Jack Wall interview

Composer/Producer, Sr. Director
Game Audio Network Guild

 Interviewed by Doug Minnick

Tell us about the games and projects you have done.

I've done a bunch of stuff for Disney. I did some location dates for their Disney Quest, which is like an indoor theme park. I did some rides for them too, and I also did The Ultimate Ride game. It sort of competed with Roller Coaster Tycoon. I just did some music for Unreal II and Army of Darkness III. These are all out now. I'm currently doing Wrath, which is going to be a big game for Lucas Arts. I'm doing some trailer music for the new Dungeon Siege 2 game, and a game called Ben Hur which is coming out fairly soon. It's a horse racing game and is very cool. I did another Disney game called Extremely Goofy Skateboarding. I did Barbie Secret Agent. I did a game called Vigilance, which is a Sega game that came out a couple of years ago. Those are the notable ones.

How did you get involved with Myst III?

It was one of those things where the producer was a friend of mine. He worked for a company called Evans & Sutherland in Salt Lake City. Aside from making aircraft simulators for the military and for the airlines, they also have a digital theater division that creates pretty cool shows for digital theaters around the world. I did some stuff for him, and then he moved over and started working for Mattel. He said, "Hey do you want to audition for this game Myst III?" I said, "Yes, of course!" He wanted me to do it, but the powers that be wanted a formal audition.

What about aspiring composers who want to get into this world? Where would they go to make connections with game developers?

Basically, I formed the Game Audio Network Guild for that purpose. It sounds a little altruistic—there has to be some other motive than Jack spending all of this time for other people to get into the business to compete with him.

It's really a matter of coming from the film and music business where there is a certain level of professionalism in the way music is produced. I learned from some incredible producers and engineers when I was coming up in that area. In games, we don't have that. Quite often, you're working by yourself. All you have to draw from is listening to this game or that game. There are no soundtracks readily available to actually study. There are a lot of problems in the business in that way. A lot of people who write music for games don't have any formal training at all. They have no time as an intern. I got together with some other people, and we put this thing together in the hopes that we could create some standards and a way to have certain benchmarks that people could look to for guidance. It's not only for the up and coming composers, sound designers, and what not, but for the people who make these games. Every time a producer hires me to do something, and they have absolutely no clue as to what is going on musically or what to ask for, we give them a resource also. It's really important to build a bridge between all of these people. The last thing I want to do is hear somebody new doing a score for a really important game that really falls short because they don't have the experience. I'd rather try to create some experiences for people where they can learn from what other people have been doing for years.

I'm surprised all the time at how much I learn from people who have been doing this longer than I have. There is a huge resource now in the Game Audio Network Guild, so if you have a question, you can call somebody, or you can go on the message boards and talk about it. There are a lot of important topics to discuss. You can also connect with people who need help on a project. That can give you a credit on that project, and that will help you get into the industry. You'll have access to all of the different industry trade events where you can go and meet some of these people. That's important.

What are some of those events?

There are two main events every year that we have a major presence at. The first is the Game Developer's Conference, which just happened in March. That takes place up in San Jose. That's where all of the developers come. To me, that is the most productive one. That's where the people you need to meet are. Even really experienced people can go and learn some great stuff. For example, I did a panel with two other composers and all of our producers of orchestral music, and the people there were the heads of audio from Microsoft, Sony, all the console makers, plus ASCAP, and people like that. I probably put together five potential deals for myself right there because that's just where everybody goes.

The second one is E3 which is coming up in May in Los Angeles at the L.A. Convention Center. That's the big expo and shows off all the games. That one is really for the retailers, but it's still a good opportunity because all of the developers and publishers go to that one as well. We always have an event there too. We'll probably have some sort of gathering Friday night.

Can this kind of music be recorded in a home studio?

Well, more and more a lot of the publishers are demanding that the production value be higher and higher, which is good. I'm so happy about that. I have to say, most game music is kind of flat, and that's because you're dealing with composers who sit in their own studios, and that's all you get. You don't get any fresh players. There's no actual recording time. But yes, it can be done. Most of it is done, initially at least, in your home studio. What we're trying to do through the Game Audio Network Guild and through going to these aforementioned gatherings, is to talk to the producers about how to produce music outside of the home studio. We're trying to get the people who are up and coming, and also the producers, to understand the issues concerning higher production value and how to do it.

