Music for mashing buttons to. Photo (CC) Jon Jordan, Pocket Gamer.

Perhaps it’s a sign of the times that, as far as the conference calendar for 2009 goes, some of the most interesting discussions about audio, composition, and technology are happening at a game developer conference.

The terrific GameSetWatch “ game” blog has a nice overview of the goodies at GDC in March for audio lovers:

Previewing GDC 2009: Inside The Audio Track [GameSetWatch]

But even that doesn’t cover all the goodness. Check out the full Audio Track schedule:

Audio Track, GDC

I imagine for someone looking to get started or develop in game audio and music, there’s tons of value here, especially if you’re near San Francisco in the spring. Here are some highlights for me – and a general critique of why really experimental, bleeding-edge tech seems to be sidelined.

Challenges for designers and composers:

  • Composer Challenge: this yearly challenge gets both established and emerging composers to do a single, 60-second cue, reality TV-style. (Top Composer?) For the sound designers, there’s the similar…
  • G.A.N.G. Sound Design Demo Derby, a yearly critique of 60 attendee sound design work. (Game Sound Idol?) From the Game Audio Network Guild, which is also beefing up its community.

Technical discussions:

  • Reflections on real-time DSP design from Guy Whitmore of Microsoft Game Studios. (I initially misread this as being about the use of GPU shaders for audio processing, but it’s something equally important: explaining to visual people why real-time audio matters, too!)
  • SOCOM Confrontation developers on doing online audio for 32 players (32-player online music collaboration, anyone?)
  • High Dynamic Range Audio from Battlefield: Bad Company takes a new approach to mixing with “real-world” sound levels – something that I would expect could be interesting far beyond the realm of game audio design.
  • Why going beyond the physics models of the vehicles helped racing game Pure sound good
  • Simon Carlile on research into virtual environments and 3D sound design

And on the creative side:

Some terrific stuff, but I also can’t help notice what’s missing – not the fault of GDC, but the direction of audio and music in games. There’s a clear bias for big scores, discussions of orchestras and chorus, and linear, non-interactive, Hollywood-style musical narrative. With the explosion in experimental game design, indie games, online game distribution for the PC, PSP, Wii, Xbox360, PS3, and soon the DS, and lots of terrific ideas about new ways of designing game mechanics, where’s music? Indie game music doesn’t make an appearance in the conference at all. (Note that they do appear elsewhere in the conference, which to me is telling.) And generally, the game music scene of late has tended to be either Hollywood-style film scores or retro, 8-bit soundtracks. With the exception of Spore, whose musical engine was a topic at GDC 08, there’s been very little real progress in generative and truly interactive musical scores. That’s sad, given the promise next-gen consoles had for even things like live synthesis.

Directly related to this, I’m equally surprised that mobile music and audio isn’t getting more attention as those consoles evolve. But then, that again requires a shift of compositional paradigm, to assume that you might actually innovate more with a truly interactive score for a mobile device than you might for a lush, orchestral soundtrack on an A-list PS3/Xbox360 title.

Don’t get me wrong: I think some of the orchestral-style scores for games have been quite wonderful. But it seems like part of the potential spectrum is getting left out, and I can’t say that musical innovation has kept pace with everything that’s happening in experimental game design.

My suggestion: get a group of GDC attendees together at a bar, bring some blank napkins, and think about the future there.

(Note that there is an experimental gameplay session call. It’d be great to see some music entries, huh? See also the project site,

If you’re going to GDC, do let us know!

  • This is AWESOME.
    I'm eager to read more. The CDM article/interview with Troels Folmann on dynamic "microscoring," that really influences on to my present grad research on music/rhythm games. Thanks so much Peter for this ripe bunch of coverage.

  • bliss

    I don't see any any "experimental gameplay session call" at all. Just a blank page.

  • Hey bliss — that link is working for me, but here's the direct link to the experimental games folks:

  • mr. tunes

    hey peter, i'm not really sure what your gripe is regarding the indie music part of your post.

    if i understood you correctly, i don't think there's much to complain about since almost every other media industry has replaced the art of composing music, with the art of finding songs from your ipod and licensing them. if gaming is the last industry to embrace people who can write music like this, then so be it.

    but since it's such a large industry, there appears to be plenty of room for the two to co-exist. especially with the developments in regards to the big companies opening up record labels to compliment their gaming business.

    and the conference aside, i have to hand it to this industry of all the ones i've worked in – game companies seem to respect the music and its process far more than other areas of multimedia that i know.

  • Sorry, that's indie as in "indie gaming" — game development from smaller publishers. My point is that we get a lot of representation in the program from bigger developers. One likely reason is, well, those indie folks are busy out there *being indie developers*. And I think the other reality is that a lot of indie game development has done far more in terms of innovation in game mechanics than in sound design or music.

