Chapter 5: The HD Generation and Beyond

This chapter examines the music and sound of games of the generation of consoles that began to use High Definition (HD) graphics and sound. It also examines how the rise of mobile gaming, networked gaming, and online gaming has shaped music sound in games. There are two large technological developments that occur during this time, the first being the hardware and storage media (HD-DVD, Blu-Ray). The second, which is more indirectly related to the development of consoles, is the change in social interaction and media dissemination as a result of online platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. This change impacted console evolution and encouraged the developers to integrate more online capabilities and multiple functions. The accessibility of game development equipment also expanded, and, coupled with crowd funding websites, led to an increase in independently produced games and applications. The end result was an increase in extremely high quality and high definition AAA games as well as an increase in small-scale independent games, many of which had appeal to retro gaming crowds or to casual and non-hardcore gamers.

5.1 The Early HD Consoles (PS3, Xbox 360, Wii)

The first-generation HD consoles were released in 2006, and consist of the PlayStation 3 (PS3), Xbox 360, and the Nintendo Wii (a member of the generation but the only console not to transition to HD graphics). The main developments in gaming during this generation were improved graphic resolution, vastly improved storage space, improved sound resolution, and console multi-functionality. All of the consoles had online capabilities. This is an extension of early services such as Xbox Live, which started out with limited game support and became eventually immensely popular. With the release of the Xbox 360, the service was expanded to be functional with nearly all games, and gave users the option to download games, create avatars, download applications which are unrelated to gaming (you can, for example, watch Netflix and YouTube on Xbox 360). Like many other electronic devices of this time, such as phones that began to double as cameras and Internet browsers, consoles were becoming capable of much more than just gaming.

5.1.1 Wii

The Wii was technically the least advanced of its generation, opting not to include HD graphic capabilities, and investing more research and development resources into innovative gameplay. The Wii changed user interaction with games by integrating a motion-sensing controller, which was titled the WiiMote. This controller enabled players to use motion to perform physical gestures to play games. Nintendo recognized that while graphics had continually improved over the last two decades, the interaction design within games remained essentially the same, and they had begun working on a motion sensing controller as early as 2001.[1] Therefore, while the Wii was less advanced than its generational counterparts in terms of graphics, the WiiMote actually represented a major breakthrough in gaming interaction design. The Wii, like the 360 and PS3, also had online capabilities and an integrated online store, called the Wii Marketplace, which allowed users to shop for apps, downloadable games, and more. The WiiMote had a small speaker embedded into the controller, which was not used to playback music, but rather played back sound effects for aural feedback during gameplay. This type of feedback is similar in functionality to in-game sound effects, and possibly even represents an extension of the vibration and haptic feedback in many recent controllers (like the PS2 DualShock, etc). While the WiiMote and motion-sensing gaming never became popular in hardcore game titles, it was extremely popular for casual and party games, and represented the beginning of an era that would see continued innovation of user interaction design.

5.1.2 Wii Listening

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (2006) was the first title to be released on the Wii console in 2006. The game does make use of the motion sensitive controllers, although much of the control design is derived from prior iterations of the series, and simply extended to include the motion control.[2] Koji Kondo served as music supervisor for the game, but he did not write the soundtrack, and Toru Minegishi and Asuka Ohta were the primary composers for the game. The vision for the music originally involved the use of a large orchestra. This idea never came to fruition, partially because Kondo did not agree that the implementation of an orchestra would make a large difference, and also because sequenced music made interactivity more feasible.[3] While increased interactivity of music had been an important feature of previous Zelda games (such as Ocarina of Time), this did not result in entirely good reviews for the music, with one reviewer stating that “the MIDI tunes are passable, but they lack the punch and crispness of their orchestrated counterparts.”[4] Twilight Princess also makes extensive use of the WiiMote speaker, using it to playback fighting sound effects and trademark chimes upon secret discovery.


“Ordon Village”
“Hyrule Field”

5.1.3 Xbox 360

The Xbox 360 was also released in 2006, although with significantly more advanced hardware, and a higher retail price than the Wii. It also focused heavily, like the Wii, on an online component, with live multiplayer being one of the main features of the console. Xbox Live was substantially upgraded and expanded over the original Xbox version, and nearly all 360 games contained Xbox Live support. Downloadable content for games, arcade games, and applications was an important feature, and the ability to download and use extra media such as music, movies, and other software contributed to the Xbox 360’s establishment as a multifunctional device. There were multiple hook-ups and peripherals for the 360, and one of these devices was the Xbox Kinect, a motion-sensing camera that a player interacted with during certain games. The Kinect, much like the WiiMote, never gained popularity as an interface for hardcore games, but did contribute to the rise of dance and movement-based games, and represented once again the desire to innovate gaming interaction design. The Xbox 360 was not the highest selling console of its generation, but did help further popularize the Xbox brand. One significant drawback of the 360 was that it incorporated an HD-DVD player rather than Blu-Ray (the PS3’s medium), and HD-DVDs ended up becoming discontinued. This was not necessarily a lack of foresight on part of Xbox, however, since at the time it was yet undetermined which storage medium would become preferred.