And also to get them to pay for it, I'd imagine.

Totally. That's understood now, which is good. I just got a whole separate budget approved for an orchestra for one of the projects I'm working on. Everybody is pretty happy with the music so far, but again, it's not going to sound so good with just samples. Samples are sounding much better than they were a couple of years ago, but it still doesn't really compare to the real deal.

Is most of this kind of music orchestral, or is there a wide variety of styles used in games?

It's becoming more wide, I think. Orchestral is good for certain types of games. Other games might have rock or more electronic stuff going on. I'm asked to do a pretty big variety of stuf—like heavy metal meets orchestral, or some kind of tribal percussion as a part of the palette. One of the things we try to do during the design phase of the game is to choose our palette of instruments so that we can actually create a music score that is not just a carbon copy of the last game that came out, but more original. There is a lot of creative freedom I think in this business, more so than a lot of other places.

Is it all instrumental music, as a rule?

No, sometimes, depending on the game—especially sports games—they'll use licensed music. Basically, we do work for hire. My job as a composer for games is more like a film composer, which is all instrumental music, unless it's a choir. There might be a choir scene, but in terms of people writing actual songs, that's starting to happen, although I wouldn't say it's a very big slice of the pie right now.

Besides video games, what are some other opportunities for musicians who are interested in pursuing music for other types of entertainment?

For one, there is a whole new business called ring tones. I'm actually working with Thomas Dolby on a ring tone library. Thomas Dolby's website is called www.retroringtones.co.uk. Ring tones are an interesting thing because every single ring tone can be assigned to a cell phone. So every time it gets sold, a composer would actually make money on it, both from the writing side and the publishing side. The caveat there is that most of the demand for ring tones is for actual famous songs. You may get yourself into a situation where you're doing knock-offs of famous songs, and you'll get probably one-third to one-half of the income that is generated from those sales.

So are there performance royalties every time you get a call?

Actually, I was talking to Kevin Coogan at ASCAP about that the other day, and it's not when you get a call, it's when the ring tone is transmitted to the phone. That's the parameter. If there is some sort of a transmission, then you're supposed to get a payment for it. They're working on that. Ring tones are going to be an enormously profitable business in the coming years. Already, it's a billion dollar business worldwide. It's much bigger in Asia, Europe and Africa right now, but it's going to catch up here in the next couple of years.

In other words, somebody could do a ring tone version of a well known song, and get a master license payment for what they did, and the owner of the song would get the sync fee?

The way this kind of works is there are three parts of the pie concerning the production of those tones. A third goes to the person who owns the master recording, a third goes to the publisher, and a third goes to the producer of the ring tone. That last third has to do with the fact that there are all kinds of things you have to do to be able to make that tone be ready to be played on a phone. Right now as we speak, in Europe, you can actually mix MIDI files with samples in the ring tone. It's embedded in a particular format called RMF (rich music format) which is basically Thomas Dolby's invention. That's standardized, and it's on all of the Nokia phones in Europe. Next year it will be here. The year after that, we're going to have the ability to play just samples back. You'll start to hear, I don't know, farts or sirens on your phone, or people screaming at you, "Hey, pick up the phone!" That's the kind of stuff we're producing because we think that's going to sell really well and be funny. On the music side, you can actually sample little bits of a song, and because you have very small sample sizes—they have to be under 30k at the moment—you can actually creatively manipulate those tiny sample files with MIDI. General MIDI is already embedded in all of the phones you buy now. You've got a general MIDI palette, plus you've got maybe a couple of samples you can use. You can create great renditions of songs that way.

What does video game composing work pay?

The fees range anywhere from, I would say, $500 for a finished minute of music, up to $1,500. The $500 is more like the beginner pay and it ranges up to $1,500 for someone who is more well known and can command those kind of rates. That's kind of your baseline. Of course you'll have the occasional person who will do it for free, or for $100 or $200 a minute. And then you'll get somebody who just won't do it for less than $1,700 or $2,000. That's going to happen more and more.

