Four months have passed since the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Fransisco, where droves of video game industry elites gather annually to discuss the mechanics and business of gaming. I recall a large, imposing map of the world in one of the conference halls with the words “where are you from,” scribed above it. The map was bathed in little red dots indicating where attendees hailed from; not even Siberia was without a few. As I squinted between the chicken pox markers to find my home in Ohio, I began to reflect on the awesome conditions that brought me to this remarkable conference; how, exactly, did I get here?
Why, studying video game music with Matthew Thompson, of course! His guidance helped make my secret passion for game audio a not-so-secret passion by having me apply for a longshot scholarship to the Game Audio Network Guild. This award included an All Access pass to GDC with a personal industry mentor in game audio. I submitted a 1-minute RPG-style battle track I wrote under Thompson's supervision, a narrative with some letters of recommendation, and I was elated to see I was selected for the award! The University of Michigan School of Music Theater and Dance (SMTD) even paid for my flight!
What would follow? A whirlwind of corporate convention constructs the size of circus tents, endless panels and seminars on all aspects of game development; industry titans roaming about like average Joes, and a bevy of indie video game stations ready for play.
The Moscone Center, host of GDC, was a veritable sea of people. The complex is broken into three massive buildings (North, East, and West), the former two with sprawling convention expos in each basement (if you can call something the size of a NASA Space Silo a basement). Throngs of video game journalists, voice actors, narrative writers, graphics artists, directors, CEOs, programmers, and game designers painted the halls and courtyards. While I enjoyed these diverse people and their ideas, what I was really there for was the Game Audio.
I would soon be greeted by my assigned mentor, Adam Gubman. CEO and founder of Moonwalk Audio, who has written music for hundreds of clients such as Disney, Zynga, Storm8, Sony, PlayFirst, GSN, GameHouse, NBC Today, and Warner-Chappell – to name a few. We met at one of the many meet-and-greet tables on the third floor of Moscone West, where I would get acquainted with one of the most motivated people I have ever met. With a forward, engaged posture and a surveying glance, Gubman was a dodecahedra-tattooed, spikey haired mensch; intense and cool, with a quick wit and boundless passion for music. He also had a no-nonsense approach to success: if you want this, work hard every day, don't burn bridges, absorb all you can, and persist. I've seen men of his intensity in successful musicians like Tommy Tallarico and Tom Salta and have come to identify it as the flagship trait that makes these men so successful. Their time is precious, they waste precious little of it, and tackle every task with speed and abandon.
Adam would prove an impactful mentor, spending a great deal of time with me despite a very busy schedule of his own. Explaining a personal story of how a demo song of his won a Golden Globe, Gubman said you never know what each opportunity could bring. Demonstrating loyalty and compassion, he tells me, creates a “halo effect,” building rapport and camaraderie with potential clients. Trust and Loyalty, Adam believes, set you apart from other composers and earn you respect. He advised I take on GDC as a sponge, absorbing all I could, and give my time to every opportunity, even if the upshot for involvement wasn’t clear yet; I decided to run with his advice.
There was no shortage of sessions to enjoy in game audio. From a seminar in VR audio, featuring Winnifred Phillips as lecturer, we analyzed how special positioning for music can be more immersive than stereo in this medium, using 3D elements to implement a 2D score into the VR world. Music could even transition from 2D to 3D for dramatic effect, citing how she used 3D sound effects in the game “fail factory,” to accent the 2D musical score, creating several sounds in the “VR space.” One example was the loud “clang,” of a factory mallet dropping as the downbeat to a soundtrack for a stage. Analyzing “Shadows of Mordor,” with Nathan Grigg and Garry Schyman, they discussed how the tribal identity of various tribes in the game informed the musical themes. Using a tribe’s unique armor types, appearance and function of forts, enabled them to use the music to accent these properties. For example, the “Machine Tribe Fort Theme,” is comprised of billowing smokestacks, so he created a “non-melodic, plodding rhythmic theme with odd sets of industrial sounds to blend together and bring the orchestra in, underneath. Also, in a post-mortem on the “Call of Duty WWII,” sound track, Will Roget –who took home almost every award at the 2018 G.A.N.G. awards – described his embrace of a “modern,” sound through expanding on tradition and not limiting oneself to “genre expectation.” For example, to create the “WW II vibe,” he decided upon string quartet and solo cello over big drums and high winds or overt brass. This enabled him to focus on a modern presentation, with an early focus on the “in-game mix,” such as using trumpets only for doubling horns (instrumental EQ), and expanded low winds and brass into a “synth tuba.” He peppered his music with signature sounds, like the “echo horns,” in the piece “Memory of War,” or air raid sounds in the piece, “Haze of War.” Roget even used extended playing techniques, such as aleatoric orchestral techniques and “overpressure” in the strings.
There was so much to absorb, I haven’t space in this post to include it all!
When not at the many seminars, I met developers seeking music for their games, attended a G.A.N.G town hall where I pitched an idea to head up a student committee, volunteered at an IASIG meetup to run their slack channel, and got to present an award at the 2018 G.A.N.G Audio Awards ceremony as one of the 4 scholars at GDC. To top it off, I even got to meet “The Fat Man.”
GDC was an unforgettable experience, where endless paths crisscross into an intricate network to produce the pixelated art and sonic beauty keeping our hands glued to a controller. Whether I was examining the music of “Middle Earth: Shadow of War,” having my music played and critiqued before a panel of game composers at the “Demo Derby,” (where it was well received), or making new friends and colleagues, GDC provided an invaluable foot in the door for what I love to do.
As I left my friends, boarded my flight, and scribbled notes on contacts from the handfulls of cards I obtained, the words of Adam Gubman pushed me forward faster than the jet I sat on. “You gotta be fast, you gotta work hard to deliver for your client; you have to push and persist every day.”