5.1.4 Xbox 360 Listening

The Xbox 360 had extremely immersive sound, and very high sound quality, partially due to the increases in processing and storage, and also due to the interactive Dolby Digital 5.1 capabilities. Previously discussed in regards to computer games was the link between FPS games and the rise in surround sound, and the Xbox 360 is no exception. The console continued to produce many exclusive titles of the FPS and Third Person Shooter (3PS) genres, as well as Stealth Games. All of these games are improved substantially by interactive surround sound and sound localisation cues. Games such as these include advanced HUDs (Heads up Display) to aid the player in keeping track of information such as ammo, current weapon inventory, and maps. Therefore, spatialization of sound gives another level of feedback to the player. While most of this is accomplished with sound effects, the spatial placement and volume of music can also cue the player to both directionality and distance from certain objects. The 360 also expanded its RPG library, continuing to release traditional Xbox titles such as The Elder Scrolls series while also supporting J-RPGs such as Eternal Sonata (2007) and Lost Odyssey (2007).


Kevin Reipl: Gears of War, “Main Theme”
Kevin Reipl: Gears of War, “Fish in a Barrel”
Garry Schyman: Bioshock, “Main Theme”
Garry Schyman: Bioshock, “Cohen’s Scherzo No. 7”
Nobuo Uematsu: Lost Odyssey, “Main Theme”
Nobuo Uematsu: Lost Odyssey, “A Mighty Enemy Appears”
Motoi Sakuraba: Eternal Sonata, “Pyroxene of the Heart”

5.1.5 PlayStation 3

The PlayStation 3 incorporated Sony’s first implementation of the online PlayStation Network, as well as remote connectivity between the PS3 and other Sony handheld devices. PlayStation 3, much like the Xbox 360, placed a heavy emphasis on developing online social capabilities of the console, and integrating multimedia functionality. The PS3 contains incredibly advanced hardware, just like the 360, which is very similar to that of a computer. The largest difference between the 360 and PS3, since both are extremely technologically advanced machines, is in their game content, as well as medium choice. Both consoles use optical CD drives, but the PS3 opted for Blu-ray while the 360 used HD-DVD as its high definition medium of choice. At the time of release, it was not clear which storage medium type would dominate, but this likely contributed somewhat to the future success of the PS3.

5.1.6 PS3 Listening

The major differences in musical content between the Xbox 360 and PS3 can be seen in their exclusive game library. While the Xbox contains more FPS, 3PS, and also racing games among their exclusive titles, the PS3 has a higher volume of exclusive action games, such as Dante’s Inferno and the Assassin’s Creed series. The musical requirements for action games are different than shooters, and depend on the game narrative and saturation of sound effects. There are several exclusive titles for the PS3 that have unique environments that benefit from highly individualised soundtracks. This can be observed in games such as Assassin’s Creed (2007) in which the composer, Jesper Kyd, uses a fusion of eastern and western related instruments and musical styles to depict the setting of the crusades and the clashing/blending of two cultures and religions. One example of this includes Latin medieval-style chanting and Eastern-inspired flute solos alongside modern Western instruments. Kyd also uses non-musical sounds in the soundtrack, which increase the already diverse musical palate. In Dante’s Inferno (2010), the music is equally evocative, with heavy string and orchestral sections, dissonant musical gestures, and most notably, string quarter tones and glissandi. Like God of War, the sound contains a large orchestra, choir, and heavy use of percussion. Other non-musical sounds, such as chains, serve as symbolic elements in the score, and an example of this can be seen in the listening track “Crossing the Styx”. However, despite these seemingly large sounds, the music in Assassin’s Creed and Dante’s Inferno remains much quieter and more in the background than expected, especially during action-heavy moments, when it is dwarfed by sound effects.


Jesper Kyd: Assassin’s Creed: “City of Jerusalem”
Jesper Kyd: Assassin’s Creed: “Acre Underworld”
Jesper Kyd: Assassin’s Creed 2, “Earth”
Garry Schyman and Paul Gorman: Dante’s Inferno, “Bleeding Charon”
Garry Schyman and Paul Gorman: Dante’s Inferno, “Crossing the Styx”
Garry Schyman and Paul Gorman: Dante’s Inferno, “Cerberus”

5.2 Orchestral Sound

The increases in storage space, coupled with greater interest in video game music as a genre for listening outside of gameplay, contributed to the use of live orchestral recordings in certain games. This was largely dependent on a number of factors, which include both aesthetic as well as financial considerations (storage space and quality is no longer a consideration). The largest impediment to using a live orchestra is financial – a game needs a large musical budget to pay for musicians. Larger companies have more financial resources to dedicate to orchestral budgets, but this is not realistic for smaller companies. Therefore, independent games, applications, and smaller-scale releases likely do not have the budget for a full orchestra. The increased resolution and fidelity of samples has also contributed to the lack of completely orchestral recordings – composers can get orchestral-quality sound without the budget for an orchestra. Additionally, there may be times when the use of samples or synthesized sound may be an aesthetic choice, fuelled by desire for easier and more implementable interactivity, or sounds that may be unplayable by an orchestra. Nevertheless, there are many games that employ large orchestras to record the soundtrack and to achieve this desired sound.

