Daisuke "Pixel" Amaya of Cave Story and Baiyon of PixelJunk lifelike

At this year's Game Developers Conference, PixelJunk Eden art and sound director Baiyon met with several game composers for his third annual group chat on the subject of composing music for independent games.

Hosting this installment of the yearly informal meetup is Double Fine sound director Emily Ridgway. During the 2011 Independent Games Festival competition, she served as a judge on the Excellence in Audio award jury.

Game composer Yoshi Miyamoto (Pocket Groovy) reprises his role as interpreter, this time for Daisuke Amaya (Pixel), the designer and composer of Cave Story. The platformer is currently making its way to the Nintendo 3DS portable console.

Also participating in the chat this year, Mattias Häggström Gerdt was nominated for a 2011 IGF Excellence in Audio Award for his music for Cobalt. Darren Korb received an IGF nomination as well, for his music and sound direction for Bastion, due out this summer on Xbox Live Arcade. Daniel Olsén, the composer of ilomilo, is currently preparing the release of the puzzle game's original soundtrack album.

Transcripts of the two previous discussions, with Chris Schlarb (Night Sky), Laura Shigihara (Melolune), and Danny Baranowsky (Super Meat Boy) among other participants, can be found on Gamasutra and IndieGames.com.

Teaser for the PixelJunk lifelike music visualizer

Emily Ridgway: I'll start off by saying it's a great honor for me to sit here with you all, because the music coming from the indie game scene is some of the most creatively inspiring music I've heard--not just in videogames, but anywhere. Just recently I used a good number of ilomilo tracks to help communicate an aesthetic for an upcoming game I am working on. So on top of being honored, I am also indebted to you all.

I think what we'll do is go around the table and introduce ourselves and take it from there. Do you want to go first, Mattias?

Mattias: Sure. My name is Mattias and I'm from Stockholm, Sweden. I work as a game music composer for small indie titles, only no sound effects. I work on my compositions from my bedroom, so very independent. I recently made the music for a game called Cobalt. It was nominated in the IGF competition for Excellence in Audio.

Daniel: My name is Daniel. I've worked on Xbox Live Arcade titles Lode Runner and R-Type. I'm also a graphic artist. Recently I did the soundtrack for ilomilo and all of the sound design as well.

Darren Korb: Hi, my name is Darren Korb. I am the audio director for SuperGiant Games. The title we're working on is called Bastion. We were nominated for an IGF Award for Excellence in Audio and another one for Excellence in Art. I can take no credit for the second one. With audio, I do all the sound and music, direct the narration, all that good stuff.

Baiyon: I'm Baiyon, from Kyoto. I am involved in graphic art and music composition and have designed t-shirts and other products. Currently I run a record label called Descanso. I have also published a serialized manga. In 2008 I provided art and music direction on the game PixelJunk Eden. Last year I wrote some music featured in LittleBigPlanet 2, along with designing an in-game musical instrument for the title. Now I'm collaborating again with Q-Games for a new installment in the PixelJunk series, called "lifelike."

Daisuke Amaya (Pixel): I am Daisuke Amaya. I'm from Japan and live in Kyoto.

Baiyon: We're from the same city!

Pixel: I created the game Cave Story, doing the music, art and programming myself. I really love game music and have made a lot of music myself. Realizing that without the game part I wouldn't be able to make game music, I decided to make my own games.

Yoshi Miyamoto: My name is Yoshi Miyamoto and I'm also a composer and a recoding engineer. Right now I'm starting off as a game composer, so this is an opportunity for me to learn from you guys. I'll be translating this discussion.

Emily Ridgway and Darren Korb

ER: I think it's fair to say that there's a lot of people who would love to work on the sort of projects you guys have worked on. What would you say to a composer who wants to work on small, creative indie projects? Do you need to know designers and creators of those projects? Can you share with me your stories about how you came to be working on these titles?

