Jeff Broadbent is no stranger to games. A composer and sound designer, he’s worked on the post-apocalyptic single-player-focused I Am Alive, the sci-fi online-only Planetside 2, the movie-inspired Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, the upcoming near-future military skirmish Tom Clancy’s Endwar Online, as well as his most recent work on the fantasy multiplayer online battle area game Dawngate. But in talking to him about that latter game, Broadbent went into how a game’s setting and genre can influence the music he makes for it.
How did you first come to the attention of Waystone Games, the people making Dawngate? Did you go up to them at a bar and say, “So, looking for someone to score…your new game? What, what did you think I meant?”
I regularly go to trade shows like GDC, Game Connection, and others, and meet a bunch of people who work in game audio. I was staying in touch with audio director Caleb Epps, and I sent him an email saying hello and letting him know of some latest projects I had recently finished. Caleb let me know he was working on an upcoming game, and had me create a couple of demo tracks for it. He really enjoyed the demo tracks I created — a main theme demo, as well as a combat track example — and the rest is history.
Dawngate is being made by Waystone, but published by Electronic Arts. How involved does the publisher get in deciding who does a game’s music? Do they have final approval? Can they make suggestions?
In my experience, the publisher generally doesn’t get very involved in the choice of composer. It’s more often the development team and primarily the audio director that are responsible for the composer choice. However, other team members, such as the producers and creative director, will also weigh-in on the composer decision.
I would imagine that the publisher would have final say as they are funding the game, though from what I’ve seen, the majority of the time the development team is responsible for such creative decisions.
In working on Dawngate’s music, what were some of the things you felt it needed to be, in terms of instrumentation and tone?
When I first viewed the colorful fantasy concept art and read the rich lore back-story of the game, I knew that the instrumentation of the score needed to be very colorful and evocative. The game has an interesting concept because it has a diverse collection of “Shapers,” i.e. heroes you can select, and centers around the concept of “Vitality,” which is the energy force the Shapers use.
I often think of music first in terms of sonic color. Ideas came to me to blend exotic world instruments — such as Tibet metal percussion, Eastern flutes, skinned drums, and plucked instruments — with the power and size of the orchestra, and also to mix in such organic synthetic elements as synth ambiences, pulses, and so on.
Each Shaper in the game has his/her own unique story and history. They are very memorable characters, and very diverse. Because of this strong character identification, I felt that having a melodic component to the score was important. Game players will latch onto melodic elements in the music and will remember them and associate them with the story and characters. I wanted the Dawngate score to have some memorable themes that would remind the players of the game’s lore and story.
I want to talk a bit about how the games themselves impact how you score them. First, Dawngate isn’t the first online-only game you’ve scored, nor is in the only one you’re doing, as you previously did Planetside 2 and LEGO: Legends Of Chima Online, and are also working on Tom Clancy’s Endwar Online. Does a game being multiplayer only dictate how you work on its score, or what kinds of instruments you use?
I would say the multiplayer component of a game does in some ways dictate the type of music and its function. For instance, multiplayer games generally don’t have as many cut scenes or story elements as a single player game, and instead the music tends to center around exploration and combat elements primarily. Depending on the game of course.
Dawngate is a MOBA [multiplayer online battle area game], and centers on arena-based combat. But Endwar Online and Planetside 2 both revolve around the battles between different factions. So in these kinds of multiplayer games, the use of combat/action music is very important. Though having music to represent each faction, with a different musical approach for each faction, is also very important. This was very evident in Planetside 2 and Endwar Online, in which I composed different music styles for each of the different factions.
Because Dawngate is an online-only game, they obviously planned to do a beta of the game, to shake out the kinks. Does that mean you had to have your music done before the game went into beta, or does your music get beta tested as well?
Dawngate’s music was actually being composed while the game in its closed beta, and that was the same with Endwar Online and LEGO: Legends of Chima Online. The music is usually finished when the game does their open beta, though we will still may be composing a few new tracks here and there, and the in-house audio team continues to tweak the music implementation/playback system to best fit the gameplay modifications made during beta.
Along the same lines, does a game’s genre dictate how you score it?
Definitely. In a first-person-shooter, action is the name of the game, so the music needs to be very dynamic and exciting. This music needs fast rhythms, large and full instrumentation, and some harmonic tension to accompany the battles of the game.
In Dawngate, the music has two interactive layers: the lower-intensity layer has reduced intensity and is more ambient, and plays when the character is exploring and engaged in low-level combat. Then there’s a high-intensity layer that kicks in when combat is more intense. So this is an example of the music being adaptive based on the needs of the game.