5.2.1 Orchestra: Super Mario Galaxy (2007), Mahito Yokota and Koji Kondo

The music for Super Mario Galaxy was recorded using a 50-person orchestra. Originally, the music team wanted to create a soundtrack with a “Latin feel”, inspired by the sounds that Kondo had used in some of the earlier games. This original sound used a lot of Latin drums and synth, but Kondo disagreed with the sound team, and eventually a soundtrack was created that included orchestral sounds, pop, and an orchestral-pop fusion.[5] It was discussed previously that the Twilight Princess soundtrack (another Nintendo game for Wii) did not use a live orchestra, because the team wanted a more interactive capabilities. The Super Mario Galaxy soundtrack used a couple of other techniques to maintain a fluid link between player action and music changes, even though the soundtrack contained live orchestral recordings. The first of these was asking the orchestra to play at different tempos, so that during gameplay, the orchestral sound would match Mario’s (the player’s) movements more closely.[6] The other technique that they used was to integrate the sound effects so that they blended well with the orchestral sound. The soundtrack, therefore, did not quite have the interactive freedom as a sequenced soundtrack, but the music team used creative solutions to enhance interactivity while maintaining the musical nuance of a live recording.


“Peach’s Castle Stolen”
“Stardust Road”

5.2.3 Sample Use: Lost Odyssey (2008), Nobuo Uematsu

Lost Odyssey was the second game scored by Nobuo Uematsu after his official departure from Square Enix (The first was Blue Dragon, released in 2006). The game was produced by Hironobu Sakaguchi’s independent studio, Mistwalker studios. Hironobu Sakaguchi had been the producer of many of the Final Fantasy titles, and thus had a lengthy working relationship with Uematsu. The story of the game, as well as the turn-based gameplay mechanics, remained very similar to many other traditional JRPGs, and the game would not have seemed out of place as an instalment in the Final Fantasy series. These familiar mechanics ended up becoming a criticism of the game – that it lacked innovation. Nevertheless, the storyline and accompanying soundtrack was just as epic in length and scope as many other J-RPGs, and retained the quality one would expect of Nobuo Uematsu. The soundtrack primarily involved the use of orchestral samples, although certain tracks, such as “Eclipse of Time”, did incorporate some live performance. The lack of orchestral use was likely due to the fact that a new, independent company, with a smaller budget, released it. Additionally, there may have been aesthetic considerations, as the types of sounds, especially in some of the battle themes, were unplayable for orchestra, and would need to be re-arranged for orchestral performance. Lost Odyssey also makes use of substantial post-production editing, and very refined sample control, a quality that persists throughout the HD generation and beyond.


“Eclipse of Time” (vocal version)
“Epsylon Range”
“House of the Witch”

5.3 Post-HD Games, Composers, and Listening

The consoles released after the HD generation consist of the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Wii U. The Wii U was released first in 2012, with the others being released in 2013. The PlayStation 4 and Xbox One both incorporated Blu-ray players, while the Wii U maintained a proprietary optical disc format with no Blu-ray player attached. All of the systems further expanded their online services, including more downloadable content and social media applications, some of which enable users to record themselves playing and broadcast it or upload easily to social media platforms such as YouTube and Facebook. The multimedia capabilities of all systems were also expanded, a feature which is most pronounced on the Xbox One since it includes several media capabilities, including the ability to play back live television. Surround sound is also capable on all of the systems, with the Xbox One containing Dolby Digital 7.1 surround sound capabilities. Therefore, all systems of this generation are considerably advanced, and even the Wii U supports HD graphics. Nintendo also tried to modify the Wii U’s controlling system to obtain a larger hardcore gaming base.


Wii U: David Wise: Donkey Kong Freeze, “Seashore War”
Wii U: Shiho Fujii and Mahito Yokota: New Super Mario Bros U, “Overworld theme”
Inon Zur: Fallout 4, “Main Theme”
Inon Zur: Fallout 4, “Wandering the Blasted Forest, Part I”
Kazumi Jinnouchi: Halo 5, “Halo Canticles”
Kazumi Jinnouchi: Halo 5, “The Trial”

5.3.1. Sound Sculpting

Game music has consistently allowed for finer degrees of control throughout history, progressing from the limitations of the NES, which prevented control devices such as volume envelopes, to the current generation, where composers and sound designers have complete freedom to sculpt sounds however they like. Many recent soundtracks feature considerable amounts of post-processing and audio effects. The examples following demonstrate the use of post-processing to sculpt sound as a means to depict a certain mood or setting. These can be extremely powerful devices, and just as the lack of envelope control led composers to avoid lengthy, exposed notes, sound sculpting encourages very subtle and detailed sounds that are very exposed. Therefore, tracks that use heavy sound sculpting techniques tend to be slower moving, and contain long held notes (or sound objects).