MHG: I actually had the perfect gateway, because I started out arranging videogame music. All the classic stuff stuck in my head and I had to do something with it, so I got into this community called OverClocked ReMix. We have like 2,000 arranged tracks nowadays. From there, they got an offer from Capcom scoring the Super Street Fighter II remake for XBLA. It was super last minute and they realized they had no credits track. I was known for making stuff really fast back then, so they sent me an email saying, "Do a credits track, quick!" So I did, and suddenly I had something to put on my resumé.

The Xbox Indie Games community has been really important for me because I was there when it was completely new and managed to get a gig scoring one of the first Dream-Build-Play competition nominees. Suddenly, you have these "creds" in the industry. It was a very short deadline so I'm not very proud of my work, but other people seem to like it. I've always been a big community guy and love going to forums to read other people's opinions. I hang out way too much on IRC.

ER: I haven't been on IRC in ten years.

MHG: It's still wonderful. There's a channel called the Independent Gaming IRC where tons of developers hang out. Many of my job offers, even Cobalt, came from there.

DO: I started in the business as a 2D/ 3D artist about ten years ago. I switched companies a lot of times and became involved with composing when I ended up at a company that didn't have a composer. They wanted to hire some guy, but I was like, "Hey... I want to do it." And, they let me. Every time I've changed companies since, I've gotten a larger role as a composer. Finally, for Southend I was actually hired as graphic artist/ composer and I was in charge of all their music and sound.

I think the advice I would give to new composers is to try to find artists and coders that you work well with. It is important to listen to each other's ideas and not shoot them down right away. Partners are very valuable if you find the right ones. If you do, it is easier to unify your vision and make everything in the game coherent, and you will make better games. Having a small coherent team is better than having a big incoherent team.

Daniel Olsén and Mattias Häggström Gerdt

Baiyon: On PixelJunk Eden, there were no specific requests from Q-Games. The process was a little like a jam session in that I could do anything, experimenting with different possibilities. Right now I'm in a similar place in the development process on lifelike, which is an experiment in the use of the Move controller.

ER: So, is making games something that you view as a career, or do you see it more as a labor
of love, a passion or art?

Baiyon: Of course money is important, but personally I think what motivates me is the enjoyment of the activity. I started making and selling accessories when I was in high school, and I've pretty much kept it up ever since.

I like the simplicity of making something and selling it to someone who wants it. For instance, when I purchased my first personal computer, I used it to make stickers that in turn were sold. A week after a friend of mine gave me a guitar as a gift, I started performing in live shows. I had no actual ability to perform, but I got up on stage anyway and pretended to know what I was doing.

DK: For Cave Story, you did everything, right? It's hard for me to imagine, as a clueless audio guy who knows very little about programming, how so many disciplines could be combined together. How long did you spend developing Cave Story?

Pixel: It took five years. I was a salaryman at the time, so I went to work during the day and at night made progress on the game very gradually. Also, I was working on a lot of other game ideas during that time. There was a lot of art and music produced in those five years, and I was preoccupied by a lot of things that had nothing to do with game design. It's not that I didn't have any interest in doing something similar to Baiyon, announcing new titles and selling them online, but I simply didn't have the resources available. To make a living I had a job and only made games in my spare time.

DK: For a portion of working on Bastion I've had a couple jobs, like charting songs for the Rock Band Network. While it's still fun, I wish I could have been working on the game full time like I am now.

DO: How do you keep the motivation over five years to finish a game?

Pixel: I've worked on a number of games outside of Cave Story, but most of them were never completed. I really liked the title theme I had written for Cave Story, so the desire to share that with others gave me the motivation to finish.

This is definitely one profession that demands a lot of vitality. Baiyon-san has that ability to absorb new experiences one after the other and channel that into personal expression. I'm more the kind of person that likes working just in the 2D space and is satisfied without picking up new skills. That's because I never set out to become a programmer. Rather, I wanted to create my own games, and their size wasn't really the important thing. The same is true for music. I don't have formal training, but I've always felt that if you really want to create game music all you need is an instrument you feel comfortable with.