    That's not even a criticism, really. On the contrary, I think there's tremendous potential here that we haven't seen realized yet. It's hard not to imagine that we'll soon see a game that does for music and sound what the likes of Portal, fl0w, Braid, and whatnot did for design and mechanics.

    Spore would certainly be way up my list, and it did benefit from the involvement of Brian Eno and the skill and expertise of the team at EA/Maxis. I think it did have that level of innovation for music and sound design. But, at the same time, the reason I bring up the indies is I think they can take some risks that a big developer might not be able to (EA and Spore being the exception that proves the rule).

  • Also, I say it explicitly above, but I'll say it again: I have no problem with conventional, retro-tinged chip-style scores (as we've seen in a number of indie games lately). I have no problem with big, orchestral scores, and there's a lot happening with how to adapt those to games as a medium rather than just loop a Hollywood score in the background. I just think that there's a third area of the spectrum in between – Spore was there, with live, truly generative music, and I do believe games other than Spore could be, too.

  • Have you checked out Tetroid 2012? It's indie music and indie gaming as one package, and pretty cool stuff.

    The celebrated indie game World of Goo had quite excellent music by its own designer/developer; perhaps not innovative, but certainly above average for games.

  • @foosnark: exactly — there is a lot happening in the indie scene. Thanks for the reminder, because I actually hadn't yet taken the opportunity to download that! (will take a break later this evening!)

    Of course, not everyone can go to SF. But it would be great to see an event highlight more of this stuff. Maybe we'll see some music hit the agenda for PAX. And of course, I actually don't feel I've done nearly the job I could covering this, so *please* — keep the tips coming! More game coverage is way up on my new year's resolutions for the site. And hopefully we'll look at some of the technical issues to give people some tools to make their own futuristic game music!

  • mr. tunes

    as for what you've written me above, i agree with you. i think on the indie dev side of things, that damn iPhone is going to be of big discussion this year(lol).

    i know you've covered it a lot this year so i imagine that's why you left it out of your post, but for indie houses this thing is really inspiring people.

    my friend who's a software engineer has never been more inspired to make his own games until now.

    you're lucky you live near the action there – i've always wanted to go to a GDC but coming from Toronto it's a bit of a hit on the bank account, especially since I have to save me money for another WMC.

  • Yep, iPhone is nice, and I think we'll see more from Android, as well. Flash is showing up on Windows Mobile for the first time, and JavaFX promises to give us even more compatible mobile/desktop design. So there's lots of potential. I'm impressed that iPhone, for now, is the one that can most easily do live synthesis and effects, but I'm hopeful some other platforms will follow suit.

    I don't exactly live near San Francisco, though; I'm in New York! (I've always wanted to go to Toronto!) We do get a break on airfares to … well, everywhere, really.

  • I should be there this year. Definitely keep going with these updates–I'll be excited to attend any sort of CDM event!

    Also, for those of you who think the price is a bit steep but still want to go (like me): for the last two years, I've gone through the CA program, which cuts costs dramatically:

    Basically, you work 20 hours at the conference, and get an All Access pass for your work. This reduces the price of the event to just travel, hotel and food.

    I'm a student, and a lot of the others doing the CA program are also young, but there's no age limit, and there are plenty of older folks who do it, too!

  • I certainly hope we hear some more from Android. I got a G1 for Christmas and love it, but am somewhat jealous of the musical toys available on iPhone since there are so few for Android thus far.

    I realize the G1 doesn't do multitouch (at least not without uber-leet hax), but neither does the Nintendo DS and it has a healthy set of musical toys.

    I'm trying to be patient on that front… 🙂

  • @foosnark:
    What type of applications would you like on Android?

  • mr. tunes

    ha my bad, either i'm not following the blog close enough, or you seem to show up in every city peter 😉

    as for multitouch, i think HP did a big firmware update this year on their touchscreen laptops, not sure if it is multi yet, but i think eventually we won't have to look to mobiles for this technology.

  • Heheh… well, my carbon footprint is significant, let's put it that way. (Hmmm… lower emission planes anyone? Maybe props? Blimps?)

    Multitouch on laptops: yep, already here, indeed. Note that this isn't entirely fair to compare to the Lemur in that the touch method and other critical details are different. But on a basic level, we're seeing a democratization of multi-touch.

  • interim_descriptor

    The best series of audio lectures I attended at GDC were by Leonard Paul, on granular synthesis.

    The generative soundtrack lecture for Spore, last year, was also excellent.

    I'll be attending this year, but I'm not convinced any of the audio lectures will be breaking new ground…

  • ws

    this is an interview of Guy Withmore by Develop magazine.
    I'm now at the very beginning point of game audio but I like what Guy was talking in this interview. it's interesting.