Inon Zur: Fallout 4, “Brightness Calling”
Ludvig Forssell: Metal Gear Solid: The Phantom Pain, “V Has Come To”

5.4 Online Multiplayer Games and Sound

Online gaming has made up a large share of game play prior to the HD genre, especially on PC/Mac games, but truly universal online play began with the Xbox 360 and PS3, which each had integrated live networks that were supported by nearly all of their game titles. Online functionality is now an expected component of a game, rather than a novelty, as it was on the original Xbox. It has reshaped the way people game together, bringing them out of their friends’ living rooms and into a network where they can play with anyone, anywhere, and at anytime. Fully online games have their own music and sound considerations, which are dependent on the player’s information load, the game setting, game genre, and lifespan of the game.

5.4.1 World of Warcraft (2005) and Online Revolution

Several online games were popular prior to the release of World of Warcraft in 2005, including The Realm Online (1996), Meridian 59 (1995), Everquest (2001), and many others. However, it was World of Warcraft that would gain a large following, including gamers that had not played Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) previously, hitting a peak number of 12 million subscribers in 2010.[7] Several World of Warcraft (WoW) player videos were uploaded to YouTube, including those that involved the characters performing, creating music videos, or engaging in other tasks unrelated to the gameplay. WoW also appeared in popular culture, including the TV show South Park and several advertisements. At its peak, WoW had such a societal impact that there were reports of employees being hired based on their WoW character profile and skills.[8] The popularity and prominence of WoW helped popularize the Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) genre, leading to more MMO releases. This expansion continued as online capabilities for consoles improved, and as mobile devices gained the ability to run more complicated applications. While there isn’t a specific type of music that is associated with online gaming, the MMO genre favours music that is not overt and obtrusive, aids in setting the environment, and is sustainable for long periods of listening. This music has many of the same qualities as a previously discussed soundtrack, Phantasy Star Online, of the same genre. MMOs that are RPGs (MMORPGs) also contain many of the characteristics of traditional RPG soundtracks, including themes associated with characters or places.


Tracy Bush: World of Warcraft, “Legends of Azeroth”
Tracy Bush: World of Warcraft, “Sacred”
Tracy Bush: World of Warcraft, “Ruins”
Nobuo Uematsu: Final Fantasy XIV, “Holy Consult”
Masayoshi Soken: Final Fantasy XIV, “Ultima”
Masayoshi Soken: Final Fantasy XIV, “Thunder Rolls”

5.5 The Rise of Mobile Games and Applications

Multi-use mobile devices have had a substantial impact on gaming in the last decade, and games for such devices have unique musical needs and challenges. The earliest mobile games appeared in the 1990s, with the most ubiquitous being Snake. This game was a trademark of all Nokia phones released near the turn of the millennium. The game, however, had no music, simple graphics, and very basic sound effects. The 2000s saw the rise of mobile games, first in Japan, and then in North America, especially following the release of the iPhone and other similar devices. There are a lot of reasons why such games would be appealing: the purchase of an extra (expensive) console was not required, many of the games were easy to learn and could be played for short bursts of time, and they could be played anywhere. Early smartphones had substantially less storage space than they do today, and as a result most early games for phone were simple and small in scope. The advent of the portable tablet device prompted larger-scale games to be released as applications, and as smartphones increased in storage and processing power, games designed for tablets were also released for mobile phones. Many of these games contain just as much data as CD-ROM games, and include ports of games from older consoles, including some of the Final Fantasy series. Final Fantasy VII, for example, was originally released on three CD-ROMs. This game has been re-released on iPhone, and can exist as a singular app stored on a phone, taking up about 2GB of storage. Mobile games have a large customer base, including people from many age ranges, and casual and hardcore gamers alike. This is due to the large variety of games that are available on smartphones, and the ubiquity of these mobile devices. The rise in mobile gaming has also had a substantial impact on consoles, since the most recent generations of consoles function as multi-use devices, and include downloadable content. Nintendo aimed to take this one step further with their most recent console, the Nintendo Switch, which was released in March 2017 and has been described as a “hybrid console” that can be used both at home and on the go as a mobile device.

5.6 Mobile Games and Apps: Composers and Listening

The library for mobile games is incredibly diverse, and the music of these games is not an exception of this diversity. Some larger-scale games contain full-length soundtracks with high quality audio, some have a few simple themes, and some consist of musical motives that are very short, ranging from 3-30 seconds. This is dependent on a range of factors, including the stylistic goals of the game, the data storage availability, the budget of the developer, and many other reasons. Unlike home consoles, users do not generally play mobile games while attached to a surround sound system, and therefore the sound tends to have less directionality than console music. The music may also serve a different function, which can be similar to that of arcade games and early NES games (to lure and engage a player), that of SNES games (to provide recognizable themes and individuality), or something else entirely.

5.6.1 Royalty-free Music

Many iOS application developers are independent, and may perhaps be limited by small budgets or small production studios. Royalty-free, or production music, presents a viable option for these games. Production music includes free and very low cost music, loops, and sound effects that developers can access without having to pay royalty fees. There are several companies and websites that provide such audio, which is generally classified by genre, mood, tempo, key, and other categories.[9] Developers can peruse these large libraries to find their desired sounds, and then either download them for free, or pay a small fee to use them. While this doesn’t have the same individualistic impact as hiring a composer to write a specific score, it does allow games with lower budgets to obtain sound and music. Composers and sound designers are able to submit sounds to some of these websites and earn a small fee whenever someone downloads their works.[10] This type of music licensing is also popular in film and television, especially for low-budget independent projects that do not have the means to hire a composer.