Composer Yoshi Miyamoto providing interpretation

ER: I'm also curious to know about your collective musical backgrounds. Did you study formal music composition, play an instrument, teach yourself?

DO: Nothing at all. I hardly know what the keys are called. For ilomilo I would listen to different music and then try to copy the chords, play around with them and then try to find a solid baseline. Most of the tracks are built from that formula.

ER: That's amazing. I think it goes to show that regardless of if you're formally trained in composition or not, either way it's still possible to make incredibly creative and great sounding music.

MHG: I went to a music high school, taking keys and composition mainly, and some drums. I went on to the University of Stockholm to take musicology. I actually wrote my Bachelor's essay on Swedish Game Boy music, dissecting the subject a bit. For some reason it's super-big in Sweden. I kind of came to the conclusion that it's because Little Sound DJ is made by a Swede. I have no super formal compositional training. I load up my DAW and hit 'Start.'

DK: I went to school at NYU for music production and music business. I have an engineering background and my main focus has been as a songwriter and composer. I've done a bit of work for some small TV and film projects. I've never worked in games or done sound effects before. Amir, who is co-founder of SuperGiant, has been one of my best friends since we were eight years old. We went to school together and played in bands when we were in high school. When he was planning on starting this game company, he asked me to be the audio guy. I was really flattered that he trusted that I could do it, because I didn't know that I could do it. So I got super lucky by being asked by a good friend who trusted my abilities.

ER: Let's talk about creative processes. How do you develop a concept of what you want the music to sound like, and how do you get there?

MHG: I work in a very unplanned way. Somewhere in the back of my head I have a picture of the game, or I'm working off a design document, and I go around finding sounds, tweaking sounds, until I've found something that really works as the base for a track. Once I've found the main elements, I find sounds that complement it. I'd rather have a sound that acts as a leitmotif, the main hook, rather than a melody.

DO: One of the things I like about electronic music is that there is so much excellent software. For me it makes the computer kind of like a partner. You throw a bunch of ideas in there and see what you get back. The ones you like you keep on throwing back in. Some of the songs for ilomilo actually came out perfect right away but most of them were done in iterations. I added and removed melodies and changed instruments all the time to find the right feel. I think I only scrapped three or four songs that I couldn't make work for the game.

Baiyon: In my approach to music, I rarely sit down at my keyboard with a melody in mind. I come up with ideas by playing random notes. It's rare that I know just what to do ahead of time.

This is going to sound really weird, but for a long time I've wanted to write club music that's a smash hit for a single week, then is forgotten by everybody. My musician friends all say this is a totally weird thing to wish for. When I write something, at some point in the process, the mark of human imperfection creeps its way into the music. It gains a quality that makes it unfit to be a smash hit, but my friends say that's what makes it more endearing and memorable.

PixelJunk Eden Encore trailer

DK: With Bastion, I was lucky enough to be involved really early on in the process. I had an idea of what tone we wanted for the game and defined the genre that I wanted to work in as "acoustic frontier trip-hop." It's combining heavily sampled beats in layers, along with acoustic elements. I really didn't want to do things I'd heard before and wanted to try something kind of crazy. A lot of where I start from on this project is I hear that they need something with a certain tone, a certain vibe, and write based on that tone.

ER: I'm interested to know more about each of your experiences with music implementation. As well as composing the music, did you have to design or even program the music into the game?

DK: We experimented with a few different things for Bastion. I talked with the guys and we prototyped for a long time. When you pause the game, there are filters applied to the music, so we have some programmatic stuff like that. I've made the pieces so they can loop, but generally I don't think they do in the way that they're implemented. We don't have wall-to-wall music for most of the game. Instead, it's ambiance and then music, then ambiance. They'll use that to give moments the tone of a particular piece.

ER: Do you choose when it's ambiance and when it's playing a piece of music?