How many minutes of music are there in an average game?

It really ranges. I've done games with 6 minutes of music, and I've also done games with 60 minutes of music in it. Your average game has about 40 minutes of music in it. That's most of the games I do. It's a work for hire fee. You give up all of your rights, although you shouldn't ever give up your writer's compensation. You'll want your share if the music should ever be attached to an advertisement or used in some other way, like a library, which I guarantee is what's going to start to happen. They're going to start taking some of these scores, some of which are so good, and start putting them in libraries and repackaging and reselling them. Don't give up your writer's share. ASCAP and GANG are going to do a whole thing on that—how to register every score so that down the road when you have a catalog, if it gets used, you'll get paid for it.

Are there any royalties when games are sold or used?

There are two ways right now that people are getting extra income based on sales of the games. If a game does really well, you can get an extra payment when it is launched on other platforms. There are multiple platforms now—you've got PC, Mac, and online computer games. Then you've got Playstation 2, X-Box, Nintendo Game Cube, Gameboy, Gameboy Advanced. You've got all of these different platforms that games can go on. What I try to do on almost every project now is if it goes to another platform, I get another payment of some sort. That payment can range between $5,000 and $15,000. The other thing is if you're kind of a hot composer, you can demand higher payments as more units of the game are sold. Your average budget to produce a game right now is between $2 million and $3 million. Let's say the budget is $3 million, and you figure the publisher will actually make $20 on a game that sells for $40 or $50. That means they'll break even if they sell about 150,000 units. So if you double that number to 300,000 units, you will get another payment. If it sells 500,000 units, it's another payment. It's basically including us in the success of the game, because there is no other way right now to get ancillary income from the success of a game. That's what some guys are getting now, and it's a really healthy thing.

What are important skills for a game composer to have?

A game composer needs to know how to do everything technically. In other words, they need to know how to be a really good music producer as well as a good composer. They need to know how to manipulate sound and make something fresh every time. That is to say they need to be very creative, but also very technically knowledgeable. I would say the second most important thing is you have to be a really friendly person and easy to get along with. I don't think prima donnas do very well in this business. It's a different animal. It's a business based on relationships. There is a lot of mutual respect going on. The producer and the designer are every bit as creative as you are. It's really important to work with them in a collaborative effort, rather than it's-my-way-or-the-highway, which isn't going to get you very far. I think it's really important to be a good collaborator and finally, you have to be a good business person. Because we don't have royalties necessarily at this point coming from ASCAP and BMI, you have to look out for how you're going to make money in the long run and make a long-running career out of this. I would say those are the three things that are most important.

What about musical versatility? Is that important? Is it okay if you're strong in just one genre?

John Williams said, "Always take the gig that you have no idea how you're going to do it, because then you'll learn something and become a better composer." I think you're going to be stretched no matter what you do in this business, because there are a lot of different types of music necessary to compose. You have to have an open mind about that. You have to stretch yourself a little bit. I think if you try to pigeonhole yourself, you'll have fewer gigs to choose from. The other side of the coin is, a lot of people make money not only from composing music, but from being a sound designer. People sort of fall into that as a necessity because, somebody asks them to do it when they couldn't find anybody else to do it. A lot of people are trying to do both, or getting together with somebody else who does that and creating a company to provide all of the sound for a game.

Can you define the difference between composer and sound designer?

The composer does the music, and the sound designer does the sound effects. The way I look at it is the composer provides the emotional content of the sound, and the sound designer provides the reality of the sound. If somebody steps on a pile of sticks, it doesn't sound musical. But if you're coming into a new world, and there is this vista there, and you're looking out over it, the music should reflect that in some way.

What's the best advice you can give an aspiring game composer?

Strive to be better all the time and be proficient of the art and craft of composing music for games. Also, be a nice person. Be easy to get along with. Be a good collaborator. Be a good business person too. And definitely join the Game Audio Network Guild because you'll have more opportunities to become more excellent at all of those things. The website address is: www.audiogang.org. There is a whole brochure area there which explains what we're all about.





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