience, the worst thing a developer can do is hold back referencing their ideal track from a composer in the hope he’ll somehow create it anyway. The chances of that happening are fairly slim. If you know what track you would ideally like, please name it.

Even if the composer doesn’t hit the nail on the head first time, work with them. Composers expect iterations to be made. You won’t be offending them if say what emotions or moods aren’t being met by the music.

Notice I said what emotions or moods aren’t being met, not ‘the breakdown after the second chorus should really have a low pass filter applied to it’. Leave the composer to work out the specifics, just tell them how you feel.

Question 6) Do you have any good links, books, etc. to suggest to clients on hiring and working with a game audio composer?

The composers came up with a selection of books which may be useful for developers wanting to improve their skills and knowledge about game audio.

Although these books aren’t specifically to do with the process of hiring with a composer, I’m sure there will be useful information within them on this topic:

The Essential Guide To Game Audio By Steve Horowitz, Scott R. Looney
The Game Audio Tutorial By Richard Stevens & Dave Raybould
The Complete Guide To Game Audio By Aaron Marks

And as a general guide to music licensing, one composer recommended this one:

The Musician’s Guide To Licensing Music By Darren Wilsey

Question 7) If clients can’t afford even the low range for original music, do you have any resources you would pass on to get pre-made music? How much should they expect to pay for pre-made music? Any warnings on using pre-made music?

The composers were also pretty much in agreement here… specially composed music will do a much better job for your game.

The music will sound cohesive with the game, will enhance the story and visuals better and will convey the emotions you want much more convincingly.

You can also ask a composer to tweak, adjust, trim and adapt as needed of course whereas you can’t do this at all with library music. If the budget for composed music just isn’t on the cards, then library music is a good option.

The downsides of stock music are that customisation of that music is practically impossible. The game developer will have to adapt the music on his own to fit the level (if allowed to by the music library licence).

Although the cost of library tracks is likely to be less than a composer, the music will be non-exclusive. This means any other developer could use that music in their game (something that happens when tracks become popular in libraries) and the same music could even pop up in a cat food commercial on TV.

In terms of cost, there are so many production music libraries out there it’s difficult to say. It could range from a few dollars to several hundred dollars per track depending on the library.

If library music is the route you want to go, Googling around will reveal a huge range of companies to choose from. Just make sure the rights you need are covered by the libraries licence.


So that’s it, detailed answers from 7 game composers about working with them.

As you can hopefully see, some questions such as those surrounding price and ownership have anything but standard answers, and it really depends on who you are talking to.

However, if you’ve read this article, done your research, got quotes, demos and spoken to your potential composer, you will be in a far better position to get the right music and composer for your game than those developers who merely go with the lowest bid.

(Photo: The Usual Suspects)

This article originally appeared on my e-mail list and web site.

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