DK: No, they have the level laid out. For each world we have these different feels. The first world has a bit of a Middle Eastern, Byzantine kind of vibe. I made a few pieces in that vibe of different levels of intensity. In between is wall-to-wall narration. I give them the narration, the music and ambient tracks. They have a good idea of the arc of the level, and I leave it up to them when things will happen.

ER: I think I said in one of my reviews for the IGF that Bastion was what we should all be aiming for. From the small sections I heard, the audio production was really, really phenomenal.

DK: Thanks so much. It's been a lot of experimenting and working with Logan, the actor. It's required figuring out who this character is. I've been working with Greg and Amir on the writing, deciding what this character can be responsible for. We definitely don't want him to be a play-by-play announcer. We want him to give context for the story. He's largely responsible for the tone and setting the story.

ER: Did you like the way it turned out?

DK: We're still working on it, finishing it right now. The game is now in Alpha, so we have a couple more months left of crunch. I'm really happy with the way things are going. If I think that we need another piece, I'll just make something. We've got some brilliant musical gameplay moments that I'm really excited about. I cannot share, but I'm excited.

Bastion teaser

ER: Mattias, how involved were you in the music integration of Cobalt?

MHG: I didn't do any of the integration myself. It was all done by Daniel, who did all the sound effects. What we did discuss was placing music in the game. We have a lot of one-off tracks. When you walk past a big building that has a club, there's this low-pass filter club music. If you go in, it opens up. We did some elevator music that has this monophonic, low-fidelity sound coming from the top of the elevator. For actual music integration in the game, it was mostly quite long looped tracks. I added fake ambiance in it, so it's a track that has the ambiance on a separate track. We did it ghetto style.

ER: I've done that.

MHG: It's classic. There isn't really much advanced audio stuff going on in Cobalt. That's why we were so ridiculously sure we wouldn't win. The shorter music and sound effects are good, but there's nothing unique with it. We took the basic concepts and made something we knew would work.

ER: Sometimes that's the best approach though isn't it. We don't need to make things complicated to make them sound good. And what about ilomilo's music integration?

DO: I used XACT for all the music and sound integration.

ER: That's the free music integration tool for Xbox Live?

DO: Yeah. What I did was play through the game and write down all the cues where I wanted a sound to be played and added a temporary sound to all these cues. When the coder later added all the cues in the game, it sounded really horrible, so everyone was turning off the sound. Eventually I changed all the temporary sounds to the real ones. That way I could work independently without bugging our hard working coders all the time. For example, in the main menu I got this idea that when you're moving the cursor around, you'd play the notes of the lead theme. That's all done in XACT.

DK: You can tell it to go in sequence, loading up multiple sounds in the same cue, right? Then in one cue you tell it to play these sounds in order or play them randomly. I really love how PopCap games do a lot of stuff like that, like in Peggle when you hit multiple pegs in a row, the pitch goes up and up.

ER: Yeah same. In the BioShock menu, I put a piano sample in the front end that randomly plays a note from C phrygian pentatonic every time you scroll up or down. As a musician, it seems like such a simple thing to do, but it's almost embarrassing to admit how much fun I had scrolling through the options at the start, just to make these sad little melodies. (laughs)

So when you compose a piece of music, do you have an idea in your head about the component parts, or is it just one piece of music?

DO: It's just one looping piece of music. No layering. But I wrote all the in-game tracks in the same tonal scale so I could tune the sound effects accordingly and let the player kind of create their own layer on top of the music.

ER: You have two background pieces of music, and each time a level starts it randomly picks one of them? That's awesome. See, I love things like that. I'm always thinking, "This is the background music for this level and that's that." I always forget that you can just add another variation. I love it.

DO: I actually wanted to pick songs for each level, but Björn, the coder, implemented the cues and made it that way. I tried to change it a couple of times but in the end we chose to keep the tracks random to make it less repetitive if you got stuck on a level.

ilomilo Nordic Game trailer

ER: Pixel, you actually created your own music software?

