Shigi Articles #1: Game Composing

January 4, 2010 at 10:21 am | Posted in Shigi Articles | 24 Comments
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Hello and Happy New Year to everyone out there ^_^

Between DoTA games and hanging out with family and friends, I was finally able to finish all the maps in the 2nd to last location in my game, so I posted a few screenshots over at leebleforest if anyone is interested in checking them out ^_^ But the main reason I’m updating tonight is because I was inspired to start a new article series based off of questions folks have been asking me… everything from getting into the video game industry to staying motivated when you do freelance work. Over the years, many people have been generous enough to offer me advice and information on these topics, so I would love to pass that along if possible… my hope is that somewhere in these articles, you’ll be able to find something useful!

Question #1: How did you get your start in the industry, and what sort of advice would you offer to folks who aspire to become full-time game composers?

I guess you could say that my start in the industry came after a series of very random events that happened over a period of several years. Although I’ve been playing the piano since I was 5, I grew up in an area that was very rigid about careers. You were expected to go to a 4-year university and become a lawyer, doctor, or engineer… so I never even imagined having a career related to music, even though I was very passionate about it. I spent a lot of time improvising and playing my favorite songs by ear. When I was around 8-10 years old, I learned a lot about arranging music from listening to NES video game songs (the Megaman series in particular); I’d record them onto casette tape, break down the different parts, and then attempt to play them on the piano. But it was always a hobby for me. I went to UC Berkeley and majored in International Relations and Business, all the while composing on the side. My friend gave me an old version of Cakewalk which I used to compose… I loved it.

During college I also put together a CD with a bunch of random songs on it, and I gave it to a friend in Japan who worked for a teen magazine. She (without telling me) forwarded that to a bunch of record companies there who subsequently called my parents offering me auditions. So I flew to Japan during my spring break to audition with a bunch of record labels, which was a lot of fun. I actually got offered a contract as a singer, but I ended up turning it down for a variety of personal reasons. But I realized at that point that having a career related to music and creativity was actually something I could/should be pursuing. After returning to finish college, I did a lot of contract work for a Japanese company as their sound designer. I hosted an audio talkshow, did all the sound engineering stuff, and composed a bunch of music for them. During that time, a friend of mine asked if I’d be interested in composing the soundtrack for a game he was consulting for. I did this project for free, but the company liked my work, so I was paid to do the sound and music for many of their subsequent projects.

From here I gradually built my portfolio. I worked on as many projects as I could, and I tried to learn as much as possible during the process. I received work both from referrals, and from folks who thought my style would fit their projects after playing a game I’d done the soundtrack for. The most important thing that happened during this time however, was that I developed my own style. So many times I’ve heard the advice, “you have to find your own voice”… and it is very true. Game companies receive tons of demo CDs that often contain generic orchestral music or electronic tracks; there is no way for the developers to differentiate! This is why it’s so important to figure out what makes your music special, and really focus on making that shine.

General tips:

  • Develop your voice. By this I mean, find what’s special about your music and work on developing it so that people will remember your work.
  • Gradually build up your portfolio wherever you can. There are a ton of great student projects, indie developers, smaller companies in the casual and mobile arena, etc. where you can get experience. The more projects you do, the higher the chances someone will hear your music and want to work with you.
  • Don’t get taken advantage of, but at the same time don’t be afraid to do your first job for free. I offered to do my first job for free because I was confident that I could do a good job, and I knew that if they liked my work they would probably hire me in the future. And they did… in fact, not only did they offer me paid work, but through referrals and having worked on several published titles I was able to get more work from other sources as well.
  • Be prepared. Have a website with samples of your work, business cards, demo CDs, etc.
  • Post your resume where there is high traffic from game developers (indiegamer, Gamasutra, etc.), it’s also good to try and attend events like GDC. I’m not very good at networking… well, I love talking with people, but I have a tough time reconciling the idea that networking often forces you to view people as a means to an ends, and I just can’t do that. So I often end up talking with people about all sorts of random crap as opposed to business. I suck at networking. So instead, I just make sure to have a comprehensive website, haha.
  • This one is obvious… but be a nice person. No one wants to work with people who are difficult, rude, or have a bad work ethic.
  • Well, that’s about it! I hope this has been helpful… if you have any questions, feel free to leave them in the comments section. Happy New Year, and keep on creating!

    P.S. For those who like old school NES music, here are a few more of my favorites if you’re bored and want to listen to some great tunes!
    Megaman 3 – Magnet Man
    Megaman 5 – Gyro Man Yoko Shimomura is one of my favorite compsoers.
    Megaman 5 – Protoman’s Stage This used to be my cel phone ringtone. Yay polyphonic!
    Little Nemo the Dream Master – Final Boss Epic.
    Chip ‘n Dale’s Rescue Rangers – Final Boss Music I don’t know… I just love it.

    Can you tell I like old NES Capcom games?


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    1. […] Shigi Articles #1: Game Composing […]

      • Thank-you for the link! Your website is really coming along… I was so impressed to see the sheer number of well-written articles that you guys have uploaded! It was also nice meeting Devin at GDC ^_^

    2. Hmmm… I see, I see…

      Any advice on arranging music? I know it’s not that different, but still…

      Here’s a N64 song that’s not as classic as those songs, or Plants vs. Zombies roof levels, but still is awesome…

      Can’t get this out of my head!

