Updated: Apr 25, 2021
It’s obvious that music is an important element in video games. After all, when’s the last time you played a quality game that had no music? Indie game designers have a number of options when it comes to procuring audio, some of which are free while others can be quite expensive. Luckily, there’s something out there for any budget, whether it’s free stock audio, music licensing libraries, game music packs or freelance composers. But given the options, hiring a video game music composer will always be your best bet. In this article I’ll lay out detailed reasons why this is the case.
As I mentioned above, there are plenty of music sites and libraries out there for any indie game studio budget. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of benefits to purchasing something like a game music pack, especially when budget is a concern. In fact, I'll be releasing some of my own in the near future. But you’re simply limited to what’s in the pack. What you see (or hear) is what you get — there’s no development or collaboration involved. I’ll dive deeper into this concept later in this article, so hang tight.
Thankfully, there are composers out there for any budget too. Composers bring a lot more to the table than a static, previously-created pack can. Even if you’re working on your first independent game and don’t have much money to invest, there are composers who would jump at the opportunity to work with you throughout the development process so that they can see their name in the credits of a real video game. Even freelance composers working for free are bound to be emotionally, creatively and intellectually invested in your collaboration.
However, it’s in your best interest to put some money down and hire a freelance composer. Why? Doing this has numerous benefits and it tells you a few things. Firstly, if a composer charges for their services, it often means they produce professional material. To put it in perspective, imagine if a self-employed electrician offered to wire your house for free. Seems pretty sketchy and spammy, right? You’d be right to feel suspicious that they probably aren’t going to do a good job. And no one wants to risk burning the house down because of shoddy wiring.
The same thing applies when bringing your creative vision to life through music. It’s the “you get what you pay for” principle at work. Of course, it’s always safe to verify that a composer’s price reflects the quality of their work. Check out this article I wrote to learn how to confirm a video game composer’s credibility before entering an agreement.
Secondly, if a composer asks for monetary compensation, they’re likely to present or request a contract. While the word “contract” might sound scary, it’s actually a very good thing. A contract is the de facto defense against flakiness. No legitimate composer is going to jeopardize their reputation by scamming a game dev. Likewise, flaky scammer composers are unlikely to put effort into writing up or agreeing to a contract. It’s a win-win.
Thirdly, just the fact that you would consider paying for audio services tells the composer that 1) you take your game seriously and 2) you respect the composer.
Of course, financial constraints are always a legitimate concern. Thankfully, most composers already have this in mind and are willing to negotiate payment plans. I like to give indie game developers payment options so they are comfortable working within their budget. Here are some examples of my go-to payment systems:
A single payment for a specific number of deliverables or minutes of music
50% up front and 50% later
A smaller flat fee for each individual song
A slight reduction of any of the first three options with a revenue share starting after you’ve recouped your initial investments.
Now you might still be thinking “but Chris, why would I bother paying or entering an agreement at all when I could just snag a song I like from an online library for cheap or free?” Well my friend, there are plenty of reasons to hire a composer. Let’s read on.
Creative projects have a tendency to evolve. A lot. Especially video games which may take years to complete. You’ll want to work with teammates and resources that can adapt to the many changes you’ll encounter along the way. That being said, how many times will a downloaded audio file rewrite itself? Exactly, zero. Now, how about asking a video game music composer for revisions? That’s totally negotiable. And more often than not, it’s part of the service package freelance composers offer. Why? Because composers genuinely care about the quality of the game they’re working on.
This is our chosen career path and we want to ensure we deliver the perfect sound for your game. For instance, I revised a track I composed for the mobile puzzle game Shapemorph a few times to be sure the developer felt completely satisfied. It was no big deal to do so because we both believed in the game and wanted to find the perfect synergy between visuals and audio.
The ability to revise music is indispensable during the game development process. This is especially true when it comes to dynamic and character-based music. Imagine you’ve written a story for the main character but their development hasn’t panned out as you expected. Maybe you’ve introduced new enemies or discovered a new combat mechanic that changes your character’s story or personality. If you aren’t working with a composer, what are your options? You could go back and sift through stock audio to find a song that fits the new narrative or pass up your new ideas by forcing your character to fit the theme music. Not a lot of room for creativity is there?
Alternatively, when you have a video game music composer at your side you have a partner who can move fluidly through any changes that present themselves. A good composer can intuitively pick up on a developing narrative or a change in scenery and reflect it musically. Serious composers actually practice for this kind of thing regularly. I like to practice my thematic skills by composing using prompts, as you can hear in my work with AudioCipher Technologies.
But what’s arguably the biggest benefit of hiring a freelance video game music composer is the potential for continuity.
Here’s where things become especially fun. What do the greatest video game and film soundtracks all have in common? Musical continuity. I bet you’ve picked up on this idea even if you couldn’t put words to it. It’s a kind of transcendent sensation. In film, this concept is often referred to as the musical “arc.” Think about how crucial the John Williams sound is to Star Wars or how the Game of Thrones theme appears throughout the series and evolves with the characters.
We have plenty of video game examples to reference as well. Consider the Halo soundtracks. When you hear a song from the original Halo games, you can just tell it’s Marty O’Donnell and Michael Salvatori. Moreover, while you’re playing the games, the music enhances the experience because everything feels whole. Transcendent indeed.
Even the simplest musical concepts can tie a whole saga together. Consider how in Halo 3 the Arbiter’s theme is played boldly on the same root note as the timeless Halo theme itself. You can just feel that the Arbiter has established himself as an epic protagonist who belongs alongside Masterchief. Alternatively, the Halo 2 song “Unforgotten” is played in a slightly different key, which enhances its intended sense of unease and longing while still capturing that signature O’Donnell-Salvatori sound in the instrument voicings.
Even if you’re unfamiliar with these musical concepts, think about it this way: would these songs have had the same emotional impact if they were just picked randomly from a royalty-free library? I’d wager the answer is a resounding “no.”
What about classic Nintendo titles? Would the Super Mario franchise or The Legend of Zelda have been as memorable without the ever-present magic of Koji Kondo’s music? You get the point.
The beauty of this concept is that it doesn’t solely apply to AAA games. Plenty of independent game studios capitalize on brilliant music when marketing to indie publishers or even uploading their games on Steam. Just consider the reputation of indie titles like Hyperlight Drifter, FEZ, or The Binding of Isaac.
Hiring a video game music composer takes your game to the next level. Allowing a composer to leave their musical signature on your game gives the finished product a sense of wholeness. It puts the player in the game and keeps them there until the final credits roll. And even after the credits fade, the experience of playing your game sticks with them for, well, perhaps the rest of their lives!
Moreover, teaming up with a competent composer means you have an effective partnership or mastermind group. You have an additional creative voice at your side who can share input, give feedback and even expand on your ideas to bring out the full potential of your game and help you earn more together in the long run.