5.6.2 Casual Games and Music

Many games for mobile devices are designed to be played in casual environments and require less continuous time commitment. While there have been some games released that are larger in scope, this has been a very recent phenomenon as data capacity on mobile devices has increased (quite drastically since about 2012). This also relates to the circumstances under which people play games on their phones as well. Much mobile gaming is done while waiting for the bus, sitting in appointment offices, or waiting for class to start, for example. Casual mobile games are intended to occupy and entertain players. This is also a goal for console games, but most console games also strive to be visually striking, and engage the player for longer uninterrupted periods. The best selling mobile games include, alongside new games, several ports of older games, including Tetris, Minecraft: Pocket Edition, and Sonic the Hedgehog. Currently, Angry Birds (2009) remains the best-selling new mobile game. Created by Rovio Entertainment, Angry Birds does not contain a riveting storyline, or realistic graphics, but the game has been praised for having “extremely fun physics,” and being “easy to pick up and play.”[11] The music, composed by Ari Pulkkinen, is equally light-hearted, upbeat, and catchy, consisting of short repetitive loops and quirky melodies. Cut the Rope (2010) is another very popular casual game, and the physics-based puzzle game has generated numerous sequels and spin-offs. Like Angry Birds, the music to Cut the Rope is light, catchy, and consists of short loops. There are only about two different musical loops for every Cut the Rope game – a substantial difference from console soundtracks, which can contain 100 tracks.


Ari Pulkinnen: Angry Birds, “Main Theme”
Ari Pulkinnen: Angry Birds Rio, “Theme”
            Cut the Rope, “Om Nom!”
            Cut the Rope Experiments, “Blueprint”

5.7 Nostalgia and Retro Gaming

Ports, re-releases, and re-masters of old games are very prevalent in the face of widespread downloadable content and HD graphics, as are new games that have a retro feel, graphics, or sound. The decision to re-master and re-release can be made for a number of reasons: the desire to see the game as it was conceived graphically without the limitations of its time, to allow past gamers access to games for which they may no longer have consoles, to introduce a new fan base to a classic game, or general nostalgia as the generations that played these games as children are now grown up. The first reason is especially common of games like Final Fantasy VII, that involve long stories and cinematic sequences that are vastly improved by the processing and graphics of more powerful gaming systems, like the PS4. The surge in retro gaming is also likely an effect of the first generation of gamers reaching adulthood, and desiring the charm and simplicity of the games they played growing up, as well as current gamers seeking titles that are lighter in breadth than AAA titles, but not as simplistic as casual games. In addition to re-releases and re-masters, independent developers often choose to stylize games with a retro or historical theme, for whatever reason they see fit (aesthetics, financial, nostalgia, etc).

5.7.1 Final Fantasy Re-releases

The remaking, remixing, and re-releasing of Final Fantasy games is not an entirely novel concept; Final Fantasy games have been continuously re-released on newer game systems, ported from consoles to handheld devices, and re-mastered. However, there have been quite a few large-scale re-releases of Final Fantasy games in recent years. Both Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy VII were re-made with High Definition sound and graphics. The Final Fantasy VII remake was completed in 2012 for PC, and then subsequently ported to other systems, including the PS4. The Final Fantasy X/X-2 remake was completed in 2013 for PS4. While the soundtracks of both releases remain mostly the same in terms of musical content, there is a noticeable increase in sound quality and resolution in the re-mastered versions. Additionally, games such as Final Fantasy VFinal Fantasy IX have all been released as iPhone apps. There is nothing remarkably different about the soundtracks, but the fact that the quantity of data, which was once an issue, can be stored on apps on a cell phone (and multiple copies at that) is notable. These type of re-releases are extensively popular as of late, and even in the cases where a re-mastering is done, the soundtracks generally retain their integrity, with improvements in fidelity and quality.

Listening (HD versions):

Masashi Hamauzu: Final Fantasy X, “Besaid Island”
Nobuo Uematsu: Final Fantasy X, “To Zanarkand”
Nobuo Uematsu and Masashi Hamauzu: Final Fantasy X, “Hymn of the Faith – Shivaz”
Nobuo Uematsu and Rikki: Final Fantasy X, “Suteki da ne?”
Nobuo Uematsu: Final Fantasy VII, “One-Winged Angel”
Nobuo Uematsu: Final Fantasy VII, “Aerith’s Theme”

5.7.2 Shovel Knight (2014), Jake Kaufman and Manami Matsumae

The independent company Yacht Club Games developed Shovel Knight in 2014 after successfully using Kickstarter to crowd-fund backing. Like many other recent independently released games, the game uses retro game technology and appearance as an aesthetic choice – the game is a 2d side scrolling platform game, and uses 8-bit style graphics and sound. The gameplay and mechanics are very similar to other games of the genre, such as Mario, that were popular for the NES and SNES. The music for the game, composed by Jake Kaufman and Manami Matsumae, is consistent with 8-bit music in timbre and style, with the noise channel functioning as percussion, heavy counterpoint, and quick rhythmic action. However, while the composers try to remain within the limits of the original NES for the most part, there are some points where, for example, held notes are allowed to have a decreasing or subtly-changing volume envelope, which would not be possible on the NES.