      • Oh dude, Mario 64 had a share of amazing songs, and Docks being definitely one of the top! My favorite song in that game is the ending credits. I remember I took a radio and a cassette, and recorded the thing off my TV, just to listen to it again and again, without having to go through the trouble of beating Bowser, lol.

        • I wish I could actually beat the game and listen to the credits… so @#$%ing hard!! X(

          …says a rookie gamer.

          Hey supershigi, when are you next posting?

      • Thank-you for the link! Hm, I will see if I can think up some advice on arranging music for a future blog entry. It might be good for me to think about this, because most of the time arranging music is very instinct-based for me, so I haven’t really analyzed how or why I do certain things πŸ˜›

    3. Thank-you for posting this article, it’s very nice of you to share this information with other people. I’m really looking forward to the rest of the “shigi series” as well! I have a question, when you were first building your portfolio, did you only work on games where you would make music that was your style? Or were you up for working on any type of music?

      • No problem! To answer your question, when I first got started I was really flexible about the type of games I worked on… I was pretty much just happy to be making video game music. It’s also nice to be able to work on several different types of projects, because you learn something new with each one.

    4. really admire your voice, I love how it sounds and the changes that you print, the music is sensational and I hope you continue writing as well. The game against zombies plant is very popular in mexico. Hugs, your voice touches my heart

      • Thank-you so much for your comment πŸ™‚

    5. Laura!!! I can’t believe it. I must be your fan. It’s the first time i hear of a woman who likes games and have an AMAZING work on music. I love games music because of the Rithm. So Catchy, so let me present myself first, My name is Alan and my whole life has been spent on games & music. Right now I’m 20 years old and i’m coding my own 2D multiplayer online games :). I’d really love to show you my work and share a few words with you. I’m very happy to find people like you. by any chance have you ever thought into getting on the Online gaming music composing? Random fact, i was born in MΓ©xico & right now i’m a Salesman of Timeshares in the Hard Rock Hotels, so i don’t look like a fan of Games or anything like that. Of course, Life’s first than them. So i’d really appreciate talking to you Laura. Beautiful Name, Amazing songs, Outstanding Job.

      Take Care, Alan (from now your fan)

      • Thank-you πŸ™‚ It’s cool to hear about other people who are passionate about games and music. Good luck with your project! I’m sure that composing for an online game would be a fun experience; I really like how they did the music and atmosphere for World of Warcraft.

    6. Hey-lo supershigi. Just read your feedback on TIGforums about my game Umi Island, and I wanted to say two things:

      1. Thanks for enjoying it! But I do agree I need to fix some issues like aiming and balance.
      2. I loved Plants vs Zombie, the music was freakin’ awesome. And what a coincidence! I just found out that you composed the sound track! Thanks for that, music is great. You’re a cool gal..

      Lookin through your blog, your game seems to be coming along beautifully. I hope to be able to play it one day…

      • Hi Eddie! How is Umi Island coming along? I’m glad that you enjoyed Plants vs. Zombies and its music!

    7. Those songs are bringing me back to the days when I was 7 years old, sitting on the floor, with the NEW controller in my hands, totally in the flow, jump, slide, shoot shoot shoot, jump! My best friend right there next to me, waiting for me to die, so he can have a go at it. Man, those were some great times. Laura, you’re an inspiration to me, you made it into the industry and took it by your own hands! I hope I can make it into the animation industry, like you did the music industry.

      PS, may I throw in some of my old NES favorites as well? ^_^

      Ducktails – Moon <<Capcom, woot!

      Ninja Gaiden – Master Ninja <<aww, not capcom, but Techmo. lol)

      Bubble Bobble – main theme <<Old school! Before the days of Puzzle Bobble! Woot! By Taito…

      Castlevania – Wicked Child <<So many good songs… Konami! XD

      Megaman 2 – Dr. Wily's Castle! <<I can listen to this song for hours, and still not get tired of it. It's almost like drugs for my ears. Capcom FTW!


      Laura, keep up your awesomeness! You rock!

      • Aw, I’m really happy to hear that! I’m sure that if you put your heart into your work you will definitely succeed in your field! I remember the good old NES days, too… when I was 7 and in Japan for the summer, my sisters and I would sneak downstairs in the middle of the night to play NES (Famicom).

        Ahh… I love the music from the Moon level in Ducktails… it’s so good ^_^

    8. I got curious after watching pvz credit movie, google ur name, and found ur blog, at first i thought u r just a singer, soon i found that u like playing DotA, making Rpg, and composing music… Wow! Its just like ME! (except i am a boy and i dont sing, my voice sucks >.<), i really loves pvz musics that u made, u r really a pro, not like me, hehe… Well, good work, keep it up, and have fun!

      • hey ur like me too… filipino?

        • a little to the south… n_n

      • Hehe, thank-you πŸ™‚ That’s cool that you’re also into DoTA, music, and rpgs! Which heroes do you like to play in DoTA? My favorites are Beast Master and Ursa.

    9. hey yoh.. supershigi…β™₯
      i didnt know you had been playing dota recently, haha a fun fact, any ways, good work keep up your healthy body and have fun with life!β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯β™₯

      • Haha, yeah we play almost every night these days >_< Although I've been trying to cut back recently so that I can work on my game more. Thanks, and take care!

    10. Your music is so great that i play it while playing my rpg’s like adventurequest worlds.I even forget to play red alert 3 and play rammstien’s amerika!Keep up the hard work!(^^^) πŸ™‚

    11. Im your fan!

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