Pixel: I use software I developed myself, called Pxtone Collage. It allows you to create chip music waveforms and translate them into "Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do." You can also add pre-rendered voices and sound effects to accentuate the music. The software uses a piano roll visual layout that was intended to work for me personally but now lots of people are using it to write their own music.

Because it allows you to create music pieces built from your own sounds, there are some rather unique creations that have resulted from working with Pxtone. George & Jonathan use the program. Sometimes I wonder why people who can write such impressive music choose this homebrew freeware program, but I guess it's because you get to use your own sounds.

Normally it takes me about three days of thinking just to write a piece of music. Being married with a child doesn't afford me much time alone, so these days it can be more difficult for me to write a song.

ER: The other thing that I wanted to talk to you guys about is the culture of indie games and the aesthetic trends that have emerged. Indie games seem to have a strong love for 8-bit style art and chip music. I was wondering, what do you guys think about that? Is there an underlying philosophy behind that retro sound and look?

DK: I think a lot of it has to do with the age of people making indie games. They were kids when Nintendo was happening and have played a ton of Nintendo.

MHG: The styles of many indie games are reminiscent of the days of old in the same way that the music can sometimes be, but I think it's a result of nostalgia for game styles that ceased to exist. People got tired of watching movies with a controller in their hand.

ER: In that case do you think that indie games with that look and feel will be dated to this particular era of indie game development? And what about kids who grew up after the 8-bit aesthetic was over? Do you think they might be one day throwing back to synthy sounding orchestral scores and low poly 3D characters?

DK: It's possible. I believe Super Nintendo games are great, not because I was a kid when I played them, but they're great because the technical possibilities and the design just coalesced in this perfect, magical way at that point in time that made for some of the most pure, fun games that, before or since, I've been able to get my hands on.

I know that with SuperGiant, one of the main goals for the game we're working on was "What if we were to continue on the path of making really fun Super Nintendo kinds of games, but with more technology, incredible hand-painted art, new sounds and narration that previously just wasn't possible?"

ER: You know what I'd like? More live action video. That would be awesome.

MHG: At the other end of the spectrum, I think indie games are the complete opposite of what has come before. I kind of shy away from the nostalgia, myself. I put one chip music track in Cobalt, kind of as a joke because everyone else was doing it, and made a dedicated channel in our in-game radio that just plays chip music. It had it in the trailer, but that was just to catch people's attention. When you're playing, it's all ambient.

Cobalt action teaser

ER: So you guys are considered "indie" composers. What does that mean to you? Is it something you give much thought?

DO: To be honest, I don't care about that at all. I just want to make the music I like and whatever fits with the game we're currently working on. I think a composer that manages to create something unique at big company deserves credibility, since it is probably even harder to get something different through.

Baiyon: I don't consciously think of myself as indie. I'm not even clear on what's the difference. What I tend to focus on is whether I think a certain product is good or bad. For that reason, whenever I hear the phrase "I like indie games," I can't help but feel uncomfortable. At the same time I love the IGF. There's so much inspiration that comes from attending the event.

ER: Do you aspire to do bigger budget or traditional AAA games?

DK: I aspire to have these games become popular. I work with guys who used to work at EA LA, so I know the horror stories of working at large studios. I've only known working this way, and I'm sure that if I were to work under the conditions they talk about that I would want to die. Obviously, I'm new to games, so I have no idea whether I've been labeled or not, but I want to make interesting things. It doesn't really matter what it's called. I just want to make something cool.

DO: When I'm working on a game for a couple of years, I tend to get really tired of it. The fun parts are the start-up and the polish. The other part I could skip. I definitely prefer working on smaller titles.

MHG: I think, like you said, with small games part of the charm of being in audio is that you never end up in-house if you're just a composer. I bounce between all different types of projects. You have these really short timeframes, but you get to put everything in it.

ER: Is "indie" primarily a western concept?

Baiyon: There is such a movement going on in Japan, but it's not the kind of thing that would interest people who weren't already heavily into gaming. There's too much concern for naming some developer "number one." My impression is that here in the United States there is greater respect for diversity. That makes it easier for me to fit in and I like that a lot.

