How to Get Projects as a Video Game Music Composer

9.10.2018 by Aleix Ramon

You've probably heard it before: the video game industry is flourishing in recent years. And video games need music, so that means plenty of new opportunities for us musicians!

Sounds beautiful, right? But it seems like a ton of musicians have already turned to the many possibilities of video games, and like many other fields involving music, the market is saturated with musicians.

However, it's possible to make a living making video game music. You can, in fact, make plenty of money if you play your cards really well. But it's not easy. Among other things that I will explain below, it requires a big love not only for music but also for video games. So if video games are not your thing, skip this idea - better check out the last article of this series on making money as a session musician!

Given the limited length of this article, I'm going to focus especially on how to get gigs as a video game music composer, and not about how to make the music. If you want to learn more about how to become a good video game composer - which you should, if you actually want to make money from this - the book “A Composer's Guide to Game Music” by Winifred Philips is a good start.

And now, let's dive into the second topic of our series of new ways to make money from music: How to get gigs as a video game composer!

Your tools

Most video game composers create the music with their computers using mostly a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) with VST plugins (virtual instruments).

Almost any DAW will do, so if you are still not using one, don’t overthink it - just get the DAW which is most convenient for you and learn  how to use it well. Regarding VSTs, it's better to start simple and slowly expand when you feel like you need it. Kontakt Factory is an easy start with a fair variety of sounds.

However, to achieve a really professional sound, it is immensely beneficial to include at least one real instrument recording on your tracks. Every style of music can be a video game soundtrack, so it's good to make sure you have a variety of instruments at your disposal to be ready for everything. You can get them here!

Getting the job

Now let’s take a look at what it takes to get gigs as a video game music composer. There are four key requirements, and each one is useless without having the previous one covered.

  1. Sound

It doesn't matter if your compositions are original and mind-blowing: without the adequate sound quality, it will never sound good enough in a game. Sound quality is something that can be judged immediately, whereas composition requires attentive listening for a longer time. This means that if someone who is looking for a composer listens to your music and the sound is not good you've probably lost your opportunity, even if the composition was brilliant. You need to use the proper instruments and samples and having your music properly mixed.

Furthermore, you should be able to adapt your sound to the necessities of each game. For example, some games might require an orchestral Hollywood soundtrack sound, while others might need a cheap old-school 8-bit sound. Listen to the retro-sounding "Strike the Earth" composed by Jake Kaufman for the retro-looking video game “Shovel Knight”...

...And now to “Restoring the Light, Facing the Dark”, a much more Hollywood-like soundtrack, composed by Gareth Coker for the video game “Ori and the Blind Forest”. Even if their sound differs wildly, both tracks work perfectly in the context of their respective games.

It’s just about having the right sound that fits each game! Being flexible in your sound will keep more doors open for you.

  1. Music Composition

Once your sound quality is under control, you can start to make those compositional skills of yours shine. Many composers can achieve a professional sound, but your compositional style is yours and only yours. This is art after all, and your craft is unique - it might be similar to others in some ways, but it will never be identical.

  1. Networking: Creating Trust

Once your music is good enough, it's time to move to the "real life" part of the equation. As video game composer Daniel James said in an interview with Video Game Music Academy, "There's a bar of quality that you need to pass - sort of like a cost of entry - and once your music is that good, it's good enough and it then becomes more about who you know".

The Internet can be a great place for connecting with video game developers, but at the same time, it’s saturated with musicians looking for gigs on video games (especially forums!). I often hear from video game developers how they are constantly receiving emails and messages from random composers asking for an opportunity to make music for their games. Don't do that, as it will most likely be a waste of your time.

Instead of approaching developers with your sales pitch, focus on building a human relationship with them.

How? Show genuine interest in their work. Attend video game events near you whenever you can and meet developers in person, and stay in contact online. Start a Twitter account and follow people you want to work with, starting conversations with them - NOT trying to get the gig, just talk about anything else. Share your work online so that others can see what you do.

Show them that you're a human being with a taste, ideas, and emotions. Someone they would enjoy having on their team. Similar to networking as a session musician, it's not about making them hire you right now: it's about keeping in contact regularly so that when the time comes for them to hire you, you will be the one they will think about.

Why are these relationships so important? Because you need to create trust. Any developer could easily find another composer who could do it cheaper. They just have to look at their email SPAM folder or publish a public post on any video game related forum. There is ALWAYS someone who would do it cheaper or even for free. And yes, your music might be much better than theirs, but for many people who are not musicians, it's difficult to judge music.

Everything then comes down to TRUST: they have to trust that you will not screw it up, that you will provide them with the right music at the right time. The team needs to trust you in order to put an important part of a project they have been working on for months or years on your hands. Look at it from their point of view, and don't take it personally if you don't get chosen for a project. There will always be more opportunities.

A very good start for making your first contacts is to attend any kind of Game Jam, where developers create a video game in a very short time (in a few days or even hours). Music composers are often welcomed and sought-after in these events. This allows you not only to meet developers and to show them your skills right there but also to start growing your portfolio. The Global Game Jam, celebrated every January, is the most popular one and it’s held in many different places around the globe at once. 

  1. Be Professional

As with many other music jobs, if you want to make a living from this, don't treat it as a hobby. Treat it as your job. Have a professional looking portfolio and website. Respect deadlines. Do your best and, if possible, provide even better results than expected. Make sure you don't break the trust you've earned in the previous step!

As mentioned in the previous article of the series, it’s good to be expensive. In most people’s minds, price tag = quality, remember that? It’s OK (and sometimes necessary) to negotiate your price and lower it if needed, but your initial offer should say “yes, I’m good, so I’m valuable”.

Action Plan

Let’s define the first steps so that you can start taking action now.

  1. Check that your sound quality and compositional skills are in good shape. You don’t need to achieve perfection, just a “good enough” level. Get some instruments and use them in your music to make your tracks come to life.
  2. Start sharing your work online. Soundcloud, YouTube, Twitter, on a personal website… Everywhere you can.
  3. Attend real-life video game events whenever you can. Game Jams are great for this. If you can't, participate in online Global Jams
  4. Keep in touch with everyone you meet. Most developers like to use Twitter, which is also a good tool to find new developers online. Build trust, but don’t be a salesman.

Eventually, you will start getting your first gigs. However, the process can be very slow, and it will for sure take longer than you would like. Above anything said in this article, always keep in mind that this is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s good to put as much effort and time on this as your passion allows you, but you won’t make it far if you burn out. Find your pace, stick to it, and you will get far.

And don’t forget to have fun!