Another game I scored, Ubisoft’s I Am Alive — which was a single-player game — involved a lot of exploration of abandoned areas and searching for items and characters. This is an example of the gameplay mode requiring very unobtrusive ambient music that sits in the background and sets the mood.
What about the setting of a game? Planetside 2 was a sci-fi game, but Dawngate is a fantasy game and Endwar Online is set in basically our time. I would that would have a big impact on what instruments you use and how the score works.
Yes, setting also affects the tone of the game. For Planetside 2, the sci-fi element was especially expressed in the music for the Vanu Sovereignty, who were the technology faction. Here, I used a bunch of modern synths and sound design elements to give it a futuristic touch.
For Dawngate’s fantasy elements, I blended a lot of acoustic world instruments and orchestra, in addition to some organic nature-inspired synth tones for a more natural feel.
Endwar Online, even though the time setting is more present-day, still used some futuristic sounds for the European Federation faction, which is more high-tech.
Similarly, LEGO: Legends Of Chima Online is a game for kids, as was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game you did in 2013, but Dawngate is decidedly more for adults. I assume the music you do for a kids game would be different, maybe more cartoony or playful, than for an adult game.
Yes, music for a kid’s game needs to be fun, light, and lively. With Ninja Turtles, the developers wanted the music to sound similar to the TV show music, so I mixed in a lot of urban beats and some pop music elements with the action strings, brass, and percussion. As well as some cool Japanese instruments to give the martial arts feel.
With Legends Of Chima, the developers said they wanted the music to sound fun, but also exciting, dramatic, and epic. So the music I did for it often takes a cinematic tone with powerful brass, wide strings, etc., though it also uses a lot of percussion that helps to liven it up. After all, the kingdom of Chima is a jungle-styled world, so using percussion that sounds like it’s from their home helps a lot.
But I would think that Dawngate being a free-to-play game has no bearing on the music you’re making for it.
That’s correct, a game’s business model — whether it’s free-to-play, subscription, console, downloadable, etc. — doesn’t have much to do with the music style.
Is there one game score you’ve done that stands out the most for you, maybe for being the most fun you ever did or the one you think worked the best with the game?
Very hard to say. I like all the projects I do a lot. I would say it’s a toss-up between Dawngate and I Am Alive. I enjoyedworking on Dawngate from the get-go, I just kind of fell into a groove of composing the music. It almost felt like it didn’t take much effort, I was just really inspired by the game’s art and story.
I also enjoyed working on I Am Alive because it’s a very mature game with a dark setting, but also a hopeful theme. The story involves a man searching for his lost family in a post-disaster world. I had the chance to create a lot of ambient immersive music that was very much based in a sound-design approach, which I enjoy a lot. Also the combat music was very gritty, dissonant, and in your face, to match the realism of the game. Quite different from the Chima score. I’d love to score another dark, realistic game like this.
Two of your earliest game scores, I Am Alive and Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, have both been released as albums. First, are there any plans to release the soundtrack to Dawngate?
While it isn’t for sure yet, we are planning on releasing an album for Dawngate. Formats are still undecided, but most likely it would be downloadable and possibly CD. But none of this is 100% confirmed at this time.
Who decides if a game’s soundtrack gets released?
Many times developers see the soundtracks as having limited income potential, and thus possibly not worth the effort to publish. I’d love to have all the soundtracks released I work on. But it depends on the developer and publisher.
Do game soundtracks do well, sales-wise? Obviously, they do don’t Beyoncé numbers, but do they sell okay, relatively speaking?
Yes, though I would say the soundtrack sales are almost directly related to the popularity of the video game itself. If a video game is very popular, such as Call Of Duty, chances are that it will sell well.
Besides writing music for games, you also do sound design. One of my complaints about sound design and music in games is that I find that the music is often so loud that it drowns out the rest of the sound effects, especially the dialog. Granted, some games let you turn the music down or off, but still, it seems like an odd oversight. Do you know why this is?
I don’t know why this is, actually. But a good observation. When I provide sound design, I create the sound effects, but usually the in-game volume mixing — music vs. sound effects vs. dialog — is handled in-house by the game developer. I would imagine that possibly while mixing the game’s volume, the music can seem more interesting, especially if the developers have heard the same dialog lines over and over again, and so the music gets mixed too loud. But that’s just a theory.
So when you play games, how often do you catch yourself turning off the music in a game because you either think it’s bad or doesn’t fit the game or even doesn’t fit the scenario and you’re like, “Why is there a bunch of Katy Perry songs playing while I’m wandering a post-apocalyptic wasteland?”
I rarely if ever turn off the music. Even if the music is not fitting to the game I will still listen to it to understand why it isn’t working. So even poor music choice or usage can still be a learning experience.