Pixel: In Japan, not so many people are accustomed to downloading game software. That vital source for sustaining indie development just isn't there.

ER: Are you going to move to America?

Baiyon: That might not be such a bad idea. (laughs)

ER: So for someone in Japan that wants to start making their own indie games, what would be your advice?

Pixel: I think it's difficult to recommend this particular profession, regardless of the circumstances. That's because I'm aware of just how difficult it can be. It's easy to invite someone to sit down with a good game, but laboring in the creation of one is a different kind of experience altogether.

Cave Story WiiWare trailer

Baiyon: Those who can enjoy creating their own games might wish to pursue it, though it is true that in doing so they're likely to encounter difficulties they've never faced before.

MHG: In Japan at things like Comic Market, are the fan-made games there completely different from our indie games? Is there some similarity? I released a CD at Comiket.

Baiyon: Speaking from my own personal experience, for some time I've wanted to make a game about a romantic relationship. There are lots of "romance games" at Comiket, but to interact with the community you're expected to use this elaborate, nerdy vernacular. I'm kind of interested in it, but the cultural barriers I find impenetrable.

There are types of games you want to show off to your friends and then there are types of games you don't want them to know you're playing. In my experience, the games at Comiket often belong to the latter category. If a girl caught me playing one of those games, I'd run away in embarrassment. (laughs)

ER: Is it important to have limits and constraints on your ideas so you can get them done?

Baiyon: I think it's most important. It's a necessary part of finding inspiration.

Pixel: On the subject of limitations, I attended computer courses in order to enter the game industry. During that process, I encountered a lot of difficulty setting the images that were in my head down on paper or the computer screen. I'd have a clear picture in my mind, or there would be a melody I'd thought up, but when I tried to implement it in my game the results would turn out entirely different. It made me realize that I would not be qualified for a job where I was asked to meet specific requirements. To be honest, I never liked the idea of being told what to do to begin with. So I work for myself.

You might wonder how I've managed to pull it off. Simply put, my process never reaches completion until I'm satisfied. If I get stuck, I move on, until I wind up with something that works. Sometimes people ask me how I managed to come up with a certain piece of music. The only honest response I have is to describe it as a process of elimination. It's an ongoing effort that entails coming up with a lot of ideas and eliminating the ones that don't work. Because the job of a composer is to meet the requirements of a dramatic situation with the appropriate style of music, I've long thought it was a career that would always be beyond my grasp.

Baiyon: An important part of my job is knowing what I want to do next. Something I value is knowing myself well. It's even more necessary than being skilled, the reason being that you can always collaborate with someone capable of providing those needed skills.

It's like the function of a synapse, where one connection leads to another in order to keep activity flowing. This applies to what we were just talking about, in terms of setting creative restraints. It can be enjoyable to work with limitations when you learn how to connect together creative processes and those processes lead to a unified outcome.

Oftentimes it used to be the case that I would meet someone and think, "Man, I hate that guy." I had a very low tolerance for people, in large part because I'd had this experience of being bullied for about nine years beginning in elementary school. Now, all these years later, I'm finding I can enjoy just about anything. Maybe people who don't like games will have difficulty understanding this, but I think games were an important part of my learning to enjoy other people's company. That forms part of my personal motivation to contribute something to games.

ER: I can't tell you what a pleasure it has been talking to you all. I'm very excited for the future of music and games knowing that you guys are out there doing your thing. Thank you so much for all the love and hard work you put into your art, and for your time tonight.

Baiyon performing at the GDC Nidhogg tournament

[Japanese language content from this discussion is available on Game Design Current. This article is also available in Italian on Gamesource.it. For more information on the participants of the 3rd Annual Indie Game Composer Chat, see the official websites for Emily Industries, Baiyon, Daisuke Amaya, Yoshi Miyamoto, Darren Korb and Mattias Häggström Gerdt. Photos by Jeriaska.]