“Main theme”
“Steal Thy Shovel”
“One Fateful Knight”
“The Rival”

5.7.3 Minecraft (2009), Daniel Rosenfeld

Minecraft was developed by Swedish programmer Markus “Notch” Persson and released by Mojang, originally in 2009. Since then it has grown to be one of the most successful and widely distributed games, claiming 100 million users as of February 2014. The game is part of a genre called Sandbox games, also known as Open World games, in which the user is able to explore a vast world freely.[12] There are several playing modes to Minecraft now, including a survival mode and multiplayer. The game is a relatively recent release, but the graphics are reflective of nostalgic games in a unique way: the world consists of very pixelated graphics, but remains 3d. The music embodies this; it is ambient, repetitive, and very minimalistic at times. However, the sounds themselves are not 8- or 16-bit, and the quality is on par with current game sound. Daniel Rosenfeld, an East German composer, worked with Notch closely on the game. Rosenfeld stated that his background and situation growing up limited his formal musical education, and resulted in him learning many programs on his own. This was actually a blessing to his work on the Minecraft soundtrack, as the sound engine for the game was not very powerful, and he had to use his learned skill of producing something well with few options.[13] The soundtrack is also similar to many other Open World and online games: ambient, with slow developing processes. This is likely due to the amount of time a player will spend on the game, and the fact that the player is generally creating and exploring, rather than engaging in action and quick battles.

Listening (original soundtrack):

“Subwoofer Lullaby”
“Jukebox – Thirteen”
“Where Are We Now?”

5.8 Outreach and Engagement

Many developments during the post-HD generation led to substantial changes in the way that composers engage with video game companies and obtain work. One of the largest changes has been the increase in use of freelance composers, as opposed to in-house musicians. There are benefits and drawbacks to freelancing, and this section explores some of the ways in which composers interact with the community in general, as well as some of the challenges (and advantages) unique to this generation.

5.8.1 Video Game and Game Music Conferences

Conferences represent an excellent opportunity for artists to meet several people at once, optimizing networking capability. Calgarian video game composer Corey de Baat, for example, stated during a lecture to a Video Game Music class that at every conference, he makes a point to distribute his contact information to at least ten people, and then to follow up with them within a week or two after the conference in order to secure the connection.[14] This can be extremely beneficial to freelancers that live outside of major hubs such as Los Angeles, as they can make several connections at a conference and then return home. However, these conferences also result in a barrier to the economically disadvantaged, as they usually have extremely expensive registration fees, and require attendees to also cover travel costs. Registration fees for 2017 GameSoundCon in Los Angeles for example, run between 450-700 USD, and the Game Developers Conference, which takes place in San Francisco in 2017, has tickets that span from 200-2400 USD.[15] Therefore, these conferences, which are extremely vital to artist professional development, may be inaccessible to some of the composers who are most economically in need.

5.8.2 Penka Kouneva and Composer Outreach

Penka Kouneva was born in 1967 Bulgaria, and came from a very musical background, which included her composing incidental music for theatre at age twelve. She had a strong musical education, including a postgraduate education at Duke University, which resulted in her being among the first recipients of Duke’s PhD in Composition.[16] Kouneva moved to Los Angeles in 1999 and composed for film for ten years, after which she began working in the video game industry. She has worked on several major titles, including Prince of Persia: The Forgotten Sands, and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and has been credited both as composer and orchestrator on several such games and films. Kouneva is an active board member for GameSoundCon and has also given keynotes at conferences such as GameSoundCon to encourage young and emerging video game composers. She is a major advocate for the advancement of women composers, as well as for artist growth in general. In addition to giving keynotes on the topic, she has established Orchestral Reading sessions for Duke composers, a valuable educational opportunity for student composers. Kouneva is also active as a studio artist, and has released two award-winning concept albums, The Woman Astronaut (2015), and A Warrior’s Odyssey (2012). Kouneva’s assistance and encouragement is vital to the youngest generations of composers, as many composers are able to find their earliest work due to some already-established industrial connection helping them.

