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!