5.8.3 Issues Specific to Freelancing

Many issues also arise due to the increase in the video game composer as freelancer. In the 1980s, it was much more common for companies to have in-house sound and music teams. This has changed to a much more Hollywood-like model in which composers are contracted for specific games. Very few companies now have in-house, salaried composers. There are many benefits to this for both composers and the game companies alike. Freelancing allows composers some freedom of project choice, which results in potentially more creative freedom. The companies are also allowed to select specific composers that they feel may have a style that is suitable for the game. This will ultimately result in composers developing more of an individual voice. However, freelancing also presents many challenges, and these challenges may affect disproportionately those that are marginalized and working in less-advantaged situations (for example, working for a small independent company rather than a AAA company). Depending on the location you are working in, there are little protections afforded to freelancers regarding payment, non-payment, and receipt of money. Only very recently has the state of New York, for example, put protections in place ensuring that freelancers received proper payment within 30 days of project completion.[17] Additionally, freelancing may or may not allow for the composer to receive benefits such as health insurance, depending on their personal situation. This also varies based on location and results in some freelancers being afforded certain privileges that others or not. For example, a freelancer in Canada will receive basic provincial healthcare regardless of hours worked or income level, but this may not be the case in some places in the US. Finally, freelancing doesn’t allow for secure continuous income, which also benefits the already privileged, who may have savings and family safety nets that can help them to stick it out through the hard times. Those in economically disadvantaged situations will find themselves potentially unable to survive a lengthy break in paid contracts, resulting in the need for other employment, which will then result in less time to network and get new contracts. Freelancers may also have a more difficult time than salaried composers obtaining long-term loans such as mortgages.

5.9 The Future of Game Sound

Game sound evolved considerably following the release of HD consoles, although these developments are not timbral liberations like occurred in the 16-bit generation, or liberations in scope/length such as those that occurred in the 32-bit generation. A large development during this generation has been the use of space. This includes space in frequency, the spatialization and spatial placement between the musical sound and the sound effects, and the interactive spatialization of sounds in gameplay. This parallels the graphic development of the time, as games became more realistically 3D, with clearer resolution, and therefore clearer visual object separation. The move towards more immersive sound has advanced quite a bit during this generation, with implementations using Dolby 7.1 surround sound. VR systems have been released for personal use within the last year, including a system released especially for the PS4. Whether these VR hardware options will end up becoming ubiquitous in console gaming is still unknown (it is currently expensive and requires the user to wear something on their head), however, the impact it will have on game sound is likely to be huge, even if this technology does not gain widespread use. Holographic images, and other 3D images may also find eventual integration in gameplay. As immersive technology expands, players have to keep track of a lot more at any given time during gameplay, and immersive, 3D sound aids in providing additional cues to the user. This enhanced feedback has been extended to controllers as well, which provide more haptic feedback during gameplay (and in the case of the WiiMotes, aural feedback as well). Gaming requires the player to engage with several senses at the same time, and involves perceiving aural, visual, and haptic cues. This means that gaming is essentially a multimodal experience, and the sound and music should reflect this. At the same time, alongside all of the increases in technology and resolution in AAA titles, there is an expansion within retro and casual gaming community. Apps, downloadable arcade games, and remakes are popular with casual gamers that are seeking games that can be played without large time commitments. This also may be due to the generation of gamers that played Nintendo as children becoming adults, and seeking some of the nostalgia and charm of the early systems. For new gamers, these retro and nostalgic games can seem exotic and new, and perhaps an alternative to expensive and time-consuming large-scale games. Therefore, the current generation of games is an incredibly diverse one. With so much game diversity, there is diversity in game sound and music. Composers also have a wider variety of companies to choose from, including independent companies and large AAA companies.

5.9.1 Working for Independent Game Companies

Recently there have also been several independent game composers that have gained mainstream acknowledgement and success, without scoring for AAA companies. The change in game distribution as well as the general online accessibility of games and of knowledge has contributed to this phenomenon – prior to these changes it would have been extremely difficult for independent games themselves to receive mainstream acknowledgement, let alone individual composers.

Danny Baronowsky (b. 1984)

Danny Baronowsky represents a modern tale of success, both in his ability to gain traction as a freelance composer, and in his ability to distribute his music over the internet. Baronowsky attempted to make a living as a freelance film composer for seven years, but this career never took off – there simply isn’t the money in film that there used to be, the market is over-saturated, and Baronowsky claimed to have made a total of 2000 in his entire 7 year attempt.[18] He was, however, successful in game music, finding many jobs and higher price points working for independent game companies. He composed the music to the independent hit Super Meat Boy (2010), which helped him establish a name for himself as a composer. Another soundtrack he has composed the music for is Crypt of the Necrodancer (2015), which contains a musical component within the gameplay- characters can only attack on the beat of the music. Currently, he is also signed to write the music for Minecraft creator “Notch”’s next game. Baronowsky stated no desire to join a AAA company, explaining that, “I think it would be less money, and less fun, and I wouldn’t have the rights to my music.”[19] Retaining the rights to his music enables him to make more income, as he can then sell his music online himself. Working for independent companies also allows him more flexibility regarding residence, and unlike many of his AAA-employed counterparts, he lives in Phoenix, AZ, rather than Los Angeles.

Jessica Curry (b. 1973)

Jessica Curry was born in Liverpool, and has a postgraduate degree in film music from the National Film and Television School. She helped to co-found, along with her husband, the video game company The Chinese Room. Following several successful releases, such as Dear Esther and Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs, The Chinese Room developed a Sony exclusive title, Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. The game, released in 2015, would eventually lead her to win a BAFTA award for the music in 2016.[20] However, working under the new conditions (for a mainstream publisher, Sony) also resulted in her departing from the Chinese Room, citing issues with her degenerative disease, issues with the commercial company, and gender-related mistreatment.[21] This indicates that there are many advantages to remaining independent, despite the financial benefits that commercial success can bring.

5.9.2 Working for AAA Companies

Jeremy Levy was featured in the same publication as Danny Baronowsky, representing a contrasting example of a composer working for a AAA company. Unlike Baronowsky, Levy lives and works in Los Angeles, because this is much more important for those working in AAA games that may need to be consistently present (and on- site). Additionally, Levy takes on several jobs outside of composition, including working as a session trombonist, an orchestrator, and an arranger. Levy says he has done every sort of “grunt” work, including orchestration, sitting as a session musician, and “anything he can get his hands on”[22] He did orchestration for several video games, including Batman: Arkham City, Infamous 2, God of War III, as well as many TV shows. Like Baronowsky (and many others working in video game music), Levy had to network to get himself established. He had connections from both touring as a musician, and as a student at UMiami. When he moved to Hollywood he got a list of contacts from one of his old professors, and managed to obtain work through these contacts.[23] For the most part, his job is very different from that of an independent composer; he doesn’t have the same locational freedom, and he won’t retain the rights to most of his compositions. This also means that he has some protection through the California Musician’s Union, however. While Levy stated that he likes his work, he also stated that he is unsure of the sustainability of the work, and that it tends to fall upon the whims of what the AAA companies want at any given moment. Currently, music and sound are highly valued components of games (and are practically an industry in and of themselves) and therefore composers are in great demand, but especially as algorithmic composition becomes more efficient, it is unclear what will transpire in the future.

5.10 Conclusion

When studying classical musical history, it is common to trace threads between social and political acts and the changing climate of the music. Historical events affect music for a multitude of reasons, including cultural taste, political use of the arts, championing certain themes associated with political platforms, and the surplus or lack of funds. Video game music faces a similar relationship with the development of technology, as well as consumer patterns. This can be seen in the earlier generations, as more advanced systems produced sound cards capable of producing more diverse sounds. Once streaming audio was implemented, sound advances were primarily made in quality, with larger advances made in style and diversity, as games followed suit, ranging in genre from hardcore hack and slash games, to small-scale casual apps. Overall, we can see that, over time, timbral diversity increased, control over sound increased, and individuality became important to game music. In the post-HD (current) era, excellent sound and graphics are no longer a novelty, and gamers are seeking to play nostalgic games as well. Social media/internet sharing and media dissemination is a huge advancement that has contributed to more independent developers making games, some of which are nostalgic. Possibilities of this generation are numerous, since consumers have more choice and developers have more options for producing and distributing their media. Therefore, the future trajectory video game music remains as uncertain as to which next-generation console will end up dominating. However, we can predict that new technologies such as VR will likely have a large impact, as well as the general increased interest in game music (and especially classic game music) and immersive sound.

[1] Rothman, Wilson. “Unearthed: Nintendos Pre-Wiimote Prototype.” Gizmodo online, Aug 29, 2007,, accessed May 6, 2017.

[2] Kaluszka, Aaron. “The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess.” Nintendo World Report online, Jan 11, 2007,, accessed May 6, 2017.

[3] Casamassina, Matt. “The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess Review.” Imagine Games Network online, Nov 17, 2006,, accessed May 6, 2017.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “A Sound that Defines Mario.” Iwata Asks, Nintendo online,, accessed May 6, 2017.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Purchese, Robert. “Blizzard will no longer report World of Warcraft subscriber numbers.” Eurogamer online, Nov 4, 2011,, accessed May 6, 2017.

[8] Pagliery, Jose. “Why I put World of Warcraft on my resume.” CNN Money online, June 19, 2014,, accessed May 6, 2017.

[9],,, etc, there are many various sites and models.

[10] is an example; many of these sites do not exist anymore….

[11] Podolsky, Andrew. “Angry Birds Review.” Gamespot online, Apr 29, 2011,, accessed May 6, 2017.

[12] “The complete history of open world games (part 2).” N4G online,, accessed May 6, 2017.

[13] Stuart, Keith. “How Daniel Rosenfeld wrote Minecraft’s music.” The Guardian online, Nov 7, 2014,, accessed May 6, 2017.

[14] Personal statement from Corey Da Baat during a guest lecture at the University of Calgary Video Game Music summer course, June 2016.

[15] See, for example, for description of fees, accessed June 12, 2017.

[16] See Kouneva’s personal website at:, accessed June 12, 2017.

[17] Whitford, Emma. “NYC’s ‘Freelance Isn’t Free’ Act Goes Into Effect Today.” Gothamist Online, May 15, 2017,, accessed June 12, 2017.

[18] Hamilton, Kirk. “Video Games are the New Best Way to Make a Living Composing Music.” Kotaku Online, Feb 23, 2012,, accessed June 12, 2017.

[19] Ibid.

[20] See full list of winners at:, accessed June 12, 2017.

[21] See Curry’s post on the Chinese Room Blog from October 9, 2015 at:, accessed June 12, 2017.

[22] Hamilton, Kirk. “Video Games are the New Best Way to Make a Living Composing Music.” Kotaku Online, Feb 23, 2012,, accessed June 12, 2017.

[23] Ibid.